Rod Dreher

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Episcopal Haiku Bleg

There’s a book out called Episcopal Haiku. Such as:

The choir rehearses.
A soprano fails to curb
her inner diva.

A summer Sunday.
Men forsake twelve apostles
for golf’s eighteen holes.

The haiku form is three lines: the first line is five syllables, the second is seven syllables, and the third is five syllables. 5/7/5

OK, team, let’s see some haiku from your own religious or philosophical tradition. Where are the Catholic haiku, the Evangelical haiku, the Mainline Protestant haiku, the Orthodox haiku, the Mormon haiku, the Pagan haiku, the Secular Humanist haiku, the Jewish haiku, the Muslim haiku, the Buddhist haiku, the Hindu haiku?

I would like to see Cosimanian Orthodox haiku, but I think he would reject the form entirely.

Remember, the key to doing this well is to make it as specific as you can to your own tradition. For example, here is an Orthodox haiku I just wrote:

As Palamas said:

‘Barlaam, you Scholastic fool,

Hesychasm rocks!’

Here’s the historical-theological reference. 

Have fun with this. Go!

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The Headscarf & The Immanent Frame

(Consider this post to be the other half of the Tudor Farm & Charles Taylor post I put up this morning.)

In the previous post, I wrote about how the philosopher Charles Taylor, in his genealogy of ideas and events that led to our “secular age,” said that the “exclusive humanism” of our time — that is, the idea that the only things that are real are material, and that transcendence does not exist — is only a “take” on reality. There is no way to prove its claims. The secularism of our age consists not in the fact that everybody is Godless, but that all narratives — religious and anti-religious — are contestable.

This leads me to a remarkable report in the current issue of The New Yorker, written by Elif Batuman, a writer who is the daughter of secular Turkish parents who immigrated to America and raised her here. Batuman writes about a trip she made to Turkey a few years ago to report on the discovery of a new archaeological site in the ancient city of Urfa, which is heavily Muslim — and how it gave her a glimpse of an alternate reality that she might have lived, and — being a daughter of a secular age (in the Charles Taylor sense), might choose to live.

Some background first. Her parents, she said, are ardent Kemalists, meaning they fully accepted the modernist revolution Kemal Atatürk imposed on Turkey in the 1920s. They assumed the secular supersessionist narrative: that religion and tradition were things of the past, and the future was rightly going to be secular and Western. The persistence of Islamic belief among the poor and working class in modern Turkey, and the coming to power of Erdogan and the AKP, radically calls that conviction into question.

Batuman, a secular Turkish-American, goes to her ancestral homeland in 2011 to report on the archaeological find. She does not cover her head with a scarf. Everyone is cold, even hostile, to her. But then:

One day, when I had been visiting Abraham’s cave, I forgot to take the scarf off. Walking back through the park, I almost immediately felt that something was different. I passed two beautiful young women in scarves, walking arm-in-arm and laughing about something. When I looked at them, they looked right back into my face and met my eyes, still smiling, as if we were all in the presence of a great joke. I realized that no young women had met my eyes or smiled at me in Urfa till then. As I walked on, I felt a rising sense of freedom, as if for the first time I could look wherever I wanted and not risk receiving a hostile glance. So I kept the scarf on. And then I went back into the city.

This isn’t a scientific study; I didn’t try it multiple times, or measure anything. All I have is my subjective impression, which is this: walking through the city with a head scarf was a completely different experience. People were so much nicer. Nobody looked away when I approached. I felt less jostled; men seemed to step aside, to give me more room. When I went into a store, a man held the door for me, and I realized that it was the first time anyone had reached a door before me without going in first and letting it shut in my face. Most incredibly, when I got to a bus stop shortly after the bus had pulled away, the departing vehicle stopped in the middle of the street, the door opened, and a man reached out his hand to help me in, calling me “sister.” It felt amazing. To feel so welcomed and accepted and safe, to be able to look into someone’s face and smile, and have the smile returned—it was a wonderful gift.

How long can I keep wearing it? I found myself thinking, as the bus lurched into motion and cars honked around us. The rest of the day? Forever?

More:

At that point, another thought came to me, a kind of fantasy, so foreign that I could barely articulate it even to myself: What if I really did it? What if I wore a scarf not as a disguise but somehow for real? I was thirty-four, and I’d been having a lot of doubts about the direction my life was taking. I had had an abortion the previous year, with some reluctance, and everything—every minor defeat, every sign of unfriendliness—still hurt a little extra. I had never felt so alone, and in a way that seemed suddenly to have been of my design, as if I had chosen this life without realizing it, years earlier, when I set out to become a writer. And now a glimmer appeared before me of a totally different way of being than any I had imagined, a life with clear rules and duties that you followed, in exchange for which you were respected and honored and safe. You had children—not maybe but definitely. You didn’t have to worry that your social value was irrevocably tied to your sexual value. You had less freedom, true. But what was so great about freedom? What was so great about being a journalist and going around being a pain in everyone’s ass, having people either be suspicious and mean to you or try to use you for their P.R. strategy? Travelling alone, especially as a woman, especially in a patriarchal culture, can be really stressful. It can make you question the most basic priorities around which your life is arranged. Like: Why do I have a job that makes me travel alone? For literature? What’s literature?

