State of the Culture Feed

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.


Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.



Two New Year's Day Reflections

I find Kevin Williamson to be the most consistently interesting writer at National Review these days. That's not necessarily entirely a good thing, because when I say "interesting" I also mean "entertaining," and often that entertainment involves scathing language about someone. In principle I do not approve of scathing language about persons and try to resist the temptation to use it, so I guess what it amounts to is that I'm vicariously enjoying his put-downs, which makes me feel just a touch guilty. Not very, because most of the time the put-down is merited.

And I usually disagree with at least some part of any piece he writes, sometimes something minor and sometimes major. His brand of conservatism is definitely more libertarian than mine. But--and this is a little surprising for a libertarian, or at least a somewhat-libertarian--he is really at his best on deeper subjects. This is one:

If we are to resolve something for 2020, then maybe that should be our resolution: to bear always in mind that this is not Donald Trump’s America or Elizabeth Warren’s America but ours and Walt Whitman’s and John Coltrane’s and Herman Melville’s and Toni Morrison’s, and that if we really love this country, then that can only be because we love the people in it, the ones who are with us still and the ones who have been, who are “not enemies but friends.”

This will be our year. It will be the year that we make of it, which is both our great hope and our great, fearful responsibility.

Read the whole thing; it's worth it. One thing I like about him, something he shares with recently citizen-ized Charles Cooke, also of NR, is an appreciation of this country in all its madness and glory. Elsewhere he recently said something to the effect that what works for health care in Switzerland will not work here:

The basic problem with that always has been that Switzerland is full of Swiss people, while the United States is full of maniacs.

Precisely. I always stress that when discussing American politics and culture with someone from another country: you simply won't understand us unless you start with the recognition that we're more than a little crazy. Samuel Johnson's famous remark that "If a man is tired of London, he is tired of life" applies triply to the United States of America. I am often sickened and repelled by this, that, or the other in the U.S., but never not interested. 

And, as Williamson says, life in these United States is not defined or limited by politics. I cringe whenever I hear someone refer to "Donald Trump's America." I fear such people live in cyberspace, large parts of which Donald Trump has made his own in the way that is too often effective in cyberspace: by being a troll. A great many people on the left seem to feel that their lives have been almost ruined, or in some cases not even "almost," by Trump's presence in the White House. This is...unhealthy to say the least, and as it's partly a choice, most unwise. 

I think the reality of life for the very large majority of us is that politics generally has a relatively small impact on our day-to-day lives, and plays a very small role in our conversation and other dealings with other people. I can recall only a few face-to-face conversations over the past half-year or so with anyone except my wife in which the subject even came up. Two of those were with liberals, and when the conversation drifted into politics--not by my choice--it immediately blew up in my face. The level of rage was disconcerting, and I will certainly try hard to avoid any more of those. 

Also at National Review, Richard Brookhiser does a nice exegesis of Thomas Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush." Perhaps you remember that it was the first poem in the 52 Poems series that I did a couple of years ago. I don't think more than a few days ever go by without my thinking of those last two lines.

"In fact, you will not be saved."

That's a line from Stephen Vincent Benet's poem "Nightmare, With Angels." I first read it long ago, but I'm not sure when or where. I had thought it was freshman English, in the Sound and Sense textbook/anthology. But I've just looked, and it's not there. Could it have been in high school? That seems unlikely, but it's possible. Anyway, it made an impression on me, and I think of it from time to time. Here is a link to it.

It's been on my mind especially in recent weeks and months, as the American republic seems to be having some kind of breakdown. So is the Catholic Church, at least large segments of it. A few days ago, in a Facebook group devoted to the renewal of the Church, someone posted a list of proposed responses, basically theological, to a recent survey indicating a serious decline in the number of American Christians (of any and all denominations). It included things like reviving a genuinely Christian philosophy, getting rid of hyper-political partisanship within the community, and so forth. It was all perfectly sound, but very unlikely to have any discernible effect anytime soon--and by "soon" I mean within the next several decades. I guess I was feeling grumpy that day, because I responded with the Benet poem, among other helpful observations:

Fine, good things in response to bad errors. But as far as Western Formerly Christian civilization is concerned, Stephen Vincent Benet had the general idea right: "In fact you will not be saved." This train is not going to be stopped until it goes off a cliff or, best case, runs out of fuel. Either way it looks to be a long time.

