White House Masking
White House staff were told Monday they must wear a mask at all times when they enter or move around the building, after a coronavirus cluster started at the president’s home.
The directive went high up the chain – with the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, an influential advisor to the president, donning a mask during a Wednesday afternoon press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar also wore a mask, as did deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley.
‘Just about everybody has a face mask on,’ President Trump observed at the news conference, where the president used his own podium that he did not have to share with other officials who spoke.
So, tell me: how do those who loathe masks and love Trump reconcile this? If masks don’t have any effect at all on retarding the spread of the virus, why is everybody in the White House other than Trump (and possibly Pence) wearing a mask to work?
The Trumposphere is going to have a lot of cognitive dissonance to work through. I have every confidence that it will come through confidently. Maybe the Deep State has taken over even the White House, and the president is the only one holding out…
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In Covidtide, Every Day Is Like Monday
Another Monday in Covidtide. For me, dealing with mono, every morning I get out of bed exhausted. But the news is so awful that I’d probably feel that way even if I weren’t sick with the Epstein-Barr Virus. I’m going to post this item, then go back into the bookwork hole for a few hours. I finished over the weekend the final edit of the new book, and today have to finish the end notes. There comes a time in every book I work on when I can’t tell if it’s good, bad, or what: it’s just text. That time is now. I am equally prepared to hear from people who will tell me that this book changed their lives, and people who say that having read it, they are embarrassed for me and the next several generations of my family.
There are a couple of difficult and impossible-to-handle-well challenges of writing this particular book in Covidtide. As regular readers know, this book is based on warnings from emigres — people who have grown up in communist countries — that certain aspects of life under communism are emerging here, now. The argument is that it is harder to see this because things are hidden, not out in the open. Traveling through the former Soviet bloc, I heard over and over from these survivors of communism that they can’t exactly put their finger on it, but they know it is there. A Slovak priest said that under communism, the Gospel shone a light through the darkness, but today, the Gospel hits only fog. Talking to these people is like speaking to someone who is anxiously sitting in their dark bedroom, and can hear that there is an intruder in the house, but the lights are out, and they can’t see anything.
The argument is that the “soft totalitarianism” is going to come from the Left. A big part of the case I make is that America is pre-totalitarian, according to the standards laid out by Hannah Arendt in her 1951 landmark study The Origins of Totalitarianism. A second part of the case is that what James Lindsay calls “critical social justice” theory is spreading through the professional classes — and the concomitant abandonment of religion by them — and that that illiberal liberalism is driving this. Sociologist James Davison Hunter has pointed out that cultural change doesn’t come from the masses, but from elites and their networks. Even when something potentially revolutionary bubbles out from the masses, it doesn’t really have a meaningful effect until and unless the elites take up the idea.
This is why even though Donald Trump is president and the Republicans run the Senate, I would trade in half-a-second that power for the cultural power that the Left has throughout institutions — including corporate America. On social issues, the Millennials and Generation Z are much more liberal than older Americans — including us Reagan-era Generation Xers. And we know that they are far less religious. This blog has talked about these things since time immemorial, so I’m not going to make that case again here.
Liberalism is not the same thing as totalitarianism, heaven knows. The argument is that this iteration of liberalism is actually illiberal, meaning it is very intolerant of dissent. It’s the kind of illiberalism that got Mark Lilla, an actual liberal, denounced as a white supremacist by a Columbia University colleague, when he dared to question the illiberalism of the emerging Left. In the book, I make the case that these new leftists take their beliefs religiously, like the Bolsheviks did. They are zealots, and they are not interested in peaceful coexistence. Unlike the Bolsheviks, though, they don’t seek to overturn the system; rather, they want to administer it. And they’re getting there. As Ryszard Legutko has written, the superficial liberalism of their language, and the fact that they parasitically inhabit old-style liberal institutions, conceals the radicalism of what they are trying to accomplish.
Finally, I argue in the book that technology, especially in the form of surveillance capitalism, will be the means through which soft totalitarianism is implemented. The Chinese, with their total tracking and social credit system, are the models. We already have the technology to do what the Chinese do. Americans are already accustomed to tracking technology. We have accepted it into our phones, and into our lives. Tens of millions of us have already installed “smart speakers” that track our conversations. Thirty years from now, when the Boomers are all dead and the Gen Xers are aging and dying, we will live in very different country. My book, Live Not By Lies, is meant to prepare Christians for what’s coming.
So, here are the two things that complicate my narrative, and that make it hard to finish a book in the middle of an ongoing situation.
Obviously I didn’t see, nor did anybody see, a global pandemic coming. It doesn’t take a prophet to see that the Covid crisis is likely to exacerbate the trends leading to soft totalitarianism. All the social cracks that Arendt saw as characteristics of pre-totalitarian societies under vastly more pressure now. Matthew Walther writes today:
All the problems — alienation, exploitation, addiction, despair — exacerbated during the lockdown have long been hiding in plain sight. A political system that during what we told ourselves were ordinary times could not solve the simplest of challenges (passing a federal budget in a timely manner), much less address what the president once referred to as “American carnage,” will not rise to the present occasion. Instead Americans will muddle on, looking after ourselves and our families and friends as best we can, helpless in the face of transformations that we will barely notice.
