In the second ever post on this blog, I tried to distinguish between an embrace of a reactionary worldview and pursuing reactionary politics. I am sympathetic to some reactionary politics, and almost always find something of value in its critique of modernity. Whenever I encounter reactionary politics in the wild though, it manifests as cruelty and nonsense.
The most obvious example I can think of is President Trump's language. Many supporters of the president, some online and others in personal conversation with me, have said that the President's loose speech and refusal to abide by polite standards of communication are a victory for the forces of anti-PC in the culture war. While admitting I occasionally take a sort of sick pleasure in the President's transgressions against the scolds, I don't think anyone really believes he is going to change the trajectory of the culture. If anything, Trump is the kind of offensive boogeyman I would've argued would never emerge to more liberal friends who support informal but restrictive speech codes. Intensifying a conflict is not the same thing as winning a battle, and Trump has only raised the stakes in our debates over language. I think the speech-policing side of this cultural argument is likely to lose in the long-run because its requirements are too burdensome. Trump, while an enjoyable spectacle for the anti-PC crowd, has likely delayed their inevitable victory by rallying the forces of censure.
Again, I'm not sure anyone really believed Trump would change language, but by now it should be obvious to everyone that running the country has limited impact on the direction of the culture. If anything, Republican presidencies (or control of Congress) have the tendency to produce only moderate gains for conservatives in political terms, while accelerating progressive movements in the culture. The sense of menace they create for a number of minority groups, fair or unfair, galvanize all the self-elected cultural gatekeepers who believe the public needs to be spoon-fed particular ideas about gender, race or religion. Trump can't change that, and honestly he doesn't want to. The binary works for him as well. If the press stopped being insane, what would animate his rallies?
I thought of all this while following an unfortunate story from a place I used to live. One of the most popular bands in the Middle East, the Lebanese group Mashrou' Leila (meaning overnight project or Leila's project) has been taken off the roster of a Byblos music festival because the lead singer is openly gay. Interestingly, and I think because of the festival's location in the historically Christian town of Byblos, it was Christian (as opposed to Muslim) groups that objected to the group's inclusion in the lineup. The music festival justified the group's exclusion as the only means to "prevent bloodshed" given the large number of violent threats directed at the band. Local MP's, in the typical fashion of Lebanese politics, displayed cowardice, ignorance and incompetence, only commenting on the matter at the 11th hour to say that gay people really should stay out of the public square.
There are a number of issues with the way this has played out that I think show the wrong-headedness of a certain kind of reactionary politics. First of all, there is the laughable issue of Lebanon's sexual morality. Lebanon is not Saudi Arabia, one of their most famous musicians is the kind of surgically altered monster that makes the Kardashian's approach to the knife look subtle and restrained. Brothels are shamefully ubiquitous across Lebanon, seemingly the result of a bustling trafficking industry, and distressingly for Christians, these so-called "super night clubs" are almost always in Christian areas/neighborhoods." In other words, Lebanon is already a sexually modern place, and Christians have played a significant role in making it so.
Lebanon is also mostly on-board with a number of other modern projects. Just because your secular democracy regularly features the election of religious zealots does not make a country a theocracy, and Lebanon's television, print media and broader cultural output are decidedly modern. This is why it is so irksome to see particular venom reserved for gay people. Lebanon, perhaps unfortunately, has already surrendered to the global sexual revolution. In Beirut, one-night stands are common, you can be drunk in the street and women dress as scantily as anywhere in the West. This has all taken place with some objection from cultural conservatives in the country, but in general, they keep it to themselves and police their own communities because they know they don't have the social or political power to create a Taliban for downtown Beirut. The gays though, they wonder, might be small enough to push around.
And this is how religion comes to look small and backward. In every sense, Lebanon has given itself over to the modern world, and religious conservatives are not even effectively resisting this tendency in their own lives. Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims in Lebanon shop at malls, vote in secular elections and probably watch pornography. None of this would be a problem, except they've decided, as have many countries with strong religious traditions, that tolerance of homosexuality is the hill to die on.
Objection to homosexuality is the most dangerous and hypocritical of spaces for religious conservatives to make their stand. To be clear, I am not saying that religions should alter their doctrines on the issue, simply that in an age where Christians all around the world have let rules slide pertaining to contraception, infidelity and divorce, it is insane to single out gay people for moral censure. Beirut is an international city, and its children have friends on multiple continents, speak various languages and consume culture from all over the world. If one of those children is gay, any attempt to restrict their life will not de-familiarize them with the international LGBT movement. You might, on the other hand, ensure that all gay people in Lebanon become atheists.
"The fact that there is a game about collecting children, by a known pedophile, and that that we can still play it in an arcade says something really profound about ourselves, our culture and capitalism." Heather Anne Campbell on the How Did This Get Played podcast discussing Michael Jackson's Moonwalker game.
The fringes of both parties now welcome anti-capitalist arguments for the first time in my life. In this political framework, the question is not whether the government should run-up crazy deficits, or whether the administrative state should continue to grow, but rather where these resources should be allocated. The optimistic conservative version of this story is, look the government can be effective at addressing some problems, and we fail our voters by abandoning the public service game altogether. The cynical version represents a more political calculus: although public welfare isn't effective, and government efforts usually don't produce positive results, government spending is nevertheless interpreted as 'care' by voters. In other words, it doesn't matter if affirmative action succeeds in creating a black middle class, whether it does or doesn't, some percentage of the white working class will view the policy with jealousy and resentment. To keep said voters, you will have to offer them their own place at the public trough.
