Alan Jacobs

Boomers and E-Reading

Photograph by André Kertesz, from an essay by Sven Birkets on reading

I bought my first e-reader some years ago in a curious but skeptical frame of mind. But gradually over the years I have read fewer and fewer codexes, more and more electronic versions. I might have gone wholly digital by this point except for two things. First, many of the books I read I read in order to teach, and I have never gotten comfortable with navigating through an electronic text in class. It’s slow and awkward for me. And second, I started buying electronic books from Amazon and so am locked into their e-reading ecosystem, and I don’t like that. (Yes, I know how to extract the books from their DRM prison, but that’s a tedious and time-consuming process.) So I remain a regular purchaser of codexes.

But you know, like many people my age, I don’t see quite as well as I used to: even with trifocals, finding the right distance for text can be challenging. And light-sensitivity decreases with age, so I find myself looking for brighter lamps under which to read. Reading on an iPad or a Kindle Paperlight solves both of these problems: I can get text the size I want and plenty of light in every environment.

And I suspect that as I age the conveniences of e-readers will only become more appealing. When my back hurts I might want to lie on my side for an extended period, and we all know how awkward that can be with a codex. Or maybe my eyes will get tired more often, at which point I can put on my headphones and let the machine read the book to me for a while. I might become more forgetful, leaving the books I need behind more often, in which case having just one object to remember will make life easier.

So perhaps it won’t be young people but rather older ones who bring about the decline of the codex. Almost everyone I know who plays vinyl records on a turntable is thirty years younger than I am; maybe something similar will happen with books. Twenty years down the line, the retirement homes will be lit by the glow of screens, while the young hipsters in their coffeeshops will be savoring the tactile and olfactory pleasures of well-printed cloth-bound books.

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How Dare You?

Sometimes people quit the internet — and quit other things because of the internet. For instance, Hugo Schwyzer, who has made a name for himself online primarily as an advocate for feminism, has said goodbye — largely, it seems, because he has mental health issues that he feels are incompatible with handling the often toxic culture of online commentary.

The toxicity of take-down culture is exhausting and dispiriting. The cheapest and easiest tweets and articles to compose are snarky and clever dismantlings of what someone else has worked hard to create. The defenders of this culture of fierceness call it intellectual honesty, but it is an honesty too often edged in cruelty. I’ll admit It: I’m a most imperfect man. I have an absolutely dreadful past, one for which I continue to make quiet amends. I’m also frequently a smug and sloppy writer. But despite that past and my glib prose, I don’t think I’m wrong that when it comes to a concerted effort to drive me off the internet, I’ve been more sinned against than sinning.

And then there’s Phil Fish, the creator of a popular independent computer game called Fez. Fish had been working on a sequel to Fez but then, rather suddenly it seems, came to this conclusion:


As you maybe able to tell from what I’ve quoted, Schwyzer and Fish are both pretty volatile, indeed confrontational, types and may not at all be “more sinned against than sinning.” That’s not a debate I want to pursue, in relation to either man, though Lord knows you can find thousands of people on the internet who are pursuing it right now.

What I find interesting, though, is the number of posts I’ve come across written by people who insist, vociferously and passionately, that Schwyzer is wrong to quit the internet, or Fish is wrong to stop development on his game. I’m not going to link to these posts or comments, in part because it’s too depressing to go back to them again and in part because I don’t want to give them the hits, but the specifically moral outrage is noteworthy. It seems obvious to me that if someone wants to stop blogging, or close down/make private his Twitter account, or give up on a self-chosen work project or, in a related matter, write books slowly or not at all, I have no right to an opinion about that. None of those people owe me their presence or their creative activity.

But a great many people don’t feel as I do, and I wonder why that is. I suspect the simplest answer may also be the most correct one: There are a great many people in the world who make no distinction between “I want this to happen” and “I will be wronged if this doesn’t happen.” Even if what I want to happen is for someone to be available for me to write angry messages to.

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A Note on Christianity and the Intellectual Life

Over the past few days I’ve been mulling over the thoughts from Frederica Mathewes-Green that Rod shared over at his joint. This is not easy because I don’t think Frederica — everyone else seems to call her Frederica, so I guess I will too, even though I don’t know her; I hope that’s not disrespectful — has been very clear in formulating her objections.

Her follow-up comment doesn’t help much either. She tells the story of people at an academic conference behaving very rudely towards her, especially one elderly priest who (incoherently) denounced her writing, and concludes that the experience “confirmed my lack of enthusiasm for pure-theory theology.” But as I read the story, I can’t see that it has anything at all to do with “pure-theory theology,” but rather with a malformed community that delights in conflict and treats its guests inhospitably. That’s not a theoretical or theological failure, that’s a collective failure of Christian charity.