Here I think foreboding is justified. Trends that were worrisome long before we had heard of the new virus are accelerating to a point at which they are probably irreversible. In the name of health, wealth, and safety I fully expect work as we know it not to return for vast swathes of the population. Instead it will be replaced by subsidies meant not to provide marginal relief to families but to keep them inside their homes in front of screens, having things sent to their doors and generating meaningless analytics data. The closest thing to a picture of the future I expect to emerge out of this crisis is the one given by Wells in The Time Machine of a civilization split between idle aristocrats totally incurious about the mysterious means by which they receive sustenance and an underclass as resentful and resourceful as it is invisible.
I hope that I am wrong about the dark years ahead of us.
To be clear, Walther — if you’ve been reading his columns — believes that the lockdown has been one of history’s great self-owns, that it has destroyed far more than the virus would have done had we not reacted this way. I don’t necessarily agree with him on that; I don’t think we really know the answer to that question, and that we won’t know it for a long time. Lockdowns have proven very effective in dealing with viral outbreaks in the past. Given that this is the first outbreak of its kind in the globally hyperconnected world, I am inclined to cut leaders some slack in how they handled it. Still, whether they did the most sensible thing given all the facts we knew, or screwed it up royally, or (most likely) some combination of both, it is hard to deny that we are going into a prolonged economic depression. I hope Walther is wrong, but I don’t think he is. The important thing to keep in mind is Walther’s point about how the pandemic didn’t cause all this breakdown on its own; it revealed weaknesses that were already there.
So, here’s the thing. All the totalitarianism factors — chief among them, mass loneliness and social atomization — are dry brush waiting for a spark. In Russia, a series of catastrophes (famine, then losses in war) were the sparks that set off the Bolshevik Revolution. In Germany, it was primarily the trauma of economic pain that brought Hitler to power. I don’t know how you can look at the prospect of long-term serious economic suffering in the United States, with all our problems, and feel confident that the liberal democratic system will prevail. I hope I’m wrong, not because I’m just mad about liberal democracy, but because the alternatives are grim. You cannot have spent the past year reading things about how good Russian liberals in the late imperial era couldn’t wait for the Tsarist system to go away, because they knew that what was coming had to be better than that, without realizing that “it can’t be any worse than what we have” is a foolish thing to say.
It is possible that there would be a right-wing revolt. If that’s the case, I believe that it would put in an authoritarian regime. I think this is much less likely than a swing to the Left, because the Right has shown it cannot govern. Donald Trump is the most naturally authoritarian president in living memory, but he has hardly been an example of effective authoritarianism. Still, I suppose this could happen, though it’s hard to see a future for it, given the larger political and demographic trends in the country. There is not much constituency for right-wing government among the younger generations.
I think the much more likely scenario is a steady takeover by radical progressives, who know how to use the already-existing networks and institutions, and to turn them to their own purposes. Everybody knows that no matter what, the State is going to be much bigger for the foreseeable future. That is the Left’s strength. One of Arendt’s markers of a pre-totalitarian society is that the masses have lost faith in institutions. We are certainly living through that, but just because people don’t have faith in institutions doesn’t make those institutions go away. When the alternative is anarchy, people will submit to the institutions they have. I believe that the Left will take advantage of this opportunity to advance its radically progressive goals through the system that currently exists.
I believe there will be serious resistance to some of it. I expect civil unrest of some sort. But in the end, people will prefer an imperfect peace to chaos. And the Left will dominate the instruments of power.
Which brings us to the second thing that makes finishing this book right now so anxiety-inducing. I believe that technology will play a key role in helping us emerge from this pandemic with some sort of working economy. Writing in Quillette, Sean Welsh makes a case for a mandatory Covid app. He writes:
COVID-19 offers governments no attractive policy options. Those in power are in a no-win situation. The choice is not between good and bad, nor even between bad and worse, but between grim and catastrophic. On one hand, there is the “butcher’s bill” of death that results from inaction or inadequate action in the face of the virus. On the other, there is the “banker’s bill” of bail-out and bankruptcy that results from quarantine measures. The “butcher’s bill” that results from delay or inaction in the face of the virus is grim.
Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary policy measures. If there is a way to reduce both the butcher’s bill and the banker’s bill, then governments are justified in mandating it. Recently, an Oxford team published a paper in Science which found that the spread of COVID-19 was “too fast to be contained by manual contact tracing but could be controlled if this process was faster, more efficient and happened at scale.” The authors therefore make the case for a contact tracing app. Its main feature would be to store data on proximity contacts and sound an alarm if a contact has been tagged as testing positive. The authors argue such an app can “achieve epidemic control if used by enough people,” and that 60 percent take-up would be enough.
If we are offered the option of mass death (or at least mass illness), economic collapse, or accepting an app that could help us keep going until there’s a cure for this disease, which do you think people will choose? Before you say, “We can get through this without that technology, because the death rate is acceptable,” I would like you to read this account from the Washington Post, dictated by a 52-year-old nurse who has had Covid for seven weeks. Excerpt:
They gave me a malaria drug, but it did absolutely nothing. They gave me an antibiotic for pneumonia, but I still couldn’t breathe without 15 liters of oxygen. They tried vitamin C, magnesium, shots of blood thinner, baby aspirin, Tums, multivitamins, Xanax, cough syrup with codeine. It was like fixing a car when you don’t know what’s broken. They gave me inhalers and breathing exercises to do every hour, but my oxygen level kept dropping. They wanted to put me on life support, but I was afraid I’d never come off. The doctor came in and said: “We have a team ready to revive you in case you start to code. We’re going to watch you closely.” Watching was all anybody could do. Then, one morning, my fever started to go down. Nobody knew why that happened either. But it stayed down for 36 hours, and they said I could go home.