Whatever I think of these policies, I understand and approve of the turn against elites even as I think the elite policy consensus is often accurate. Accuracy doesn't matter. Democracy is about consensus-building and inclusion. Monetary policy that is alienating and grows the GDP by shipping manufacturing overseas is an economic success and a political and social failure. Even while I am happy that the more extreme wings of both parties are more upset with capitalism than at any other point in my lifetime, I think we need to be specific about what the word "capitalism" means.
First, I will offer a simpler linguistic example and then compare it to the case of "capitalism." I was taught as a lad that the term "Zionism" meant the belief that Jews should have a national homeland to provide safety from the various other humans that consistently wanted them dead since time immemorial. I subscribe to this belief. However, it has become clear to me that to refer to oneself as a "Zionist" has far reaching implications beyond the simple definition I laid out above. Depending on who you're talking to, "Zionist" may be interpreted variously as an endorsement of the Netanyahu government, as an endorsement of settlements and or an endorsement of a maximalist one state solution in which Palestinians are permanent second-class citizens. I don't endorse any of those things, and although I don't think any one of those concepts should be inferred from the moniker "Zionist," I have nevertheless been cowed and won't use the word anymore.
Similarly, 'capitalism' seems to have become a catch-all for anything about our culture we don't like. I'm not sure those who criticize capitalism understand that the thrust of their argument, to critique an aspect of American culture and then lazily say capitalism is the cause, implies that capitalism has deterministic cultural effects. In other words, our culture is exactly as greedy as it is capitalist, and you can not change the former except via the latter.
Let's refer to the quotation above as an example of the phenomenon (Heather Anne Campbell is great btw and I don't mean to pick on her it was just an interesting example of usage.) Campbell is basically saying that because of a combination of celebrity worship and indifference to immorality , we are willing to tolerate a game that celebrates a pedophile even as the game itself appears to contain evidence of Michael Jackson's crimes. In this view, we are incapable of responding with appropriate moral horror because...free markets?
To steel-man Campbell's argument, let's consider the case for capitalism as a deterministic force in creating shallow culture. Capitalism has a certain logic and set of incentives, those incentives promote the development of both tolerance for greed and celebrity-fetish culture. These two cultural traits then combine to create an environment where someone like MJ or Weinstein can abuse in plane sight as long as they are profitable and represent success within a capitalist paradigm.
What then accounts for the sudden zeal with which we are toppling such men? Did we become markedly less capitalist in the months before #MeToo took flight, or was it a rare confluence of events that allowed non-capitalist actors to temporarily subvert the system? It seems to me there were major capitalist incentives to expose these people, i.e. selling advertising on news sites. Furthermore, the networks of elites that protected these men were not always obviously doing so to protect a cash cow. Sometimes it was just because of long friendship and association with the scumbag. No one can argue against the proposition that powerful people use money to their advantage, but does capitalism make this pernicious advantage stronger? Does it make the powerful more powerful?
I don't think so. It is power itself that corrupts , not money, and non-capitalist societies tend to invest power in fewer hands than capitalist ones (thus creating a more powerful and corrupt set of elites). In weird ways, the left should embrace capitalism on anti-authoritarian grounds. A rich guy being friends with a politician is preferable to the rich guy and the politician BEING ONE PERSON. That is the alternative offered by history. In America, different rich people buy different politicians, and we hope that the little guys are occasionally well-organized enough to contend. The socialist solution is simply to invest ultimate social and political power in the hands of the cop or the bureaucrat, archetypes that are still loathed in America but de-fanged by their modest position in society. In other words, Soviet Russia probably had pedophile celebrities that we don't even know about because they were good at promoting the party line, and the social network that protected them had more of a monopoly on power than its capitalist equivalent.
Some anti-capitalists might look at the examples above and insist that each is either an indirect outcome of global capitalism, a lasting effect of colonialism (itself an aspect of capitalism they would say) or a sign of transitioning into capitalism. I could offer some counter-statistics here, but do I really need to establish that human frailty predates the Austrian school?
I would really prefer if people would criticize more specific aspects of our culture as opposed to the "capitalism" catch-all. Having to have the newest Iphone is an specific aspect of our consumer culture, not an inevitable outcome of free markets. Obsession with social status and physical beauty are problems as old as human beings, and amplified by new technologies but also not an inevitable outcome of free markets. The tolerance of immoral people who succeed in the economy would simply wear different clothes under a different system. You don't think there are pedophiles in the Chinese government, protected by the zeal and fervor with which they tout the party line? Profit is one of many motivations a person could use to justify selfish behavior, but maybe not the primary one. In America, drug companies conspire to get drugs to market early to start making money. In the Soviet Union, the same pressure to innovate was communicated via the stated desires of the party. If anything, the motivations in the Soviet Union were stronger, as failure could mean a bullet in the head, not just poverty. Even with these lethal stakes, the American version, for all its faults, created better medicine and no dead doctors.
The problem is not capitalism. The problem is us. Unless we start grappling with the degradation of our spiritual and social lives, we will remain materially greedy and emotionally impoverished. Electing a socialist won't turn us from assholes into good people, it will just imperil the value of our 401ks.
I was listening to the Audio Mullet Podcast recently, and they catalogued a list of scientists who embrace the possibility that we are living in a simulation. I had forgotten that Neil Degrasse Tyson, who has resisted other scientific horror stories like AI, also embraced the simulation hypothesis. The idea, which I think originates with Nick Bostrom, is that if intelligences are capable of creating realistic worlds, more and more realistic as time goes on, what would prevent them from creating a world indistinguishable from reality? If intelligences can create such a simulation, why would we believe we are living in the "base reality" as opposed to one of the theoretically infinite created or simulated universes.
