Facepalm du jour

It seems to me that very often talking about homosexuality has mainly been a way of not talking about other things that need talking about.

It was not the invention of the birth-control pill, or the adoption of no-fault divorce, that hollowed out marriage: It was that we became the sort of people who desired those things. We became — Western civilization became — the kids who flunked the test in the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment, unable to resist immediate gratification and, having stripped ourselves of the cultural basis for understanding the distinction, unable to tell the difference between pleasure and happiness.

Hence the sex dolls.

… Imagine, if you can — with charity, if you can — the state of a man in a silicon brothel paying to have sex (a simulacrum of sex) with an inanimate object. The act indicates a profound alienation not only from ordinary healthy sexual expression but from humanity ….

Kevin D. Williamson, The Psalmist and the Sex Doll (emphasis added).

There’s a tendency to focus on the most horrible or stupid stunts of one’s ideological adversaries, and I asked myself if that wasn’t what Williamson was doing here.

I think not. There really is a kind of enthusiasm for the idea of orgasm-at-will with a simulacrum of another person — a similacrum that will never be out of sorts or complicate one’s life unduly. The sexy dolls have been around a while, but many people have enthused here and there over the idea of taking those sexy doll and roboticizing them.

And I have no reason to think that the enthusiasts are all ideological adversaries in conventional political terms, either. Indeed, I can imagine some Christianish “incels” thinking sex dolls and amorous robots are, literally, a Godsend to satisfy one’s “needs” without fornication.

I may be overdue for another rant on the difference between non-fornication and chastity.

That it is a fairly marginal phenomenon (so far) does not mean that it tells us nothing about the decadence of society more broadly.

(The Psalmist in the title, by the way, is the late Leonard Cohen.)

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Monday Potpourri, 8/27/18

1

I tend to think of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (which I’ve never finished reading) as all about the evils of artificial contraception. That’s a blind spot.

Carl Trueman points to its prediction of the moral and social chaos sexual revolution would leave in its wake, and to contemporaneous commentary by Dietrich von Hildebrand that entails “a moving account of human love and a critique of a society that reduces love to sex and sentiment.”

In this volume, von Hildebrand clearly draws upon earlier arguments from his 1927 book In Defense of Purity: Love is ecstatic and joyful, transcending rational analysis. Von Hildebrand’s key text is Song of Songs, the biblical poem that captures the mystery, power, longing, and exuberance of erotic love. Much conservative Protestant writing on marriage typically neglects the Song for a prosaic, patriarchal focus on male authority and female submission. Those tempted by such a drab view of love ought to read von Hildebrand, for whom passion, mystery, and ecstasy all play their biblical parts.

Still, the part of Humanae Vitae that leaves me leery is the insistence that every marital act instantiate both the unitive and procreative purposes of sex. I’m willing to admit mistakes in how I’ve lived my life (my blogs are not my confessional, but I’ll not deny here what I confess there), but I’m not conscience-wracked — even now, when I know so much more about the Christian tradition on contraception than I knew then — that my wife and I tooks steps to prevent pregnancy during our first year of marriage so she could complete her college degree.

Granted, the same contraceptive technologies, by Supreme Court decisions of half a century or so ago, must be available to fornicators and adulterers as well as married couples, but to put it in reductionist terms that the encyclical presumably avoids, is delaying or spacing pregnancy in marriage a slippery slope to all the evils of the sexual revolution?

Apart from the possibility that I’ve thought more about that than most people, my response lacks any authority, but here goes: that’s not my lived experience.

2

Alan Jacobs, who doesn’t write all that much about matters political, musing on two heads of state, the U.S. and the Vatican:

Norms are created by institutions, and we live in an age of weak and despised institutions. This is how populist leaders arise: when a great many people believe that institutions exist merely to serve themselves, they come to despise not just those institutions but also the norms associated with them, and applaud leaders who scorn and seek to tear down the whole edifice. And if those leaders make their disdain known in sufficiently charismatic ways, few will notice when they are guilty of the very sins they decry.

He’s not expecting either The Donald or Pope Francis to be “forced out” or to change course.

So why do we get the vapors so badly when news breaks?

The big social-media companies function as what I have called the Ministry of Amnesia, and the result is that we lack temporal bandwidth. Unless we work hard to cultivate that temporal bandwidth, we won’t have the “personal density” to resist the amnesia-producing forces that make us think that whatever happens today is more important than anything that has ever happened.

