Friday, 7/22/22

France has a culture, and cares about it

The French, however, are more culturist than racist in any strict sense. They have accepted black Africans who speak perfect French in their legislature but they do not accept Muslim girls who wear headscarves in their schools. In 1990, 76 percent of the French public thought there were too many Arabs in France, 46 percent too many blacks, 40 percent too many Asians, and 24 percent too many Jews.

Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

I ignored this important book for maybe 20 years. Then it sat unread in my Kindle for years after I bought it.

Don’t be like me. Huntington’s theory explains a lot.

How Shakespeare transformed tragedy

In Shakespeare, tragedy is no longer the result of a fatal flaw or error: time and again it lies in a clash between two ways of being in the world or looking at the world, neither of which has to be mistaken. In Shakespeare tragedy is in fact the result of the coming together of opposites.

Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, Kindle Location 9415.

I bought and read this book soon after hearing of it. McGilchrist writes well enough to sort out left brain versus right brain and to complicate the simplistic versions I’d heard. I guess it’s sort of brain science meets Jonathan Haidt.

Resolved:

If Joe Biden’s approval ratings weren’t in the tank, nobody would have jumped on Jill Biden for her anodyne-if-goofy tacos quip.

Students today

What I say to students is, you are not unhealthy people in a normal world, despite these statistics that show how anxious, lonely, and depressed young adults are. What you are is normal people in an unhealthy world. It’s not healthy to be anxious, lonely, and depressed, but it is a natural response to a world that is not asking you to become anything, and is not giving you confidence that you can overcome difficulty — one that’s dissociating the different parts of you, compelling you to spend a good part of your time with your body disengaged and your mind occupied. It’s totally understandable that our young people are experiencing such distress, because the world we’re asking them to live in — this world of easy everywhere — this world of superpowers, is not good for them. It would be very odd if, in this world, people were doing just fine. It’s not at all surprising that they’re struggling and feeling disconnected.

Andy Crouch via Alan Jacobs.

Professor Jacobs adds his postscript:

You can be almost certain that people who sneer with ready contempt at today’s college students don’t spend much time around them. Our young people have been given a raw deal, and most of them play it better than we have any right to expect. And the ones who don’t? They’re twenty years old. How put-together were you at age twenty?

They were wrong

The New York Times asked eight columnists to fess up and reflect on when and how they’d been wrong. (Yeah, yeah, yeah; some conservatives think the Times is all wrong, all the time. I get it.) I excerpt a few.

… about Capitalism

In the early 1990s, The [Wall Street] Journal sent me on many reporting trips to the U.S.S.R. and, later, Russia, and everything that was uncool in New York was cool in Moscow, so to be a right-wing editorial writer was to be cutting-edge and hip. I paid close attention to all the privatization plans that were floating around. If state property could be distributed to the masses, then a new capitalist Russia could be born.

I saw but did not see the enormous amount of corruption that was going on. I saw but did not see that property rights alone do not spontaneously make a decent society. The primary problem in all societies is order — moral, legal and social order. It took me a while to see that what Russia really needed was not privatization first, but law and order first.

By the time I came to this [New York Times] job, in 2003, I was having qualms about the free-market education I’d received — but not fast enough. It took me a while to see that the postindustrial capitalism machine — while innovative, dynamic and wonderful in many respects — had some fundamental flaws. The most educated Americans were amassing more and more wealth, dominating the best living areas, pouring advantages into their kids. A highly unequal caste system was forming. …

David Brooks, I Was Wrong About Capitalism

… about Mitt Romney

The campaign was extremely boring, and I really did have to stretch to find some fun ways to approach it …

The story about the dog on the roof came from a Boston Globe profile in which his son told a reporter about the time their pet pooped from his perch and messed up the car’s rear window.

Romney is now in the Senate, where he was the only Republican who voted to remove Trump from office during both of his impeachments and, recently, was the only Republican to vote against repealing Joe Biden’s mask mandate.