This is a fun idea for a lot of reasons, and it's hard to argue with. The premise is fuzzy enough around the edges that you can't really grab hold of anything to rebut. It's particularly fun to me that a number of stridently atheist scientists have sort of backed themselves into an alternative theory of intelligent design. How the builders of the simulation would differ precisely from a vague notion of a deity is unclear. I suppose religions think their Gods should be worshipped, while scientists may imagine that the creative hand was a neutral or indifferent force. It also seems important to define reality and simulation in meaningful ways before speculating on which one we are in. I'm sure Bostrom could define the difference in mathematical language that I couldn't understand, but I also don't care. For me, any world or universe where people experience suffering is real enough, whether created by hyper-intelligent aliens or not.
But this is where the idea can become terrifying. If we imagine our existence was manufactured in a similar way to say, how Blizzard made Diablo 3, then our theologies could be correct, but in a very different way than we imagined. Perhaps, to see if they could make a religion catch on in their playpen reality, these brilliant aliens went into the code and made a burning bush appear to Moses and speak to him. Worse, if we were designing a game in which we believed the characters had no feelings, or at least not ones significant enough to care about, why not actually create simulation hells where dead characters can go? Some humans have worried that we will make machines conscious in a way that they might experience as painful. Did the same thing happen to us?
Iaian M Banks actually explored the idea of a simulated hell in his book "Surface Detail" from the excellent Culture sci-fi series. His rendering of the place is worthy of the terrifying idea. What comfort can I offer after suggesting that the worst thing imaginable could well be true, and that there's no real evidence against it (none for it either). Well, because I think it's stupid and the world is too beautiful. I can't really believe that a species designing a trivial game or an experiment could take the care they did with a tree or the oceans. If they did, maybe that means they love us and they are the God we have been worshipping.
The point, for me at least, is that science, shortly after it convinced itself it had killed God, proceeded to resurrect Him in a stupider form. As has become a consistent theme of late, science provided an explanation that made the world uglier and scarier, but was necessary to confront because, hey, it could be true. I think there are truths not worth knowing. If you are a Christian or a Muslim, the results of IQ tests by race or gender are irrelevant because God created each human being with a spark of the divine. They are God's children. The question isn't even worth asking. Sam Harris, the father of so many bad ideas, throws around the idea that there is no such thing as freewill, even while acknowledging that this conclusion is basically a social nuclear bomb. While acknowledging that culture and religion have been invoked to hamper important scientific progress in the past, one should not throw out the most basic underlying assumption of our legal system during an afternoon in the lab.
This is where the progs might be on to something with their whole 'lived experience' schtick. We don't have to submit to data or measurements unless we want to. We don't have to agree that it represents the optimal way to render our lives. So even if this is a simulation, let's all just keep playing like it matters.
Christ calls us to love our enemy. The internet calls us to out our friends for calling New Balance gay in the 90's. I would really like this blog to remain above the internet fray, and not go in for cheap take downs or even really any prolonged insults of famous people. Unfortunately, my disdain for Beto O'Rourke cannot be confined by the tenets of my faith or the physical laws of our universe. Seeing this took my breath away.
Far from identifying myself by my sexuality or complexion, I identify mostly as fat-American and lazy-American. Those are my tribes. As such, the idea of an employer, especially one who leads a frenetic and unsuccessful campaign, asking colleagues to participate in some sort of impromptu physical challenge outrages me. The internet version of me wants to say this anecdote reveals something deeper about Beto.
I'm not sure if the following speculative fiction is accurate, but it will be an account of why I suspect Beto may have done this. Basically, I think he's a fraud. I think our politics are full of frauds. So full, in fact, that we have separate archetypes for them. The homophobic GOP lawmaker who pays for a rent-boy's apartment might be the one people take the most joy in discovering (understandably). On the other hand, and I think as most liberals would admit, there are democratic politicians who are communist in the streets and fascist in the sheets. That is, their political ideology revolves around themes of fairness and justice while they run their personal lives and offices like the pettiest tyrant. What's worse about Beto is that I think he thinks this incident was an example of him being a 'fun boss.'
And maybe it was fun. Maybe if I knew the specific employees he had challenged, the culture of his campaign, or how his closest staff relate to him, I would know that this was an acceptable thing to do. Admittedly, I don't know any of that and the conclusions I've jumped to are the worst ones.
But one reason I'm unwilling to give Beto the benefit of the doubt is he is oblivious. His most essential personality trait is being ignorant of how ridiculous he is. We live in an era of unqualified politicians, but Barack Obama new that a short stint in the Senate was necessary before he could ride on rhetoric and intellectual brilliance alone. Flame-outs like Senator Marco Rubio, once a presumptive future president, show the wisdom of running for office earlier and earlier.
But Beto, perhaps seeing Trump's total non-experience in politics serve him as an asset, looked at his own nothing of a life and saw only opportunity. Beto became a congressman in 2013 at the age of 40 after unremarkable efforts in music and business. He became famous for losing an election to the most hated member of the Senate, Ted Cruz. Beto told new refugees taken in by the United States that this country is ruled by white supremacy, but if privilege had an avatar, it would have Beto O'Rourkes face. For someone to even attempt to make a career of being in a "post-harcore" band, you have to either be very brave or very unfamiliar with the concept of poverty. There is no evidence Beto is brave, but oh, did you know his in-laws might be billionaires?
Candidates like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are compelled to defend their place at the democratic nominee table given that they share so many characteristics with those who historically ruled America. They justify this place with a history of successful (debatable) political achievements in the case of Biden or lifetime commitment to an ideological project in the case of Sanders. Just how in the fuck does Beto believe he deserves a place at this table? Even if he didn't believe that white people should "get out of the way," his candidacy would be wholly unjustifiable on the merits.
