Escape from ennui

[A]s James Baldwin put it, Americans were “afflicted by the world’s highest standard of living and what is probably the world’s most bewilderingly empty way of life.”

(Pankaj Mishra, America, From Exceptionalism to Nihilism) That quote was new to me, though the thought was not. My “standing advice” at the end of each blog episode includes these:

The consumer society is in fact the most efficient mechanism ever devised for the creation and distribution of unhappiness. Lord Jonathon Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain.

I think a great many of us are haunted by the feeling that our society, and by ours I don’t mean just the United States or Europe, but our whole world-wide technological civilisation, whether officially labelled capitalist, socialist or communist, is going to go smash, and probably deserves to. W.H. Auden, 1966.

Then I also read this today:

While the news waves groan with stories about “America’s Opioid Epidemic” you may discern that there is little effort to actually understand what’s behind it, namely, the fact that life in the United States has become unspeakably depressing, empty, and purposeless for a large class of citizens.

… None of the news reports or “studies” done about opioid addiction will challenge or even mention the deadly logic of Wal Mart and operations like it that systematically destroyed local retail economies (and the lives entailed in them.) The news media would have you believe that we still value “bargain shopping” above all other social dynamics. In the end, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

(James Howard Kunstler)

But one of the odd blogs I find irresistible is Granola Shotgun. “Johnny” populates his blog with loads of photos and sparse commentary. Most recent:

At the end of my first year at university I was approached by an engineering student who asked if he could be my room mate next year. We didn’t know each other particularly well and didn’t have much in common, but he seemed harmless enough. I shrugged. Sure. We went our separate ways over the summer and in September he appeared at my door. After a few months of successfully sharing accommodations I asked him why he came to me when most guys in his situation would have gone in a very different direction. He explained.

The average college freshman tends to have an adolescent understanding of what a good independent life might be like. Young men are motivated by peculiar impulses and the siren song of the frat house calls. Beer. Parties. Girls. Sports cars. The prestige of hanging out with rich kids, athletes, and really popular older guys. He said that was usually a big mistake. The furniture is made of plastic milk crates. The place smells like a locker room. People eat ramen and cold day old pizza out of the box. They wear flip flops in the shower because no one has ever cleaned the bathroom. Ever. And when you bring a girl home there are a dozen bigger richer guys with fancier cars than you hovering around. You sit there trying to get your romance on with posters of naked women taped to the walls next to a collection of empty bottles. And you pay extra for all this… It’s just not a great situation.

Then he made a sweeping motion with his hand indicating our apartment. A pleasing mixture of antiques and modern pieces. Smells like lemons. When he brings a girl home I’m in the kitchen cooking brisket and home made bread. Soft lighting. Ella Fitzgerald is playing in the background. No competition. And it’s cheaper. For him, doing the unorthodox and socially uncomfortable thing was just… rational. [Yup. That sounds like an engineer’s approach to the world. Tipsy]

Back to Springfield. Steve [and Liz Shultis] took a version of the same strategy. He and his family live in a gracious four story French Second Empire mansion. The place is huge and everywhere you look there’s a level of detail and quality you can’t find in any home built today. There’s a legal apartment on the lower level that they use as a guest suite.  I looked up the address on a real estate listing site and he paid less for this house than many people spend on their cars. His family has a quality of life and a degree of financial freedom that none of his suburban piers (sic) can comprehend.

Most people load themselves up with massive amounts of debt in order to live the way they believe they’re supposed to. You wouldn’t want to put your kids in a substandard urban school with the wrong element. You wouldn’t want to buy a house that never appreciated in value. You wouldn’t want to have to explain to your friends, family, and co-workers that you live in a slum with poor black people and Puerto Ricans. And where do you park?! It’s so much “better” to soak yourself in debt to buy your way in to the thing you believe you can’t live without.

Pretty dry without the pictures, I’ll admit. But go check the original, The Springfield Strategy. That four story French Second Empire mansion is pretty amazing. Sample:

From their own blog, it appears that Steve & Liz (perhaps Steve and his ex) actually did raise children, now adults, in that urban environment, though the children are not visible or mentioned in Johnny’s story.