Batuman wonders what she has given up to have the life she has in Manhattan. She’s successful in her job, true, but she’s 34, unmarried, childless and … well, what is life about, anyway? She talks about Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, and how it makes living a more traditional Islamic life feel, well, reasonable compared to the emptiness of the consumerist-hedonist life in the post-Christian West. She writes:

Houellebecq’s vision of an Islamic state, for all its cartoonishness, has a certain imaginative generosity. He portrays Islam not as a depersonalized creeping menace, or as an ideological last resort to which those disenfranchised by the West may be “vulnerable,” but as a system of beliefs that is enormously appealing to many people, many of whom have other options. It’s the same realization I reached in Urfa. Nobody has everything; everyone is trading certain things for others.

 

Read the whole thing.

Nobody has everything; everyone is trading certain things for others. That’s a profound truth.

There is no such place as Utopia; everything is a trade-off. To make a choice is to implicitly exclude other possibilities. But you must choose. You have only one life to live.

What makes you think that you have no choice but to live the disenchanted, disembedded life of a 21st century person? You know it’s only a story, right? That it’s not the truth, or at least not an exclusive truth. Putting the scarf on — I’m speaking symbolically — could reveal layers of meaning to life that we cannot see in our present condition.

This is, in a way, the point of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Putting on the “headscarf” of life in a small Southern town, and accepting its limitations, opened up a new world to me. A different kind of freedom.

We all can identify the symbolic headscarves in our lives, the way of life that we recoil from, thinking it must be too oppressive or at least unpleasant, but that we secretly fear might be just the thing we need. I recall the big-city pastor who once told me that he was counseling a young woman in his congregation, an extremely accomplished up-and-comer who was rising and rising and rising in the meritocracy, but who was perfectly miserable. The pastor said he could see that more than anything, this young woman wanted to be married and the mother of children. But she was blind to it. The exclusive narrative in the culture she inhabited said that the only real meaning and substance to her life was to be found in academic and professional achievement. For all her worldly success, she was blind to what her pastor could see was the satisfaction of her deepest longings — hence the persistence and deepening of her misery, which was a mystery to her.

We all understand, of course, what Batuman says about the liberated lives women in Atatürk’s Turkish Republic had — this, versus the strictly circumscribed lives in traditional Islamic society. That is the dominant narrative here in our culture too, adapted to our own circumstances, of course. Staying in the small town, or remaining in a religiously rigorous way of life, or leaving the workplace (if you’re a woman), or having big families — all of these things are headscarves to us.

But: taking Batuman’s example, would you rather be an unmarried, childless woman standing at a Manhattan reception, in high heels that hurt, being chatted up by a stranger who wants to use you to promote his or her business interests? Or a headscarf-wearing wife and mom living in Urfa, with a sense of direction, meaning, companionship, and fulfillment? The choice seems obvious to us in the West, but as Batuman (who came back to her Manhattan life) indicates, it is by no means clear that she has a better life than the headscarf-wearing women she passed on the street in Urfa.

Who is to say that the headscarf is a symbol of oppression? It may be. But can also be a symbol of liberation. It depends on what you think of as sacred, as meaningful, as fully human. The secular West has a narrative. But it is only that: a narrative.

One of the main points of the Benedict Option is to show that a more traditional, religiously rich way of life, including its restrictions, is not only plausible, s more suited to our flourishing and our ultimate happiness — and therefore, for most people, in most cases, worth the trade-off. It could well be that the militant secularism that characterized Atatürk and his Kemalist successors, and which is now so brittle, is also what’s going to happen to the “exclusive humanism” vision that exercises so much hegemony over our own culture.

And then what?

UPDATE: From Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age:

This kind of multiplicity of faiths has little effect as long as it is neutralized by the sense that being like them is not really an option for me. As long as the alternative is strange and other, perhaps despised, but perhaps just too different, too weird, too incomprehensible, so that becoming that isn’t really conceivable for me, so long will their difference not undermine my embedding in my own faith. This changes when through increased contact, interchange, even perhaps inter-marriage, the other becomes more and more like me, in everything else but faith: same activities, professions, opinions, tastes, etc. Then the issue posed by the difference becomes more insistent: why my way, and not hers? There is no other difference left to make the shift preposterous or unimaginable.

That’s not exactly what Batuman encountered, but it’s close. That is, her “faith” — secular humanism — was shaken when by keeping the headscarf on opened up another realm of possibility to her. She could be like the women she saw on the street. She could have their life, if she wanted it. She had been raised to think that putting on the headscarf (and all that this entails religiously and socially) was incomprehensible, unthinkable. But now it became comprehensible and thinkable for her, because it was a lot more pleasant than she imagined, and it offered a glimpse of fulfillment that was lacking in her life as a secular humanist. And this took her by surprise.

We all know the story: religious believers see that life without God can actually be fulfilling, and lost their faith. What we don’t see — at least not in popular media — is that that goes both ways. And this is what Charles Taylor is trying to make us understand.

