When First Things appeared in the 1990s (I think), I read it occasionally but never subscribed. That was mainly because a fairly large portion of the articles were too specialized and academic for me.It seemed, for instance, that there were a lot of long commentaries on contemporary intellectual figures whom I had not (and have not) read. Moreover, I often found its neo-conservative orientation tiresome, even though much of the time I didn't fundamentally disagree with it. And anyway, I had very little free time for reading and didn't want to spend it on that. Over the years I read it occasionally in the library, or a friend sent me something photocopied from it, and once the web became a big thing I read some of what they published there. But in spite of its prominence--and, I assume, influence--in the world of religious-political journalism, it mostly passed me by. I expect I missed a lot of good work.
Recently, though, reading articles on the web, I began to get the impression that they were publishing more stuff that was more interesting to me than had been the case, so I decided to risk $25 or so on a digital subscription. (My wife bought a used iPad a couple of years ago, and reading on it is really pretty comfortable.) I'm glad I did. Traveling over the Easter weekend, I read pretty much the entire April issue on the plane, and I thought every single thing in it was excellent. I don't expect every issue to meet that standard--I've already skipped one lengthy article in the May issue. But for now I'm very much enjoying and benefiting from the magazine.
For instance, the first piece in the April issue, "Moral Minority," by Patrick Deneen, is an excellent overview of three books that have been very much in the Christian news recently for their analyses of the situation of Christians in an increasingly anti-Christian culture: Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option, Archbishop Charles Chaput's Strangers In a Strange Land, and Anthony Esolen's Out of the Ashes. It is as much Deneen's own perceptive view of the subject as it is a review of the books. One of his points is one I've often made: that the Christian right, as exemplified by Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, was already, in the late '70s and early '80s, mistaken in the belief that America was a fundamentally Christian nation that only needed to be awakened to the threat against it. I don't think I'll try to summarize it. I think it's available on the web to non-subscribers--try clicking on the title above.
A few weeks ago here I was scoffing at the people who think the inauguration of Donald Trump was also the inauguration of a police state along the lines of 1984. These people seriously misconstrued either the book (if they've read it--many are probably just repeating something a journalist said) or the present political moment. The whole point of the suppression of truth by the government in 1984 is that dissent is not just forbidden but suppressed to a point where it hardly exists, and that this is most effectively done by making it psychologically difficult or impossible. And the last weapon, the one brought to bear in very stubborn cases, is to crush the dissenter so thoroughly that he will be at first afraid to speak, and eventually unable to conceive, of truth as existing apart from whatever the government says. One does not learn the true solution to the equation 2+2=x by mathematical reasoning or even by counting fingers, but by listening to Big Brother.
Now, anybody who genuinely believes that this is a description of current conditions in the U.S. under the Trump administration is simply out of touch with reality. I don't think many people are actually that deluded; most likely it's just a form of hysteria, or the thrill of reading a ghost story or watching a horror movie (for those who consider the latter a thrill--I don't). Trump can't open his mouth without someone calling him a liar, suffering no harm for the deed and probably getting some applause. Most of the news media attack him relentlessly, and do not suffer for it. And that's as it should be in a free society.
But there is at least one place in the world where the methods of the state in 1984 are practiced. That is China. The experience of it is described in a piece in that April First Things, "Struggle Against the Gods," an excerpt from the memoir of Chinese dissident Gao Zhisheng:
Once a guard of mine described an experience he’d had as a new recruit. He went to an “inaugural meeting,” a ritual that was an old Communist Army practice. After roll call, the squad leader pointed to a soldier next to the classroom’s shiny white wall and asked, “What color is that wall?” When the soldier answered that it was white, he was thrashed. After five soldiers in a row were beaten for giving the same answer, the sixth one replied, “It’s whatever color the squad leader says it is.” The squad leader praised the soldier and once again asked the soldiers who had been beaten what color the wall was. They all replied, “It’s whatever color the squad leader says it is.”
