State of the Culture Feed

Remarkable Insight On My Part

A quick post from Fairhope Brewing, where they are actually encouraging people to come in and use their Wi-Fi, even opening in the mornings just for that purpose. Thank you, FBC.

I have a new computer, and have taken the occasion to go through a lot of old files and discard, organize, etc. In the process I ran across a draft of this post from ten years ago, "Firemen and the Gnostic Economy." The last few paragraphs seem, if I may say so, somewhat prescient about the conditions which could produce a phenomenon like Donald Trump.

There is a practical disdain in the upper reaches of our society for anybody so slow-witted and naïve as to make a living with the actual work of his hands, a disdain that is independent of political categories. (If anything the active disdain is stronger in the “liberal” camp, which may give more lip service to the lower-class laborer but doesn’t actually think very highly of him—but that’s a topic for another day.)


Bad Writing

If you can even call it writing.... Maybe just jargon. Or guff.

I received an email on my work account with this subject:

Implement Engaging Prevention Training at [college]

I wondered what it meant. Training for the purpose of preventing something, apparently. Opened the email and saw a company logo with this text:

Proven, Engaging Student Prevention Training

What?!? 

So I read the first paragraph:

Did you know SafeColleges Training provides a variety of effective student prevention courses through a robust training system?

I experienced deepening confusion. Few colleges wish to prevent students.

Only by reading as far as the second paragraph did I learn that they are referring to training aimed at "encouraging healthy behaviors" on topics like drugs, alcohol, and sex. 


Christopher Lasch: The Revolt of the Elites

RevoltOfTheElites

Having finally read this well-known and so-often-recommended book, I'm sorry to say that I was a little disappointed in it. It's not that there is anything wrong with its actual contents--it's a good book, and I recommend it--but that the contents aren't quite what I was expecting. I assumed that the topic named in the title would be the entire subject of the book. But "The Revolt of the Elites" is really the title essay in a collection whose subjects range somewhat afield from that of the one. They are certainly related, describing other components of the general "betrayal of democracy" which is the book's subtitle, but they don't deal specifically with the revolt.

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The War on Transitive Verbs

I know I can be pedantic, but I like to think I'm not excessively so. I deny that I'm a grammar Nazi. I understand that language is constantly shifting, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Some departures from standard grammar--I hesitate even to say "correct," so wary am I of being overly judgmental--are enhancements in the way of color, or meet some need not provided by the standard. 

I notice the first one sometimes in certain constructs that less-educated people use. For instance: in the opening episode of The Wire, a character commenting on the death of a friend: "I guess sometimes life just be that way." "Be" is wrong, but it has a flavor that "Life is just that way" doesn't. I see a lot of memes that use, for lack of a better word, black English, and sometimes they're funny or punchy in a way that they wouldn't be in standard English. Like "be like":

SouthernersBeLikeAnd as for the second: I'm becoming reconciled to the use of "they/them/their" for the third-person singular when the sex of the person is unknown. You don't have to be a feminist to find "he/him/his" odd-sounding when the person referred to is most likely, or just as likely, to be female. I felt it often in my job in software services, where the office workers using the software were far more likely to be women than men. "Each user can set his own preferences." But 90% of them are women, and we all know it. "Each user can set her own preferences"--but isn't it just a touch patronizing to assume the user is female? "Each user can set his or her own preferences"--that's fine for one sentence, but it's clumsy if you need to repeat it. "Each user can set their own preferences"--yes, that grates mightily on my ear, but I guess I have to get used to it.

But there is no justification for this kind of thing:

This recording will repeat.

When the process is complete, a message displays. 

The screen populates with the information. 

Dr. Banner transforms into The Hulk.

She dies, then resurrects as a zombie.

If your tax doesn't calculate...

Is it really so hard, is it really too much trouble, to say "will be repeated," "is displayed", and so on? I'm not sure exactly what this syndrome signifies but I'm sure it's something bad. 

And by the way the title is partly in jest. Something else that annoys me is the declaration that any opposition to, or just neglect of, a thing constitutes "a war on..." the thing. 


The Closing of the American Mind, Visited

"Visited" as opposed to "revisited," which is what most people who are interested in this book are doing now if they are discussing it. It was published over thirty years ago, in 1987, and attracted a great deal of attention then. I was aware of it, and had a rough idea of what it was about, but didn't read it. Over the past several years there has been some revisiting of it, with people saying that Bloom accurately diagnosed a number of bad tendencies which have only gotten worse since the book was published. 

So, better late than never, I've read it. A thorough consideration of it is beyond the scope of what I can do in a blog post, but here's my broad view.

TheClosingOfTheAmericanMindIt is a very good book, maybe in some ways a great one and a classic in a limited sort of way: at any rate a polemic that transcends polemic and has outlasted its occasion. Though it does begin and end with a discussion of higher education, it also takes in the last three centuries or so of Western intellectual history, and returns frequently to the Greeks, especially Plato. A good deal of what he says there is beyond my reach, dealing with figures of whom I've read little or nothing, and in some cases am only vaguely aware of. Nietzsche: I've read one book. Locke and Rousseau: I have a rough idea of what they're about. Max Weber: German? Something or other about capitalism?