 

 

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Tudor Farm & Charles Taylor

The medieval astronomical clock in Prague (Vladimir Wrangel/Shutterstock)
The medieval astronomical clock in Prague (Vladimir Wrangel/Shutterstock)

Last night we watched on YouTube the second episode of Tudor Monastery Farm, the BBC reality/documentary series in which two archeologists and a historian live out the daily lives of tenant farmers on a monastery farm in Tudor England, circa 1500. The kids love the show as much as we do, and it’s fun to watch as a family.

Last night’s episode focused on the sheep as the center of Tudor-era farm life, and the English economy. What stood out about the era was how incredibly hard life was, but also how ingenious people were in inventing techniques and technology to make their lives easier.

The show is helping me in my research for the Benedict Option book, believe it or not. One of the presenters of the program, a self-described atheist named Ruth Goodman, marvels in the second episode, as she did in the first one, over how religion suffused the lives of medieval people. She says that the calendar people lived by was not like our calendar, but rather was ordered around the feast days of saints, and other religious holidays. I mean, they had the same calendar we did, but they related to it in a very different way than we do. These people lived in a cosmos; we live in a universe. Very big difference. I’ll explain below.

Charles Taylor begins his magisterial book A Secular Age by asking why it was almost impossible not to believe in God in 1500, but in 2000, believing in God is seen as something you do with difficulty, if at all. Taylor says that it’s because the late medievals were heirs to a belief system that regarded the world as enchanted. God was everywhere, and ordered all things to Himself. All of Creation — and it was “Creation,” not yet “Nature” — was a sign pointing to its Creator. You really feel this in Tudor Monastery Farm, and the feeling is important, because, says Taylor, what really matters are the things that everybody takes for granted. It is an anachronistic mistake to think that our late medieval ancestors regarded the world as we do, except with a belief in God added to it. They did not. God and things divine were far more present in the imaginations of the people, who looked around them and saw Him. They lived in a cosmos — a universe ordered by God, pregnant with meaning and divine purpose.

The medievals also sacralized time. This is a very difficult thing for us to apprehend today. Evgeny Vodolazkin, the medievalist and author of Laurus, presents a medieval conception of time in his novel. It is one of the most confounding things about the book for modern readers, who are accustomed to regarding time as simple, straightforward, and linear. In fact, as Taylor points out, time was a much more complicated thing for the medievals, who believed that time was grounded in eternity, and that eternal realities ordered time. In his terrific little book about A Secular Age, Jamie Smith describes it like this (the material in quotations below is from Taylor):

In the premodern understanding, because “mundane” or secular time is transcended by “higher” time, there is an accounting of time that is not merely linear or chronological. Higher times “introduce ‘warps’ and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events that were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked” (p. 55). This is somewhat akin to Kierkegaard’s account of “contemporaneity” in Philosophical Fragments: “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997″ (Secular Age, p. 55)

Our “encasing” in secular time has changed this, and so we take our experience of time to be “natural” (i.e., not a construal): “We have constructed an environment in which we live a uniform, univocal secular time, which we try to measure and control in order to get things done” (p. 59). So nothing “higher” impinges upon our calendars — only the tick-tock of chronos, and the self-imposed burdens of our “projects.”

I got a sense of what that felt like from Laurus, but I could see it clearly in Tudor Monastery Farm. 

What I’ve been learning from my intensive reading these past three weeks in theology and history is, well, how we went from Tudor Monastery Farm to where we are today. As theologian Hans Boersma has shown me, the ideas that swept away the TMF worldview were already in play among religious and academic elites for centuries before they had a popular effect. And as Taylor, as well as the historian Brad Gregory, demonstrate, the Reformation was the key event that destroyed the medieval sense of sacramentalism undergirding the TMF “imaginary” (a Taylor word). To be clear, neither Taylor nor Gregory blame the Reformation. The medieval church was massively corrupt, and efforts to reform it from within Catholicism itself inadvertently brought the whole superstructure of medieval belief crashing down — and with it, Christendom.

It’s a much more complex story than I have time to get into in this blog post, and it’s by no means simply a matter of ideas having consequences. It is also true that, as you might put it, consequences also have ideas. That is, you can’t understand why the project of church reform had so much power without also understanding how traumatic the Black Death of the 14th century — which killed one in three Europeans — was for the people of Europe. Plus, it is plain even in Dante, writing in the early 14th century, that the wars fought by the papacy, and its thoroughgoing corruption as a worldly power, was bound to undermine the belief of ordinary Christians.

For all that, it was not the case that the 15th century (the one preceding the Reformation) was a time of falling away from faith. To the contrary, it was a time of great faith among the people — which is why the pressure for reform grew so strongly. Put simply, they wanted the monks and the clergy to live holy lives, as they were supposed to do, and the reformers (not yet the Reformers, if you follow) sought holier lives for the ordinary folks too.