If you are short and out of shape like me, it is helpful when you meet a taller, handsomer, more successful man if they act like the dickhead you imagine them to be. They work for JP Morgan, but they're more excited about the app they're working on with friends from Princeton, you know? What is infinitely worse is the tall, handsome man who has it all but also needs to be seen as kind, as intellectual, and most of all special. Having been the winning player of various genetic lotteries, men like Beto are not content to go through life using their physical status to attract women and money, they also need to invade the underground space of us Morlocks, and steal the things we treasure that aren't supposed to hold value in their world. In other words, they are the most selfish and needy people on earth.
This is all a little fictitious. Beto's handsomeness isn't that remarkable and we don't know how much money he has. I'm not that fat or short (sure, Evan), and tall people are not generally more obnoxious than anyone else. Still, I can't really fathom someone who looks like Beto and has lived Beto's life saying he can be the champion of the downtrodden with a straight-face. To do such a thing, you have to be at least two types of stupid. The first kind, the frat boy, wall street kind of ignorant stupidity we already addressed. The worse kind though is the stupidity of the guy who plays acoustic guitar at college parties or on the green. All this time, Beto's been fucking off height and money, but he thinks it's because of his deep lyrics. What a doofus.
"Want to be happy for an hour? Eat a steak. Want to be happy for a day? Play golf. Want to be happy for a week? Go on a cruise. Want to be happy for a month? Buy a new car. Want to be happy for a year? Win the lottery. Want to be happy for a lifetime? Win a championship." Coach Lou Holtz addressing the Texas Longhorns.
So after a post about how America is great, let's talk about how the world is terrible. Actually, I don't really believe that, and it's another kind of sentiment people express regularly that discourages me. What I do feel is that in certain important ways, the global family is headed in the wrong direction. The spread of liberal democracy and global culture, which I would concede seems preferable to more traditional cultures and systems of government, is inappropriately zealous in its insistence that the whole world conform. That is, I'm afraid that I might be living in the last generation (or two or three) where the world sustains thousands of distinct cultures and modes of organization that represent different values and ways of life. The way the liberal west explains its cultural colonialism to itself is that diversity is simply a matter of color. In this utopia we will be white and black and purple and atheist and Muslim, but also all democrats who celebrate homosexuality. I certainly have no issue with homosexuality, but the hairs on the back of my neck go up at the prospect of a sort of global civilizing mission where homophobic culture is rooted out, even in Amazon communities that may not be aware of the concept. It's also important to note, I'm incredibly sympathetic to gays or their allies who are terrified at the prospect of young gay people living in a society that hates them. I think my discomfort lies in the idea that any way of thinking, no mater how logically or morally justifiable, would become universal.
I'm sure some would say we are nowhere close to the unified global culture I'm afraid of, but I think we have technological prerequisites that mihjy make it inevitable. If America can be seen as a test case, it now seems like many of us were only able to tolerate one another because we were unaware of each other's beliefs. Politicians lied and effectively smoothed the edges around our political redlines, and we were happy in our ignorance. Now, technology has made every man a pundit, and every other man disgusted at his punditry. I cross my fingers that the current level of anger manifest online is simply remarkable for its shrillness and not for high rates of participation, and further that more and more people will get exhausted and bail out on the flame wars. Even so, I think ignorance of the beliefs of others and not attempting to discover them may be an unheralded but necessary condition for social cohesion. Once people are exposed, the culling and forced conversions commence.
I will note here that there is a very controversial book I read in graduate school somewhat related to this topic called "Desiring Arabs" by Herculean asshole and academic Joseph Mossad. At the time I first became familiar with the book, I was disgusted with what I took to be the premise. I will probably butcher his point, and it's very difficult to summarize dense and intentionally alienating academic writing, but it went something like: in the Arab world, men who wanted to fuck each other had always found ways to do so in private, and separate from the goal of raising children in a family with a female partner. In Mossad's construction, these men were perfectly happy to pursue both a desire for homosexual sex and normative family life. This delicate balance, Mossad claimed, had been disrupted by Western advocates who were only familiar with a western style expression of homosexuality, which proposed that sex and love were inextricably linked and homosexual nature could not be sated through sex alone, but through same-gender companionship and perhaps even a "gay lifestyle." I'm not sure I buy Mossad's premise today, and certainly most things he writes are stupid or untrue. That being said, I am attracted to the idea that we may not have a monopoly on how best to let different types of people live. I imagine if you are a man in America today who wants to have sex with other men, but cannot give up an attachment to a concept of family life with a female partner, the archetypes we've built may not help you. Worse, you may be accused of suppressing your own nature just for having this conflict in the first place.
I think in the history of virtually every human science or way of life we see that there is strength in diversity. This is how dynamic economic systems emerge, how species change and survive and how individuals pursue happiness. I can't help but think that there is some sort of weird reversal taking place where the very country that has gone the furthest in promoting individual liberty is now engaged in the project of insisting the rest of the world provide the exact same amount in the exact same way. My first concern is that we have no moral authority on which to export our way of life, it is just happening by virtue of the popularity of our entertainment products and political and economic dominance. Almost as troubling, the world becoming Americanized seems that it could create a sort of black swan situation for our species, where we stagnate and decline because we aren't different enough to be conducting many social experiments simultaneously.
I think one of the biggest problems with how the US and western institutions more generally justify their own cultural creep is through the use of meaningless metrics.
Its difficult to come up with metaphors regarding how the rational evaluation of life and human progress only creates the kind of metrics modernity will excel at. First, a little background on the phenomenon in general. There are always people who worship a combination of the present and future. Jordan Peterson has gotten on this train, citing the work of Steven Pinker and UN studies about global rates of poverty and starvation. I don’t actually contest that moving out of poverty enhances human welfare, I think I'm more skeptical about another sequence, from agrarian to industrial, or from working class to middle class and middle class to wealthy. These are the areas where skepticism comes in. It's also interesting to look at some of these ''metrics of progress."