Her family is close to broke now. She’s still not well. The thing that stands out about that story is how freaking unpredictable this virus is. Last night I received an e-mail from Wyoming Doc saying exactly that: that Covid-19 does not behave in predictable ways, like previous viruses. We are still facing a steep learning curve. (By the way, after I finish my end notes for the book, I’m going to post a long letter from Wyoming Doc.)
Would you take the app option, given the alternatives, if it promised a way forward? How would you feel if you knew that companies already track all your movements on your smartphone, and collect massive amounts of data from you via the apps you already use? This would not be new technology, and it wouldn’t do anything in essence that companies don’t already do. We already have submitted to a regime of constant tracking of our movements and everything we do online, and the tens of millions of Americans who have smartspeakers or Siri activated on their phones already submit to having their conversations listened to!
Pandemic or not, the Social Credit System is bound to come to us, especially as the younger generations have grown up with tech, and the absence of traditional privacy notions, and are more illiberal in their views on the First Amendment. The pandemic only speeds up what was likely to happen anyway.
In China, which is well on its way to being a cashless society (it’s the farthest in the world on this path), they are very near to the point where you cannot buy or sell — that is, participate in the economy — if the government doesn’t want you to. If everything is done online, as part of the network, and you get crossways the government, you’re done. This is a powerful means of social control — even more powerful than a hard-totalitarian police state, because it allows for a functioning, even prosperous, economy, while ensuring conformity. Edward Snowden already revealed the total data-gathering capacities of the US Government. The only thing standing between a Chinese-style system and the American people is the political will of the American people.
I am not confident. But you knew that. As I have been writing for years, our relative prosperity has papered over a lot of brokenness. Now we are probably going to be poor, for a long time. This is the catalyst that will set afire the dry brush that Hannah Arendt identified. I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. I wish I had a clearer picture before I published this book. But books have to be done months before they actually appear.
Back to work on these end notes. Gotta finish by early afternoon.
UPDATE: I figured I would be done by 1:30, but I actually didn’t get finished until five, right on the nose. I’m fried, y’all. Gonna approve comments, then crash. Sat at the kitchen table with stacks of books all around, with notebooks spatchcocked to scribblings that I couldn’t always read, and footnoted (or rather, endnoted) the hell out of that manuscript. You’d think that after writing four books already, I would have learned by now to be super-orderly about keeping footnote information near to hand and readily accessible. But no! Next time, I’ll do that. Swear.
This really is the end of the process from my end. The copy editor will jump on the manuscript tomorrow, I think. There may be some very minor cleaning up at my end, but this is, for all intents and purposes, it. The book is set for September 29 publication. Which, me being me, means I have four and a half months to worry about all the things I forgot to put in the book, but now it’s TOO LATE…
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Weird Christianity: The Rod Dreher Interview
Tara Isabella Burton interviewed me by email back in November for the piece that runs in today’s NYT Opinion section. It’s about “Weird Christianity”. Here are her questions and my answers:
Do you think we’re seeing a rise in “Weird” (aka countercultural, aesthetically/liturgically traditional) Christianity? Why — and what might be the source of its appeal?
Yes, but my sense is that it’s small and hard to quantify. If you only go by Twitter, you’d think that the Millennial Catholic world was crawling with integralists. But really, how many are there? Similarly, at my small Orthodox mission parish in Baton Rouge, we’re seeing more and more converts, almost all men and women in their twenties or early thirties — all former Evangelicals who came to us craving depth and liturgical beauty. This is fantastic, but at this point, it’s only a trickle.
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Weird Christianity In Covidtide
Rod My pal Tara Isabella Burton, who is one of the most interesting religion writers today, has a piece in the NYT Magazine, which has posted it online in advance of weekend editions. It’s about “weird Christianity,” which she defines as follows:
More and more young Christians, disillusioned by the political binaries, economic uncertainties and spiritual emptiness that have come to define modern America, are finding solace in a decidedly anti-modern vision of faith. As the coronavirus and the subsequent lockdowns throw the failures of the current social order into stark relief, old forms of religiosity offer a glimpse of the transcendent beyond the present.
Many of us call ourselves “Weird Christians,” albeit partly in jest. What we have in common is that we see a return to old-school forms of worship as a way of escaping from the crisis of modernity and the liberal-capitalist faith in individualism.
Weird Christians reject as overly accommodationist those churches, primarily mainline Protestant denominations like Episcopalianism and Lutheranism, that have watered down the stranger and more supernatural elements of the faith (like miracles, say, or the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ). But they reject, too, the fusion of ethnonationalism, unfettered capitalism and Republican Party politics that has come to define the modern white evangelical movement.
Most of the people she interviewed for the piece are Millennials or younger, but she did talk to me too (I’m a Gen Xer). I had to laugh at the photo they used. The photographer took it in mid-February, when my hair was freshly cut, and my beard was short. I have neither cut my hair nor trimmed my beard since then, because of the lockdown. I’m starting to look like Grizzly Adams taking a graduate seminar in Hegelianism in Brno. Tara also interviewed my pal and Benedict Option practical genius Leah Libresco Sargeant, who said:
Leah Libresco Sargeant, a Catholic convert and writer who describes her views as roughly in line with that of the American Solidarity Party, which combines a focus on economic and social justice with opposition to abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia, rejects capitalist notions of human freedom.
“The idea of the individual as the basic unit of society, that people are best understood by thinking about them as sole lone beings” is fundamentally misguided, she told me. “It doesn’t make enough space to talk about human weakness and dependence” — conversations that she believes are an integral part of Christianity, with its concern for human life from conception until death.