A historian who appeared briefly at the end of Tudor Monastery Farm last night said that in 1500, the medieval harmony held in the English countryside. It was the calm before the storm. Luther’s protest was just around the corner, as was the violent trauma of the English Reformation, including the Henrician dissolution of the monasteries. Though they don’t talk about politics in TMF, it is very clear that the monasteries were economic powerhouses, up until their dissolution. Whatever its theological implications, Henry VIII’s move can be seen as a hostile nationalization of industry. [UPDATE: An academic friend writes to say it was more like a Thatcherite privatization of industry. Henry seized the monasteries then sold them off to raise money. — RD]

It is also true — and this you can see in TMF too — that the advance of technology and the growth of markets was bound to upset the settled medieval consensus. This is what I mean by consequences having ideas: that ideas are seeds that only grow in fertile ground. Political and economic transformations underway in late medieval Europe moved the people’s imaginary, making the ideas of the Reformers more plausible than they would have been otherwise. It doesn’t make the Reformers right (nor does it make them wrong!), but it does explain why things worked out the way they did. What’s more, according to Gregory, the constant warring between Protestants and Catholics in the wake of the Reformation, and the impossibility of resolving theological disputes in the absence of common authority, exhausted Europeans, who began searching for a way to live that bracketed off religion from “real life” for the sake of peace. In other words, Christians brought a lot of this onto themselves by their bloody feuding.

Let’s be clear that it’s not the case that the world became disenchanted the day Luther proclaimed his 95 Theses. Luther himself retained something of the sacramental viewpoint, and it’s somewhat in Calvin. Zwingli was the resolute anti-sacramentalist. In any case, Protestants certainly lived as if God were around them all the time. It’s just that His presence was not metaphysically anchored in materiality the way it had been in medieval times, and over time, that mattered. A lot.

Charles Taylor is extremely careful to say that it did not have to be this way. It is, he stresses, a self-serving anachronism to accept the standard secularist narrative that we live in “reality” now, and that reality is what you get when you strip the God delusion away from society. Had certain actors behaved differently, things might have turned out differently. The point is, “exclusive humanism” — the idea that this world is all there is, and we should seek out happiness and flourishing within it, with no reference at all to the transcendent — is itself a construal, a “take” on reality. Ours is the only civilization in history that has had this particular take, he notes.

There is no clearly demonstrable reason why the medievals were wrong to sacralize time, or to believe that they lived in an enchanted world. The key thing to take from this, though, is that we moderns live in a different plausibility structure than they did. This means that efforts to re-inhabit the medieval worldview cannot succeed, because we can’t un-learn from our experience. For Taylor, “a secular age” means not strictly an age in which religion has been walled off from the common experience. It means primarily an age in which we all know that belief in God, or unbelief in God, is a choice. The fact that belief in God is not taken for granted is what makes this a secular age. Even communities that fervently believe in God live in a secular age, because they are surrounded with evidence, as the medievals were not, that it is possible to live without strong belief, or to live with believing in God in a different way … or not at all.

Taylor’s work calls for epistemic humility. The way the medievals framed reality certainly made perceiving certain truths more difficult. But they were also able to see somethings more clearly than we do. The same is true of our own time. Taylor’s point is that the things that “everybody” takes for granted about how the world works — our “metaphysical dream,” as Richard Weaver put it — is by no means as uncontestable as many of us think. The “immanent frame” our Western culture’s master narrative imposes on our experience of the world — that is, the intellectual structure that orders the only truths we can admit are those that emerge within a system closed to transcendence — cannot forever keep out intimations of transcendence. The history of ideas from 1500 till today suggests that the immanent frame appeals to people today because it makes us free to do whatever we will. After all, if the world is not enchanted, if matter doesn’t have any intrinsic meaning, then we are free to bend it to our wills. There is a line — not a straight line, but an unbroken one — between the disenchantment of matter and the dissolution of gender categories, and transhumanism. The whole idea of “human rights” is parasitic on Christianity, and will not hold without a firm religious foundation.

We ought to consider the possibility that the anti-metaphysical dream is just a story we tell ourselves to justify our own desires and preferences.

The immanent frame liberates, but it also imprisons. More on this in my next post.

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Hillary Clinton (D-Wall Street)

One of these candidates is not like the other (Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com)
One of these candidates is not like the other (Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com)

The Washington Post sets the record straight:

Even as Hillary Clinton has stepped up her rhetorical assault on Wall Street, her campaign and allied super PACs have continued to rake in millions from the financial sector, a sign of her deep and lasting relationships with banking and investment titans.

Through the end of December, donors at hedge funds, banks, insurance companies and other financial-services firms had given at least $21.4 million to support Clinton’s 2016 presidential run — more than one of every 10 dollars of the $157.8 million contributed to back her bid, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission filings by The Washington Post.

The contributions helped Clinton reach a fundraising milestone: By the end of 2015, she had brought in more money from the financial sector during her four federal campaigns than her husband did during his quarter-century political career.

And:

The Bern is feeling it:

There are good reasons to vote against Bernie Sanders. But if you are heavily invested in voting against Wall Street’s economic hegemony, Bernie’s your candidate on the D side. Bizarrely enough, billionaire Donald Trump is the Republican candidate most likely to offend Wall Street.

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Aesthetics As Racism

The New York Times is reporting on “blunt discussions on campus” after last autumn’s racial unrest. At the University of Missouri, a professor teaching a mandatory “diversity” course asked his students to think about why the tennis star Maria Sharapova earns twice as much in product endorsements as Serena Williams, who is a much more accomplished athlete. Excerpt:

And then there was Dr. Brooks, a 43-year-old African-American who teaches “Race and Ethnic Relations” and challenged the students to think about race through the prism of sports. He offered a gentle explanation of the Williams/Sharapova discrepancy: “Maria is considered a beauty queen, but by what standards of beauty? Some people might just say, ‘Oh, well, she’s just prettier.’ Well, according to whom? This spells out how we see beauty in terms of race, this idea of femininity. Serena is often spoofed for her big butt. She’s seen as too muscular.”

