Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Majorities and Money

Three particular features of modernity may be seen — in a pessimistic light — as making civilization either impossible or no longer desirable. We have liberal economic markets. If you can pay, you can have what you want so long as you do not break the law. Whether your choices are good or bad is for you to decide, and you can pursue them until you run out of credit. Therefore the market says: I do not care about quality of choice or whether people consume wisely. I care about whether or not they can pay for whatever it is they happen to want.

We have cultural democracy. Who is to say what sort of art or books or architecture I should like? Everyone's preference is on an equal footing. Some people like Beethoven, some Britney, others both. In the past, elites could trumpet their preferences as superior; they were the only ones in a position to do any trumpeting. Today, there is little cultural authority — there is little deference.

We have freedom of opinion. I am entitled to think whatever I happen to think — irrespective of logic, evidence and self-examination — so long as it doesn't directly and obviously harm other people. No one has any right to tell me what to think. Such freedom is rooted in the profound point that the truths we discover for ourselves are more valuable than those we merely accept on external authority. One is expected to have strong opinions on the widest range of baffling technical matters and impacted problems: how to bring peace and justice to the Middle East; how the economy can be put to rights; the relationship between science and religious faith. The quality of information on which we base our opinions may be low and the quantity slight. But we are perfectly entitled to our own views.

These conditions are associated with a pessimistic view of civilization today. Triumphant vulgarity rules the world (it is said) because the democratic numbers and the market forces always win. Once you have markets, cultural democracy and freedom of opinion, questions about merit and meaning will always be settled by majorities and money. But majorities and money have no real authority on questions of value.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

No Rest for the Progressive

I would assuredly hate to run afoul of the Jacobin version of Godwin's Law, so let me merely say that even in the cutting-edge-fashion-obsessed, social-justice-oversaturated environment of social media, I haven't seen anyone yelping about monogamous privilege or the stirrings of a burgeoning poly-rights movement, so I suspect Freddie is just bounding excitedly down the trail with the scent of seemingly-inexorable theoretical logic, rather than a practical, felt need, filling his nose. I'm especially amused by the presumptuous, almost confrontational attitude: "Hey society! I'm some asshole with a clever idea, and I say 'Jump!'" And society's all like, "LolWUT? You expect us to ask 'How high?' Burden of proof's on YOU, buddy. YOU make the case that there's an actual pressing need for us to rearrange this particular social institution to suit your specifications. YOU prove to US that this is in OUR interest to consider. Better yet, go spend the next few decades building a poly-rights movement, and if the fad hasn't fizzled out by then, we'll talk."

The Value of These Tensions

Samuel Matlack:

Nevertheless, Ellul’s analysis of freedom holds up, since most of us are not masters but consumers of technology, adapting to it and prone to mistake the valuable tensions involved in pursuing the highest goods for nothing but technical problems to be solved (and surely our technicians are no less prone to this). Recognizing the value of these tensions can be difficult, as in many areas of life the constant improvement of techniques to alleviate them becomes an unquestioned goal. But standardized tests cannot measure students’ curiosity, social networking cannot replicate the fullness of face-to-face relationships, and poll-tested ads are no substitute for political deliberation. Of course most of us know these things; and yet, our social ethos seems fixated on prizing ever better tools as ways of overcoming challenges and relieving tensions that we ought to recognize as indispensable to many kinds of excellence.

Tension and struggle are productive forces, on both the individual and social level. Many valuable aspects of life cannot be reduced to the lowest common denominator of quantifiable data. We generally understand this, yet our age is one in which we feel compelled — and compulsion is indeed an apt description of this thoughtless urge — to "solve" anything we see as a problem, and to do it as quickly as possible, especially through the use of science and technology. As our shared moral vocabulary withers, we default to a utilitarian standard that can only think in terms of maximizing pleasure and minimizing suffering. But as mystics have been saying since forever ago, a vision of a world in which "bad" and "undesirable" things can be progressively erased until there's nothing left but good, pleasant things by default is absolutely incoherent, based on a terribly mistaken understanding of reality, and doomed to frustration and failure if pursued.

Yes, I realize I just rephrased the very section I excerpted. I can't help it; I'm just wallowing in the profundity of it. Compelled to rearrange everything we can for reasons we hardly understand in service to a chimerical vision of life we wouldn't want even if we could achieve it. Sometimes you just have to laugh at the grand folly of it all. Hell, even the relatively straightforward task of trying to pin down happiness makes us look like complete fools.

But Who Are the Judges, Who Are You Judging?

Adam Gurri:

Akiva talks at length about our biases and irrationality. Gadamer instead speaks of prejudices, and says that the chief prejudice of the Enlightenment was a prejudice against prejudice.

“Prejudicial” is simply “pre” as in “before” and “judicial” as in “judgment.” Historically, it once meant the provisional verdicts that a judge would mentally arrive at before the time came to render the final judgment. Prejudice is not only necessary here, but good. Making a provisional judgment before the final one allows you to focus on specific questions, to guide your attention to particular matters you might have otherwise overlooked. It’s not only impossible for a judge to sit back without prejudice until the time of rendering a judgment, as the romantics and others have emphasized, they would also be a bad judge for doing so.

Gadamer thought that the romantics, and even Burke, just made themselves into mirror images of the Enlightenment. Where the Enlightment thinkers asserted that tradition was something accepted without reason, and therefore bad, the romantics asserted that tradition was something accepted without reason, but was greater than reason. In both cases it was treated as a black box to be labeled either bad or good.

For Gadamer, tradition is something that only exists if it is participated in, and it is continually created and transformed in that participation.

