Potpourri 10/11/21

Meaning is a necessity

> There are aspects of the human condition that can be explored through art, that must be explored through art, that are not conducive to stories about superheroes, wizards, cyborgs, monsters, or similar. And, in those cases where such themes are explored with genre tropes, they are generally unattractive to (some would say inappropriate for) children. And so adults should look beyond art intended for children, in order to deepen their understanding of life and the world and grapple with what it means to live a mortal life in a universe without meaning. > > … > > In life we have both cookies and kimchi, both lemonade and whiskey. There are, in other words, acquired tastes as well as obvious ones, and the former are some of the best stuff in life. This, again, does not in any way dismiss the pleasures associated with cookies and lemonade. The point is merely that very few people only consume cookies and lemonade, but far too many never access any movies or shows or books that deal in the bleaker, harder, subtler, quieter parts of life. > > Now the common rejoinder is to say “do both!” And indeed – watch both, read both. I can’t complain about that. But the entire point is that people aren’t watching both. Do you know how many people consume literally nothing but superheroes, sci-fi, zombies, video games, and so on? Very, very many. And how could there not be? Any sense that we should feel embarrassed to remain fixated on art for children in existence that once existed – and I have never been convinced that it ever did – has long since been utterly obliterated in our current moment, a time when art populism manages to both be utterly commercially and critically dominant and yet cast as a perpetual underdog. Precisely because they need to be acquired, acquired tastes have a higher barrier to entry than others, and so their embrace by the public will always be more tenuous. But there are treasures there. Think of how much is lost for so many when there is no social pressure at all to try new things, new types of things. > > It is no coincidence that we are all living in the digital world alongside a cadre of angry, embittered, activist nerds who rage out endlessly about all of the perceived slights against them. After all, there culture has told them to never leave their fantasies behind, so how can we be surprised that they react violently to the difference between those fantasies and their reality? …

Freddie DeBoer, ‌the Second Part of Life.

I do not agree with atheist Freddie that the universe is meaningless — or that humans actually can live humanly as if it were. Even atheists desire and quietly ferret out at least tacit and private meaning.

> [F]or human beings, meaning is not just a luxury. It is a necessity.

Historian Wilfred McClay, ‌Has America Lost Its Story?

Cramped narratives

> "A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large." The ideological narratives that are popular now offer just this kind of terribly cramped sense. They account for all the facts within a very small circumference, one typically marked out by the chatter of the extremely online, but they exclude much that is required for healthy, sane judgment: local particulars, affection for neighbors, and good humor, to name a few.

Jeffrey Bilbro, Staying Sane in a Mad Time (Front Porch Republic) quoting G.K. Chesterton.

Meyer Lansky vindicated!

> In the 1940s, organized crime kingpin Meyer Lansky boasted that his casino-based empire was “going to be bigger than U.S. Steel.” His prediction has been wildly surpassed. In 2014, U.S. Steel had revenue of $17.5 billion and employed 42,000 people. Indian casinos alone employed 400,000. In one recent year, gambling took in $72 billion in the United States; movie tickets, $9.5 billion; theme parks, $10.3 billion, cable TV, $51 billion. Gambling is bigger than any other form of recreation and entertainment in the country.

Helen Andrews, ‌Casino Capitalism, Literally

What troubled Michael Goldhaber

> When you have attention, you have power, and some people will try and succeed in getting huge amounts of attention, and they would not use it in equal or positive ways.

So I won’t accused of monomania for thinking that this describes Donald Trump, I acknowledge that it was stated as a general principle in the article that introduced me to the powerful concept of the "attention economy": Charlie Warzel, Michael Goldhaber, the Cassandra of the Internet Age (The New York Times). It’s one of the most illumining articles I’ve read this year, and one that I plan to review regularly until I stop getting anything new from it.

I still think it fits Trump to a gold-plated "T", but that’s not surprising, is it?

More:

> In June 2006, when Facebook was still months from launching its News Feed, Mr. Goldhaber predicted the grueling personal effects of a life mediated by technologies that feed on our attention and reward those best able to command it. “In an attention economy, one is never not on, at least when one is awake, since one is nearly always paying, getting or seeking attention.”

Fetishists

These days, when a pundit writes about politics, instead of simply stating his opinion, he feels obliged to start off with various polling numbers on what people think about it.