Nothing would make me happier than to be proven wrong. And I'm sorry if I sounded like a jerk. But I don't see how any any theological adjustment can possibly turn things around, or even slow them down. [This program] is a good thing but a project for generations, maybe centuries.

I mean--pardon my crudeness, but: we live in a society which has decreed that as a matter of law and custom there is no ontological or teleological difference between a vagina and a rectum. How do you even converse with that? Unless we're in the final apostasy of the end times, which is certainly a possibility but not one to which I've ever committed myself, the Church will be renewed, and a new culture will arise around it. But I can't see a turnaround in our present trajectory. I think we'll have to hit a wall of some kind.

This may sound like despair, but it really isn't. The ship of the Church will eventually right itself, at least to the degree that it is ever really righted. The ship of state is a different story; perhaps it will be righted, but perhaps it will slowly turn into something else, something that may or may not preserve the form but definitely does not preserve the substance of the constitutional order.

It's a rejection of the belief, so beloved of those of us who spend a great deal of our time thinking and writing and talking, that if we can only formulate and propagate the correct set of ideas things will be put right. It's a recognition that we are riding extremely powerful waves generated by the uncontrollable movement of great masses far below the surface of the sea. It's true that ideas have consequences. But this doesn't mean, as those who traffic in ideas are tempted to think, that ideas determine events. 

I find that I've lost interest almost entirely in that kind of talk, especially talk that involves proposals for the reform of society, sometimes the construction of societies in the air, according to distributist, or Christian democrat, or Christian liberal, or integralist, or whatever, principles. It's a sort of hobby for which I've lost my taste. 


Addendum: in putting forth the Benet poem, I don't mean to be saying that we in the U.S.A. and Europe are headed for cataclysmic violence. I don't in fact think we are. The poem was written in the 1930s, when the fact that war was coming was pretty clear to perceptive people. I think we are, rather, in a decline the outcome of which I don't claim to foresee. But the first angel's lament for all the unfulfilled hopes and promises of history is poignant, and the second angel's brutal crushing of such hopes applicable enough in general.  

The Downton Abbey Movie

I'm not that much of a fan and would probably not have bothered on my own, but I thought my wife would enjoy it, and anyway I'd sort of been wanting to see a movie in a theater. I enjoyed it, with my usual reservations about its soap-opera-ness etc. Suffice to say that they did a good job of creating a lavish two-hour episode of the series; that is to say, if you like the series you'll surely like the movie.

But what really struck me, and the reason I'm writing this post, was that it is in at least one respect deeply counter-cultural. I mean its approval of, its positively reveling in, hierarchy. I know its the opulence and the romance that draw in its audience, which I think is predominantly female. And I know it paints an unrealistic picture of the life of a wealthy English family and their servants. So I'm pretty sure that the mutual regard of upper and lower classes--the loyalty and devotion of the servants, the kindness and concern of the masters--is at least somewhat exaggerated and sentimentalized (though I hope not entirely without foundation in fact). It's very prominent in this film, and important to the plot. The fact that this picture is apparently very attractive to a lot of people seems significant.

I think we all in our deepest hearts believe things should be this way, though it flies in the face of many of the attitudes and presuppositions of our culture (not to mention the actual injustices it so often involves in the real fallen world). And that's because, cosmically, that's the way things actually are. 

DowntonAbbey-VulgarityAnother counter-cultural sentiment. And yes it's probably vulgar of me to post this.

The Issues Are Not the Issues Anymore

I've been trying to remember where I heard, attributed to some leftist, the saying that "The issue is not the issue." The only thing turned up by a quick search is a remark attributed by David Horowitz to some SDS organizer of the '60s: "The issue is never the issue. The issue is the revolution." 