That’s pretty much where I am politically, though I rarely write about economic policy. Here’s what I thought was the most interesting part of the TIB piece. “Garry” is John Garry, a college student and former alt-right guy who converted to Christianity via Weird Catholic Twitter, and now identifies as a Christian Marxist; “Crosby” is Ben Crosby, an Episcopalian seminarian:
It is unclear what the world will look like when the coronavirus pandemic, at last, comes to an end. But for these Weird Christians, this crisis doubles as a call to action. For Mr. Garry, the former Breitbart contributor, it has made plain “the absolute dearth of mutual aid in America.” Christianity, he told me, “compels us not just to take care of people around us but to seek to further integrate our lives and fortunes into those of the people around us, a sort of solidarity that necessarily entails creating these organizations to help each other.”
Mr. Crosby agrees. The pandemic, he said, has made all too clear that both liberal and conservative visions of American life, based on “self-fulfillment via liberation to pursue one’s desires” is not enough. “It turns out we need each other,” he said, “and need each other dearly.”
What Christianity offers, he added, is “a version of our common life more robust than individual pursuit of desire-fulfillment or profit.” In the light of that vision, the current pandemic can “be both a cross to bear and an opportunity to reflect the love that was first shown us in Christ.”
If Garry is calling himself a Marxist, then I cannot imagine that his politics and mine overlap much, but I think he’s quite correct in talking about “the absolute dearth of mutual aid in America.” I really identify with Crosby’s remarks about the failure of liberal and conservative visions of American life. As I’ve been saying here for weeks now, this virus really is an “apocalypse” in the sense of an unveiling. We get to see who we really are. A lot of it is ugly. The cost of social atomization — something that has been driven by many factors in American life since the end of World War II; you cannot blame it wholly on the left or the right — is making itself known. Our political leadership is poor, but so is our followership. I don’t see much of a sense of solidarity of any kind.
Can you really look to the churches for that — I mean, the churches as they are today? To be fair, nobody alive today has ever had to deal with anything like this, and it is extremely difficult for churches to do what they are used to doing when we have to live under such strict practices to avoid infecting each other. Still, I see this Covidtide to be a massive call to repentance for all of us. If we Christians had been living and praying and thinking like Christians — if our churches had discipled us, and if we had wanted to be discipled, instead of merely comforted — we wouldn’t be in such a mess today, facing this crisis.
I’m feeling this pretty acutely now because I’m winding up final edits and rewrites of my next book. That has meant spending more time with the stories and testimonies of believers who endured persecution under Soviet communism. Just today I was re-reading the transcript from my interview in Moscow last fall with Yuri Sipko, an older man who is an ordained Russian Baptist pastor, and who grew up in a heavily persecuted Russian Baptist community. Here are a couple of excerpts from the interview:
How did I find the strength to resist? I don’t know. We had a specific atmosphere in our family. I’m one of 12 kids. My older brothers and sisters had already gone through this. My father was the pastor of our congregation. All sorts of pressure was put on him. When I was a child, all I knew was that I wanted to be like my father. I could see that he had certain positions, and I saw that he was able to stand alone, against all of this pressure against him. He was able to stand up with dignity and courage. I wanted to be like him.
I was probably 10 years old when they first brought charges against him, and sentenced him for five years, for preaching. They sent him to prison in eastern Siberia for five years. I ended up not finishing school. I left in ninth grade, at 16 years old.
Without being willing to suffer, even die for Christ, it’s just hypocrisy. It’s just a search for comfort. When I meet with brothers in faith, especially young people, I ask them: name three values as Christians that you are ready to die for. This is where you see the border. I don’t even value my life as much as my mission.
When I think about the past, and how our brothers were sent to prison, and never returned, I’m sure that this is the kind of certainty they had. They lost any kind of status, they were mocked and ridiculed in society. Sometimes they even lost their children. Just because they were Baptists, [the state was] willing to take away their kids and send them to orphanages. They were unable to find jobs. Their children were not able to enter universities. To get to universities you had to take an exam in scientific atheism. A believer could not pass this exam. But at least the battle was clear then. Today the truth has become blurry. The sharpness of this battle is not clearly defined.
What I would say to my Christian brothers in America is that you need to return Christ to the pedestal of your heart. You need to confess him and worship him in such a way that people can see that this world is a lie. This is difficult, but this is what makes man an image of God. As Christ said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me. He who follows me will have eternal life.” If in our current life today, we’re leaving Christ over on the side, then we have a godless life.”
In Russia, as in the Soviet Union, it’s very weird to be a Baptist. But there is Yuri Sipko, completely fearless.
Tonight, as I finished work on a chapter featuring some of Sipko’s storytelling, I checked Twitter, and found this comment from Todd Starnes, a Southern Baptist #MAGA media personality:
A stern lecture. And no toaster for you! I mean, honestly.
If you think I’m holding myself up as better than Starnes, you’re wrong. I’m just as fat and coddled and as privileged as he is. If I have any advantage over him, it’s that the experience of sitting with brave souls like Yuri Sipko, and hearing their stories, was intensely convicting. Most of us American Christians have never been put to the test like the believers living under communist totalitarianism were. Many of us have never even been put to the test of sustained poverty. If you are like me, a middle-class Christian, don’t be sure at all how you would react if real persecution came. I’ll tell you this, though: if we can’t get through a pandemic that has killed almost 80,000 Americans in the past ten weeks, and put 34 million Americans out of work, without whining about our shopping experience being disturbed — well, what are we going to do if real persecution comes?