Coincidentally, shortly after reading this, I happened across an illustration of the point by means of this Louis C.K. monologue. Notice how, in two examples of what Louis calls his "mild, benign racism", what he apparently finds worthy of the term is the fact that he has any preconceptions at all. He notices that, given his experience, it's unusual to see a pizza parlor run by black women, or to have his doctor be from India. He feels vaguely guilty for having pattern-seeking software in his head, the same as every other human, which has drawn provisional conclusions from a specific set of experiences in life. He acts as if his particular, limited experience is the result of a conscious choice to exclude other possibilities out of xenophobia. This incoherent notion of the desirability of a "view from nowhere" is, to put it bluntly, an insane, inhuman standard to measure oneself against. And as his comrade in comedy Jerry Seinfeld noted, this casual conception of social sin trivializes what used to be deadly serious.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Play Is Always Going On, And the Play's the Thing

Yet that is what romantic philosophy would condemn us to; we must all strut and roar. We must lend ourselves to the partisan earnestness of persons and nations calling their rivals villains and themselves heroes; but this earnestness will be of the histrionic German sort, made to order and transferable at short notice from one object to another, since what truly matters is not that we should achieve our ostensible aim (which Hegel contemptuously called ideal) but that we should carry on perpetually, if possible with a crescendo, the strenuous experience of living in a gloriously bad world, and always working to reform it, with the comforting speculative assurance that we never can succeed. We never can succeed, I mean, in rendering reform less necessary or life happier; but of course in any specific reform we may succeed half the time, thereby sowing the seeds of new and higher evils, to keep the edge of virtue keen. And in reality we, or the Absolute in us, are succeeding all the time; the play is always going on, and the play's the thing.

— George Santayana, "Josiah Royce", Character and Opinion in the United States

The danger of utopianism is well-known by now. The less-known danger of its milder relative, meliorism, is the same one that attends any overarching ideal whose conclusion disappears over the temporal horizon. People have always yearned to submit to a "higher" logic, to weave their identities into an inevitable, irresistible, preordained pattern of events, to shrug off the tiresome burden of weighing, judging, measuring, considering...and doubting. A personality which delights in the thought of a ceaseless task, which requires a harness and yoke to channel its energies, is one in danger of forgetting how to live in any other way. People who depend upon righteous crusades to define themselves have a vested interest in maintaining a steady supply of enemies. A revolutionary with clear, attainable goals will soon have to settle down into the boring, tame business of governance. Better to stay a Lost Boy in Neverland and continue fighting pirates forever.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

To Enjoy the Interval

Michael Lind:

Santayana is seldom found in lists of the great modern philosophers. In part that is because, like other ethical naturalists, including Hume and Voltaire and Schopenhauer, he preferred humanist genres like the essay and the aphorism to the academic treatise or the footnoted journal article. One of his aphorisms has lodged in popular consciousness: “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it” (from The Life of Reason (1905-1906).) This choice of rhetorical strategies, I think, is based on observation of the human animal: if you want to teach the public, stories and jokes and conversational talks are more effective than lectures.

...The naturalism of Santayana, like that of Democritus and Epicurus and Hume, proves that a secular worldview need not assume the form of a militant, evangelical counter-religion. It shows as well that a certain kind of worldly hedonism, by privileging simple pleasures, paradoxically can be a kind of asceticism. You cannot be disenchanted with humanity and the world if you were never enchanted in the first place — that is the greatest lesson of the laughing philosophers.

Santayana has been hovering at the fringe of my awareness for some time, one of those gentlemen too polite to shove and shoulder his way to the front of the line and demand attention. But I aim to rectify that. I'm currently reading a small book of his essays, with a few more on my wish list. This selection from one of his books, in which he offers up one of the more incisive criticisms of Nietzsche I've ever seen, puts his rich literary style on full display.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Violence in All Hands, Embrace It if Need Be

Burrough does more, offering lessons to absorb. One involves the inner logic that leads sensitive souls of various ideological predilections to embrace violence for political ends. The number of American leftists studying bomb-making over the last couple of decades may be vanishingly small, but the number of Americans is not: Timothy McVeigh and his drums of fertilizer; the Tsarnaev brothers and their pressure cookers; abortion-clinic bombers; young Minnesotans scouring the Internet for ways to travel to Syria to join ISIS—all of them are seekers of a certain kind of Dostoyevskian fantasy of communion. They are radical narcissists detached from reality, certain that their spark would ignite the great silent masses who share the same sense of futility and frustration. They see society as a powder keg almost ready to blow. The book provides rich raw material to draw these connections, even if Burrough’s own analysis, and his engagement with scholarship about what makes violent extremists tick, is thin. (“What the underground movement was truly about—what it was always about—was the plight of black Americans”: This is his reductive conclusion, when his own evidence points to much more.)

Another lesson is about the counterproductive patterns of thought and action recognizable on the left today, such as the notion that there is no problem with radicalism that can’t be solved by a purer version of radicalism, or that the participant in any argument who can establish him- or herself as the most oppressed is thereby naturally owed intellectual deference, even abasement, or that purity of intention is the best marker of political nobility. These notions come from somewhere; they have an intellectual history. The sort of people whose personal dialectic culminated in the building of bombs helped gestate these persistent mistakes.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

And You Can Speak Your Mind, But Not on My Time

Saul DeGraw:

But boycotts are really one of the few ways for people to cause change, real change. You show your moral and ethical disagreement by refusing to support a business, regime, or conference with your money. There seems to be a basic free speech and association right by saying “I am not supporting this business or regime because of practices X, Y, and Z and I don’t think other people should either” or saying “Conference X invited this crank because of X, Y, and Z to speak and I think that is dangerous even if he or she is speaking on apolitical matters.” Then you have a fight or debate in the public sphere. The conference clearly saw that inviting Yarvin was a mistake and that many people thought he was odious.

This is why many people on the left see conservatism as being nothing more than a maintenance of privilege. The view is simply that liberals are not to do anything to voice their displeasure over anything because that means conservatives might have to do something.

So what are people supposed to do? Just boycott silently? Why shouldn’t they speak out?