Even if that's apocryphal, it certainly describes the method of many political activists, especially those who see themselves as being engaged in a campaign for some sort of broad and fundamental change. You pick particular situations that can be exploited for your purposes, but they're mainly important as means toward a far more important end.

I think--I'm afraid--that the quotation has a wider application now. It pretty much sums up our whole political situation. Right and left disagree as much as they ever have about specific policy questions. But those are somewhat in the background except insofar as they can be used to advance the essential cause: for progressives, to gain decisive control of the federal government so that "the New America" can begin (I've been seeing that term a lot recently); for conservatives, to prevent that. 

Old-fashioned liberals believed in the constitution, but they are a fading breed, being replaced by leftists for whom the constitution is at best a set of more or less arbitrary rules that can be set aside when progress requires it. At worst it's just one more oppressive structure put in place by white men to keep everyone else down. In any case, it should be construed as requiring (or permitting, as the case may be) whatever advances the progressive cause. That tendency on the left has been evident for as long as I can remember, but it's far stronger now. 

It becomes more and more clear that a lot of very influential progressives simply don't care in any positive way about the actual history, culture, people, and constitution of this country. They can only value it insofar as it seems to promise a bright shining socialist John-Lennon-Imaginary future. Anything that would get in the way of that vision must be discarded or destroyed. They're best understood as millenarian religious fanatics. I don't by any means say that everyone on the political left thinks this way, but, as I said, they are many and influential beyond their numbers.

So when the question "What do conservatives want to conserve?" is asked, my answer now is pretty simple: the constitution. Everything else in American political life depends on that. If we lose it, we lose the republic. And I think that would be a bad thing--even for those who don't at the moment understand that it would be. 

Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review a couple of weeks ago in response to a New York Times call for "packing" the Supreme Court as a way of defeating the obstacle of originalist judges, makes the point brilliantly:

Bouie complains: “In the past, courts have walled entire areas of American life off from federal action. They’ve put limits on American democracy.” Indeed, they have — that is what they are there for. The Constitution and, specifically, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments exist explicitly to “put limits on American democracy.” Majorities do not get to overturn freedom of speech or freedom of religion. They do not get to impose slavery or imprison people without trial. There are lots of things majorities do not get to do. This is not some modern conservative invention to frustrate progressives — it is the design of the American constitutional order.

(Strange that you never hear progressives complaining about how Roe vs. Wade “walled off” abortion from majoritarian lawmaking.)

Bouie’s majoritarian ideology is nowhere to be found in the Constitution; in fact, the very structure of American government is designed to frustrate that kind of crass majoritarianism. Hence the Senate (as originally organized) and the presidential veto, both designed as checks on the excessive democratic passions to which the House might be subject; hence the written Constitution and the Bill of Rights, i.e. America’s Great Big List of Important Stuff You Idiots Don’t Get a Vote On, and a Supreme Court constitutionally empowered to police those limits. You can call that an ideology, too, and even conservative ideology, which it is: Properly understood, the principles and philosophy of the Founding are what it is conservatives try to conserve.   

Exactly. The movement for getting rid of the Electoral College deserves similar scorn for similar reasons. Speaking of which, there is no surer way to get me to vote for Trump than to attempt to subvert the Electoral College. (You can read Williamson's whole piece here.)

We're in a strange situation now (to say the least). I don't think Trump really understands or cares about the constitution much more than most of these progressives do. People call him a fascist, but that's silly and lazy: if the word means anything useful (which is questionable), a fascist is a person with a rigid ideology. That's one of the last things Trump can be accused of being. The note in his manner and behavior that makes people think of fascism is that of the caudillo: the amoral strong man of the sort who tends to gain control of nations that have no strong constitutional framework, no strong deeply-rooted sense of "government of laws, not men."

And yet he has pretty well delivered on his promise to appoint constitutionalist judges, who are the final bulwark of a republic deserving the name. The man progressives call authoritarian is actually, where it counts most, shoring up the foundations against authoritarianism--even if he doesn't know exactly what he's doing. 