He also, of course, supports Mitch McConnell and his party’s agenda. If you don’t agree with that, it’s hard to get all that nostalgic about what might have been. But the one lesson I take away from my Seamus period is that there are some things that are way worse than boring.

Gail Collins, I Was Wrong About Mitt Romney (and His Dog)

… about Trump voters, 2016

What Trump’s supporters saw was a candidate whose entire being was a proudly raised middle finger at a self-satisfied elite that had produced a failing status quo.

I was blind to this … I belonged to a social class that my friend Peggy Noonan called “the protected.” My family lived in a safe and pleasant neighborhood. Our kids went to an excellent public school. I was well paid, fully insured, insulated against life’s harsh edges.

Trump’s appeal, according to Noonan, was largely to people she called “the unprotected.” Their neighborhoods weren’t so safe and pleasant. Their schools weren’t so excellent. Their livelihoods weren’t so secure. Their experience of America was often one of cultural and economic decline, sometimes felt in the most personal of ways.

It was an experience compounded by the insult of being treated as losers and racists —clinging, in Obama’s notorious 2008 phrase, to “guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”

No wonder they were angry.

Bret Stephens, I Was Wrong About Trump Voters

Wordplay

  1. TQIA++ nutters — (From Andrew Sullivan)

This appears to refer to people who can’t seem to help noticing the differences between LGB and the ever-expanding suffix.

Katie Herzog tacitly recognizes the the reflex to conflate different, um, sexual minorities:

“I heard on NPR that monkeypox is disproportionately impacting the ‘LGBTQ community’ but I’m pretty sure the population of lesbians who frequent bathhouses is approximately zero. … just as we are for all STIs besides bed death,” – Katie Herzog.

I’d never heard of "bed death." Turns out she’s alluding to this:

  1. Lesbian Bed Death (or LBD) is altogether more pedestrian than it first seems. Originally coined by sexologists Pepper Schwartz and Phillip Blumstein in their 1983 book American Couples, it boils down to the idea that lesbians and queer womxn in monogamous, longterm relationships are basically friends without the benefits and are having less sex than any other type of couple.

Hannah Ewens, Daisy Jones, Lesbian Bed Death: What Is It and Does It Even Exist? (all idiosyncratic spellings in original)

  1. The reflex to conflate incommensurables as "the LGBTQ community" reminds me of my former Calvinist denomination, whose magazine referred to individuals who weren’t standard-issue Dutch or Dutch descendants as "multi-ethnic" even if they were, to use the trope, black as the ace of spades.

Inability to distinguish the easily-distinguishable is sad.

  1. As much as Paris stimulated him, he always dreaded his return to Berlin, that ‘dancing carnivalesque necropolis’.

Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (emphasis added)

  1. Word of the Week: post-quantum cryptography, new encryption mathematics that outpaces the capabilities even of quantum computers. Read the full article. (From the Economist)

If people have always said it, it is probably true; it is the distilled wisdom of the ages. If people have not always said it, but everybody is saying it now, it is probably a lie; it is the concentrated madness of the moment.

Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff here (cathartic venting) and here (the only social medium I frequent, because people there are quirky, pleasant and real). Both should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly or Reeder, should you want to make a habit of it.

Potpourri, 11/15/18

1

I never really kissed dating goodbye as a teenager in the mid-2000s — to be honest, I was pretty late in kissing it hello. But like many who were brought up in contact with evangelical culture, I absorbed its tenets almost by osmosis even though I never even read the whole book. Falling in love means sharing a piece of your heart that you’ll never get back. Sex is a slippery slope, generally with disaster at the bottom. Hard decisions could be boiled down to one rule: Keep it chaste. Do things right, though, and you’ll get the reward you deserve. Follow the instructions: results guaranteed.

Christine Emba.

It’s the promise of a fairy tale ending that offends me. Evangelicals lack any tragic sense of life. (Just “pray away the gay,” for instance.)

Or maybe that absence of tragic sense is a besetting American sin. More Emba:

In essence, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and its (inevitable, if you think about it) fall represent a mind-set prominent in evangelical culture, but also in American society more broadly.