In theory, that's all fine. In practice, though, most of these "boycotts" are nothing more than public temper tantrums. Twitter tempests in a 24-hour news cycle teacup. They involve no discipline, no strategy, no commitment. Nothing more strenuous than signing an online petition, retweeting your friends and yelling at some strangers. The point is not to change things, the point is to be seen loudly demanding that things change. This is why many people, not just conservatives, see the social justice left as being nothing more than a narcissistic exercise in virtue signaling. The view is simply that we're all supposed to run ourselves ragged responding to whichever irrelevant piece of infotainment has recently outraged them, even though their deficient attention spans will have long since fluttered elsewhere by the time we figure out what, if anything, can meaningfully be done. In many cases, there is nothing to do except punish individuals for voicing unpopular opinions, which strikes many people, not just conservatives, as petty spitefulness masquerading as high-minded principle. A focus on exiling "problematic" individuals from power and influence also incentivizes people to spend more time looking for trivial infractions to pounce upon, rather than working to create political coalitions to achieve more difficult structural goals, the kind which require a lot more than a judgmental attitude.

Now, lest you get the impression that I, like most people, am only angry when "they" use these tactics against "us", let me offer up a conciliatory example. I have as little respect for Peezus Myers of FreethoughtBlogs fame as it is possible to have. The man embodies the absolute worst aspects of social justice radical chic while practicing and encouraging the most corrosive habits of Internet dialogue. But I have also seen opponents of his who have allowed their hatred of him to start working its rationalizing magic on their own minds. Ferzample, he once made a harmless joke on his blog about having a dream in which his classroom got flooded with seawater, all his female students turned into mermaids, and, he implied, they then had an orgy. I saw people work hard to convince themselves, in all seriousness, that this was evidence of sexual depravity that should be reported to administrators at his campus. I saw them discuss plans to boycott conferences at which he and his allies were scheduled to speak, even when they had no intention of actually attending anyway. I saw them openly acknowledge their desire to use financial leverage to get social-justice atheists ousted from political positions within atheist/skeptic organizations, even though their opponents had technically done nothing wrong to justify losing their jobs. There was no pretense of fairness or objectivity. It was a spiteful desire for petty revenge by whatever means available. Sometimes you can only nail Al Capone for tax evasion.

That is the reality of what I've come to call "boycott culture". There is no careful consideration of whether this or that outrage truly represents a clear and present danger rather than a minor annoyance, and if so, whether an economic embargo is the best tactic to use in opposition. Kneejerk anger quickly turns into disproportionate punishment which breeds more of the same. What are people supposed to do? Acting intelligently and fairly would be a good start.

In a game that never ends and has no final score, the only thing that matters is how you play. Politics — the means by which people figure out how to coexist in society — is a neverending game. This attitude is what motivates my opposition to all "ends justify the means" arguments.

Yuval Noah Harari talks a lot in his book Sapiens about what he calls "imagined orders". He argues that the brute material facts of life, as far as we can tell, show that there is no inherent meaning in life beyond surviving and reproducing. Everything else, from art to morality to religion, is part of an imagined order, a story we tell to make our lives about something besides mere survival. He stresses that these orders aren't mere delusions — they exist as long as we agree on their rules and behave as if they exist. For our purposes here, it suffices to say that an expansive conception of free speech is one of those imagined orders that I consider worth defending. The miserly argument which is currently popular on the social justice left says, hey, all the Constitution allows you is the right to say what you want without official government interference. It doesn't say anything about you having the right to a mic, a stage, a P.A. system, or an audience. I say that this is true but unnecessarily stingy. I argue that we should strive to tolerate as much contrary speech as we can, even when it pains us, rather than seeking every available legal loophole to muzzle and exile our opponents. I am arguing for a shift of emphasis away from the paranoid, hypersensitive mindset which always takes the most uncharitable, restrictive view possible.

I recognize that many will see this as an impractical and naïve stance. In fact, the more observant among you will have noted that I am making a moralistic argument of my own to appeal to your conscience. I am even trying to shame you into agreeing that a more expansive conception of free speech is necessary. I make no apologies or excuses. Furthermore, I will intensify it by going all Old Testament prophet on you. If you are a supporter of this emotionally incontinent boycott culture, I say you are a stupid, shortsighted whore. Your cynicism has corroded one of the greatest imagined orders people have ever invented, and all for the cheap price of being allowed to claim the occasional meaningless, insignificant scalp of a tribal enemy. You can never "win" anything more than a temporary advantage with your disingenuous tactics. You have resigned yourself to the junk food equivalent of political activism, preferring the quick sugar high of judging and condemning "problematic" individuals to the long-term diet and discipline of working to create structural change.

Failings of personal character aside, there's a more sinister aspect to this belief in value-imposition through the supposedly neutral qualities of currency. As other critics have noted, this tendency to let the market referee our moral disputes is pure neoliberal logic, which you would think the left would be wary of endorsing. You would expect them to object to a standard where the people willing to throw their money around most aggressively should get to set the terms of debate and the moral agenda. After all, aren't we constantly being told that the rich are all right-wingers with more money than the rest of us put together? I'm sure they'll be quite happy to let you "win" by forcing some celebrity to grovel on social media, or by getting some speaker removed from an unimportant conference lineup, as long as they get to use the same "I'm a paying customer and I demand my rights!" logic when it suits them.

Friday, June 19, 2015

You Ain't Afraid of Dyin' but You're Terrified of Youth, You Must be Gettin' Rather Long in the Tooth

Is it overly authoritarian of me to want to round up people like this and send them off on an Outward Bound expedition? Any candidate who wants to turn that into policy, you've got my vote. On the other hand, a lot of the Atlantic's editorial decisions make perfect sense to me now, seeing as how they apparently hired some kid from a high school yearbook staff and made him a senior editor at the magazine.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Lulzmological Argument

Here's what I have to say about Rachel Dolezal. The fact that her story hit the news almost immediately after the media feeding frenzy over Caitlyn Jenner, as if designed to throw them into sharp contrast with each other, is clear, unambiguous proof of the existence of a trickster deity who loves us and wants us to be happily amused.