Ahmari and French Debate

It's perhaps a bit wrong of me to post this--or inappropriate, or ill-mannered, or something--because I probably won't actually watch the debate. Well, maybe I'll find a transcript and read it. But I'm posting it for one reason. I guess all conservatives and some others are aware of the intra-conservative argument which is represented by these two; if you're not, see this. For my part I don't really want to take a side, as I think both have pretty strong arguments.

The two met for an in-person debate a couple of weeks ago. Here's a report on it from a reader of Rod Dreher's blog. That page also includes a video of the event. But here is the one thing that really struck me, from the reader who was there:

There seemed to be something of an age divide. The older folks in the room seemed to more likely to be in French’s corner, whereas all of the Millennials and Gen Zers I talked to instinctually agreed with Ahmari....

I think that's very significant. The times they are a-changing. Again. I myself have noticed that people of more or less my generation, and maybe a bit younger--let's say people over fifty--tend to see our current politics in more or less classically liberal and constitutionalist terms, as David French does. That framework has less purchase on the minds of younger people. Of course that could be only an effect of age itself; the younger people may change their minds as they get older. And I emphasize "tend to"; I can certainly think of plenty of exceptions, in both directions. 

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid Trump Controversies

A few months after Trump's election I realized that there was no point in following the news stories about him. Every few days there was some new burst of outrage, and at least two thirds of the purported scandals turned out, when I read more about them, to be exaggerated, trivial (what was that nonsense about Melania's jacket a while back?), or sometimes just plain false. It's just not worth the bother of paying attention. Even the big He's A Russian Agent!! story pretty much fizzled out, and in fact, according to some non-crazy people, was more of an FBI scandal than a Trump scandal.

I thought most of the media had thoroughly discredited themselves years ago, but they continue to dig their hole deeper. They clearly see destroying Trump as part of their mission, at the moment probably the most important part. And I suppose it works for them in some ways. It does serve to keep the anti-Trump outrage at fever pitch. But for those who, like me, don't much care for him but have kept some sense of balance, it produces only irritation and disdain. And of course his millions of active supporters just dig in their heels and see him as a hero-martyr. All in all, it serves only to deepen the cloud of anger and mistrust that has enveloped the country.

As of today the completely stupid uproar about Trump's statement that Hurricane Dorian threatened Alabama has been going for about a week. I frequently use Google News to get an overview of the day's news stories. This is about half of the stories about Hurricane Dorian currently displayed there. 


This is crazy. On both sides. It's hard to tell at this point who's baiting whom, and who's crazier. I'm not sure what Trump originally said, but the fact is that we here in Alabama were worried about Hurricane Dorian for a while. "Threatened" might be overstating it, but the projected path of the storm for several days had it heading more or less due west across the Florida peninsula. It is not only possible but has in the past happened that a storm has done that and then re-strengthened after it got into the Gulf. And I assure you that any hurricane in the northern Gulf of Mexico is always a big deal for us. Damn right we were concerned, and watching closely, until it became more or less certain that the storm was going to turn north. In calling it a threat to Alabama, Trump was not lying and not crazy. At worst he was exaggerating and/or speaking carelessly. It was not a big deal

But then of course the Trump Derangement Syndrome sufferers in the press and social media had to jump in and start jeering and accusing. And then of course the thin-skinned egotist in the White House had to respond. And the thin-skinned egotists in the press had to respond to that...and here we are, a week later, still talking about it as if it were important. I wonder if anyone has brought up impeachment yet.

I would like to think that this is some sort of nadir, but it can probably get worse. 

Skynet Is Never Going To Become Self-Aware

For the benefit of those who have managed not to have seen the Terminator movies, or even to have picked up the pop culture lore that originated with them: Skynet is the computer system that initiated nuclear war on its own volition, and began to rule the world in its own interests--which were not those of its inventors. Never mind the rest of the plot, as you probably either know it or don't care. 