By the standards of beauty of most of the people who buy products endorsed by female athletes, maybe? Because Serena Williams looks kind of like a man?

Why does race have to be brought into it? Would a company hire lithe Somali model Iman as a spokesmodel over a short, stocky white woman? You bet they would. Short, stocky Paul Giamatti is arguably a better actor than conventionally handsome Tom Cruise, but who sells more movie tickets? Why does the high school quarterback get all the girls, but not the class valedictorian? Why does good-hearted Betty suffer but rich bitch Veronica always come out ahead? Why Ginger and not Mary Ann?

Look, there’s a really good discussion to have about what makes for standards of beauty, but the idea that Sharapova has more endorsement deals than Williams because RACISM is not a conversation-opener, but rather a conversation-stopper. From the NYT story about the diversity session in which students said nothing when Prof. Brooks brought up racism and Serena Williams’s endorsements:

The new frontier in the university’s eternal struggle with race starts here, with blunt conversations that seek to bridge a stark campus divide. Yet what was evident in this pregnant moment during a new diversity session that the university is requiring of all new students was this: People just don’t want to discuss it.

Of course they don’t! This is the University of Missouri, which convulsed last fall over racial matters, and at which a popular (white) professor resigned when his refusal to reschedule an exam in light of the protests caused people to call him a racist. This is the university whose administration caved repeatedly in the face of protests. It happened at colleges all over the country last fall, as we know.

To challenge the Narrative™ about race, even in an academic setting, is to open oneself to denunciation as a racist, or at least as insensitive to racism. I don’t blame students, especially white students, for keeping their mouths shut in that class. Kids aren’t stupid; they know that to speak aloud the aesthetic judgment that Maria Sharapova is much prettier than Serena Williams is to shout “Workers of the world unite!” in a crowded John Birch Society meeting.

This is the environment that diversocrats and activists have created on campus: one in which it is too dangerous to question the authority of the Narrative™, because the social and professional cost can be too great. If you disagree with the Narrative™ and are courageous, you will speak up and speak out. If you disagree and are smart, you will stay silent, give the impression that you agree, give the authorities what they want, get your degree, and move on with your life.

Learning how to live in untruth, how to keep a poker face in indoctrination sessions like this one without losing your mind or your self-respect, is a skill that will serve you well in corporate America.

Of course there really are good and necessary conversations to have about race, both on campus and in the workplace. There really is a lot to learn, on all sides. But in this atmosphere, it is far too dangerous to have them. If you say the “wrong” thing or ask the “wrong” question, and you may well make yourself a pariah. For the sake of self-preservation, pantomime participation, but don’t let the interrogators into your mind.

This is the real-life lesson these classes are teaching. Congratulations, liberals.

UPDATE: Reader Du Bartas brings up Czeslaw Milosz’s concepts of “ketman” and the “Pill of Murti-Bing” as explanatory. I wrote about the Pill of Murti-Bing in connection with churches whose worshipers won’t see what’s right in front of them because they have too much invested in the person or story that gives their lives meaning. In a New York Review of Books article highlighted by Du Bartas, the late Tony Judt wrote about Milosz, including a reflection on the Pill of Murti-Bing and the idea of “ketman” — both discussed in his book The Captive Mind, which is about the mentality of intellectuals under communism:

But the book is most memorable for two images. One is the “Pill of Murti-Bing.” Milosz came across this in an obscure novel by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Insatiability (1927). In this story, Central Europeans facing the prospect of being overrun by unidentified Asiatic hordes pop a little pill, which relieves them of fear and anxiety; buoyed by its effects, they not only accept their new rulers but are positively happy to receive them.

The second image is that of “Ketman,” borrowed from Arthur de Gobineau’s Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia, in which the French traveler reports the Persian phenomenon of elective identities. Those who have internalized the way of being called “Ketman” can live with the contradictions of saying one thing and believing another, adapting freely to each new requirement of their rulers while believing that they have preserved somewhere within themselves the autonomy of a free thinker—or at any rate a thinker who has freely chosen to subordinate himself to the ideas and dictates of others.

Ketman, in Milosz’s words, “brings comfort, fostering dreams of what might be, and even the enclosing fence affords the solace of reverie.” Writing for the desk drawer becomes a sign of inner liberty. At least his audience would take him seriously if only they could read him:

Fear of the indifference with which the economic system of the West treats its artists and scholars is widespread among Eastern intellectuals. They say it is better to deal with an intelligent devil than with a good-natured idiot.

Between Ketman and the Pill of Murti-Bing, Milosz brilliantly dissects the state of mind of the fellow traveler, the deluded idealist, and the cynical time server.

I bet most of the kids in that diversity session — the ones who hadn’t taken the Pill of Ta-Nehisi-Bing were practicing ketman.

That’s what we’ll say happened to the campus liberals (students, professors, and administrators) who believe that embracing race radicalism will save them: they have taken the Pill of Ta-Nehisi-Bing.