In Moscow, on the same day that I interviewed Sipko, I had dinner with Alexander Dvorkin, an academic who is an expert on cults. In talking about the potential for a new totalitarianism, he warned that a society in which there is a great deficit of solidarity is one that is prone to capture by a cultish mass leader. “There is a danger that the desire to belong will prevail over truth,” he told me. “All revolutions are carried out by people who have found [in their ideology] a strong sense of belonging.”
One way or another, Americans are going to rediscover a sense of belonging. The pandemic and the economic depression is revealing the radical insufficiency of our way of life — and, I would emphasize for my fellow Christians, the radical insufficiency of our way of Christian living. We need “weird Christianity,” in the sense of a deep and rooted Christianity that is countercultural. To be a countercultural church in America today is to be a church that practices solidarity, and is preparing its people to suffer the loss of status, the loss of material possessions, and maybe even the loss of freedom. To be a countercultural Christian in America today means being radical.
I am an Orthodox Christian. I wish you would become one too. But joining an Orthodox parish — or a Catholic one, or an Anglican one, and so on — is not going to be enough. Yuri Sipko is a Baptist, which is about as far away from Russian Orthodoxy as you can get. But that man has within him what it takes to endure. It was placed there by his family, and the community in which he was raised. It came from his churching.
I can’t say enough about what God has done for me through the prayers, the liturgies, and the spirituality of Orthodox Christianity. It is pretty weird in America, and thank God for that. One of the most important things is finally getting it through my thick head that all of that “weird Christian” stuff is about breaking down the barriers between the self and God. That the Christian life is about constant repentance. I don’t mean that it’s always sorrowful; joy and feasting is also central to the authentic Christian life. But the Christian life is a constant pilgrimage of inner conversion, of dying to self, and of awakening to yourself as a new creation. I’m sorry to be all preachy here, but this past year of reading stories about Christian life under communist totalitarianism, and talking to older men and women who lived through it, has been for me, as a comfortable middle-class American Christian, a call to repentance.
I’m not sure what that is going to look like when this coronavirus plague passes. I’m not sure what that’s going to look like in two or three months, when it hasn’t passed, but we have to find some way to live so we can feed ourselves. I do believe, though, that God is calling all of us Christians to walk away from our soft, gripey, self-centered way of living, individually and as a community. He always has been doing that, but now, this crisis could be a special mercy, given to wake us up to the true condition of our souls.
Politics of the left or the right is not going to save us. It might help somewhat, but what needs healing in this country is deeper than politics. Shallow, emotional religion won’t save us either — but don’t be deceived into thinking that getting a prayer rope, or praying in Latin on Sunday morning, will do the trick, unless it all leads to conversion of the heart. A lesson that I still struggle with, almost 14 years after becoming Orthodox: the prayer rope is meaningless if it stays wrapped around your wrist; it only works if you pass it through your fingers (which is to say, it’s only useful if it helps you actually to pray).
OK, sermon is over. I’ve been hearing from some of you Christian readers who have been sending me stuff you’ve taken off social media from your Christian friends. It’s depressing — the paranoia, the conspiracy theories, the people giving themselves over to political fantasies that stoke their freakout, rather than help them to build spiritual and moral resilience for the long, difficult road ahead. One reader said to me that she was planning to quit Facebook, because she can’t stand to see people — fellow Christian people — she knows and loves saying crazy things, and ugly things, out of a spirit of fear and rage. I’m not on Facebook myself, but it might not be a bad idea to do the weird, un-American thing, and quit Facebook for the good of your soul.
What do you readers think? What could “weird Christianity” do for the broader church? What qualifies as “good weird,” and what qualifies as “bad weird”?
UPDATE: A reader comments:
I know a Weird Christian. He’s in his late 30s and in trade, currently unemployed due to the shutdown. Every week for over ten years he has gone to feed the homeless with zero fanfare, all out of his own pocket. Sometimes he brings a monk. Sometimes a few of the wealthy activist types come along and try to glom onto his work and turn it into a Dorothy Day thing, but they burn out quickly with arguing. He joined facebook once but quit because they fight about abstract things rather than do anything. He visits people in prisons, attends daily mass, helps old ladies move and adopts their birds when the nursing homes won’t take them, and has said without self-pity that much of his life he’s been lonely, but he’s grateful that Christ has allowed him to serve others. He would scratch his head in confusion at the Bright Young Things version of Christianity, where they dash off to old Italian cities and film themselves twirling in the midst of a stack of thousand-dollar first editions of 19th century poets. Then they get paid to write books about their own trends which consist of attending one another’s conferences. No one’s interviewing my friend. He wouldn’t want it even if they offered it, and that’s why I try to follow his example. It’s about doing things out of love of Christ, not clicks from the public.
Sure, there’s some good in this trend. Some. And some people are well-meaning outsiders and kind of fall into this group by accident. But overall it’s extremely troubling, and the reaction of at least a few of us on here to Matt’s point is valid. It would be interesting to see it engaged not as sour fruits but as people who have stuck to their principles and suffered for it. I’m disappointed to see Rod sweep it away as bitterness. It’s easy to be charitable about the burdens of modernity when you’re sipping wine at 11 am on a balcony overlooking your tree-lined boulevard, to know that as soon as the shutdown is over you and six of your besties will jet off to do a monastery wine-tasting and then come back and be paid a few thousand dollars to write about your experience. I don’t mean that as an attack on any of these people, but for heaven’s sakes how do we ask for charity for our indulgences when we refuse to grant charity to those deplorables who don’t have any of those things?