In that same comment of clarification, Frederica writes, “I see that my objection is to the custom of purely intellectual theologizing, separated from communion with God.” But anything human beings do, including inviting speakers to conferences, can go badly awry when “separated from communion with God.” Why single out intellectual activity? Frederica prefers to celebrate, in order, “the experience of God’s presence,” “community,” and “the teaching of the Church.” Yet those are vulnerable goods as well, when isolated from one another. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

So I’m still not sure that I know what Frederica means by “pure-theory theology,” but I am certain that it is no more likely to lose its way than anything else we broken and miserable humans do. We are never unable to make a mess of something.

And one more point. Frederica writes,

Primary, for me, is the experience of God’s presence. Right from the start, almost 40 yrs ago, that electrifying experience, that voice that “speaks with authority,” that’s absolutely primary.

And it is the experience of a person, not a spiritual shimmer or “oneness with the universe.” It has all the complexity and beauty of personality, though it’s clear that what I can encounter is only the very surface of the reality; it’s just, it’s all I can grasp. Anything further would explode me.

To which I have to reply, Nice ecstasy if you can get it, but some of us can’t get it even if we try. I have been following Jesus for thirty-five years or so now, and I have never once had the kind of experience that Frederica speaks of as normal and foundational for her. I have often asked for some “showing,” as Julian of Norwich called her own visions of the divine, but have never received anything. Perhaps if I had experienced the blessing of God’s immediacy that Frederica regularly receives, I would be as skeptical of the intellectual life as she is. So far, no dice.

But the intellectual exploration of the Christian faith, the pursuit of understanding Scripture and the great traditions of Christian thought, has been immensely nourishing to my soul over the years. It is through study and reflection, as well as through certain modes of worship that have come to saturate my being, that I am able to draw nearer to God, or rather, to allow Him to draw nearer to me. (I am, after all, asked to love the Lord my God with all my mind as well as my heart and soul.)

Is it possible that these intellectual pursuits could lead me astray, could be divorced from “communion with God”? Indeed it is. But the desire for spiritual experience or for community can also be so divorced. We’re really all in the same boat: We have received gifts of which we are the stewards. We must neither cast those gifts aside nor make idols of them. This is hard, and none of us has an easy road. So let us be kind and forbearing towards one another.

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More About Reza Aslan’s Zealot Than I Wanted To Write (Or Than You Want to Read, Probably)

First, Reza Aslan is not a New Testament scholar. In Zealot, he is writing well outside his own academic training. This does not mean that his book is a bad one, or that he shouldn’t have written it, only that it is primarily a sifting and re-presenting of the work of actual NT scholars.

Moreover, there is nothing remotely new in Aslan’s book. Its general outlines very closely follow the story told by John Dominic Crossan in his 1994 book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, which was itself a kind of summation of work Crossan and his colleagues had been doing for the previous quarter-century. (Aslan is more prone to see Jesus as a consciously political revolutionary than Crossan, who writes of Jesus’s message, “It did not invite a political revolution but envisaged a social one at imagination’s most dangerous depths” [196]; but in other respects Aslan’s picture of Jesus so closely resembles Crossan’s that it’s peculiar, at least, to see the earlier book go barely acknowledged in those notes.) Aslan makes no new discoveries, and makes no arguments that haven’t already been made — in some cases very long ago.

Let’s look at just one issue that tells us something about how Aslan handles his business. In Chapter 4 he writes,

Whatever languages Jesus may have spoken, there is no reason to believe that he could read or write in any of them, not even Aramaic. Luke’s account[s of Jesus’s literacy] … are both fabulous concoctions of the evangelist’s own devising. Jesus would not have had access to the kind of formal education necessary to make Luke’s account even remotely credible.

This an exceptionally definitive statement in two noteworthy ways.

First, Aslan asserts that Luke was a conscious fabulist. Yet even if Luke were wrong about Jesus’s literacy — or about anything else — there is more than one way to explain those errors. For instance, Richard Bauckham’s important and much-celebrated book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses — which Aslan appears not to know — makes a strong case that Luke’s Gospel, like the others, is based on the testimony of those who claimed to be eyewitnesses. Especially since Luke places such emphasis on his attempt to gather reliable witnesses to the life of Jesus, wouldn’t it make sense to attribute his errors (if they exist) to his interviewees’ lively imaginations or poor memories, and to his own credulousness, rather than to intentional deception? Yet Aslan never considers any other possible explanation than the one he blandly asserts without argument.