I don’t want to romanticize, let alone make a panacea of, a good, walkable and sociable living environment, but it appears (scroll on down the long page) that the urban dwellers of Springfield, Massachusetts may have escaped some aspects of the “bewilderingly empty way of life.”

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Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Sciencey prestige

We live in a world in which data convey authority. But authority has a way of descending to certitude, and certitude begets hubris. From Robert McNamara to Lehman Brothers to Stronger Together, cautionary tales abound.

We ought to know this by now, but we don’t. Instead, we respond to the inherent uncertainties of data by adding more data without revisiting our assumptions, creating an impression of certainty that can be lulling, misleading and often dangerous …

Last October, the Pew Research Center published a survey on the politics of climate change. Among its findings: Just 36 percent of Americans care “a great deal” about the subject. Despite 30 years of efforts by scientists, politicians and activists to raise the alarm, nearly two-thirds of Americans are either indifferent to or only somewhat bothered by the prospect of planetary calamity.

Why? The science is settled. The threat is clear. Isn’t this one instance, at least, where 100 percent of the truth resides on one side of the argument?

Well, not entirely. As Andrew Revkin wrote last year about his storied career as an environmental reporter at The Times, “I saw a widening gap between what scientists had been learning about global warming and what advocates were claiming as they pushed ever harder to pass climate legislation.” The science was generally scrupulous. The boosters who claimed its authority weren’t.

Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn’t to deny science. It’s to acknowledge it honestly.

(Bret Stephens, debuting in the New York Times)

On display in the news reports about the mystery of the opioid epidemic is America’s neurotic reliance on supposedly scientific “studies.” Never before in history has a society studied so much and learned so little — which is what happens when you resort to scientizing things that are essentially matters of conduct. It rests on the fallacy that if you compile enough statistics about something, you can control it.

(James Howard Kunstler)

I’m more of a humanist than a scientist, but were I a scientist, I think I’d be concerned about the ideological capture of sciencey prestige on the one hand and the absurdities of Bill Nye, The Science Guy on the other hand.

On second thought, Bill Nye is now an instance of ideological capture of sciencey prestige.

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

The return of Debbie Downer

I was kind of a “Debbie Downer” yesterday, wasn’t I? Well hold on. It may get worse.

Writing of Amazon killing Big Box which killed Mom & Pop, and what peril that leaves us in, made me reflect once again not only on our ugly places but on how readily we chase after attractive things — sex, lower prices, extreme convenience, etc. — oblivious of consequences.

I’d already been ruminating on such things after listening to the latest Kunstlercast, which made me aware of how fragile our whole existence has become because it’s all mediated electronically now.

I’ll be chatting with Rocky Rawlins who is the man behind The SurvivorLibrary.com, a phenomenal website that contains scans in pdf-file form of hundreds of books on basic technology and the skills for applying them, mostly dating from the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s hard to overstate the scope of this vast trove of practical knowledge — everything from bee-keeping to wagon and coach-building. In other words, what you need to meet The Long Emergency. The scientific elegance of these books and monographs is something to behold, the clarity of the language and precision of the instructions is breathtaking. I think you’ll like Rocky very much.

Why should we care? Three letters: EMP.

Electro-magnetic pulse damage was a topic of conversation in both of the Republican debates on Thursday night. Rick Santorum, one-third of the warm-up debate, warned of the possibility of an EMP being used as a weapon, a “devastating explosion” that would “fry out” anything with a circuit board. “Everything is gone,” he said. “Cars stop. Planes fall out of the sky.” If Iran got a nuclear bomb, he warned, they could explode one in the atmosphere over the United States and break every phone, car, computer and anything else electronic underneath.

During the main debate, Ben Carson raised the same issue. “[W]e have enemies who are obtaining nuclear weapons that they can explode in our exoatmosphere and destroy our electric grid,” he said, adding, “Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue at that point?”

(Washington Post) It doesn’t even have to be nuclear.

Or if you don’t like that, try Kunstler’s Long Emergency. If I had read Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I think I’d have something from him about now.