The UNs happiness report uses the following question, delivered via gallup poll, to determine happiness: "it asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0. They are then asked to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale." Additionally, there are six subcategories that allow for analysis of contributing factors to happiness, but these sub-measures are not themselves taken into the score. They are levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption.
This is an interesting mode of analysis and I don’t mean to dismiss it out of hand. How to measure happiness is very tricky. It seems to me however, that when asked to rate if you have "the best possible life" or the "worst possible life" respondents are asked to make an objective assessment of their life conditions relative to others, rather than their own feelings of contentment. This would encourage people who are materially well-off but spiritually bereft to overrate their own happiness. The subcategories seem further confused. Does life expectancy make us happy? Maybe if its reflective of the lack of wars. On the other hand, if life is meaningless extended through painful treatment and medicine, it may contribute to the opposite.
This confusion could, in part, explain why many countries at the top of the UN happiness ranks also have high suicide rates. For example, in 2018 the US happiness ranking gave Finland the overall highest ranking. Interestingly, Finland has the 32 highest suicide rate out of 183 measured countries. Iceland, the 4th happiest country, has the world's 40th highest suicide rate. Inverting the analysis, many countries perceived as miserable by the UN study have vanishingly low suicide rates. War torn Syria came 150 on the world happiness list in 2018, and experienced just 2.5 suicides per 100,000 or 176 out of 183 countries measured. There are dozens of other countries that populate the low end of both the happiness and suicide rate lists. Virtually no one commits suicide in a number of Caribbean countries, and does anyone actually believe that Finns are happier than people who live in Barbados?
These statistics are not explanatory and they don’t really undermine the UN's findings, they simply suggest that populations who rate their own happiness highly often have the additional characteristic of high suicide rates. In some ways, you could view this correlation as logical, as people in free societies, liberated from oppressive social structures and expectations, may feel more empowered to end their lives if they no longer enjoy them. Or perhaps in societies where so many people are happy, those who are lonely or sad are further depressed by the joy around them. This certainly seems to be the attitude in northern Europe. I think the bigger problem is with the word happiness itself. Is this a relevant measure of the state of humanity? If happiness is not an inoculation against suicide, what is, and why do so many miserable places seem to be inoculated?
I don’t really know the answer to this question, besides the much observed fact that happiness is different than meaning, and a sense of meaning can often keep people going, even through pain and suffering, more than happiness. This is sort of the thesis of the excellent "A Paradise Built in Hell" (another excellent literary gift from my brother) which uses examples of numerous disasters to show how utter misery can compel people to summon decency and sacrifice they never thought they were capable of, which in turn animates and affirms them.
All I know is that this topic has got me thinking about basketball. In all sports, there is a tendency to argue over whether or not yesterday's stars could hold up against the players of today. Those who worship the present might note that exercise and nutrition were virtually absent in the past, that the NBA is drawing from a larger pool of players than ever before, that the players are getting bigger, that they actually play defense now, and that the shooting has improved at all positions. These arguments are all incontrovertible and certainly convince me that today's players engage in a more difficult version of the game than previous generations. But basketball is entertainment, and these various measures have nothing to do with that. We have made surrogates for the quality of the game: effort, talent of players, shooting ability; and surmised that as these go up, so too has the quality of the game. However, if you ask NBA fans if they prefer the showtime Lakers or the Golden State splash brothers, I think most fans will either find them equally enjoyable or prefer the past .
These aesthetic judgement that occasionally go against the metrics we've decided upon to measure improvements are why many people prefer college sports, even while acknowledging that the professional leagues feature a higher level of play. I think this is the story of the global measurements of happiness. If we break happiness down into component parts, or ask people to evaluate their lives objectively, many western countries, especially in northern Europe, will conclude they are the happiest. If you, on the other hand, assess how people seem to be experiencing life, there is little evidence that Canada is a happier place than Kosovo, and if you're Albanian Kosovar, you get the added pleasure of knowing that your mere existence infuriates Serbs.
When you suggest that the modern world is the best place ever, and we have greater ability to impact our own emotional fate than at any time in the past you end up saying stuff like this:
I can only respond to this ridiculous statement with the thoughts of a much more superior philosopher.
Furthermore, long before Pinker wrote his "embarrassing" book, Louis C.K made the same argument in a much more enjoyable format.
Nota Bene: I do not like to and will not usually discuss things in terms of race on this blog. I often think class analysis is far more instructive as is probably the case here. I can't back this up statistically, but I would bet my Playstation 4 that the biggest factor in America-skepticism is post-secondary education. As black and brown Americans have only recently been admitted in significant number to America's intellectual and cultural elite, they are underrepresented, but this could normalize over time. The only reason this analysis will focus on race is because all of our conversations about the validity of critiques of America, from Colin Kaepernick to The Squad, are characterized in racial terms.
In the row over the president's incredibly rude tweets aimed at "The Squad" some observers noted the unfortunate tradition of telling people of different races to return to their land of origin. This analysis also mentioned that three of the women in question were born in America, and further surmised that perhaps the president's wily strategy was to compel mainstream Democrats to defend fringe members who do not poll particularly well with likely Dem voters in swing districts. I call the president's comments rude rather than racist not because they aren't racist, but because I see his defining characteristic as solipsism. For someone to be racist, he/she must believe that other people exist and matter. This is a prerequisite to sorting them into groups of disparate worth. There is little evidence the president believes in people other than himself and maybe Ivanka. Call him a solipsfiliaist.