But, second, can we be so sure that Luke was wrong about Jesus being literate? Aslan again just states that Jesus could neither read nor write, but if we look at the bibliographical essays at the end of Zealot we discover that he knows perfectly well that the situation is far more complicated than that. One of the chief sources he cites is John P. Meier’s Jesus: A Marginal Jew, and, as Aslan must acknowledge, “Meier actually believes that Jesus was not illiterate and that he even may have had some kind of formal education, though he provides an enlightening account of the debate on both sides of the argument” (230n). So there’s an argument on this point? One wouldn’t learn that from reading the actual text of Zealot, only from burrowing deep into the apparatus.

In fact, Aslan is following the logic of Crossan here, who wrote — though again Aslan does not cite him —, “Since between 95 and 97 percent of the Jewish state was illiterate at the time of Jesus, it must be presumed that Jesus also was illiterate” (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography 25). Aslan, as one might expect, just says “97%” — but both he and Crossan are wildly oversimplifying an immensely complex question, as I discovered when I tried to navigate the vast pile of evidence provided by Catherine Hezser in her Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine. Confession: I didn’t get far in Hezser’s book, but far enough to realize that the invocation of statistics like “between 95 and 97 percent” and “97%” is a comically inept attempt to use numbers plucked from the air to give a false appearance of scientific accuracy in overwhelmingly difficult and evidence-poor situations.

The chief point I want to make here is that in claiming that Jesus was illiterate Aslan is (a) asserting flatly a point that is seriously disputed among New Testament scholars and (b) making no new claim. Indeed, the claim was not remotely new when Crossan made it: probably armchair atheists have been making it since before there were armchairs, but among New Testament scholars it goes back at least to Light from the East by Adolf Deissmann, the first edition of which appeared in 1908.

So, in sum: Reza Aslan’s book is an educated amateur’s summary and synthesis of a particularly skeptical but quite long-established line of New Testament scholarship, presented to us as simple fact. If you like that kind of thing, Zealot will be the kind of thing you like.

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The End of Growth?

Claude Lorrain, Aeneas and Dido in Carthage, via Wikipaintings
Claude Lorrain, Aeneas and Dido in Carthage, via Wikipaintings

UPDATE: Feel free to ignore what follows and just jump ahead to Noah Millman’s super-smart and super-provocative response to it. Go ahead: GO.

As I wrote in a post a while back, economic growth is wonderful—but what if it doesn’t happen? The economist Robert Gordon thinks it won’t—indeed that it can’t—and he’s trying to spread the bad news:

The forces of the second industrial revolution, he believes, were so powerful and so unique that they will not be repeated. The consequences of that breakthrough took a century to be fully realized, and as the internal combustion engine gave rise to the car and eventually the airplane, and electricity to radio and the telephone and then mass media, they came to rearrange social forces and transform everyday lives. Mechanized farm equipment permitted people to stay in school longer and to leave rural areas and move to cities. Electrical appliances allowed women of all social classes to leave behind housework for more fulfilling and productive jobs. Air-conditioning moved work indoors. The introduction of public sewers and sanitation reduced illness and infant mortality, improving health and extending lives. The car, mass media, and commercial aircraft led to a liberation from the narrow confines of geography and an introduction to a far broader and richer world. Education beyond high school was made accessible, in the aftermath of World War II, to the middle and working classes. These are all consequences of the second industrial revolution, and it is hard to imagine how those improvements might be extended: Women cannot be liberated from housework to join the labor force again, travel is not getting faster, cities are unlikely to get much more dense, and educational attainment has plateaued. The classic example of the scale of these transformations is Paul Krugman’s description of his kitchen: The modern kitchen, absent a few surface improvements, is the same one that existed half a century ago. But go back half a century before that, and you are talking about no refrigeration, just huge blocks of ice in a box, and no gas-fired stove, just piles of wood. If you take this perspective, it is no wonder that the productivity gains have diminished since the early seventies. The social transformations brought by computers and the Internet cannot match any of this.

It’s that last sentence that really gets me thinking: What if the amazing achievements of information technology, cool though they undoubtedly are, prove incapable of addressing certain underlying material realities that limit economic growth? That is, what if our electronic gadgets and the world-wide informational networks they plug us into have, over the long haul, only a relatively superficial effect on our overall economic health?