The fact is life is different when you don’t have a Venice trip on the horizon, it’s harder when your wife just lost her already low-paying job, your parents just lost their pension, the only local businesses in your town are shutting down, you know you’ll not be able to take a vacation for the next ten years, and you’re watching your home and friends falling beneath a tsunami. But look, here comes an article in the NYT about how a bunch of wealthy New Yorkers are re-writing what it means to be Christian! Think they’ll take up any of the concerns of the working class, maybe do some interviews with them, ask them what daily life is like for them, what the Christ-like way to be with them is?
No, it’s uh, more about some Ivy League kids writing about who’s really responsible for inventing Tradpunk.
Well. At least Jesus remembered the suffering in His Beatitudes. I’ll go with that version of Weird Christianity, and pray for those who dismiss those who remember the poor or judge the rich as just bitter.
For the record, I believe the NYT article grew out of Tara Isabella Burton’s research on her forthcoming book about the emerging spirituality of Millennials and Gen Z people. As far as I know, the article was done before the coronavirus outbreak. I sent her the answers to her interview questions back in November 2019. When the photographer came to Baton Rouge in mid-February, he told me that the article was slated to run the following week. My guess is that coronavirus news kept pushing it back. Now I see that she dramatically rewrote the lead and the conclusion to reflect changing conditions. I have posted separately the three questions she asked me in our interview. I don’t know what she asked the others. This was a New York Times op-ed article about a narrow slice of religious believers. These points in the reader’s comment are interesting, but I don’t see why the article justifies such anger at the people in it. We aren’t told much at all about their lives. Leah Libresco and her husband, both Yale graduates, are campus ministers and freelance journalists — hardly the kind of work that affords one the luxury of overseas vacation. I don’t know anything about these others besides what the article says. One is a college student, another a seminarian. The author is an Oxford-trained theologian and a travel writer. It seems unfair to hold her responsible for the people she didn’t write about, as opposed to those she did.
I have made clear in my comments that weird Christianity is great, but it’s useless if it’s just an aesthetic pose, and doesn’t lead to conversion of the heart. Someone like the commenter’s friend, who does his weird Christian work quietly, is a far greater asset to the kingdom of God than someone who is just doing neo-medieval LARPing. But these people interviewed in the piece are all young (except for me). TIB’s new book — which is really good — is about how people of their generation are tending towards a much more self-involved, DIY paganism. These people she’s written about in this piece run counter to the trend within their generation. I think that’s interesting. The question of what they do with this theological conviction is also important, of course. But when you are given a 1,200-word limit for the piece you’re publishing in the newspaper, you have to edit. Here’s the full transcript of the interview she did with me (which I have, because it was in e-mail). Out of that, she pulled a single quote. I don’t have any problem with that — this is how newspaper journalism works.
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Covid-19 And The Common Good
I was just on a long Zoom session with some TAC folks, in which Claes Ryn discussed the personality required to live successfully under the US Constitution. There was talk about the “common good,” and it made me wonder what that even means anymore. I’m still sore about the whole mask issue. It’s not that I am opposed to people objecting to the mandate to wear masks. It’s that I’m not hearing these people talk about the issue in terms of the ineffectiveness of masks (some people are! but not the angry people); I’m hearing them frame the issue wholly in terms of personal liberty. I’m so used to hearing this kind of thing from the left — that any restriction or limit on what they want to do is intolerable oppression. I am super-sensitive to hearing it from the right.
Then I received this e-mail from a Pennsylvania reader named Kevin, who has given me permission to post it:
I wanted to reach out to raise something with you to see if you have been seeing this as well. Among my friends who attend more charismatic and Pentecostal denominations, there is this widespread sense that the death numbers are fake, the polling that shows lockdowns are generally favored is fake, and that polling showing Trump’s approval on the crisis is in the toilet is fake. These are also the folks who generally ascribe to the Trump as Cyrus (or King David) view. I understand we are to live by faith, not by sight – but we are also called to seek wisdom, knowledge and understanding.
And, Rod, what tears my heart up so much is what we are seeing from the data is this virus disproportionately harms the elderly, the poor and black people. It just isn’t fair. Haven’t we been called by Scripture to lay our lives down – particularly for the marginalized, the widow and the orphan, the foreigner and the oppressed? I have my objections to the social justice movement just as you do, but here just as when we have been asked to engage in a country-wide project of compassion, I weep that I see so many in the church – in my church – that want to dismiss it. Perhaps for the reasons you have laid out, based on the Heterodox Academy’s research.
I wanted to highlight a recent Twitter thread from Southeastern University theology professor Chris Green, that begins with this thunderclap of truth: Conspiracy theories are needed when you’re socialized to question every authority but your own. https://twitter.com/cewgreen/status/1258489625842274306
I recognize we have to make some tradeoffs. I am not advocating for perpetual lockdowns. I work for a chamber of commerce, and every we get calls from companies who want to re-open, because they are on the brink of collapse. And do you know what Rod? The employees don’t want to come back. They are scared for their lives. And I don’t blame them.
What also frustrates me is we did these lockdowns not just as an act of compassion, but so that we could increase medical supplies, testing and treatments – and to come up with an actual plan. Ari Schulman at the New Atlantis made this point well the other day. https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/whats-the-plan. And now we read that ventilators aren’t effective, we can’t seem to get testing off the ground, and any promising treatment – hydrochloroquine and remdesivir come to mind – are either harmful or only mildly effective. Where is our plan? Does anyone actually have a plan? Or have we wasted two months?