Increasingly, I think, the people who rule our society understand how all this works, and no one understands it better than Donald Trump …

[T]he greatest of social changes tend to happen, as Edward Gibbon put it, insensibly. Even when they seem sudden, it is almost always case that the suddenness is merely a very long gradual transformation finally bearing fruit. There’s a famous moment in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when one character asks another how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” the man replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.” But the “suddenly” happened because he was previously insensible to the “gradually.” Likewise, events are always appearing to us with extreme suddenness — but only because we are so amnesiac that we have failed to discern the long slow gradual forces that made this moment inevitable.

Alan Jacobs again, elsewhere. Do read it all. There’s a payoff.

3

Jeffrey Bilbro, Learning to Distinguish between Demonic and Redemptive Technologies, at Front Porch Republic responds to a Christianity Today essay that tends to reduces Agribiz to “genetic seed modification and GPS-guided harvesters,” ignoring assaults with on crops and earthy by chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Bilbro’s most important contribution, it seems to me, is a not-too-vicious debunking of what the CT author seems to think is the only alternative to Agribiz in the manner Monsanto pursues, and some allusive hints we may just be cruising gradually toward sudden calamity.

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Our lives were meant to be written in code, indecipherable to onlookers except through the cipher of Jesus.

Greg Coles.

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The circular express

When I was a Calvinist, I took comfort that the elect would persevere, and attain salvation. This is the “P” in the TULIP acrostic for the five points of Calvinism: Perseverance of the Saints, frequently dumbed down to “Eternal Security.”

Of course, there was the pesky little problem of apparent saints who openly and spectacularly apostatized. To those instances, one could respond either:

  1. “They’re still saved because you can’t lose your salvation.” That answer, with its dubious consistency, tended to antinomianism (which meant was much beloved by testosterone-crazed adolescent Calvinist boys — I am not making that up).
  2. “They never were elect in the first place, of course.” That answer tends to collapse the whole airtight Calvinist edifice. It collapses into uncertainty and circularity about whether the seemingly-elect truly are elect, including the person trying to parse the possibilities.

“Some ‘security’! If I’m saved, I’ll always be saved, but damned if I know whether I’m saved! Thanks for nuthin’!”

That tiptoe into an edge of Calvinism is preface to today’s debates between affirmation-seeking transgenderism activists and sober clinicians who want to avoid hasty surgical and hormonal interventions in adolescent bodies and minds — interventions that will make it hard for an adolescent with transgender ideations to “desist,” as many do, reverting to feeling comfortable in their own skin (and sex).

Or maybe many don’t. Maybe the desisters were false positives.

Oh, dear!

Desistance has been at the center of the transgender advocates’ fight to have transgender identity publicly accepted as an urgent medical condition. At the same time, these same advocates have pressured clinicians to remove the stigma of its psychiatric diagnosis in order to create a social acceptance of the idea that “gender” is truly biological and that “sex” is a social construct. Stunningly anti-scientific rhetoric like this is taking as its hostage the bodies and lives of children in order to prove the point that children are “born transgender.” This assertion is a self-fulfilling prophecy involving a domino effect of parents and clinicians who are effectively engaging in Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSbP).

Transgender discourse advances the notion of the “true transgender” by accepting all the signs of gender non-conformity as unmistakable signs of being transgender—at least until they cease. Then, suddenly, people like Tannehill dismiss the child’s gender non-conformity, claiming that these trans-identifying children were never really transgender in the first place.

Julia Vigo, The ​Myth of the “Desistance Myth” (italics added)

So, there it is:

  1. If you’re transgender/elect, you won’t desist/apostatize.
  2. If you desist/apostatize, you weren’t truly transgender/elect.

“Any questions about the urgent necessity of immediate surgical and hormonal interventions in trans teens? … Yes, you, the hater/heretic in the back row. What’s your stupid, phony question?”

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The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.

(Sir James Fitzjames Stephen)

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

(Philip K. Dick)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes. Where I glean stuff.

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Children don’t do tragedy

I have spent the past few days watching old videos of the civil-rights era, the King era, and there is something unexpectedly poignant in them. When you see those involved in that momentous time, you notice: They dressed as adults, with dignity. They presented themselves with self-respect. Those who moved against segregation and racial indignity went forward in adult attire—suits, dresses, coats, ties, hats—as if adulthood were something to which to aspire. As if a claiming of just rights required a showing of gravity. Look at the pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking, the pictures of those marching across the Edmund Pettus bridge, of those in attendance that day when George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door and then stepped aside to the force of the federal government, and suddenly the University of Alabama was integrated. Even the first students who went in, all young, acted and presented themselves as adults. Of course they won. Who could stop such people?