We are innumerate, yet we fetishize "science" that corroborates, however weakly, what we see. And most polls are very weak corroboration indeed.

Powerful fanatics compelling lies

> David Chappelle’s The Closer is, in fact, a humanely brilliant indictment of elite culture at this moment in time: a brutal exposure of its identitarian monomania, its denial of reality, and its ruthless tactics of personal and public destruction. It marks a real moment: a punching up against the powerful, especially those who pretend they aren’t. > > … > > The debate … is about whether a tiny group of fanatics, empowered by every major cultural institution, can compel or emotionally blackmail other people into saying things that are not true.

Andrew Sullivan, David Chappelle is Right, Isn’t He? (hyperlink added).

Yes, Virginia, we’re still at war. Of course we are.

Justice Kavanaugh asks a telling question:

> “Is the United States still engaged in hostilities for purposes of the AUMF against al-Qaeda and related terrorist organizations?” The AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force) is the 2001 congressional resolution that served as the basis for the war in Afghanistan and for continuing U.S. military operations and detention of enemy combatants. > > Yes, [Biden’s acting solicitor, Brian] Fletcher conceded, “that is the government’s position.” And it is the position the Biden administration holds, he elaborated, “notwithstanding withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.” Whatever the White House may say about the end of the forever war, the Justice Department has represented to the Supreme Court that “we continue to be engaged in hostilities with al-Qaeda and therefore that detention under law of war remains proper.”

Andrew C. McCarthy, ‌Kavanaugh Question Reveals Biden Administration Dishonesty on Ending Forever War

What’s self-evident in education?

> Educators take nothing to be self evident; trainers take everything to be so.

Elizabeth Corey and Jeffrey Polet, Indoctrination Sessions Have No Place in the Academy. By "indoctrination," they mean "[this, that, and the other] training" of most sorts.

After reading and writing this, I found that one person, Chloé Valdary, has a relatively attractive approach to antiracism training.

Good riddance, ideologue

> I think there’s an image that a lot of Republicans have, both in politics and they sort of represent a sober and judicious way of looking at the world, and we are the adults in the room. > > And it’s more about a culture than it is an ideology. > > The original Republican conservative movement, I thought, was going to go back and look at the Constitution, when Jefferson said it won’t work if you pile up everybody in the cities because they will be subject to mass hysteria. Or de Tocqueville, and you look at certain ideas, I thought that’s what we were.

Victor Davis Hanson, interviewed by Tucker Carlson, on ‌Why I Left National Review.

I’m not a big fan of National Review. I even let my subscription lapse, but recently renewed because I was being denied access to any full article (I think online publications consciously do that to recently-lapsed subscribers.) They have a few authors I like well enough to make it worth, what, $0.77 per week?

But when VDH complains that "it’s more about a culture than it is an ideology," I’m with NRO. I’ve had it with ideology. I’ve had it with "No True Conservative would willingly live in a big city" or "you’re ignoring Tocqueville."

As far as I’m concerned, conservatism is epistemically humble and therefore more cultural than ideological.

But the VDH approach is common enough, as are innumerable others, that the name "conservative" has become virtually useless.

Goodness, gracious!

> “Can’t anybody here play this game?” comes to mind when I read about Congress and the debt ceiling hassle and the Republicans’ aversion to talking about climate change even as the reality of it is rather clear and auto manufacturers are planning for electric car production, but Republicans are satisfied with a policy of denial. This is not intelligent but they believe it’s a winning strategy. Goodness gracious. Who are these people? What game are we playing?

Garrison Keillor, ‌A few beams of light on our current situation

Thoughtcrime in America

> You may disagree with parents like me who do not want our children indoctrinated with Critical Race Theory, masked during recess, or told that their biological sex is is not real. But in a free society, we don’t call the feds to police our fellow Americans because we don’t share their politics.

Maud Maron, ‌Why Are Moms Like Me Being Called Domestic Terrorists?

The other side

I detested and still detest Donald Trump. But I’m not positive I’ve counterbalanced against his unhinged narcissism (and all its corrolaries) the Democrats’ 2016 and following dirty tricks. This Holman Jenkins column helps.