Insidiously Related

It might even be possible that what constitutes the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things – maybe even one with them in essence.

— Nietzsche

Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral. By ‘moral’, I mean that people are violent because they feel they must be; because they feel that their violence is obligatory. They know that they are harming fully human beings. Nonetheless, they believe they should. Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations.

...At the same time, if violence is motivated by moral sentiments, what is it motivated toward? What are these perpetrators trying to achieve? The general pattern we found was that the violence was intended to regulate social relationships.

In the examples above, parents are relating with children; recruits and fighters are relating with peers and superiors; boys and men are relating with their friends; families are relating with their communities; men are relating with women; people are relating to gods; and groups and nations are relating to each other. Across all cases, perpetrators are using violence to create, conduct, sustain, enhance, transform, honour, protect, redress, repair, end, and mourn valued relationships. Individuals and cultures certainly vary in the ways they do this and the contexts in which they think violence is an acceptable means of making things right, but the goal is the same. The purpose of violence is to sustain a moral order.

For many, this will seem incomprehensible. Surely pain is terrible. The core of anyone’s morality should be to minimise it, only bringing it about when absolutely necessary. But this presumes that the ultimate moral goods in life are the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain. As reasonable as those might sound to us, they reflect modern, Western ideals. There have been many cultures and historical periods where people did not particularly value happiness, or where they actively sought out suffering because they saw it as morally cleansing.

Perhaps owing to the unrealistic expectations encouraged by the New Testament, it seems to be popular to see violence as the absence, or even the negation, of morality. Of course, even Jesus' extreme pacifism and selflessness was predicated upon the promise of the ultimate violence of the apocalypse. Violence and morality have always been knotted together like last year's strands of Christmas lights. Anyway, it's nice to see that modern social science is once again catching up to what Nietzsche was saying a long time ago.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

If All You Have Is Critical Theory, Everything Looks Like Subtext

Joseph Todd:

The dull success of Pharrell’s 2014 track “Happy” wasn’t just down to its repetitive lyrics or its adherence to the saccharine pop-hit formula, but also because it tapped into this ideological hegemony. When Pharrell sings that “happiness is the truth,” he is, in fact, making a profound ideological statement, and one that accords with much that neoliberalism implies. Our immediate physical reality, Pharrell instructs, is unimportant. What matters is how individuals interpret and react to it. We have the agency to choose, our politicians and pop singers tell us, and thus the logic of the market is extended beyond the realms of commodities and services, engulfing our emotional states, too.

Summer is truly the silly season. A few years ago, the latest Batman was said by the Zhdanovite hacks at Salon to be promoting anti-OWS propaganda. Last summer, before Pharrell moved on to insidiously making neoliberalism sound wikked kewl to teenagers, he and Robin Thicke were being accused by hysterical ninnies of providing the soundtrack to rape culture. This year, the memo apparently went out to idiots everywhere telling them to conduct inane debates on whether the new Mad Max is a feminist movie or not. So, overanalyzing banal lyrics? Sure, why not, let's go stupid hard or go stupid home.

However, if we're going to salvage the money our parents spent on a liberal arts education by pressing feel-good pop songs into service as political vehicles for carrying ideological instructions the way dump trucks haul gravel, let's not settle for the drastically foreshortened perspective of critical theory, I mean come on. This conflict dates back to far before late-twentieth century economics. It is abundantly clear to me that Pharrell is best conceived of as the Marcus Aurelius to Bobby McFerrin's Seneca, with these latter-day Stoics most productively located in theoretical opposition to rival visions of the good life such as the Spartan militarism embodied by Manowar, the decadent, Elagabalus-style hedonism of Lil Wayne, the Cynical provocations of GG Allin, and the Caligulan, megalomaniacal egoism of Kanye West.

Better by Now, Different Somehow

I thought my life would be different somehow
I thought my life would be better by now
But it's not, and I don't know where to turn

Aimee Mann

Yuval Noah Harari:

Some scholars compare human biochemistry to an air-conditioning system that keeps the temperature constant, come heatwave or snowstorm. Events might momentarily change the temperature, but the air-conditioning system always returns the temperature to the same set-point.

Some air-conditioning systems are set at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Others are set at 20 degrees. Human happiness conditioning systems also differ from person to person. On a scale from one to ten, some people are born with a cheerful biochemical system that allows their moods to swing between levels six and ten, stabilizing with time at eight. Such a person is quite happy even if she lives in an alienating big city, loses all her money in a stock-exchange crash, and is diagnosed with diabetes. Other people are cursed with a gloomy biochemistry that swings between three and seven and stabilizes at five. Such an unhappy person remains depressed even if she enjoys the support of a tight-knit community, wins millions in the lottery and is as healthy as an Olympic athlete.

...If we accept the biological approach to happiness, then history turns out to be of minor importance, since most historical events have had no impact on our biochemistry. History can change the external stimuli that cause serotonin to be secreted, yet it does not change the resulting serotonin levels, and hence it cannot make people happier.

Compare a medieval French peasant to a modern Parisian banker. The peasant lived in an unheated mud hut overlooking the local pigsty, while the banker goes home to a splendid penthouse with all the latest technological gadgets and a view to the Champs-Elysées. Intuitively, we would expect the banker to be much happier than the peasant. However, mud huts, penthouses and the Champs-Elysées don't really determine our mood. Serotonin does. When the medieval peasant completed the construction of his mud hut, his brain neurons secreted serotonin, bringing it up to level X. When in 2014 the banker made the last payment on his wonderful penthouse, brain neurons secreted a similar amount of serotonin, bringing it up to a similar level X. It makes no difference to the brain that the penthouse is far more comfortable than the mud hut. The only thing that matters is that at present the level of serotonin is X. Consequently the banker would not be one iota happier than his great-great-great grandfather, the poor medieval peasant.