We insist that meritocracy works and combine it with a valorization of hard work (which itself stems from our country’s majority-Protestant roots). To maintain the story that success is accessible to all, we’ve developed a tendency to seek out and elevate simplistic formulas that we hope come with guarantees. Stay pure until marriage, and your marriage will flourish. Follow the “success sequence,” and you’ll never be poor. Go to the right school, and all career doors will open. Elect the right candidate, and America will be great once more.

But the dark side of all this is that when the formulas fail — as they so often do — it’s you who must have done something wrong. And then it’s up to you to fix it on your own. Bad marriage? You must have screwed around as a teen. Still in public housing? Should have gotten a better job. The if/then mind-set doesn’t take into account how much is actually out of our personal control, or the systemic forces — race, class, family history — that might hold someone back.

It is difficult to counter such an ingrained — and easy — habit of thought. But give him credit: In reevaluating “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” Harris is modeling one way of doing so — he’s admitting to complexity and engaging directly with others, rather than sending down recommendations from above. Alas, even this admirable attempt won’t undo the harms that his formula caused in the first place.

But let the implosion of a cultural touchstone like “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” serve as a lesson, or at least a warning. The next time we’re tempted toward too-formulaic thinking, we’ll know to take it with a grain of salt. After all, life is rarely so pure.

2

Once upon a time, Protestant congregations had pulpits. This was a form of church furniture, a glorified lectern as it where, behind which pastors read the text for their sermon and preached it to boot. Today, contemporary design of church buildings makes little of fixed places for anyone participating in worship, except for the drummer who may be quarantined in a drum shield.

… as ministers of God’s word, pastors’ actions, including their feet, while communicating a message of such great moment should encourage the idea of permanence. That is one reason for having a pulpit with serious heft. It symbolizes that what goes on in this space is of great significance and enduring value (though some look so permanent that even the coming of the New Heavens and the New Earth will not unsettle them).

The permanence of the word preached is also a reason for ministers to stay in the pocket behind the pulpit and not move around. At best, happy feet is a distraction that calls more attention to the man than his message. At worst, they invite liturgical dance. So if the argument from permanence does not help, maybe the thought of overweight men and women in leotards will assist pastors (some on the rotund side themselves) keep both feet firmly planted behind their congregation’s ample pulpit.

D.G. Hart

3

[S]cientists are … making declarations ex cathedra — as a direct result of intellectual movements that began in humanities scholarship twenty-five years ago.

So for those of you who think that the humanities are marginal and irrelevant, put that in your mental pipe and contemplatively smoke it for a while.

Many years ago the great American poet Richard Wilbur wrote a poem called “Shame,” in which he imagined “a cramped little state with no foreign policy, / Save to be thought inoffensive.”

Sheep are the national product. The faint inscription
Over the city gates may perhaps be rendered,
“I’m afraid you won’t find much of interest here.”

The people of this nation could not be more overt in their humility, their irrelevance, their powerlessness. But …

Their complete negligence is reserved, however,
For the hoped-for invasion, at which time the happy people
(Sniggering, ruddily naked, and shamelessly drunk)
Will stun the foe by their overwhelming submission,
Corrupt the generals, infiltrate the staff,
Usurp the throne, proclaim themselves to be sun-gods,
And bring about the collapse of the whole empire.

Alan Jacobs, the imminent collapse of an empire

4

[W]hen you are told endlessly that there is no meaning to existence, then guess what? You actually start to think that way. And then everything loses its flavor. Everything starts to taste like rice cakes.

… [Y]ou cannot have it both ways. You cannot bleach divinity and Transcendence out of the cosmos and tell everyone that the whole affair is just an aimless and pointless accident, and then turn around and talk to us about the “moral necessity” of this or that urgent social cause.

Larry Chapp via Rod Dreher.