National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty, responding to nonsense from formerly-respected Roger Kimball, sounds off, too:

> Nearly everything Kimball says about the ongoing resistance to Trump is true. It was meretricious, hysterical, and dangerous. Even before Trump won the election, I predicted the unprecedented subterfuge that would probably be aimed at him if he won the presidency. We saw the deep state as it really is: an ongoing class warfare against the democratic peoples and their representatives whose disruptions provide accountability. No one has to coordinate 50 former intelligence agents to issue a statement denouncing the New York Post’s Hunter Biden scoop as probable Russian disinformation, justifying suppression of the story just days before the election. The deep-staters know how to do it. > > … > > We can all throw Trump the biggest pity party in history about the subterfuge he faced within the executive branch. He didn’t have the guts to clean house and make the government employees do their jobs. In other words, he didn’t do the job he was elected to do. For a president to take control of the executive branch, he must  hire people he can trust to run one of the largest organizations on earth. Trump couldn’t or wouldn’t. Every account of the Trump White House’s operation tells us that Trump trusted and respected no one who didn’t have the last name Trump or Kushner. What his actions leading up to January 6 show us is that he didn’t respect his followers, either.

Michael Brendan Dougherty, ‌January 6 Was No Hoax, Trump Abused Supporters’ Trust

Like Dougherty, I refuse to valorize either toxic narcissist Donald Trump or the "meretricious, hysterical, and dangerous" resistance. (I confess that I was slow to recognize the latter, so dangerous did I consider the former.)

Reality Check

> (Here’s a fun tip for you all: if you have the power to get someone fired or otherwise ruin their life you are not a powerless, marginalized Other.)

Freddie DeBoer

Freddie’s ability to see through cant is why I pay to read his Substack posts. A couple of others I apparently prepaid (for a year) have become annoying noise (I’ve told my computer to put them more or less out of sight.)

Another Substack

> If you come here to take in my slant on the world, wherever that leads, you’re in the right place. If you come here to watch me own the libs, you’ll probably be disappointed. I’ll rent them on occasion, as the spirit moves. Yet I’m a firm believer that if you only find the other guy’s side to be full of con artists, chiselers, and demagogues, you’re not paying close enough attention to your own.

Matt Labash, introducing his new Substack, Slack Tide.

I’m not familiar with Labash, but I’m told he’s really good.


You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

… not we ourselves

The project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story. Such a story is called a story of freedom – institutionalized economically as capitalism and politically as democracy. That story, and the institutions that embody it, is the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching. 

(Stanley Hauerwas, “Sanctify Them in the Truth,” 197-198.)

I’ve got to read some Hauerwas, as he was mentor, and continues powerfully to influence, Fr. Stephen Freeman, who so far has blogged twice on this block quote.

Lest you think that Hauerwas is making things up, check out these examples from the opening paragraph of The Dangerous Idea that Life is a Story:

  • “Each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’. This narrative is us.” (Oliver Sacks)
  • “Self is a perpetually rewritten story. In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we ‘tell about’ our lives.” (American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner)
  • “We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.” (American psychologist Dan P McAdams)
  • “We invent ourselves … but we really are the characters we invent.” (American moral philosopher J David Velleman)
  • “We are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour … and we always put the best ‘faces’ on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.” (Daniel Dennett)

Au contraire:

Know ye that the Lord, He is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Psalm 100:3

Fr. Stephen’s second blog particularly “got me,” echoing as it does the old observation, now apparently thought as extinct as the Dodo, that we are who we are at least partly by “status, not contract.” By missing that, the narrativists miss as much or more than anyone so clueless as to deny that we (moderns?) do tend to tell self-narratives.

Autonomy, being “self-ruled,” is the heart of our contemporary delusion. We have seen this taken to extremes in the recent past. Fundamental givens in life, such as gender and race, are now seen by some as subject to choice. Self-definition (“how I identify”) has become the latest demand in the Modern Project.

This is an extreme example of Hauerwas’ statement that modernity wants to produce people “who believe they should have no story.” Everyone is his own author, writing the tale of his life in living free verse. It also means that modern people are always on the edge of meaninglessness …

Givenness is both at the heart of reality and at the heart of the Orthodox Christian faith. It is at the heart of reality: we do not bring ourselves into existence. Just as our life is a gift, our body is a gift, so our meaning and place in the world are a gift. In none of these things are we self-created.

It is at the heart of our faith: the spiritual expression of embracing the givenness of life is thanksgiving. All that we have, we have received as a gift. The right response to a gift is to give thanks. Everything else is a hardening of the heart.