This is true not only of private lives but also of great collective events. Take, for example, the French Revolution. The revolutionaries were busy: they executed the king, gave lands to the peasants, declared the rights of man, abolished noble privileges, and waged war against the whole of Europe. Yet none of that changed French biochemistry. Consequently, despite all the political, social, ideological and economic upheavals brought about by the revolution, its impact on French happiness was small. Those who won a cheerful biochemistry in the genetic lottery were just as happy before the revolution as after. Those with a gloomy biochemistry complained about Robespierre and Napoleon with the same bitterness with which they earlier complained about Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette...People think that this political revolution or that social reform will make them happy, but their biochemistry tricks them time and again.

I think he overstates the case a bit. I share Alan Jacobs' suspicion of our ability to abolish sadness without changing the conditions which make us sad to begin with. Aside from that, though, this does a good job metaphorically of articulating an existential truth: the objects of our feelings may change, but the subjective feelings themselves stay within the bounded range of our set point. Our living conditions may change in quantifiable ways, but our emotional reactions to those conditions do not likewise increase or decrease exponentially. The happiness we felt as children with a new toy is not measurably smaller or more fleeting than the happiness we feel as adults when the bills are paid and it's a beautiful autumn day to share with your beloved spouse. A toy may be qualitatively inferior to a loving relationship, yes, but the happiness itself is a product of your circumstances and expectations. I would feel a surge of joy today if the book I was just talking about in the previous post were to suddenly become available at my local library, but my joy would not be diminished by the fact that there are a number of other, more fundamental ways in which my life could be markedly improved. Moreover, that surge of joy would not be layered on top of all the previous surges of joy I experienced upon getting hold of other books I had looked forward to reading. Those all faded shortly after attaining the object of my desire, just as this one will. Your brain cannot stay saturated in serotonin, or, if you prefer a less reductionist formulation, you cannot remain indefinitely in a manic, ecstatic state. Contentment is not cumulative.

Reading Joseph Epstein's appreciation of Michael Oakeshott a couple weeks ago reminded me of one of my favorite pieces of Oakeshott's writing, from his essay "On Being Conservative":

He is describing conservatism as a disposition here, rather than a political program. In addition to that heterodoxy, you notice how he emphasizes that resistance to change, rather than being necessarily and merely a fear and hatred of "progress", can represent a loving acceptance of what is, in all its imperfection. It's almost more of a mystical viewpoint than a political one, where the aim is to have a sense of gratitude for everything life brings, to appreciate things without wishing they were something else. What he calls a conservative disposition is the perspective of a well-adjusted individual who realizes that more will never be enough, that perfection is unattainable, that the future will feel no different from the present when it arrives, that if you can't be happy with what you have right now, you likely never will be. A conservative disposition, by this reckoning, is one which recognizes the folly of expecting changing circumstances to shift one's HHC set point.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Things You Think Are Useless I Can't Understand

I once declared this post, in which one of the Less Wrong rationalists pronounced philosophy to be an outdated collection of wrong ideas by old dead dudes which should be dropped from the college curriculum and replaced by training in mathematical logic, heuristics and biases, probability theory, and Bayesian rationality, to possibly be, pound for pound, the absolute stupidest thing I'd ever read on the web, which is saying a lot. I sent it to Arthur, seeking his input. He sent me a bill for a new keyboard, saying that it was my fault his old one was now covered in vomit. We commiserated over the overweening arrogance of rationalist ideologues and resolved to turn our attention to less depressing things.

While reading this excellent review of a book I'm now salivating over, I came across a couple sentences which reminded me of that earlier episode. This is a perfect articulation of how learning to truly think is more than simply being au courant with the latest soon-to-be-obsolete theories and cutting-edge research (to say nothing of the reductionist attitude that knowledge which can't be expressed in mathematical formulae is nearly useless):

To understand a theory requires not just giving its latest formulation, but telling the story of its development, including the major false ideas held along the way, and how their refutation led to the more accurate and comprehensive theories held now. This model sees our understanding as expanding not through some single and final heroic act in which we rid ourselves of all perspectives, but through a gradual process in which we encompass more of them.

Looking, Learning, Moving On

I'm going to take Cathy Young's article, hop in a time machine, set it for the spring of 2012, and make my then-self sit down and read it. Having thus absorbed all the essential information about the SJW cult, I can spend the next three years recording music and turning this blog into a space for amateur literary criticism, which will be a much more rewarding use of my time than trying to understand the mindset of a bunch of petty tyrants and rabid lunatics.

Assuming that plan doesn't work, I'll just introduce a motion that the article be used as the epitaph on the SJW tombstone.

Footnotes to Nietzsche

Douglas Murray:

In the same way that massive intrusion into our online lives came not from ‘big brother’ but from our own desire to share the minutiae of our lives with the world, so the great intrusion into what we do with our bodies came not just through some top-down diktat but from a rising and generalised agreement about the most efficacious use of the public coffers. An opt-in health insurance system allows you to take whatever risks you are willing to pay for with your own body, whereas the NHS gives everybody an interest in everybody else’s body. And without strong ethical or moral guidance from any other source this rampant utilitarianism becomes the dominant ethic in the land. It does seem to have some idea of a life well lived: a non-smoking, non-drinking fitness fanatic who starts a family in their most productive years and has the decency to die at just the moment when they risk taking out more money than they have put in.

Brendan O'Neill:

The new feminism, this global franchise, this pop and political phenomenon, is not really a movement. Nor is it, as men’s rights complainers argue, a feministic conspiracy to do down men. Rather, it is but the keenest expression of the mainstream misanthropy and turn against Enlightenment thought of the modern West itself. The ‘male’ values being attacked are really the universal values of reason, autonomy, progress and truth — values that both men and women need, and deserve.