Nevertheless, I recognize the malaise:

To repeat, the crisis of liberal education is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization. But perhaps it would be true to say that the crisis consists not so much in this incoherence but in our incapacity to discuss or even recognize it. Liberal education flourished when it prepared the way for the discussion of a unified view of nature and man's place in it, which the best minds debated on the highest level

A very good book, at least, and yet also a tragic one, and Bloom a tragic figure (in his public role, not necessarily his private life). Bloom might be thought of as the last public intellectual. Well, not the last, but one of the last. A celebrity, someone said, is a person who is famous for being well-known. Similarly, a public intellectual might be a person who is famous for  being an intellectual. That is, there is no requirement or even expectation of such a person that this exercise will result in any settled conclusion or permanent wisdom; the exercise, the wrestling with important ideas, is the essential thing. I'm thinking of real intellectuals, not the pseudo-intellectuals, entertainers, and political fanatics who tend to be given the title now but don't really deserve it.

Bloom is the kind of person who was once more common in our universities than now: a man pursuing, in absolute earnest, knowledge and truth, and following wherever they tend to lead him. Perhaps there were never really very many such people, but they were the ideal, at least. (And I know that at least one existed, because he was my teacher.) The contemporary university is now frequently inhospitable to them (which is probably to understate the case). The old ideal is more or less gone, and in its place is service to a quasi-religious political program. 

Bloom also represents what appears now to be the last gasp of the Enlightenment. His understanding of man and of the life of the mind in the modern world is explicitly rooted there. He sees history in the way of the Enlightenment and its apologists: there were the Greek and Roman classics, followed by roughly 1500 years of darkness, and then the dawn. He isn't naive enough to use the term "Dark Ages," but he treats the Christian centuries as such. And he is wise enough to note, in passing, that religion is a natural human phenomenon of which the loss is not necessarily a good thing. But nowhere in the book does he take religious ideas--that is, theology, and religious philosophy--seriously. In fact they are barely mentioned at all. He seems to take as an axiom that actual religious belief is intellectually untenable.

And so there is an enormous hole at the center of his understanding of the crisis. The passage quoted above would in its sense if not its style be more or less at home in Newman's view of liberal education. But for Bloom the unified vision for which he longs is impossible to achieve. There can only be a perpetual search and struggle, as he more or less acknowledges at several points. The search may be heroic, but the very best that can be hoped for is that now and then a gifted individual may arrive at a vision. I'm doubtful that anyone of much insight even believes any more that philosophy and the Great Books alonecan save our civilization. I wonder what Bloom would think if he were still alive (he died only five years after the book was published).

For some odd reason, almost the only specific thing I recall reading about the book when it was published is a comment from a liberal dismissing it as conservative crankiness (yes, the lines were already drawn back then). It went something like this: "Bloom is stupid because he thinks that the Great Books and other elements of western culture are the solution. The Nazis were cultured, and look where that got us."

The comment was itself cranky and reactionary. But it's at least half true. 

Bloom, by the way, denied that he was a conservative. And he was one only in the sense that he wished to conserve what he saw as the core of Western and specifically American civilization. 


A Bit More On Impermissible Ideas

This piece by Stanley Kurtz at National Review is a commentary on the very rapid growth of the belief, and subsequent practice, of left-wing journalists that views which they despise should not be heard. It's worth reading in its entirety, but here's how Kurtz ends it:

Classical liberalism arose to prevent murderous civil strife between those who could not agree on ultimate things—and who questioned each other’s good faith as a consequence. Throw aside the marketplace of ideas, throw aside even the aspiration to neutral reporting, and throw aside, on this account, the basic rights of those with whom we disagree, and we are back in the soup, back to the wars, back to the days before liberty and civil peace, the crowning achievements of our history, the history we’ve stopped celebrating—or even remembering. Is that what we want? Because that is where we are headed.

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Impermissible Ideas

As it always had the potential to do, the philosophical and religious neutrality which is the ostensible framework of the American system is collapsing. See this post by Rod Dreher, one of many in which he describes the movement in big-time journalism to full-on advocacy for various left-wing causes. Here's an anecdote:

All this put me in mind of a conversation I had maybe 15 years ago, when I was a columnist and editorial writer at The Dallas Morning News, with a Millennial writer there. He knew that I was a conservative, and I knew that he wasn’t, but none of that mattered. I mentioned to him one day that I thought the paper’s coverage of the gay marriage issue was one-sided, and had become a matter of pro-LGBT advocacy journalism. He agreed that it was one-sided, but told me that he didn’t think there was a legitimate other side. I pointed out that we lived in a rather conservative part of the country, and that most of our readers took the opposite position on gay marriage (this was around 2005, I think). Were they all bigots who didn’t deserve to be consulted in our reporting? Yes, he said. If the paper was reporting on the Civil Rights movement, he said, would we feel morally and professionally obligated to seek the views of local KKK leaders?