Moreover, it’s important to note that economic prosperity has the strong tendency to establish a new baseline of normalcy. I grew up half-a-century ago in a ramshackle old house in Birmingham, Alabama where our house lacked, among other things,

  • air-conditioning
  • central heat
  • cable television (we got four channels)
  • a microwave oven
  • a dishwasher (other than my grandmother)
  • a shower (tub only in our single bathroom)
  • a clothes dryer

—and, of course, computers. We didn’t even have a typewriter until I asked for one for Christmas when I was in high school. Our one automobile had neither air-conditioning nor power steering nor power brakes. Power windows had been invented but we didn’t even know anyone who lived in such luxury. And yet we were by no means poor: we had an economically stable working-class urban life, with access to good medical and dental care and the ability to buy almost any kind of food we were interested in.

But if you threw me back into that world now, and equipped me exactly as I was equipped then, I would feel horribly impoverished and it would surely take me years to stop thinking of myself as constantly afflicted and deprived—if I ever managed to get there.

So if Robert Gordon is right, and if what I have just said about how we respond to prosperity is right, then it becomes easy to imagine a society in which people become ever more dependent on their network connections to distract them from a stagnant or perhaps even increasingly dismal economic condition. Shades of Philip K. Dick.

All this just makes me want to re-emphasize a point I made in that earlier post: “We need to strive to articulate and commend visions of the good life, of human flourishing, that do not depend on economic growth. Then, if the growth comes, well and good—what a delightful bonus.” Those who think they can make growth happen, go for it—I’ll cheer you on. But the great majority of us will need to be tending our cultural and moral gardens so that our children will be founded and established as persons in such a way that (relative) poverty will not crush them. It was possible to flourish as a human being in the conditions I grew up in—in fact, people do it all the time, even today, and have flourished in worse environments in the past.

Such flourishing will still be possible in the future, even if economic conditions decline. But because of the (real or imaginary) baseline that has been established in recent decades, and is reinforced by almost all of our mass media, it won’t be easy. As I try to prepare myself to let my son go out into the world on his own—he’s a rising junior in college—I hope my wife and I have helped prepare him to make a good living for himself and his future family. But even more I hope we have prepared him to be the kind of person whose mental and moral health will not depend on his achieving a historically high level of economic success. Because the level we think of as average or normal may in the not-too-distant future be available only to a select few.

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Problems of Engineering and Problems of Life

One of the key themes of the book I’m just beginning to work on — provisionally titled Christian Humanism and Total War — is that the renewal of Christian humanism during World War II owes less to the war itself than to a crucial development that (inevitably) accompanied the war: a dramatically accelerating transformation of the Western democracies into militarized technocracies.

I recently discovered a 1944 essay by T. S. Eliot called “The Responsibility of the Man of Letters in the Cultural Restoration of Europe” that addresses this transformation and provides a very concise summary of the Christian humanist response to this social transformation. This passage in particular is key:

I have suggested that the cultural health of Europe, including the cultural health of its component parts, is incompatible with extreme forms of both nationalism and internationalism. But the cause of that disease, which destroys the very soil in which culture has its roots, is not so much extreme ideas, and the fanaticism which they stimulate, as the relentless pressure of modern industrialism, setting the problems which the extreme ideas attempt to solve. Not least of the effects of industrialism is that we become mechanized in mind, and consequently attempt to provide solutions in terms of engineering, for problems which are essentially problems of life.

A good word not only for that hour but for our own.

The essay is available various places online, often under somewhat different titles (it was reprinted by several periodicals in the year following its first publication): one version may be found here.

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Dante and His Readers

Fiona Sampson’s review of Clive James’s new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy is a somewhat slapdash piece of work. For instance, she writes that “According to James, most English translations fail to bring across the assonant and alliterative interplay of Dante’s original, because they are busy with the almost impossible task of reproducing its terza rima, the chain-link rhyme scheme.” In fact, James does not say this — I’ve read his Introduction to his translation — because no major translator since Dorothy Sayers has even tried to reproduce Dante’s terza rima fully. (Even Laurence Binyon’s translation, the best-known one immediately preceding Sayers, doesn’t stick with terza rima consistently — in citing him as an example Sampson ends up quoting a passage that departs from Dante’s original scheme, though she doesn’t notice this.)