5

From before the election, but when I was otherwise occupied:

Trumpism … is the new normal. It is not going away. And there is no going back. The challenge for the center-right and center-left across the West is to accommodate this new normal in ways that do not empower authoritarianism, provoke constitutional unraveling, or incite civil unrest. And it seems to me that the lesson of the last two years is that the Republican Party is unable and unwilling to perform that function. It has turned itself into a cult behind a figure hostile to liberal democratic norms, responsible government, and any notion of moderation. It is less a political party than a mass movement sustained by shame-free, mendacious propaganda around a man whose articulated values place him more in the company of Putin and Duterte than Merkel and Macron.

The GOP cannot be talked out of their surrender to this strongman. With each rhetorical or policy atrocity, they have attached themselves more firmly to him. The dissenters are leaving; the new members of Congress will be even Trumpier than the old. They have abandoned any serious oversight role. Their singular achievement has been supplying judicial ranks who will not stand in the way of executive power. That was the real issue in the Kavanaugh nomination, as Newt Gingrich blurted out last week. A subpoena for the president from the special counsel would be fought, he promised, all the way to the Supreme Court, which is when we would see “whether or not the Kavanaugh fight was worth it.” This is a party bent on enabling authoritarianism, not restraining it.

That’s why I will vote Democrat next Tuesday. I have many issues with the Democrats, as regular readers well know. None of that matters compared with this emergency. I don’t care, in this instance, what their policies are. I am going to vote for them. I can’t stand most of their leaders and fear their radical fringe. I am going to vote for them anyway. Because it is the only responsible thing there is to do.

The Italian leftist, Antonio Gramsci, famously wrote, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” We live in such a time, and we have in front of us one of those morbid symptoms: the current Republican Party. You know what to do.

Andrew Sullivan.

Or as William Blake put it:

what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I’m not at all certain that “judicial ranks … will not stand in the way of executive power” or that such was the aim of confirming them, but Sullivan otherwise is right about the abasement of the GOP, and the House has indeed flipped to the Democrats.

I wrote last week that the midterms would finally tell us what this country now is. And with a remarkable turnout — a 50-year high for a non- presidential election, no less — we did indeed learn something solid and eye-opening. We learned that the American public as a whole has reacted to the first two years of an unfit, delusional, mendacious, malevolent, incompetent authoritarian as president … with relative equanimity. The net backlash is milder than it was against Clinton or Obama (and both of them went on to win reelection).

What I take from this is that Trump really does have a cultlike grip on a whole new population of voters, as well as the reliable Republican voters of the past. That’s not just 42 percent of the country (to use Trump’s approval rating); it’s a motivated 42 percent. And what Trump has successfully done, by corralling right-wing media, tweeting incessantly, dominating the discourse, tending so diligently to his base, and holding rally after rally, is keep that engagement going. Most presidents are interested in governing and sometimes take their eye off the ball politically. Trump is all politics and all salesmanship all the time. And it works. If he can demonstrate this in the midterms, imagine what his reelection campaign will be like.

I’ve been razzed a little for using the term “existential threat” to describe Trump two and a half years ago. But I used it in a specific context: He was and remains such a threat to liberal democracy. Not democracy as a whole. Strongmen can win election after election with big majorities without rigging the vote. A single political party can co-opt the judiciary, or capture the Senate, by democratic means, for illiberal ends. I mean by liberal democracy one in which pluralism is celebrated, power is widely distributed, justice is dispensed without regard to politics, the press is free and respected, minorities protected, and where an opposition has a chance to win real, governing power. The space for this in America has significantly shrunk these past two years and this election has only consolidated that new status quo.

Andrew Sullivan

I’ve detested the Republican party long enough now that my reflex to cringe at Democrat victories passes very quickly, replaced by a resigned feeling of “we are soooooo screwed!” — no matter which major party wins.

6

When you obsess about a problem, you have less energy and passion to pursue solutions. When you fret over every outrage, you elevate those outrages. Stories trend because consumers engage with them, clicking and sharing them, not because the news media dictates that they trend.

I think it would be a solid and beneficial step for us all to simply come to the realizations: Trump is going to Trump. He’s going to lie. He’s going to wink at the racists and Nazis. He’s going to demean women. He’s going to embarrass this country. It’s all going to happen.