That is what Orwell was talking about. The enemy is not a blowhard who doesn't care about the truth, who will say anything that seems expedient at the moment and doesn't care whether you believe it or not, but very intelligent people who care very much about both and are determined to control them. Very intelligent and very effective.
Another interesting item from First Things...well, "interesting" is not the most apt word--interesting and disturbing: in the February issue, "The Devil and Hilary Mantel," by Patricia Snow. I decided several years ago when I read a review by the late Christopher Hitchens of Mantel's novel Wolf Hall that I was not interested in reading the book. The review was, naturally, strongly anti-Catholic, and according to Hitchens so is the novel. Why bother? I thought, though I had the impression it was a well-crafted novel. That was also my reaction when a BBC dramatization of the novel began to appear on PBS.
Anti-Catholicism in contemporary literary life is a pretty predictable business, so I was just barely interested enough to start reading Snow's piece. And...wow. Let's just say that the other person named in the title is not a rhetorical device. As I said, it's disturbing. No, make that frightening. You should be able to read it by clicking on the title above. If you want to.
I didn't set out to collect discouraging things to write about this week, but there's so very much of it around. And I keep saying that this thing and that thing are "interesting," and they are, even if disheartening. I saved the URL for this piece last week-before-last with a note to myself: "most interesting thing I've read this week," but then didn't use it last Sunday. It's a very sad story about a young woman who grew up as a fundamentalist Christian, lost her faith, then found another in "transhumanism," the techno-faith that we will fairly soon be able to make ourselves immortal by some technological means or other.
I am fairly certain that none of these will ever happen. In particular the idea that we can somehow transfer our consciousness, that is to say our selves, that is to say our souls, from our brains, seen by materialists as a species of computer, into digital computers, and become immortal that way, is almost certainly no more than a fantasy. Even if you think it's possible, the practical difficulties and potential problems involved are rather staggering. But I'm all but certain that it's not even theoretically possible. The whole idea rests on the assumption that our souls--to use a word that the transhumanists probably don't--are some sort of by-product of our brains. That assumption is not only unproven but unfounded. It's simply asserted as an article of materialist faith, as if it were self-evident. Even if it were true, there is no reason to think that this whatever-it-is that constitutes one's consciousness could somehow be encoded as a sequence of ones and zeros, which it would have to be in order to be stored by computers as we know them.
Anyway, here is the story, lengthy but very much worth reading. It's in The Guardian. Left-wing though it is, I find myself reading it fairly often, usually via someone else's link to a piece there (I think this was a Facebook post). The political stuff is not of much interest to me, but a lot of the rest is. I wonder if I should give them a donation, like they keep asking me to.
Once a week or so I read an article about the menace of artificial intelligence predicting that machines will soon become conscious, becoming super-intelligent almost immediately when they reach a certain point in "evolution," then either turning on us or making us obsolete. If you read these, too, and are alarmed, don't be. I am not a scientist or a philosopher but I know how computers work. Do you think the lights in your house are intelligent because they know to shine when you turn them on? If not, don't worry about artificial intelligence taking over the world.
There is, on the other hand, plenty of reason to worry about software taking over more and more functions that used to be performed by people, and thereby continuing to make jobs obsolete. This is not a new problem. It's just a new wrinkle in the general trend toward automation that began with the industrial revolution. But it's significant. And we don't know how to deal with it.
The misty upper part of this picture is not fog but rain. We had some violent thunderstorms yesterday evening and this was taken as they were moving in. Five minutes earlier I had been able to see far out into the bay, though not all the way across as I can when the air is clear. There is a sailboat anchored a couple of hundred yards out. This bank of rain approached as a white mass, moving fairly quickly, hiding the boat in a matter of seconds. I like the way rain falling on the water looks, but this picture, taken with my phone, doesn't really show it. I have an actual camera. I guess I should start carrying it around more.