I suspect that “self-narrative” may be part of the logismoi the Holy Fathers warned against. It certainly seems to partake of nominalism versus Christian realism.

I can commend no better Sunday reading than You Don’t Mean a Thing and A Purpose-filled life.

Let’s throw in If It Makes You Happy, too:

In 1998, my family and I were received into the Orthodox Church. I had served as an Episcopal clergyman for 18 years prior to that. I left a large parish with a wonderful staff and tremendous programs. I took up the work of starting an Orthodox mission. Of course, such a life-change creates awkward moments for your friends, colleagues, and former parishioners. What do you say to someone who just chucked a career to start a mission in a warehouse? Perhaps the common expression, typically American, was, “I’m glad you’re doing what makes you happy.” It would have also been beyond awkward had I responded by telling the truth: “Actually, it makes me miserable.” And the difference between their thoughts and mine, their actions and mine, is all the difference in the world. It was a difference that was at the heart of my conversion and it separates Orthodoxy from the modern world …

[Y]ou do such a thing if you believe it is the truth and that choosing such a path sets your feet on the road to salvation. You do such a thing if you believe that other paths are the way of destruction and that, no matter how much pleasure they might bring, they are to be abandoned sooner rather than later …

To be a Jew in a room full of Nazis who are free to choose is not good news. America’s founding fathers were closer to classical Christian civilization than we are. A number of them knew that democracy was never any safer than the character of the people it served. If the people become vicious (governed by vice), then the Republic will become a vicious state. However, their experiment in creating a new civilization failed to institutionalize the making of virtue. In time, the laissez faire approach to character has proven itself to be a failure.

The same approach has come to be adopted within modern Christianity. Faith is now seen as a choice to believe, made by free persons. The assumption is that, given sufficient and accurate information, people will choose well and rightly. A primary sacrament of this flawed theology is adult-only baptism. Infants are not able to choose and are therefore disqualified from Baptism. The presumption is that somehow, a person will become an adult and freely choose to follow the right way. No other civilization in history has made such a foolish gamble with their children ….

* * * * *

Theosis goes far beyond the simple restoration of people to their state before the Fall. Because Christ united the human and divine natures in his person, it is now possible for us to experience closer fellowship with God than Adam and Eve initially experienced in the Garden of Eden. Some Orthodox theologians go so far as to say that Jesus would have become incarnate for this reason alone, even if Adam and Eve had never sinned.

(Abbot Tryphon)

* * * * *

“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Meaning as a matter of adjacent data

I recently bought a book of essays by E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web and co-author of the perennial Elements of Style. It is, as of now, unread. White reportedly is a fabulous essayist – which these days may seem the equivalent of being first runnerup in the local hula hoop competition since, unnoticed by me, all the cool kids apparently have wandered off to read fiction.

But my preference for nonfiction over fiction finds a little vindication in this book review at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Excerpt:

David Shields’s punchy manifesto in defense of documentary creativity—against what he sees as the novel’s anemic anachronism—takes in a wider sweep of contemporary reality genres, from the memoir and lyric essay to cinéma vérité, karaoke, hip-hop, and Project Runway … The novel of plot and character, by his lights, is an inherently nostalgic form, a Victorian holdover inadequate to the imaginative challenges our zeitgeist poses.

… Shields is a flamboyant aphorist. He has assembled a montage manifesto from 618 epigrams, assertions, and sound bites, ranging in length from three words to one paragraph … we live in an age of “continuous partial attention.” … Ours is an age of opinionated inattentiveness and, as such, an age for which the aphorism is ideal. That instinct underlies Reality Hunger‘s episodic design: The units of thought are so small that you can start the book anywhere. Yet, en masse, Shields’s aphoristic shards create a comprehensive argument against the novel’s superiority and in favor of nonfictional creativity …

…Crucially, Shields has the brio to create convincing bridges among his plunderings.

As in:

“The life span of the fact is shrinking: I don’t think there’s time to save it.”

“Memory: the past rewritten in the direction of feeling.”

“Everything I write, I believe instinctively, is to some extent collage. Meaning ultimately is a matter of adjacent data.”

“Genre is a minimum-security prison.”

Meaning as “a matter of adjacent data.” I can relate to that. In a sense, it’s the motif of this blog.