Nevertheless, we can take this stand unequivocally: It is all unacceptable and we stand in opposition to it. It is not normal and must never be met as such.

But we must also focus on the future.

Charles Blow

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Long wars and democracy

“Long wars are antithetical to democracy.” So opens a Washington Post op-ed column by Andrew J. Bacevich. “Events of the past week — notably the Rolling Stone profile that led to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s dismissal — hint at the toll that nearly a decade of continuous conflict has exacted on the U.S. armed forces. The fate of any one general qualifies as small beer: Wearing four stars does not signify indispensability. But indications that the military’s professional ethic is eroding, evident in the disrespect for senior civilians expressed by McChrystal and his inner circle, should set off alarms.”

General McChrystal’s Rolling Stone interview ranks right down there with Jimmy Carter’s Playboy interview in the annals of stupid decisions by public people who should have known better. He couldn’t keep them from profiling him, but he didn’t have to sit down for an interview, accompanied by  Aides full of adolescent smartassness. For his lapse in judgment, we’d owe him a great debt of gratitude — if only it would cause us to abandon the aspiration to empire.

The problem, Bacevich suggests, goes back to the abandonment of a “citizen army” (i.e., the draft) in favor of a standing army of careerists, led by outstanding high officers but (and here Bacevich barely hints — I think he understands it, but it was beyond his scope) staffed by cannon fodder — young men and women appreciably poorer and darker-skinned than the sorts of people who by and large run the government and those institutions that might hold government accountable. Men and women who, we can tell ourselves, knew what they were getting into.

The big fib of the week?

“Americans don’t flinch in the face of difficult truths.” [Barak Obama] In fact, when it comes to war, the American people avert their eyes from difficult truths. Largely unaffected by events in Afghanistan and Iraq and preoccupied with problems much closer to home, they have demonstrated a fine ability to tune out war. Soldiers (and their families) are left holding the bag.

Throughout history, circumstances such as these have bred praetorianism, warriors becoming enamored with their moral superiority and impatient with the failings of those they are charged to defend. The smug disdain for high-ranking civilians casually expressed by McChrystal and his chief lieutenants — along with the conviction that “Team America,” as these officers style themselves, was bravely holding out against a sea of stupidity and corruption — suggests that the officer corps of the United States is not immune to this affliction.

In the all-volunteer Army, the military-industrial complex has found its perfect instrument. There’s no need for a frank military coup; we already have a covert military-industrial coup.

I’m no fan of conspiracy theories. No doubt there are connivers in the world, but I believe much less in the efficacy of conspiracy than of tragedy: the inexorable outworking of fatal flaws in a generally admirable protagonist; or metaphorically, the eventual expression of a fatal “genetic” flaw in every single regime in our world-gone-mutant.

Americans might do well to contemplate a famous warning issued by another frustrated commander from a much earlier age.

“We had been told, on leaving our native soil,” wrote the centurion Marcus Flavius to a cousin back in Rome, “that we were going to defend the sacred rights conferred on us by so many of our citizens [and to aid] populations in need of our assistance and our civilization.” For such a cause, he and his comrades had willingly offered to “shed our quota of blood, to sacrifice our youth and our hopes.” Yet the news from the homeland was disconcerting: The capital was seemingly rife with factions, treachery and petty politics. “Make haste,” Marcus Flavius continued, “and tell me that our fellow citizens understand us, support us and protect us as we ourselves are protecting the glory of the empire.”

“If it should be otherwise, if we should have to leave our bleached bones on these desert sands in vain, then beware of the anger of the legions!”

(Emphasis added) Thank you, Professor Bacevich. If we manage to disenthrall ourselves long enough to notice when our greatness is all gone, we won’t be able to say nobody told us.

And thank you, Washington Post. This is the kind of real conservativism that the idjits at TownHall.com will never publicize. (They’re saying things like we should “fire Obama” — as if that would solve the problem.)