Yesterday I read Isaiah 2 and 3 as part of my morning devotions. While I think we need to be very careful about taking OT verses and applying them directly to contemporary events (see above, re Trump and David/Cyrus comparisons) it should tell us something that God, through Isaiah, tells Israel there will come a day when He will frustrate the wise, strip the nation of its wealth and its command over nature and technology, and leave the people in hiding. When I look at the nation by nation data, it is apparent to me that, even adjusting for population and China’s downplaying of the magnitude there, we are being uniquely humbled and humiliated.
And rather than look this squarely in the eye – that this is harming the poor and the elderly, that our leadership is failing us, that we are too prideful to accept authority from politicians of another party (why is Trump God’s anointed but not a Democratic governor?), that we are being asked to lay down our idols of comfort and power and security – we must retreat to an ideological lens. Because Trump might appoint some more pro-life judges in 2022? Hannah Arendt was right.
I presume Kevin is talking about Arendt’s claim that one sign that a country is in a pre-totalitarian state is when people within the country prefer ideological claims to the truth. That is, when they would rather hear things that confirm what they already believe than to deal with truth that makes them angry or anxious. People like that — and we have them on both the left and the right — are sitting ducks for a leader who knows how to manipulate them.
The nation’s economic distress came into greater focus on Friday, offering a snapshot unseen since the Great Depression.
The Labor Department said the economy shed more than 20.5 million jobs in April, sending the unemployment rate to 14.7 percent as the coronavirus pandemic took a devastating toll.
The monthly data underscores the speed and depth of the labor market’s collapse. In February, the unemployment rate was 3.5 percent, a half-century low.
And the damage has only grown since then: Millions more people have filed claims for unemployment benefits since the monthly data was collected in mid-April.
“It’s literally off the charts,” said Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. economics at Bank of America. “What would typically take months or quarters to play out in a recession happened in a matter of weeks this time.”
What is clear overall is that a one-time social distancing effort will not be sufficient to control the epidemic in the long term, and that it will take a long time to reach herd immunity.
“This is because when we are successful in doing social distancing — so that we don’t overwhelm the health care system — fewer people get the infection, which is exactly the goal,” said Ms. Tedijanto. “But if infection leads to immunity, successful social distancing also means that more people remain susceptible to the disease. As a result, once we lift the social distancing measures, the virus will quite possibly spread again as easily as it did before the lockdowns.”
We are going to have to get ourselves in order, or we are not going to make it through this next year or two. We cannot carry on like this. We need credible leadership. I’m not sure what that looks like, because we’ve not seen a lot of it. We also need credible followership. I’m not exactly sure what that looks like either, other than at the very least refusing to accept conspiracy theories and theories that “feel right.”
There’s a lot we don’t know about this virus. We can’t expect scientists and government officials to get this 100 percent right every time. The information we have had from the experts regarding mask-wearing has been contradictory. A reader points out that Michael Osterholm, one of our top experts, says that there’s no evidence that cloth masks at all impede the spread of coronavirus.
But the CDC still recommends their use. The Mayo Clinic says that they may provide some protection, and recommends their use. I think we just don’t know for sure. I don’t think people should get so angry and political about masks! It is a legitimate debate over whether or not we should wear them. Personally, I think it’s a minor inconvenience, and if my governor says he wants me to wear them when I go out in public, I don’t mind doing it until it is definitively shown that it’s pointless. Remember, these cloth masks are not to keep you from getting sick (they don’t really work that way), but to make it less likely that you will pass on the virus to others if you are infected but asymptomatic. As I see it, this is a tiny sacrifice to make for the health of others — in particular store clerks, who are serving people like me, even though they risk exposure to the virus.
As I write this, I’m hearing that Donald Trump’s valet — the man who served him dinner — has tested positive for Covid-19 — and did not wear a mask. I bet the president wishes now that the valet had.
We are not the resilient country that we once would have been. What is being revealed by this thing is a country that has ceased to believe in the common good, and in which many individuals think that they should not have to give up anything at all for the sake of others.
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Anti-Mask Snowflakes Of The Right
Look, I understand people are mad about social distancing and wearing masks, but a lot of people on the Right are losing their minds. Here’s something from a column by Dan Fagan in my local paper, the Baton Rouge Advocate:
The far-reaching, extreme, and radical measures governors like [Louisiana Gov. John Bel] Edwards imposed during the COVID-19 scare represent the greatest challenge to individual liberties since the inception of our great nation. Some of us are reaching a boiling point.
I’d say you’ve boiled your brain, Cap. This nation was founded in 1776. Here are a couple of challenges to individual liberties since then — challenges that took place right here in our state — that were arguably more important than having to wear a mask when you go out for a po-boy during a pandemic:
So yeah, we have had a few things that were a little bit more of a challenge to civil liberties than the mask. Still, Dan Fagan demands to know:
How much further are they going to go? When will this all end? When do we go back to being free?
Oh for Pete’s sake. Late last year, I sat in a shabby apartment in Moscow, interviewing an elderly man whose father was tortured and executed by the KGB, and who, as a 15-year-old boy, was taken into custody by the KGB one night, and thrown into a prison for years. He cried telling me the story. And now I have to read my local newspaper conservative whine about how we’re living in a police state because of the stupid mask he has to wear when he goes out to buy a six-pack. If the KGB came knocking at the door of Dan “Boiling Point” Fagan, he would spontaneously combust. Hell, if a meter maid came for Dan Fagan’s car, he would soil his britches and squall like the Constitutional Peasant:
Seriously, what is wrong with conservatives? Can we not raise objections to masks, social distancing, and the pandemic protocols without making fools of ourselves? The stories I’m hearing from conservative friends around the country are really embarrassing. Mask off, if that’s what you want, but please, grow up.