I miss their style and seriousness. What we’re stuck with now is Mark Zuckerberg’s .

The signal fact of Mr. Zuckerberg is that he is supremely gifted in one area—monetizing technical expertise by marrying it to a canny sense of human weakness. Beyond that, what a shallow and banal figure. He too appears to have difficulties coming to terms with who he is. Perhaps he hopes to keep you, too, from coming to terms with it, by literally dressing as a child, in T-shirts, hoodies and jeans—soft clothes, the kind 5-year-olds favor. In interviews he presents an oddly blank look, as if perhaps his audiences will take blankness for innocence. As has been said here, he is like one of those hollow-eyed busts of forgotten Caesars you see in museums.

But he is no child; he is a giant bestride the age, a titan, one of the richest men not only in the world but in the history of the world. His power is awesome.

His public reputation is now damaged, and about this he is very concerned. Next week he will appear before Congress. The Onion recently headlined that he was preparing for his questioning by studying up on the private data of congressmen. The comic Albert Brooks tweeted: “I sent Mark Zuckerberg my entire medical history just to save him some time.”

His current problems may have yielded a moment of promise, however. Tim Cook of Apple, in an impressive and sober interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, said last week something startling, almost revolutionary: “Privacy to us is a human right.” This was stunning because it was the exact opposite of what Silicon Valley has been telling us since social media’s inception, which is: Privacy is dead. Get over it. Some variation on that statement has been made over and over by Silicon Valley’s pioneers, and they say it blithely, cavalierly, with no apparent sense of tragedy.

Because they don’t do tragedy. They do children’s clothes.

(Peggy Noonan, If Adults Won’t Grow Up, Nobody Will)

* * * * *

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

(Philip K. Dick)

The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.

(Sir James Fitzjames Stephen)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Deferring to the data gods

Once upon a time, when we had a problem that was convoluted and unsettling to deal with, we’d figure out some way to medicalize it, sending it off to the doctor-god.

We’re doing that with Artificial “Intelligence” now. Welfare, homelessness, child protection, all have been cast as data-crunching problems.

The doctors are relieved. Hoi polloi are amused until AI gores their ox — as when Google photo recognition algorithms identified people of African ancestry as gorillas. Or when mom got kicked off Medicaid (Mitch Daniels’ folly — gosh, was it that long ago? 2006?!).

Google fixed its problem by eliminating gorilla as an option. I think they should have sent it off to somebody else’s AI farm.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Personal cybersecurity

You report on digital privacy, health and education technology. What are your most important tools for doing your job?

We’re living in a surveillance economy where sites and apps can track and categorize our every online move. In that ecosystem, encrypted communication services have become some of my most important reporting tools.

For people who would rather not reach me through my corporate Gmail account at The Times, I use ProtonMail, an encrypted email service. I also use Signal, an encrypted text messaging and calling service. And I do some online research through Tor, a browser that masks your online address so sites can’t track your physical location. I also use DuckDuckGo, a search engine that doesn’t store your search history.

(Natasha Singer, New York Times, product hyperlinks added.)

Check, check, check, check. But I don’t know which acquaintances use ProtonMail and Signal, which limits usefulness.

She also uses Disconnect. (Strokes chin thoughtfully.)

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Cold comfort

I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to find this reassuring:

The American electorate may not tolerate draconian (by U.S. standards) restrictions on guns, but it will tolerate a fair amount of surveillance. License-plate readers track our travels. Cellphone towers can triangulate our location. Face recognition is increasingly deployed in conjunction with security and traffic cameras; in China, police officers have it built into their spectacles. Not to mention the stupendous amounts of personal data we willingly hand over to businesses.

Now take all the red flags raised by Nikolas Cruz : He posted on social media pictures of himself with weapons and small animals he had apparently tortured. His fascination and exhibitionism with guns was broadcast to one and all. Teachers were warned to take action if he was seen approaching the school with a backpack; he later was expelled.

He was widely regarded as a menace. His mother, neighbors and school officials had repeatedly sought police intervention. He posted a YouTube comment under his own name in which he declared a desire to become a “professional school shooter,” one of two warnings passed on to the FBI.

Big data may not be better than psychologists at predicting who will commit a mass shooting a year or two from now, but it can help us know who might be planning one next week: Who got kicked out of school, failed to show up for a court-assigned counseling session, made a big purchase at a gun store, posted a deranged or threatening message on social media, prompted an uptick in alarmed social-media chatter by friends and acquaintances.