I've been watching the women's World Cup this month. I hadn't ever paid attention to women's football before, not because of my virulent misogyny, but because of prosaic time constraints. Good stuff. I'm enjoying it. Reporting my initial impressions to my inamorata, I said that it was nice to see the absence of dirty fouls as well as the general lack of belligerence and aggression. The men, by contrast, are constantly scrapping, shoving, mouthing off, squaring up, and generally acting the way you'd expect athletic young men to act toward each other in a highly competitive environment. "Testosterone poisoning, I'm telling you," she said. "Yeah, well, good luck selling that one politically," I replied.

From there, we went on to talk semi-seriously about how Huxley's dystopian vision of chemical coercion seems to be much more relevant today than Orwell's more conventional story of political totalitarianism, Nietzsche's idea of aristocratic vs. slave morality, psychological vs. physical cruelty, and the possibility that behavior modification rooted in utilitarian ethics might prove to be a defining issue of our century. What I mean is, take the idea of testosterone being the root of most of the serious problems in the world. I can envision this becoming more than just a fringe notion worthy of ridicule. I'm not predicting that a feminist vanguard is going to seize political power and forcibly neuter "problematic" males; I'm just saying that if anything is going to challenge the axioms of liberalism, it could likely be some form of utilitarian public safety issue, married to trendy fixations on biochemistry and neuroscience.

I've been lately thinking a lot about liberalism and its past and future alternatives, wondering how long this relatively stable, peaceful state of affairs (in this country, if not the wider world) will last before people get impatient and start fantasizing about a system without gridlock and diluted compromise, a system where we can finally achieve everything we can imagine, a system which will be little more than a narcissistic fantasy of unrestrained power, where everyone who matters shares your beliefs and goals, and anyone who doesn't has been marginalized or eliminated.

As evidenced by the post title, I find myself, while reading the above pieces, thinking about the death of God. With that famous phrase, Nietzsche of course was referring to a cultural center of gravity, what Yuval Harari calls an imagined order. As more people lost faith in Christianity, in a shared moral yardstick, what would become of their morals and values? What would come to fill the void? He feared the worst and was subsequently proved correct. But even now, with those paroxysms of violence passed, we still struggle to find values in common to anchor society.

I also find myself recalling Matthew Crawford's quoting of Tocqueville, where he observed that, barring a recognized source of moral authority, people will measure themselves against each other. "Normal" will be judged according to statistical aggregates. As Murray says, utilitarian consequentialism fills the void when a culture loses its sense of identity and purpose, and that itself is another form of uninspiring compromise.

But has there ever been a "shared moral yardstick" that was anything other than a cultural/political aristocracy capable of imposing its values on society? We shudder to think of doing that sort of thing anymore. Nietzsche would likely say that we still have a cultural/political aristocracy, just one that's been poisoned by its own self-loathing, wallowing in post-modern, post-colonial guilt. The big, transformative ideas that fired the imaginations of the intelligentsia in the past have turned to dust. But what new idea might come along to persuade them to dream again?

As Michael Lind said, the next great religion to seize hold of the cognoscenti won't present itself as a religion at all, in the same way that Marxism, Nazism and Freudianism all claimed to represent the cutting edge of science in their day. We look back scornfully, wondering how anyone could have seriously believed in any of those ideas. But how likely is it that we have finally outgrown all such delusions? What notions might our culture take for granted that will likewise appear ludicrous a century from now?

My provisional answer is, as I said, the promise of biochemical and genetic modification. Throughout the last few centuries since the Enlightenment, the dominant project has been to shape the system to best serve human needs. In the recent cases of Marxism and Nazism, this has obviously led to even greater suffering and destruction. Now, I think, the logic will turn toward shaping people to fit better within the system. A kinder, gentler form of eugenics, perhaps, one which isn't so much about an intrusive state forcing sterilization upon "unfit" members of society, but one which allows consumers more choice in selecting the behavioral traits they would like to emphasize or suppress through medication, or in genetically designing their offspring for maximum advantage. Perhaps, like Freudianism, this might be the kind of idea that appeals more to artists and thinkers than policymakers, but I could imagine it becoming a dominant theme of the cultural cognoscenti in the near future. And being a pessimistic sort, I could likewise imagine people a century hence looking back in bewilderment at our hubris, wondering how we could have ever believed that we had the wisdom and ability to reshape human nature to our specifications without incurring unintended consequences.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Narrow Visions of Autonomy, They Wanted Me to Surrender My Identity

Jeff Guhin:

When we’re forced to choose, we’d usually rather be autonomous individuals than rooted in communities. We are all liberals now. The nature of that choice itself shows the degree to which liberalism has won. The sort of gemeinschaft for which communitarians yearn was marked by the absence of choice. People grew up amidst practices and boundaries that helped them habituate certain implicit understandings of what is good and true. We just don’t have that anymore, except to the degree that liberalism itself is what Charles Taylor calls a moral imaginary, a way of perceiving the world that comes to feel obviously and necessarily true. Even intentional submission to another’s power—described by anti-liberal leftists like Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood—is ultimately rooted in a mature adult’s autonomous decision to do so. You might choose a more serious community—as Dreher himself has done—but you do so as a liberal who could also leave that community (even if you couldn’t leave liberalism).

...The problem with gemeinschaft is that it was very often quite oppressive and also very hard to escape. We thought we had solved that problem by developing this thing called liberalism. Of course, liberalism didn’t show up just because it was a better idea than what preexisted it. There were all sorts of material and economic conditions that made liberalism seem easier and more obvious, one being an increasing awareness of diversity and difference (spurned in no small part by Europe’s religious wars). Liberals recognized that difference will continue to exist, subverting their deepest desires for a perfect society to remain alive in an adequate one.