Many conservatives, while acknowledging that the president's remarks were horrid, have insisted on pointing out that the women in question do seem to hate America. Rep. Omar in particular, who was granted refugee status in the United States, is characterized as ungrateful for the safe haven she was given. I think to say these women hate America is slightly unfair. I don't particularly admire the critical rhetoric of any members of The Squad, but I don't think it suggests hatred of America. Rather, I think it insists on an aspirational view of the country where the present and past must constantly be exposed and criticized. But participating in politics with aspiration in and of itself acknowledges that America is a place where change can be made through existing institutions. In my view, true hatred of one's country would lead to a more radical strategy than running for Congress. Plenty of people on the left and right explicitly acknowledge this.
Still, I often find The Squads' critiques mostly shallow or misguided. What is most damaging about the president's tweet, however, was that it followed in a tradition of identifying and singling out minorities who offer critical takes on America. I think it's fine to acknowledge or respond to the criticisms themselves, but I think it's also important to recognize that almost all the critiques championed by The Squad emerged from the academic left, a traditionally white, affluent space.
This origin comports with my own anecdotal experience of appreciation of America's promise. In the rich, liberal town where I grew up, even the quarterback could be relied upon to offer an analysis like "America is bullshit." For reasons that remain unclear to me, possibly a vestige of the Protestant tendency to self-flagellate in public, America's most successful communities are often the one's where contempt for the country runs deepest. The Linguist John McWhorter said it was this tendency within the white, cultural elite to religiously self-punish that accounted for the meteoric rise of Ta Nehisi Coates.
At college too, white liberal contempt for America seemingly had fewer adherents of color. In my first class at UC Santa Barbara, Anthropology 101, the ridiculous caricature of a professor (who had written a book on the custom of older American women collecting dolls) started his first lecture by stating, "you will find studying other cultures preferable to bombing them." A bunch of white heads nodded and smirked with approval.
The worst thing about the conspiracy of elevating anti-American voices of color is that both political sides participate in the distortion. White liberals who run the media tap Charles Blow and Michael Eric Dyson to speak for black America, and whatever their gifts, these two men either represent no one at all or over-educated, multiracial communities in New York and Washington DC. I also note that while our president singled out women of color for their critiques of America, our 116th Congress has a stunning number of veterans of color including several female veterans. Some on the left insist that minority participation in America's armed forces is the result of a desire to escape the working class or targeting by recruiters. These theories can't account for the fact that nearly 50% of our military is Latino or non-white while whites represent about 60% of the working class.
There are a number of historical issues that have been perverted by this bipartisan perversion as well. The participation of black political and civic leadership in harsh, anti-drug measures has mostly been forgotten, the crucial role of Christianity in America's civil rights movement is erased with the movement now mostly described in secular, anti-imperial terms and the black church has been similarly removed from a number of historical policy debates. Ironically, it is correct to understand black and white history before 1964 as a sort of Manichean struggle between good and evil, but to view history since that time as entirely written by whites at the expense of blacks is to erase the agency of black Americans and other minority groups along with them.
I will present some actual data below regarding the political diversity of communities of color, but first I want to share some more anecdotes. Living in urban-elite America, the only people I encounter who vocally love America are black or brown. Most white people I know are either indifferent to the country or explicitly critical. Particularly in my exposure to American Muslim communities, I have consistently found people under forty who speak about the US with excitement and pride. I suspect my Muslim friends were raised on stories from their parents about the arduous hurdles of doing something as simple as opening a business or studying medicine in corrupt, inept states. If any of my white friends have expressed gratitude for being born in America, it was of the ironic variety: "we have it good because we plundered the world."
I believe my observation is born out by a number of interesting incidents and the resultant polling. When Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam was exposed for having dressed in blackface in college, a poll revealed that less black Virginia democrats than white dems wanted Northam to resign. Some pundits tied themselves in knots trying to theorize that this outcome was the result of black resignation to universal white racism, or their political pragmatism born of long suffering in America. I think the answer is much simpler. Black democrats are more moderate than white democrats. This reality largely accounts for Hillary's defeat of Bernie in 2016 and Uncle Joe's strong numbers this time around.
I would even generalize further. I think non-white democrats are both more moderate and more patriotic than their white counterparts. This moderation could have a number of sources including higher rates of business ownership among immigrants (which leads to support of lower taxes), greater participation in religious institutions, and an understanding of political and social realities in other parts of the world. But more than anything, I think it is the entitlement and complacency of white intellectual elites that lead them to such inane political conclusions. Cleverly, and because they have power, largely white institutions select representatives of color to shop their ideas. I do not think Ta Nahesi Coates is representative of young black men, I think he's representative of a mostly white intellectual class. I do not think AOC is representative of Puerto Ricans from Queens, but millennial college graduates (mostly white) who were taught to hate America in college (by mostly white professors).
Finally this brings me to what I consider the unfortunate position of religious and social conservatives vis-à-vis immigration. I acknowledge that mass immigration may create downward wage pressure on low-skill Americans, and I am open to Eric Weinstein's theory that H1-B visas are a scam perpetrated by the government and STEM companies to avoid paying American STEM workers market wages. However, it seems obvious to me that if Pat Buchanan longs for the America of 1950, he should move to Mexico and bus Catholics across the border into America. Black and brown people did not change America's culture for the worse, white people did. White people are the atheists, white people are the ones who don't call their mothers on mother's day and white people are the one's with contempt for their own society. If we look to Europe, we find only more evidence that the trajectory of post-Christian, post-Industrial societies is nihilism and complacency. In this context, further immigration, including the low-skilled variety, seems essential to reconstitute an America with any pride in itself or interest in morality.
There is a bipartisan conspiracy to source America-skepticism to communities of color, and like all great global conspiracies, white people are behind it.
''Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers. And the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city. Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah.'' Isaiah 1: 7-9
So what's with the name? Well, in truth the name "Remnant" had already been taken by Jonah Goldberg's enjoyable podcast and the Seventh Day Adventist church...but I like Remainder as well. To me, it implies a reactionary worldview without reactionary politics. That is, a commitment to antiquated morals and traditions without an attendant desire to enforce these on the broader society. I believe this approach is supported not only in my own theology (Christianity) but is a theme in the three great Abrahamic faiths. The Jews, as the chosen people, are a natural minority in an exclusive covenant with God. In Christianity, only the return of Jesus Christ can reorder the world in God's original design. In Islam, companion of the Prophet Mohammed Abu Hurairah reported that the Prophet had said: ''Islam began as something strange and it will return to being strange,'' meaning the number of the true adherents of the faith would never be very large.
In addition to these religious connotations, there are other things I find evocative about this sort of word. Synonyms appear in all sorts of things I love. The Leftovers is one of my favorite books and TV shows, and to use a line from Nora on that show, "I want to believe I am not surrounded by the abandoned ruin of a dead civilization." I already mentioned Jonah Goldberg's podcast and the religious connotations. I am also working on a science fiction short story of the same title, which will focus on humans who decide to remain on earth and face death after all other humans have uploaded their consciousnesses to a massive computer on a spaceship in orbit, where they can theoretically live forever. The story would track the children of these remainers, who are obviously pissed off to have been forced into mortality by bad luck. Despite speculation, I make no reference to Brexit ;)
Speaking of science fiction, my original interest in Christian history was sparked by Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep author Philip K. Dick, who had a series of religious visions following surgery. Dick described realizing that we were living in a modern-day version of Rome, and that Christians had to hide and only reveal themselves to one another.
The girl was a secret Christian and so was I. We lived in fear of detection by the Romans. We had to communicate with cryptic signs. She had just told me all this, and it was true. For a short time, as hard as this is to believe or explain, I saw fading into view the black, prisonlike contours of hateful Rome. But, of much more importance, I remembered Jesus, who had just recently been with us, and had gone temporarily away, and would very soon return. My emotion was one of joy. We were secretly preparing to welcome Him back. It would not be long. And the Romans did not know. They thought He was dead, forever dead. That was our great secret, our joyous knowledge. Despite all appearances, Christ was going to return, and our delight and anticipation were boundless.
I'm not sure if I believe in the return of Christ as literally described, nor have I ever had visions like Dicks. Nevertheless, I am extremely attracted to the idea that a commitment to an antiquated and irrational morality is a sort of secret club. Currently, membership in this club has not come with Roman style persecution, but there are major conflicts between religious and secular forms of life that it is not clear liberal democracy can grapple with. At the moment, for example, almost every major religious tradition has a binary formulation of sex and gender. While in the past these ideas might be isolated to a Sunday service, cellphones and social media allow any forward thinking parishioner to out their spiritual leader to the broader society. Technology will make surveillance of religious communities infinitely easier, but in most cases, the communities will simply expose themselves by using the same social media platforms as everyone else.
Andrew Breitbart said that "politics is downstream of culture." I think he was correct, but I also think in many important ways culture is downstream of technology. Consider the following example, as political activists on both sides hyperventilate about the formation of the Supreme Court and how it might impact Roe, scientists have quietly been expanding non surgical options for terminating pregnancy. The current version of the so-called "abortion pill" can be taken up to 70 days into a pregnancy, and there is no reason to assume this range won't be expanded by further medical innovation. I am against abortion as a moral matter, but I see no reasonable path to the prohibition of such medication, or the prevention of further innovation in the field. In the unlikely event that the United States passed legislation to ban such technology, we would succeed only in making Canadian or Chinese pharmacists very rich.
Morality cannot contend with the modern world. For another example, think of the appearance, spread and current ubiquity of graphic and violent pornography. It seems important to stipulate here that I am a hypocrite and a sinner and consume pornography (I'm working on it), but I think it is unlikely that I ever would have if the process for accessing the stuff were more complicated than logging on to a website. In a society driven by consumer desire, the expansion of pornography cannot even be stopped by scientific evidence of its damaging effect, let alone the moral horror of the industry. Keep in mind, here I am only referencing industry porn and not even addressing the fact that a huge percentage of porn is now of the so-called 'revenge' variety where men post videos of sexual acts with their exes that were either filmed surreptitiously or shared without their permission.
Again, I think the moral perspective on pornography is clear, but I have no desire or plan to remove it from society. Internet connections will become faster and moral regulation will become looser. Technology in a consumer society only moves in the direction of desire. There are other horrors that technology will unleash, but they are too many to mention. One that sticks out in my mind, however, is the prospect that 3-d printers will one-day be able to produce potent synthetic drugs from commonly available precursors. How, exactly, do you legislate against that? Even if you do, will other countries have effective prohibition regimes?
All of this is to say I think the pursuit of moral life is something that must be dealt with at the community rather than societal level. The society has its desire driven logic, and this structure is so profitable and dynamic that it seems unlikely anyone will come up with something more seductive no matter how bad Sohrab Ahmari wants it.
So I reject the illiberal tendency in modern religious and social conservatives. Their path leads to a society where the jails are full of chronic masturbators, but everyone still watches porn. If anyone has articulated a future of morality I can buy into, it is Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option, which suggests contemporary Christians follow the example of earlier Christians living in depraved societies and take to the hills.
However, I was raised Unitarian, started my political life as a liberal and am still mostly a squish. As such, I will have to make a slightly more universalist appeal. I suggest that in the United States, where religious liberty is enshrined in law and irrational belief has a proud rate of survival (compared to other rich white countries) communities of faith should be more engaged with one another about how to protect their little corner of the world. This means Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and whoever else is worried that the ACLU might one day make them bake a cake should talk.