Especially since the young already conduct their social existence mostly online. Information technology is taking over our lives. It will not be uninvented. In another few years, unless you cut yourself off from the network (which will arouse its own suspicions), you will be findable in seconds. A police drone overhead will be able to focus its cameras on you or the vehicle or building in which you are to be found. Indeed, London cops caused a furor by innocently posting on Twitter the visage of a TV comedian snapped by an overhead camera looking down on the masses in Leicester Square. If it can’t already, soon this technology will be able to sound an alarm if a specific person on a list approaches a school or other sensitive site.

(Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. – paywall)

In fairness, though, this is likely to be more efficacious than the nostrums of the gun control lobby or the anodyne “thoughts and prayers” promised by Congressmen.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Signs of the times

James Howard Kunstler probably coined the term “techno-narcissism.” He definitely uses it more than anyone I know. A related term is “techno-triumphalism.” I believe he uses that, too. He definitely does not think that technology is immanentizing the eschaton.

He may be understating it:

The second, Bitcoin, combines mania with techno-triumphalism. Almost nobody understands Bitcoing or Blockchain, but people are speculating in Bitcoin. One wise wag said “I know exactly what a Bitcoin is worth: one tulip bulb.” My theory that gold has no intrinsic worth (you can’t eat it, live in it or burn it for heat) commensurate with its totemistic value is similar.

Another bad signs: Mermaid academies, Abduction-for-hire services, and Designer cookie dough.

But if people couldn’t see doom in Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton for President, they’re unlikely to see it in any of these.

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“No man hath a velvet cross.” (Samuel Rutherford, 17th century Scotland)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Lossy compression

I just (when I wrote; not when this was released) finished reading two blogs and a New Atlantis article, all three related. They individually and collectively hit me so powerfully that I have scheduled a reminder to come back to them after they’ve had a chance to marinate a bit.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the blogs, that of Swarthmore’s Timothy Burke, in a delayed reaction to Jonathan Haidt’s taxonomy that liberal political dispositions “are unresponsive to blasphemy or sacrilege, that liberals do not cross-wire deep emotional responses connected to disgust or repulsion to politics, do not have strong notions about the sacred and the profane as a part of their subconscious script for reading the public sphere and political events”:

My colleague and friend Ben Berger pointed out during one of our discussions that this observation seemed fundamentally wrong to him–that people can hold things sacred that are not designated as religious, and that many liberals held other kinds of institutions, texts, and manners as ‘sacred’ in the same deep-seated, pre-conscious, emotionally intense way, perhaps without even knowing that they do …

Why are so many of us feeling deep distress each day, sometimes over what seem like relatively trivial or incidental information (like Trump pushing aside heads of state?) Because Trump is sacrilege.

Trump is the Piss Christ of liberals and leftists. His every breath is a bb-gun shot through a cathedral window, bacon on the doorstep of a mosque, the explosion of an ancient Buddha statue. He offends against the notion that merit and hard work will be rewarded. Against the idea that leadership and knowledge are necessary partners. Against deep assumptions about the dignity of self-control. Against a feeling that leaders should at least pretend to be more dedicated to their institutions and missions than themselves. Against the feeling that consequential decisions should be performed as consequential. Against the feeling that a man should be ashamed of sexual predation and assault if caught on tape exalting it. Against the sense that anyone who writes or speaks in the public sphere is both responsible for what they’ve said and should have to reconcile what they’ve said in the past with what they’re doing in the present. These are emotional commitments before they are things we would defend as substantive, reasoned propositions. They’re interwoven into how many of us inhabit social class and working life, but sometimes spill over both class and work to connect us with unlike people who nevertheless have similar expectations about leaders and public figures.

I am not quoting that to mock those of liberal political disposition, or Timothy Burke, or Swarthmore. In fact, I pretty much share that “Trump is sacrilege” feeling. I appreciate how well Burke elaborated it.

Nor do I quote that to convince my readers that “Trump is sacrilege.” The other two things I read, both by Alan Jacobs, are on what I think it a more enduring concern, at least to me at this juncture of my life. That concern involves at least three key terms, by my parsing:

  • Information density.
  • Mythical core.
  • Lossy compression.

Stay tuned. I suspect there will be more coming on this concern, but it needs to ferment/marinate first.

Meanwhile, if you’ve got the time, I’ve given the links. The mashup of the three strikes me as challenging but not really unfamiliar or beyond the reach of an intelligent reader. But then, I may have a pretty unusual reading history that prepared me for this challenge.

Here’s what Alan Jacobs said about it:

And Wesley Hill:

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.