Liberalism accommodates dissent. Whatever faults we may find with it, that, to me, is its greatest virtue. If you were to present me with a detailed blueprint of your ideal post-liberal, utopian society, my only question for you would be, "How will you deal with dissent?" How will you treat the people who don't agree with you and can't seem to be convinced? Will you tolerate them and allow them free speech and equal treatment under the law, or will you rationalize the need to throw them in the dungeon or the piranha pool to stop them from holding up progress? Liberalism is pessimistically resigned to the fact that people will always, always, always disagree over important, fundamental issues, and that this impasse cannot be resolved without doing violence to other values we hold dear. Many people find that unacceptable and think we have a moral duty to strive for more. I find them dangerously deluded.

Holiness Ghosts

Joseph Bottum:

But Bonnie's life illustrates where American Mainline Protestantism has gone, the place at which it's been aiming for generations: Christian in the righteous timbre of its moral judgments, without any actual Christianity; middle class in its social behavior, while ostensibly despising middle-class norms; American in its cultural setting, even as she believes American history is a tale of tyranny from which she and those like her have barely managed to escape.

...They are, for the most part, politically liberal, preferring that government rather than private associations (such as intact families or the churches they left behind) address social concerns. They remain puritanical and highly judgmental, at least about health, and like all Puritans they are willing to use law to compel behavior they think right. Nonetheless, they do not see themselves as akin to their Puritan ancestors, for they understand Puritanism as concerned essentially with sexual repression, and the post-Protestants have almost entirely removed sexuality from the realm of human action that might be judged morally.

...In their view, the social forces of bigotry, power, corruption, mass opinion, militarism, and oppression are the constant themes of history. These horrors have a palpable, almost metaphysical presence in the world. And the post-Protestants believe the best way to know themselves as moral is to define themselves in opposition to such bigotry and oppression — understanding good and evil not primarily in terms of personal behavior but as states of mind about the social condition. Sin, in other words, appears as a social fact, and the redeemed personality becomes confident of its own salvation by being aware of that fact. By knowing about, and rejecting, the evil that darkens society.

As it happens, that list of six evil social forces is taken straight from the writings of the theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, one of the key figures in the social gospel movement in American Protestantism during the early decades of the twentieth century.

That's pretty funny. I've said before that the crusading atheists should start marketing their project as a continuation of the Protestant Reformation to make it less radical and threatening and more palatable to the mainstream. It's merely the latest episode in a grand tradition of scraping away all the accumulations of superfluous dogma and outmoded practices! God himself just happened to go the way of indulgences, confession and transubstantiation. If they really want to speak to the spirit of our age, perhaps they should present themselves as spiritual efficiency consultants. "By removing these metaphysical redundancies, we aim to streamline the moral workplace and make the brand more competitive going forward..."

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

We Antipodes

Joseph Bottum:

If the only alternative to Gnosticism is Stoicism—if the intellect of man is forced to choose the wild outward spirit or the stern inward soul—then we have made no philosophical advance since the days of the Roman Empire and the closing of the ancient mind. It is now as it was then: Valentinus stands at one door, smiling, while Seneca, stands at the other door, frowning, and the dim cave of human falsity offers no other exits.

To be clear, this is from a review of John Gray's latest book, so there's a little metaphorical liberty being taken with the terms. Gnosticism in this context means the hopeful belief that human knowledge and technology can deliver us from the many ills and tragedies that plague our existence. Gray's provocative argument is that the same impulse to transcend this vale of tears that motivated the original Gnostics still drives human endeavor today, especially when it comes to science (for example, the trendy idea that scientific advancement will "cure" aging and death). Humans will never stop trying to become gods, in conscious control of every element of existence, leaving nothing to chance, even as the increasing complexity of the world we've created produces increasingly complex dilemmas to keep pace with it. The "Stoic" looks on with a wry smirk, convinced of the stronger likelihood that we will die trying instead, that there will always be variables that defy our prediction and understanding. The mystically-inclined might name the sum total of those elusive variables "God" and take comfort from that. Bottum would prefer to steer us toward the consolations of Christianity as a third alternative to the contrast he finds so depressing. I can't share the faith of either party, so I would agree: this is the ur-argument when it comes to human society, the perennial condition in which we find ourselves. Gnostics vs. Stoics; progressives vs. conservatives; changing what we can, accepting what we can't, and never quite wise enough to tell the difference.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Artsy Pie Chartsy

Kamila Shamsie:

Why not take it a step further? Why not have a Year of Publishing Women: 2018, the centenary of women over the age of 30 getting the vote in the UK, seems appropriate.

Of course, there will be many details to work out, but the basic premise of my “provocation” is that none of the new titles published in that year should be written by men. I’ve been considering literary fiction so far but other groups within fiction – and non-fiction – publishing could gain from signing up too. The knock-on effect of a Year of Publishing Women would be evident in review pages and blogs, in bookshop windows and front-of-store displays, in literature festival lineups, in prize submissions. We must learn from the suffragettes that it’s not always necessary or helpful to be polite about our campaigns. If some publishing houses refused to sign up, then it would be for the literary pages and booksellers and bloggers and festivals to say they wouldn’t be able to give space to the male writers who were being published that year. Many male writers would, I’m sure, back the campaign and refuse to submit their books for publication in the given year, while also taking an active part by reading, reviewing and recommending the books that were published.

And here I thought the feminist thing to do was to encourage women to enter fields where they actually stand a chance of making a good living. Literary fiction, seriously? That's like telling your son to pin all his hopes on becoming a rock star. Ahem! I mean, yeah, you go, girl! Once you capture that strategically vital fraction of the already-tiny reading public, the patriarchy's days are sure to be numbered.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

A Brilliant Ramble

The two things that qualify a person for being a conservative, he held, were having a passionate interest outside politics and a strong sense of mortality. And, dare one indite this in a political magazine: “A general interest and preoccupation with politics is the surest sign of a general decay in a society.” Still, politics is necessary to life lived among “people whom chance or choice has brought together.”