UPDATE.2: I chose that particular photo of Williams because it was the one in Shutterstock that best highlighted the professor’s observation that Williams’s musculature violates the customary standard of beauty. But okay, here’s an unflattering one of Sharapova grimacing while playing the game, followed by one of Williams all dressed up. I think Serena Williams is a beautiful woman. But she’s not Sharapova.

 

UPDATE.3: Here’s a Buzzfeed visual crosscultural history of ideal female body types, going back to Ancient Egypt. Notice that there is considerable variation in body types, but in no case cited is Serena Williams’s body type considered ideal. Contemporary black women who have the ideal contemporary body types — e.g., Beyoncé, Rihanna — are, unsurprisingly, considered style and beauty icons. No white woman who has Serena Williams’s body type would be, no matter what her accomplishments. You might say that’s unfair, but is it racist? Why bring race into it?

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‘Poor Jeb’? Not So Fast

Have rumors of his political demise been greatly exaggerated? (Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com)
Have rumors of his political demise been greatly exaggerated? (Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com)

We’ve all had fun smirking at the awful poll numbers of Jeb “Please Clap” Bush, but these new results for New Hampshire are startling:

Donald Trump is atop the GOP presidential field in New Hampshire by 17 points, according to a new poll.

Trump earns 31 percent support, compared with 14 percent for his closest competitor, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, according the Harper Polling survey released Wednesday.

This is the first time in recent months that Bush has placed second in New Hampshire, where he currently averages 9.8 percent support, according to RealClearPolitics.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich ranks third in the new poll with 12 percent, followed by Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) with 10 and 9 percent, respectively.

Another 8 percent remain undecided.

Saturday night’s New Hampshire Republican debate is going to be decisive, I think. What it will decide is second and third place. If Bush and Kasich manage to bump Cruz and Rubio down the list on primary day, what next for the Establishment? They thought they had a horse in post-Iowa Rubio, and chances are they do. But if Rubio places third in Iowa and doesn’t even place in New Hampshire, what does that say about him? It’s difficult to imagine a way forward out of New Hampshire for Jeb Bush, but he can certainly make a difficult path to the nomination for Marco Rubio even harder.

On the other hand, a different NH poll has Trump way out in front, but Rubio moving up to second, and Jeb far back. So maybe the Ancien Régime won’t have as much to worry about as the Harper poll suggests.

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On Writing & Failed Oysters

Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Sociologist and musician Richard Sennett, in Spiked:

“Good craftsmen are not expressing themselves. They’re expressing something outside themselves. In that sense, craft is not about selfhood. When somebody declares to you, ‘I feel I have a novel in me, but of course at the moment I’m working in advertising’, you know that person is never going to be an artist. ‘I have this novel hidden inside myself, I’m an artist without an art’. I don’t believe that sort of thing. And I don’t believe in the ethos of personal creativity. You either do it or you don’t. …”

Strangers often say to me, “I have a book inside me,” or something like that. I understand the feeling — I spent my twenties thinking that — but in almost every case, they are doomed to suffer what Truman Capote called the condition of a failed oyster: “irritation with no resulting pearl.”

Sennett is correct: if you had a book inside of you, you would have been working to get it out. Usually the people who say things like this to me have not written a thing — and they are not young, either. The thing is, writing is very hard work. I remember in my mid-twenties, in the winter I spent by myself living in a country house, waking up in the morning, staring at the blank screen of my PowerBook, wondering how I was going to fill it. I didn’t write a single word that winter. I had nothing to say, and equally important, had not yet developed a craftsman’s skills. Those would come only through years of writing, especially writing on deadline for newspapers.

My sister thought I was getting away with murder when I had a job as a professional film critic. Paid to sit on your butt watching movies, and all you have to do is write down your opinion about it? That’s the life! The thing is, she couldn’t have pulled it off if she had had a gun to her head. It’s not that I was a particularly good film critic; it’s that I was a craftsman. Every newspaper journalist has to do some version of what I did as a critic: take chaos and make meaning out of it, on deadline. It’s great training.

What it does is allow the writer to hone her expressive abilities. What it cannot do is either give the writer something worth expressing, or give the writer the inner drive necessary to get her through the years of dull practice that will prepare her to be a writer of accomplishment. In my case, writing my first book, Crunchy Constook so much out of me that I thought I would never be able to write another book. That book came out 10 years ago this month (February 21, 2006), and I laugh now at the memory of laying in bed the night before publication, too nervous to sleep, imagining all the riches that were about to come my way. I genuinely could not comprehend that something I had worked so hard on, and agonized so intensely over, could fail to be anything but a massive success.

Well, I learned my lesson, and a hard lesson it was. All writers have to learn it. I was so disappointed that I thought for sure I would never write another book. I couldn’t go through that ordeal again, only to see it fizzle out in the marketplace.

A decade later, I’m working on my fourth book. I’m still hoping for the big commercial breakthrough, but I know now that the odds remain very much against me (and against all writers). Why do I do it? Because I have to. Fish gotta swim, and I gotta write. I’m almost 50 years old, and have been a professional writer for nearly 30 years. What I know now that I didn’t know when I was starting out is how much sheer artistic drive matters.