Today is the day (or rather the 22nd anniversary of the day) on which, in the movie, the catastrophe occurs:

The system goes online August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug. (from IMDB)

Hardly a week goes by that I don't see some mention, either a "science" article in the news, or discussion of a movie or a TV show, which deals with some variation of the idea that artificial intelligence will at some point develop human consciousness, "self-awareness," an independent will, emotions, and interests, and so forth: in short, become a person. Sometimes this is presented as a bad thing, sometimes a good thing. 

If this worries you, or if you are eagerly anticipating it, I'm here to tell you: forget it. Don't worry about it. It is never going to happen. If you like stories that play with the idea, fine, have fun, though they're not usually to my taste. But don't concern yourself with the possibility that it might actually happen. 

How can I be so sure? Well, of course I can't say it with 100% certainty. But I'll commit to 99.999%. The reason is that I know how computers work. I am not a computer scientist, just a journeyman programmer, but I do know how the things work at the most fundamental level. And I also can see, as anyone who bothers to think about it can, that the idea that they can develop consciousness is based on a naturalistic assumption about the nature of consciousness--that it is, in us, an epiphenomenon of the brain, and therefore a probably inevitable development in computing machinery that mimics certain functions of the brain. This is a pure act of materialist faith. There is no evidence for it. No one can actually describe in detail how it can happen; it's simply postulated.

We speak of computers "knowing" things, and in a sense they do. But in the same sense it can be said that a light bulb "knows" when it should glow. It "knows" because you flipped a switch that supplied electricity to it. If you set up an array of 256,000,000,000 lights (very roughly the number of on-off switches in a 32 gigabyte computer memory), and rigged up an elaborate mechanism in which symbols representing letters and numbers were encoded as sets of lights that are either on or off, and could be manipulated so that the information represented by the symbols was constantly shifting in accordance with your instructions, do you think the array would somehow have the capacity to "know" what the symbols mean? 

The fact--I feel justified in calling it a fact--is that there is no reason to believe that consciousness is a by-product of any physical process. For dogmatic materialists, it's a necessary belief: consciousness exists, therefore physical processes produced it. To the rest of us it only sounds plausible and reasonable because we're so used to looking at the world through materialist assumptions, or at least prejudices. 

If you want to worry about the risks of artificial intelligence, worry about the extent to which it is able to simulate human mental processes by means of a combination of calculation and symbol manipulation, and thus do things which once required human intelligence. In combination with very advanced robotics, these machines can do an awful lot of jobs that are now, or were once, done by people. That's been going on for some time now, and it has serious social implications. But the machines aren't going to start conspiring against us.

The speech recognition and synthesis involved in, for instance, Apple's Siri, and the fact that the computer that does it can fit in your pocket, do seem almost miraculous compared to the technology of forty years ago when I first got involved with computers. But we all know Siri is not in fact a person. That's part of the reason why it can be amusing to ask "her" silly questions, give "her" impossible commands, and so forth. I think if you dug around you could find predictions made thirty or forty or fifty years ago that computers with the speed and capacity of your phone could and probably would develop true conscious intelligence. But that's no closer than it ever was. Or ever will be.


J. D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy

Donald Trump probably deserves a bit of the credit for this book's popularity. It was published in 2016 when the Great Trump Freakout was well under way, and was often described as providing an explanation for some of Trump's support. There's this New York Times review, for instance: "In ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ a Tough Love Analysis of the Poor Who Back Trump." Or this one from The Guardian: "Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance review – does this memoir really explain Trump’s victory?" These were among the top results from a Google search on the book's title.

If you aren't aware of the book, either of those reviews will give you a fairly good idea of what it's about, in spite of their emphasis on explaining Trump. On the other hand, this review in The New Republic borders on the bizarre. First the reviewer distorts, to say the least, or falsifies, to say more, what Vance says; then she goes off on a long campaign speech for the Democrats. It's something of a textbook case of Trump Derangement Syndrome. Or I suppose I should just say Political Obsession Syndrome: the actual book under consideration aside, she seems to see most of life, good or bad, as being an effect of which government is the cause. 