So in rendering Dante’s verse more flexibly, James is just doing what the poet’s English translators have been doing for the past fifty years — though I don’t know of anyone else who has adopted his preferred solution of writing in rhymed quatrains. If I were translating Dante I wouldn’t try to force rhyme-poor English into terza rima — one look at the indignities Sayers inflicts on Dante and English alike ought to cure anyone of that temptation — but I would insist on keeping the tercets, in order to acknowledge that the number three is the absolutely foundational structural principle of the whole Divine Comedy. That James is willing to dispense with that suggests a certain deafness to Dante’s theological concerns.

But the main point I want to emphasize here stems from another error that Sampson makes, an extremely common one, even among highly literate and well-educated people. Here’s the relevant quote:

Divine reckoning is not only necessary; it is both inescapable and precise. Deceivers, in the eighth circle of hell, are put into ten subdivisions, including seducers, flatterers, hypocrites and false counsellors. The imagination of medieval Christendom was often highly literal, as well as visual, in this way. The concentric circles Dante pictured in the afterlife also appear widely elsewhere over the next few centuries – in Vasari’s designs for the frescoes in the dome of Florence’s cathedral, or the “doom” window of the Church of St Mary in Fairford, Gloucestershire. Christendom’s world-view was equally hierarchical. Dante was formed by a culture in which where you were to a large extent defined what you were. To write the Comedy in exile must have been a tremendous act of individuation.

Almost all of these easy and familiar assumptions about Dante’s mind and culture are wrong, but wrongest of all is the idea that anything in the Divine Comedy is “literal.” It is truly extraordinary how many people assume that in the Inferno Dante is painting a picture of what he thinks Hell is really like, even though the allegorical character of the narrative is shouted from the first lines:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

(That’s Robert and Jean Hollander’s rendering.)

If you don’t think the cammin is literal or the selva oscura is literal — and surely you do not make that mistake — why would you think the depiction of Hell later in the poem is literal?

On even brief reflection it becomes obvious that to treat Dante’s Hell as a literal depiction of anything is a mistake. Just consider this: each sinner is located in a circle of Hell devoted to punishing a single sin. But no one is guilty of only one sin. Well, then, perhaps each person is punished according to his or her most serious sin? No, that’s not it: we meet Dido in the Second Circle among the Lustful, not in the Seventh among the Suicides.

In fact, Dante is not at all interested in placing persons (or as he would see them, ex-persons) in their proper places in the afterlife, nor is he interested in speculating on the precise nature of the sufferings of the damned: he is, rather, interested in exploring the nature of sin. The topic of the Inferno is not Hell but sin, for the Pilgrim must understand what sin is so he can renounce it, and thereby begin to find a way out of that dark, dark wood.

So Dante’s imagination is not, pace Fiona Sampson, “literal” at all. It is symbolically rich and immensely nuanced. The literal-mindedness belongs to many of his modern readers.

I’ll post more on Dante later. He’s fun to think and write about.

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Are Cities Safer than Suburbs?

Anyone who read my city meditations a while back may remember that one of my chief complaints was the coarseness of our language: for example, we often use the term “city” to refer only to the truly vast megalopolises, and use the term “suburb” to refer to an extremely wide variety of habitations. This recent post by Emily Badger on the Atlantic Cities blog illustrates the kind of confusion our typically sloppy language can introduce.

The piece’s title states its thesis: “You’re More Likely to Die a Violent Death in Rural America Than in a City.”

In one popular explanation for the mass exodus from urban America over the last several decades, people left the city because the city wasn’t safe. In suburban and rural America, by contrast, the cars drive slower down cul-de-sacs, random crime is less common, and gunfire is scarce. You’ve probably heard this before.

Here, however, is the data: Yes, homicide-related death rates are significantly higher in urban parts of the country. But that risk is far outweighed by the fact that you’re about twice as likely to die in a car crash in rural America than you are in the most urban counties. Nationwide, the rate of “unintentional-injury death” – car crashes, drownings, falls, machinery accidents and the like – is about 15 times the rate of homicide death. Add together all the ways in which you might die prematurely by intentional or unintentional injury (as opposed to illness), and your risk of death is actually about 22 percent higher in the most rural counties in America than in the most urban ones.

Notice that in the first paragraph quoted above “suburban and rural America” are lumped together — but are they lumped together in the statistics? Impossible to tell from the post: all the contrasts Badger makes are between the “most rural counties” and the “most urban counties” — where do suburban communities fit into this?

And it turns out that this isn’t journalistic reductiveness on Badger’s part: surprisingly, and disappointingly, the reductiveness belongs to the study she’s citing (PDF):

Study objectives: Many US cities have experienced population reductions, often blamed on crime and interpersonal injury. Yet the overall injury risk in urban areas compared with suburban and rural areas has not been fully described.