I began as a writer because I enjoyed journalism very much. I loved to read, to see how the pros could conjure images, draw forth emotions, and even change minds by the power of words. I had a knack for writing, and I found it … fun. A flimsy word, but a far more truthful one to my own experience than any kind of hallowing language. I made a lot of mistakes in my early career, and made them in public, on the pages of the newspaper. But I kept going because I really had no choice. That was my job. Having to pay bills with my words forced me to get over my embarrassment at the roughness of my writing. I couldn’t afford to be too self-conscious. I just had to live with the shame of mediocrity, learn from my superiors, and try to get better.

Over time, I did get better, and I came to love writing as much as life itself, though I didn’t know what was happening to me until after it had happened. At some IMG_6323point, I can’t say exactly when, writing ceased to be what I did, and became who I was. When journalism students ask me today for career advice, it’s hard to know what to tell them, because I swear I can’t come up with a formula, and anyway, the market is vastly different today than it was when I entered newspapering in 1989. If I had never become a newspaper writer, I probably would never have become a writer, period. My anxiety, my self-doubt, and my lack of a craftsman’s discipline would have stymied the artist in me. Newspapering compelled me to become a craftsman, and made it possible, therefore, to try to become something more than a craftsman (I’m still trying). That path is now much narrower, owing to the turmoil in the media industry, and that is something greatly to be regretted.

The only real piece of advice I have to offer is the same advice Rilke gave to Kappus, the young poet who wrote the older poet asking for direction in his career. Rilke wrote:

There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity.

And if not, find something else to do with your life. You will never be a writer, and you will put yourself through misery on the way to a dead end. The long hours, the low pay, the lack of job security in the journalism industry — it’s not worth it unless you know in your heart of hearts that this is what you were born to do. You have to ask yourself if it’s worth putting your spouse and family through the misery of being part of the life of a journalist. For most of my children’s childhood, we were never able to eat dinner together as a family on weeknights, because I came home at a different hour each night, usually after dinnertime. Even today, it is no fun having a writer as a husband and father.

What’s more, if you manage to produce a book, you must be able to bear the near-certainty that your work will never find a publisher, and if it does, the odds are overwhelmingly against it being a big commercial success. You have to have it within you to pick up and carry on, and return to writing. The only way to do that, the only way you, Sisyphus, can push that damn rock up the mountain one more time, the only way you can keep going after having to stand before your audience and beg them, “Please clap,” is if the deep answer within you to Rilke’s question is: Yes, I must write; it’s who I am.

As Sennett said, you either write or you don’t write. If you aren’t writing now, even non-professionally, chances are you never will. If you don’t start now, forget it. Nobody likes to hear that. It’s a hard truth, but a useful one to learn.

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When Liberals Were Pro-Life

Emma Green has a fascinating article about a new work of history shining light on the progressive roots of the pro-life movement. Excerpt:

In a new book, Defenders of the Unborn, the historian Daniel K. Williams looks at the first years of the self-described pro-life movement in the United States, focusing on the long-overlooked era before Roe. It’s somewhat surprising that the academy hasn’t produced such a history before now, although Williams says that’s partially because certain archives have only recently opened. But the gap in scholarship is also partly due to the difficulty of putting abortion into a single intellectual framework. “Too many historians took for granted that the pro-life movement emerged as a backlash against feminism, and/or as a backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973,” Williams said in an interview. Many of today’s most ardent anti-abortion activists likely identify with this kind of sexual conservatism and resentment toward a meddling government. But in many ways, their political convictions are counter to the original aspirations of the movement. As Williams writes in his book, “The pro-life movement that we have always labeled ‘conservative’ was at one time much more deeply rooted in the liberal rights-based values than we might have suspected.”

Without knowing this history, Williams argues, it’s difficult to understand why pro-life views have had such staying power in American politics, even as public opinion on other social issues, such as LGBT rights and birth-control use, has steadily shifted to become more permissive. Abortion, he says, has a different history. Its early opponents thought it was their duty, and their government’s duty, to protect the unborn alongside the poor and the weak. They believed their position offered women empowerment, not oppression.

Most importantly, this history shows how contorted the abortion debate has become, as women’s bodies and children’s futures have been turned into rhetorical proving grounds for politicians left and right. Today, pro-life Democrats are nearly extinct, and openly pro-choice Republicans rarely make it to a national stage like this year’s presidential race. Fifty years ago, this wasn’t the case. What happened to America’s progressive pro-lifers?

Read the whole thing. In brief, the pre-Roe pro-life movement was heavily Catholic, and the pro-life Catholics saw defending the unborn as part of a seamless garment with New Deal-type measures to defend workers and help the poor. And some conservatives of the 1960s favored abortion as a way to keep down the population of welfare recipients.

In the 1970s, post-Roe, that all changed. Abortion came to be spoken of in terms of gender and sexuality, not human rights. By the end of the decade, with so many Evangelicals moving into the pro-life camp, and social conservatives being pushed out of a Democratic Party that was fast moving leftward on social and cultural issues, abortion politics were slotted into the familiar left-right categories we know today.

But it wasn’t always that way, and that, says Ball, may explain why the complexity of the abortion issue cannot be neatly fitted into our contemporary political ideologies. Again, read the whole thing. It’s really thought-provoking.