The problem, Oakeshott felt, was not only that “politics is an uninteresting form of activity to anyone who has no desire to rule others” but that those it attracts are, too often, unimpressive human beings. At one point he calls them “scoundrels.” What isn’t required, but is too often evident, in politics is “manufacturing curable grievances.” What is needed is the assurance of “the little things: to go where we like & when; having paid my taxes to spend my money on what I wish.” His final word is this: “Politics is the art of living together & of being ‘just’ to one another—not of imposing a way of life, but of organizing a common life.”

So much of Oakeshott’s political thought is propelled by his unshakeable belief in the imperfectibility of human beings. Montaigne is his intellectual hero here, the Montaigne who understood that all human judgment and wisdom is fallible.

Friday, June 05, 2015

The French Disease

We too often forget that the name “intellectual” itself is a French invention. There is a tendency, because the French exported the concept very successfully in the past, to try to interpret any thinking phenomenon as an “intellectual” one, and to believe that where there are no proper intellectuals, there is no thinking. However, as Stefan Collini brilliantly demonstrated in Absent Minds, it is France that is the exception rather than the other way around. The way it has promoted the figure of the intellectual is unprecedented in history, and it would be pointless to try to find the same patterns in other countries which have other traditions. British thinkers, in that perspective, have been sceptical of the term “intellectual” for two reasons: they felt superior to what they saw as French immaturity or grandiloquence, but at the same time inferior to them, because they watched the exceptional treatment given to intellectuals in France with great envy.

Just because a country remains reluctant to recognise its intellectual character doesn’t mean it doesn’t have one. Conversely, just because a country constantly boasts about its tradition of thought doesn’t mean that the tradition is still alive. Progressive thinkers such as Sartre have always preferred — isn’t it much easier? — to paint large abstract pictures, and then, when reality contradicted them, to turn a blind eye and blame someone else — the bourgeoisie, usually.

British thinkers, from Adam Smith and David Hume to Friedrich Hayek (Britain being his adopted country), from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and John Stuart Mill to John Gray, from Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott and Roger Scruton, have always started from the facts and the patterns of life and tried to make sense of them, without being obsessed by the fact that they were or were not thinkers. British people think because they don’t think they think. I wish the French would do the same.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

This Is Not a Worthy Adversary

In my community college days, I wrote a paper on censorship, using the then-relevant PMRC as a thematic center of gravity, so I think you'll agree it's fair to say that I'm somewhat of an academic expert on this topic. On that note, I have to disagree and suggest that Plexico is being seduced by rosy retrospection. Today's priggish, progressive do-gooders will look just as ridiculous in hindsight as Tipper Gore and friends do today, and they already seem very close to achieving self-parody in the eyes of the mainstream. Here we have the latest example of someone finally getting brave enough to say what too many people have only dared to whisper about for so long: today's social justice fanatics are setting themselves up for an inevitable reactionary backlash, and they're either too stupid or too devout to adjust their tactics accordingly.

I've long been resigned to that happening. At this point, I'm just trying to look at the bright side: a reinvigorated right wing will make a much more stimulating opponent. I mean, I would like to criticize this piece, or at least make fun of it. But no matter how hard I tried to extract something like a tangible point for that purpose, I couldn't find one. It's as if she just wolfed down a bunch of half-baked intersectional feminist platitudes and quickly yurked them back up onto the page in an undigested lump. By the end, when she's rambling like a drunken Jacobin about eliminating the inequality inherent in the commercial concert space and reimagining the power dynamics that privilege male musicians on stage, you're almost tiptoeing away in embarrassment to allow her to preserve some dignity. These people were never rigorous thinkers to begin with, and the heavily-policed echo chamber of social media has apparently made them soft and flabby. A useful enemy should be like an intellectual whetstone. The edge of your thoughts is honed by engaging with them. This, though, is like trying to sharpen one's wits against a blob of jelly.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Minimum Blues

Small stakes ensure you the minimum blues
But you don't feel taken and you don't feel abused
Small stakes tell you that there's nothing can do
Can't think big, can't think past one or two


Gracy Olmstead:

Brooks’s piece reminded me of my grandmother. She did not live a grandiose life. She rarely traveled outside her home state. She lived in a simple, yet elegant way: using every opportunity to beautify the world around her, to bless the people she loved. Work was important to her, and she worked hard. But she also was very involved in her church, a devoted mother and grandmother, a faithful friend. Her way of living was, as Brooks put it, that of a “small, happy life”—one filled with things like strawberry shortcake and Easter baskets in the spring, family grilling parties and homemade pickles in the summer, giant Christmas trees and hearty stews in the winter.

It’s worth reemphasizing the role that humility plays in giving us purpose: Brooks points out that it is those who live small, unrecognized lives with contentment who are often the most happy—while those who seek a grandiose and perfect sense of “purpose” end up unhappy and discontent. They may feel that all their efforts only amount to “not enough.”

Those who live a simple life, grateful for its blessings and significances, are liberated from that discontent. They don’t need great successes or accolades in order to feel accomplished: rather, the beliefs and relationships they hold dear bring them purpose.

The small life is often seen as unfulfilling. We worry we’ll get to the end of our lives and think, “All that ambition and dreaming wasted. All those opportunities not taken.” But really, what Brooks seems to indicate, is that there are few people who achieve positions of extreme passionate purpose and acclaim in the world. Rather, it’s those who find purpose in the sweet, small things that will be happiest in the end.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Fi Fa Ho Hum

My first thought upon hearing about the arrests of FIFA officials was "What, only six?" But as I read some new posts and revisited old ones, I found myself feeling more skeptical about the moralizing zeal surrounding the whole thing. Eh, whatever will be, will be. Qatar 2022 was probably just a bit too blatant to be ignored, and nobody likes the nouveau riche anyway. The real takeaway is the escalating tensions with Russia. It amuses me to imagine trying to sell the Myrrhkin people on that: "We're going to war over the fuckin' World Cup?" If anything could cause this nation to suddenly discover its inner peacenik...