Not incidentally, that’s the only appearance of the words “suburb” or “suburban” in the report.

That most-rural/most-urban distinction that the study relies on is problematic in more than one way. Presumably Cook County, Illinois would count as one of the country’s “most urban counties” — but only about half the people in Cook County live in Chicago, the other half being suburban. How do the risks of violent death differ between Chicago and the other Cook County communities?

It’s possible — in fact, it seems intuitively likely to me — that in many (most?) suburbs people are safer from violent death than in city or country: less gun violence than in cities, less danger of dying in an accident than in rural areas (thanks to significantly higher concentration of trauma centers and ambulance and paramedic services). In that case the decision to move from the city to the suburbs for safety’s sake would be a perfectly rational one. But if we want to find out, we’re going to have to abandon the idea of lumping suburban and rural areas together in a single incoherent category.

UPDATE: Via Yoni Appelbaum, a study that goes into more detail about vehicular danger in various kinds of places.

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The Pathetic Loser and His Friends

When The Onion is good, it’s really good:

Former classmates also confirmed that the underachiever is apparently resigned to going to his little small-time, stable, extremely fulfilling job in town each day and has zero ambitions to leave his position and pursue a more prestigious and soul-crushing career path in a real city.

“I honestly don’t get Mike—does he even want to get out of that backwater town and try to make something of himself, or does he want to just waste his time feeling pleased with the pace and content of his life and enjoying his existence?” high school friend Caitlin Sese said of the man who gets eight hours of sleep per night and has time after work to see his loved ones and take care of his health. “Everyone else left Camden as soon as possible and is consumed by a deep sense of apprehension about getting ahead, but he’s still hanging around the same places from high school, focusing on the things that matter most to him, and existing as a relaxed, easygoing person who’s fun to be around. I can’t imagine anything sadder than that.”

“It’s almost like he’s saying, ‘I don’t give a shit — I just want to be an emotionally stable husband and father who’s not obsessed with climbing the corporate ladder and impressing complete strangers with my job title,’” Sese added. “Pathetic.”

According to relatives who moved thousands of miles away and are currently alienated from much of the family, Husmer has never once taken a major professional or financial risk, choosing instead to “coast through life” by putting considerable time and effort into his rewarding marriage, playing an active role in his two children’s lives, and being sincerely thankful for what he has in this world.

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Rebecca Solnit and the New Prometheus


The Prometheus status in Rockefeller Plaza, by Flickr user paigeh

The Prometheus status in Rockefeller Plaza, by Flickr user paigeh

Reading this truly sappy open letter from Rebecca Solnit to Edward Snowden — and I write that as someone who has some sympathy for her view of Snowden, or would if it were phrased less cringe-inducingly — I find myself noting a rhetorical tic that seems to me pretty common on the Left. So consider this post a reminder to keep an eye out for it.

Notice that in Solnit’s denunciation of the U. S. government’s surveillance practices, the responsible parties, those named as problematic, seem to be a little out-of-date. “Privacy is a kind of power as well as a right, one that public librarians fought to protect against the Bush administration and the PATRIOT Act.” “It was clear on September 12, 2001, that the Bush administration feared the American people more than al-Qaeda.” Then this:

And you, Prometheus, you stole their fire, and you know it.

Aside: “you, Prometheus, you stole their fire”? Prometheus? I have read some absolutely wonderful stuff by Rebecca Solnit — her Wanderlust and River of Shadows are beautiful works of imaginative nonfiction — and wouldn’t have believed her capable of that sentence. Anyway, to continue:

You said, “Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, [Senator Dianne] Feinstein, and [Congressman Peter] King, the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school.”

All of which raises the inevitable question: Why is the Bush administration targeting Edward Snowden? Oh wait.

In Solnit’s account, recent evil deeds haven’t perpetrated by any particular politicians, but by “Washington.” In another essay we see Solnit unable to criticize the current President without half-withdrawing the criticism by the end of the sentence: “Look, Obama does bad things and I deplore them, though not with a lot of fuss, since they’re hardly a surprise.”

But isn’t Solnit making “a lot of fuss” about the surveillance state whose gods have chained the New Prometheus to his Russian rock? Yes: but only naming the names of the mighty wicked ones of yore, not the ones who are actually responsible for pursuing Edward Snowden. President Obama’s administration, with his approval and that of his Attorney General, Eric Holder, are relentlessly extending the scope and the powers of the surveillance state, but somehow it’s all still Dick Cheney’s fault.

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