In America, Godly people are unlikely to remain the majority, and perhaps we shouldn't aspire to be. There is joy and grace in being the remainder.
PS I am looking for non-Christian, religious writers to contribute to this blog. If you are such a person or know one, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
My original intention with this blog was to begin with an explanation of the name and a description of the community I would like to foster here. Those posts will be forthcoming (God willing), but I thought it might be more interesting to start with a story of my own disappointment with secular, intellectual discourse and turn towards faith.
In 2009, I moved to Beirut to study Middle Eastern politics and Arabic. Christopher Hitchens, a writer I had long admired, was a sort of legend in the city. Hitchen's local acclaim was due to his uncharacteristic (for a western journalist) fluency in the personalities and attitudes of the region as well as a supposed violent confrontation with members of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party near the Syrian embassy. There were also stories regarding his legendary drunkenness leading to less heroic behaviors, but these are unconfirmed so I'll leave it at that. I never ran into Hitchens in Lebanon, but it was a period during which I was veraciously making my way through his catalog, including his essay collection Love, Poverty and War (a gift from my brother and one of the few books I brought with me to Beirut.)
For whatever reason, during my consumption of Hitchen's works I had managed to miss his efforts at undermining the legacy of Saint Teresa of Calcutta (known colloquially as Mother Teresa). Hitchen's first foray in this area was a documentary called "Hell's Angel" which built upon the work of Indian critic Dr. Aroup Chatterjee. Dr. Chatterjee charged that Mother Teresa offered no real medical care, forced deathbed conversions on her wards, and maintained associations with racist, colonial figures throughout her time in India. Apparently the title "Hell's Angel" was not polemical enough for Hitchens, who expanded on these criticisms in his own long essay "The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice."
At the time I stumbled upon these two documents, I was probably an agnostic. I had a vague sense of a spiritual world, but was raised Unitarian Universalist by an Atheist and a lapsed Catholic. Nevertheless, and as was no doubt the point, I felt scandalized by Hitchen's portrayal of a woman I had admired and considered a moral model for human beings of any metaphysical disposition.
Hitchen's attempt to discredit Mother Teresa can be deemed a success I think, as conversations about her legacy still reference the complaints first made by Chatterjee and popularized by Hitchens. The staying power of this counter-narrative is due to (at least in part) Hitchen's rhetorical prowess. Here are just a few examples of the strongest and most Hitchensy lines from his essay:
“The rich world likes and wishes to believe that someone, somewhere, is doing something for the Third World. For this reason, it does not inquire too closely into the motives or practices of anyone who fulfills, however vicariously, this mandate.”
“I began the project of judging Mother Teresa’s reputation by her actions and words rather than her actions and words by her reputation.”
And in a later article in Slate: ''Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God.''
The last two quotes in particular represent Hitchen's favorite rhetorical construction, an inversion of expectation in both syntax and meaning. You can imagine Hitchens, if he were particularly drunk or simply feeling himself, saying something like: "The Iraq war was not bad for Iraqis, Iraqis were bad for the Iraq war."
For Hitchens, if we are to believe that he was ever sincere, the problems humans face exist because there are simply too many stupid and evil people. Put another way, there are not enough people as clever as Hitchens. This was the Utopianism that animated Hitchen's early Trotskyism(which he claimed he never abandoned) and found its way into his various neoconservative projects.
For me, Hitchen's attack on Mother Teresa was a betrayal. After enjoying so many of his dubious provocations, he had now hit upon something I held sacred, and his casual derision transformed his image in my mind. Hitchens went from the owner of an incomparable and uncompromising intellect to a sort of snide youth. Why would a man of such considerable gifts only deploy them to prove to the class he was smarter than the teacher. What, after all, is the point of ruining Mother Teresa's legacy? The truth? Some people may be genuinely committed to removing misinformation from the public square, but I don't think that was Hitchen's game. I think his game was to make others feel a fool.
I will never know as much about history or the Catholic Church as Hitchens did. I went to public school. What I was acquainted with at a young age was death, and it was this acquaintance that led me to see Hitchen's writings on Mother Teresa as cruel and shallow. I have been in the room for the deaths of two people I loved. First, the death of my father in 1993, after years battling AIDS and in a room surrounded by dozens of friends and family. The second was the death of my grandmother in 2015, similarly attended by a score of those who loved her. Here, I will concede to Hitchens bleak secular outlook, that in both instances, the terror and confusion of the end may have overwhelmed any sense of comfort or warmth we were able to provide to the dying. Modern medication complicates this further, as morphine and other drugs add to the chaotic environment of a mind facing its own destruction.
This is the truth in Hitchen's worldview. Even in a crowded room, death is a solitary process, and having your hand held by a loved one may go unnoticed or even become a cloying tether as you approach the gaping blackness. But Hitchen's view has its own infantile attachments. While religion and spiritual guidance, the type of companionship that Saint Teresa of Calcutta offered to hundreds of dying women, may not have succeeded in easing the pain or terror of death, it is an approach that acknowledges death's reality. In Hitchen's estimation, the only intervention worth making is a material one. In other words, slap away the comforting hand of a nun in favor of the penicillin filled hand of the doctor.
This is a practical but temporary preference. We will all die. A willingness to take part in another's end, and risk exposing oneself to that boundless terror is a brave and selfless act. If I lay dying and hear a voice back in the world saying, "we loved you and we will miss you," I don't know if I will find comfort in it. But whatever the impact of our presence and love on the dying, it's the only gift we have for them. Saint Teresa of Calcutta spent most of her life offering it to strangers.