[H/T: Caroline Nina]

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‘Mom, I Think We Have Peak Dad’

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“Mom, I think we have Peak Dad,” said my son Matthew, spying the scene above, where I had been working. Too true. I’m very deep down the Benedict Option book research rabbit hole.

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Fun With Fly Vomit & E. Coli

My late father was a state health inspector in his first career. That made life around our house interesting. I’ll never forget him fussing at us kids one day for not covering up food left out on the counter, thereby leaving it vulnerable to house flies.

“Do you know what a fly does when he lands on food?” he said. “He vomits on it. They showed us a training film with a close-up of a fly puking on a slice of lemon meringue pie.”

Turns out that’s not really true — flies don’t vomit, but they do drool — but it was close enough to freak us out, and make us shape up. Over four decades later, I cannot look at lemon meringue pie without thinking of upchucking houseflies. Yeah, it was fun having a health inspector for a dad.

I bet it’s much tougher having as your father Bill Marler, who is arguably the No. 1 food safety lawyer in the country. In a recent piece, he listed the six foods his experience has taught him never to eat. Among them:

3. Meat that isn’t well-done. Marler orders his burgers well-done. “The reason ground products are more problematic and need to be cooked more thoroughly is that any bacteria that’s on the surface of the meat can be ground inside of it,” Marler says. “If it’s not cooked thoroughly to 160°F throughout, it can cause poisoning by E. coli and salmonella and other bacterial illnesses.” As for steaks, needle tenderizing—a common restaurant practice in which the steak is pierced with needles or sliced with knives to break down the muscle fibers and make it more tender—can also transfer bugs from the surface to the interior of the meat. If a restaurant does this (Marler asks), he orders his steak well-done. If the restaurant doesn’t, he’ll opt for medium-well.

 

And:

6. Raw oysters and other raw shellfish. Marler says that raw shellfish—especially oysters—have been causing more foodborne illness lately. He links this to warming waters, which produce more microbial growth. “Oysters are filter feeders, so they pick up everything that’s in the water,” he explains. “If there’s bacteria in the water it’ll get into their system, and if you eat it you could have trouble. I’ve seen a lot more of that over the last five years than I saw in the last 20 years. It’s simply not worth the risk.”

I cited those two because I love my steaks medium-rare, and like my burgers pink inside. And of course I absolutely adore raw oysters. I confess, though, that I eat a lot fewer Louisiana oysters than I have in the past, simply because our waters here are warmer.

In a really interesting follow-up interview with the Washington Post, Marler told a stunning anecdote:

Do you know the juice Odwalla? Well, the juice is made by a company in California, which has made all sorts of other juices, many of which have been unpasteurized, because it’s more natural. Anyway, they were kind of like Chipotle, in the sense that they had this aura of good and earthy and healthful. And they were growing very quickly. And they had an outbreak. It killed a kid in Colorado, and sickened dozens of others very seriously, and the company was very nearly brought to its knees. [The outbreak, which was linked to apple juice produced by Odwalla, happened twenty years ago].

If you look at how they handled the PR stuff, most PR people would say well, they handled it great. They took responsibility, they were upfront and honest about it, etc etc. What’s interesting though is that behind the scenes, on the legal side of the equation, I had gotten a phone call, which by itself isn’t uncommon. In these high profile cases, people tend to call me—former employees, former government officials, family members of people who have fallen ill, or unknown people giving me tips. But this one was different. It was a Saturday—I remember it well—and someone left me a voicemail telling me to make sure I get the U.S. Army documents regarding Odwalla. I was like ‘what the heck, what the heck are they talking about?’ So I decided to follow up on it, and reached out to the Army and got something like 100 pages of documents. Well, it turned out that the Army had been solicited to put Odwalla juice on Army PX’s, which sell goods, and, because of that, the Army had gone to do an inspection of a plant, looked around and wrote out a report. And heres what’s nuts: it had concluded that Odwalla’s juice was not fit for human consumption.

Wow.

It’s crazy, right? The Army had decided that Odwalla’s juice wasn’t fit for human consumption, and Odwalla knew this, and yet kept selling it anyway. When I got that document, it was pretty incredible. But then after the outbreak, we got to look at Odwalla’s documents, which included emails, and there were discussions amongst people at the company, months before the outbreak, about whether they should do end product testing—which is finished product testing—to see whether they had pathogens in their product, and the decision was made to not test, because if they tested there would be a body of data. One of my favorite emails said something like “once you create a body of data, it’s subpoenable.”

So, basically, they decided to protect themselves instead of their consumers?

Yes, essentially. Look, there are a lot of sad stories in my line of work. I’ve been in ICUs, where parents have had to pull the plug on their child. Someone commented on my article about the six things I don’t eat, saying that I must be some kind of freak, but when you see a child die from eating an undercooked hamburger, it does change your view of hamburgers. It just does. I am a lawyer, but I’m also a human.

Readers, have you ever had serious food poisoning? If so, did it affect the way you eat? I can think of only one time I had it bad, and that was when both my wife and I got very sick on Christmas Day from undercooked chicken we had eaten the night before. Salmonella, I guess. It was unreal, the misery. Since then, we have been a lot more careful about how we cook chicken. You don’t forget something like that.

 

 

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