Then, for me, the piece de resistance: Rod Dreher reflecting on the painful accuracy of a New Yorker profile (he justifiably trusted the author, and let him tag along for a week as Rod promoted The Benedict Option). This stretch and what followed is very self-revealing:

OK, I have to share this passage about Andrew Sullivan:

The writer Andrew Sullivan, who is gay and Catholic, is one of Dreher’s good friends. Their friendship began in earnest in 2010, when Ruthie got sick and Dreher, moved by a spirit of generalized repentance, e-mailed Sullivan to apologize for anything “hard-hearted” he might have said in their various online arguments. Sullivan has a long-standing disagreement with Dreher over same-sex marriage, but he believes that the religiously devout should be permitted their dissent. “There is simply no way for an orthodox Catholic to embrace same-sex marriage,” he said. “The attempt to conflate that with homophobia is a sign of the unthinking nature of some liberal responses to religion. I really don’t think that florists who don’t want to contaminate themselves with a gay wedding should in any way be compelled to do so. I think any gay person that wants them to do that is being an asshole, to be honest—an intolerant asshole. Rod forces you to understand what real pluralism is: actually accepting people with completely different world views than your own.”

In “The Benedict Option,” Dreher writes that “the angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity” is the understandable result of a history of “rejection and hatred by the church.” Orthodox Christians need to acknowledge this history, he continues, and “repent of it.” He has assured his children that, if they are gay, he will still love them; he is almost—but not quite—apologetic about his views, which he presents as a theological obligation. He sees orthodox Christians as powerless against the forces of liquidly modern progressivism; on his blog, he argues that “the question is not really ‘What are you conservative Christians prepared to tolerate?’ but actually ‘What are LGBTs and progressive allies prepared to tolerate?’ ” He wants them to be magnanimous in victory; to refrain from pressing their advantage. Essentially, he says to progressives: You’ve won. You wouldn’t sue Orthodox Jews or observant Muslims. Please don’t sue us, either.

“What I really love about Rod is that, even as he’s insisting upon certain truths, he’s obviously completely conflicted,” Sullivan said. “And he’s a mess! I don’t think he’d disagree with that. But he’s a mess in the best possible way, because he hasn’t anesthetized himself. He’s honest about a lot of the questions that many liberal and conservative Christians aren’t really addressing.” Talking to Sullivan about Dreher, I was reminded of Father Matthew’s law: “You’ve got to love your dad even if he doesn’t love you back in the way that you want him to.”

Andrew is right: I’m a mess, but I hope I’m a mess in the best possible way.

I can’t let go of the story of my family and its fate …

We now live in a world that was made for somebody like me, with my aspirations and talents. It is a world in which people like Daddy and Ruthie, and what they stood for, can scarcely thrive. (I read Chris Caldwell’s piece on the situation in France, and it resonates with regard to the small places like West Feliciana.) The values and the customs and the way of seeing the world that meant everything to them is very hard to sustain. The great tragedy of my family is that my father and my sister held onto their vision so tightly that they made all those around them whom they catechized far too rigid to survive the shocks of their passing. And now the family that they revered above all else is shattered. What will happen to the land that my father acquired, cultivated, and revered, after my mom is gone? Ruthie loved the land as much as he did, and planned to live on it till the day she died. And she did — but she did not count on dying at 42. Everything that seemed so solid, so unbreakable, has dissolved, and is broken.

I’ve been thinking about how things might have gone differently had I been able to return to St. Francisville when Ruthie was first diagnosed. What if I had been there during the 19 months she lived, and had discovered the awful truth while there was still time to resolve things. Might everything been different? Maybe, maybe not ….

What the confluence of these thread brings to mind is a famous man’s famous aphorism:

Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote that the doctrine of original sin is “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” The evidence of ingrained sinfulness, he thought, is apparent everywhere in acts of violence, in the mistreatment of the vulnerable, and in the greed built into economic systems. Even human beings’ greatest accomplishments are inevitably tainted by sins of pride and self-interest, he argued. The problem is not just that humans commit sinful acts but that they are by nature sinful.

Yup. Individually and collectively, we’re a hot steaming mess. Lemmings. Pleasure-seekers. Idiots. Bundles of complexes and compulsions. If you think you’re an exception, you’re probably just uncommonly oblivious.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!

* * * * *

Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.