This focus on Trump and on politics is odd and misleading because the book is not about politics, and only glances occasionally in that direction. It deals with a subculture, which in the deeper South and some other parts of the country is called redneck, but in the hills of Kentucky is...hillbilly. At any rate it's the proud and truculent subculture of the Scots-Irish, the poorer members of which are not doing very well these days.

The subtitle is perfectly accurate, and should perhaps have been more attended to by some of these reviewers: A Memoir of a Family and Culture In Crisis. The book is about a specific family with serious problems, the extent to which those problems are characteristic of their culture, and the author's own fairly narrow escape from them. The focus is, you might say, internal: it's especially on the self-inflicted wounds of alcoholism and drug addiction, and the damage that ripples out from them. Vance recognizes the difficulty of the historical, economic, and social situation in which these people find themselves, but he doesn't view them as helpless victims. No one is forcing them to drink or take pills or shoot heroin, and no one can force them to stop. 

When he steps out from his narrative into a broader view, it is to consider the ways in which the culture which he calls "hillbilly" does and does not--mostly does not--prepare and encourage its members to thrive in the society which, for better or worse, is the one that currently exists. His concern is to tell the particular story, not to explain it in general historical and political terms. The tendency of reviewers to turn it into a mostly political document may have boosted its sales, but it fostered a certain misreading.

Anyway, I have to say that although I enjoyed the book I was a little disappointed in it. I guess I was expecting a more literary work, a more artistically pleasing and interesting one. From that point of view, it's somewhat flat, straightforward but not especially vivid or rich. Still, I'd recommend it fairly enthusiastically if you're interested in the subject at all, especially if you know people like this. Or if you're one of them, in which case you may have a quarrel with Vance: if you're truly one of them, you don't take criticism of your people very well. That's not a putdown, as it's somewhat true of me. I'm not of the hillbilly/redneck class, but I guess I'm genetically pretty close, though with a large admixture of English. And although I am a timid person and don't actually respond with violence to criticism of my people, I'd sort of like to. 

Hillbilly_Elegy(By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,

And by the way, J.D. Vance became Catholic this past weekend. (The link is to Rod Dreher's account of the event--Dreher is a friend of Vance.) That's good news. There isn't much about religion in the book, but the glimpses that do appear are of an extremely individualist and probably ahistorical Protestantism. 

Sometime before too long I think I'm going to read James Webb's book about the history and influence of the Scots-Irish, Born Fighting.

My Career in Information Technology...

...would have been far more interesting if malfunctioning computers would always shoot out noisy sparks, flames, and smoke. Like they do in that TV series I mentioned, Another Life

Even though my wife and I had officially abandoned it, I watched another episode and a half by myself because I really wanted to find out what those aliens were like and what they were up to. But I actually laughed out loud at a couple of not-at-all-meant-to-be funny things. So okay, I give up.

I mostly agree with this review at Some funny comments, too: "Entitled Millenials In Space." And:

Is there something elitist living inside me that I found the crew members unworthy of anything other than maybe stints on The Real World? 

I think "The Real World" is a "reality" series. I've only seen a few episodes of any of those, but the comparison occurred to me, too. Bratty young people engaged in heavy and extremely self-centered emotional dramatics. As another commenter mentions, it's hard to believe these twits would ever have been entrusted with any sort of important duty, let alone manning a spacecraft on The Most Important Mission In Human History.

Why am I even bothering to write this? I guess because I was disposed to like the show, and can't quite believe that it's this bad. It's material for a future Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode.

I am certainly not a scientist, or an engineer, and obviously you have to overlook, if not accept, a certain amount of miraculous future technology in most sci-fi. But this show seemed to me to grossly abuse its privilege. Unlike Star Wars-style space opera, it isn't content just to invoke "warp drive" (or whatever) and have the spaceship travel light years. Too much of it is directly based on applications of scientific or technological pixie dust to create and resolve crises. As best I can recall, this is pretty close to an actual bit:

"We don't have enough oxygen to survive much longer! What are we going to do?!?"

"I don't know...", "Oh my God," etc.

[a few seconds of brow-furrowing]

"Wait--there's a rogue moon ahead. We can mine captive oxygen from its caves!"