Continue reading "Impermissible Ideas" »


What Happened In the 1960s?

NOTE: the essay itself has been removed for the moment. Explanation later.

As some readers of this blog know, I've written a book which is part memoir and conversion story, part cultural history of the phenomenon we call "the Sixties." I have a certain amount of evidence that the attempt is not really successful. It's too long, for one thing: somewhere around 130,000 words, which makes it comparable in length to The Seven Storey Mountain (a book which I thought too long when I read it--so why did I think I could make one of equal length interesting?) I have a version which chops out most of the discursive social-philosophical-religious stuff, leaving something that's basically a memoir, and kind of a so-so one in my opinion. It's doubtful that either is going to see the light of publication day. 

In the first version, there's a long chapter which is a sort of bridge between my life up until I left home for college, and my plunge into the '60s cultural revolution. It attempts to describe the forces that made the revolution happen, the conditions in the mid-'60s which made many of us who were growing up at the time join that movement. I cut it out entirely from the second version of the book. But I think it's a worthwhile reading of those times and the way they led us to this time. So I cut it down by several thousand words, removing personal stuff, and leaving something that I hoped might interest a magazine.

Well, that didn't work out. I shopped it to half a dozen magazines and got no interest. So: one reason for having a web site in the first place is that one can publish whatever one damn well pleases. I've now posted the essay here, not as a blog post but as a standalone page. You can get an idea of what it's about from the original title: "The Tube, the Bomb, and the Closed World." Those are three of the factors I hold to have been of great importance in producing the revolution. The third one refers to the metaphysical closure of the Western mind over the past couple of centuries. As I say in the opening of the essay, understanding the phenomenon of "the Sixties" is important to understanding the culture war which it set in motion.

I should warn you that it's just under 4000 words long, which is rather lengthy for online reading. (The close approximation to 4000 is not an accident: that's the maximum acceptable length for articles at one of the magazines I sent it to.)


The Culture War Is Asymmetrical

I'm constantly fighting the temptation to spend, or rather waste, a lot of time talking about current events, the perishing republic, and so forth. I believe it was in the very first year of this very long-running blog that I mentioned that urge, and noted that there was not much reason for me to carry it out because other people with much much much larger audiences were saying the same things I would say, and doing it better. 

Still, the need to grab the reader and say Don't you see what's going on?!?! is pretty strong sometimes, and I have to do it occasionally. Which is by way of excusing or sort of justifying or at least explaining this post, and also its brevity.

A few days ago I mentioned the sad phenomenon of  'the frenzied rhetorical attacks on white people and "whiteness" coming from the left.' In the comments, Stu replied that "the extremist right are also terrible." 

That's true, but it's not the most significant aspect of what's going on. It's not that there are racists or other assorted nasty people on the left, but that the left (using the term very broadly) holds the most prestigious and influential positions in society: education, the media apart from Fox News, entertainment, many of the courts, and most of the non-elected national government. And it tolerates or excuses or actively practices expressions of racial hostility which no one on the respectable right would dream of. Open race-based hostility on the right is marginalized by the right. Open race-based hostility on the left, provided it's directed at white people, is practiced frequently and is protected, at least, and often applauded, by the left.

More or less the same is true for other controversial issues, such as the various sexual causes. The progressive view is overwhelmingly portrayed in media, education, and entertainment as the correct, obviously virtuous and enlightened view. Opposition is very effectively stigmatized as, for instance, "homophobia" and the like. 

I'm not going to waste time trying to prove this by citing instances. I think it's overwhelmingly obvious. Rod Dreher provides examples almost every day, like this one, in which a black student (I think it's a student) complains that there are "too many white people" in the Multicultural Student Center, strongly suggesting that they leave. As Dreher says

...if a white student stood and ordered non-white students to vacate a space because their non-whiteness made it uncomfortable for white people, the entire campus would have had a gran mal seizure...

This was at the University of Virginia. Contemptuous and hostile references to white people--especially white men, especially white male Christians--as such, specifically because they are white--are perfectly acceptable at the most influential and prestigious levels of society, whereas the same sort of hostility on the part of white people toward others is mostly relegated to the gutter. It's not symmetrical. 


A Brief Sigh on MLK Day

I'm sure he would be distressed by the level of deliberate and strenuous efforts to ratchet up racial animosity that are prevalent among certain classes of people now. At least I hope he would.

The shocking thing, the thing which I at any rate certainly did not anticipate in the '60s when the major civil rights legislation was passed, is that the most visible manifestation of this effort now comes from the putatively anti-racist side, in the form of the frenzied rhetorical attacks on white people and "whiteness" coming from the left. Much of it is is open and unashamed racism and would be recognized immediately as such if the terms were reversed. The most alarming aspect of it is that it isn't the work of obscure and generally disdained cranks and yahoos but of respected academics and journalists who wield a great deal of influence. Respected by each other, anyway. And in any case fairly powerful.

King's ideal of a color-blind society is now considered to be an expression of racism, at least if advocated by white people. It wasn't supposed to be like this. 

So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don't even know that fire is hot.

           --Orwell.

Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.