UPDATE: A reader comments:
Rod, I believe this ties entirely to your “story about yourself” column from yesterday.
The conservatives tell a story about themselves as smartly and scrappy, yet downtrodden patriots, bravely resisting an over-weening, oppressive liberal government filled with stupid and incompetent busybodies.
– It has to be undeniably oppressive because it fits the narrative, just as “Martha” had to be hated by everyone, because it fit her narrative.
– It has to be wrong and stupid to wear a mask, because it fits the narrative.
– The people telling you to wear a mask have to be incompetent, or have ulterior motives, because it fits the narrative.
– The wearing of masks must be revealed to have been a worse decision than the hoi polloi decision to spurn masks, because that fits the narrative.
– It has to be brave and virtuous to go against the dictates of the experts with all the power, because that fits the narrative.
I have conservatives all around me who live by this narrative, and when I talk to them, they are grasping at any morsel or rumor that vindicates this story, effectively warping the truth about the reality that we live in so that it gives them their proper place in the story they tell about themselves.
Another reader comments:
It’s pretty amazing that the same conservatives who tell black people to just follow instructions from cops to avoid getting killed are throwing riots at the thought of following instructions from epidemiologists to avoid killing others.
By “amazing”, I mean, “not at all amazing, and entirely within character.”
UPDATE.2: This dispatch by a conservative media hero was smuggled out from deep inside the Dualit Archipelago:
Dropped by a department store to buy a toaster oven. Mandatory hand sanitizer squirt and mask. One way aisles and if you deviate from the approved zone for customers – they sternly lecture you. The country as we know it has been destroyed. And I still don’t have a toaster.
— toddstarnes (@toddstarnes) May 8, 2020
Meanwhile, conservative radio talker Erick Erickson really did blow his stack at right-wing mask-gripers. Here’s the thread, wrapped. Trigger warning: it’s cussy, ’cause he really mad at the snowflakes.
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Your Story About Yourself
This has been going around Twitter. It’s from a podcast interview Tim Ferriss did with the great nonfiction writer Michael Lewis:
That’s really something, isn’t it? I’ve often heard it said that we live not so much by principles, but by stories. In my book How Dante Can Save Your Life, I wrote:
Neuroscientists have found that the telling of a story, no matter how simple, lights up parts of our brains that lie dormant when we merely process language. In fact, research has shown that the brain reacts to stories in the same way it responds to actual events. When a story fully enters into your imagination, it is as if you experience it yourself. The more vivid and sensual the descriptions within a story, the more powerfully its lessons, moral and otherwise, lodge in the brain.
Annie Murphy Paul, writing about these discoveries in the New York Times, observed: “Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.”
Here’s a link to that 2012 piece by Annie Murphy Paul. In it, Paul continues:
Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies, published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology, and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.
I wonder how these findings apply to the self-narratives we employ, in the sense Michael Lewis means.
I’m thinking of a friend whose stories about herself always, always have her being victimized by someone, or by life. I used to think wow, people sure are mean to her or she sure has drawn a bad hand. But as I got to know her better, and as I began to see her interact with mutual friends, I came to see that her perception was very far from how things actually were, at least in the interactions with which I had personal knowledge. Long story short: I learned eventually that my friend had had a traumatic, emotionally abusive childhood, and had come to expect that people would mistreat her. She always seems to be looking for the hidden angle, for the way others are trying to put her down. If you say to her something like, “Martha [not her real name], you did well. They really liked you!”, she will respond that if I only saw how things really were, I would know that deep down, those people hate her. And if I push back, and insist that no, they really do like her, and that she is imagining that they don’t, she will accuse me of demeaning her judgment, and putting her down like all those other people do.
I talk about this in the present tense, but truth to tell, I have intentionally grown distant from “Martha” over the past few years. It’s too exhausting to be her friend. You get tired of all the neurosis. I’m sure she thinks, “See, I was right about Rod. He hates me too! They all do!” In fact, Martha’s is a sad case of self-sabotage. She has a good heart, and certain gifts, but the story she has spent a lifetime telling about herself — that she is one of life’s victims — is one that she eventually lived into.
Thinking about poor Martha, I find it puzzling that she could never accept good news about herself. I did not know her when she was younger. I don’t know if there was ever a time when she might have been able to change her story, to refuse the story that she had received from her abusive childhood. Talking to a guy who had been part of Martha’s circle at one time, he told me that he quit hanging out with her because he got tired of hearing her gripe all the time about all the people who were doing her wrong. Indeed, as I’m sitting her typing, I’m thinking of happy stories Martha has told about herself, and how often they end with some form of, “… but that didn’t last, because [somebody else betrayed or hurt me].” In fact, I know that she has probably driven more than just that one person away from her, because she lived in such a way as to make her negative self-narrative come true. I know all too well from personal experience that suggesting to Martha that she has it wrong, that she is not a victim, that life is not a dark as she thinks it is — that gets absolutely nowhere. It’s as if she is so dependent on the narrative of herself as Victim that she fears surrendering it would unleash chaos. At least the world makes sense in that narrative — and her sense of needing to control the world matters more than wanting to be happy and at peace in it.
And you know, I am certain that Martha doesn’t realize that her narrative is a construal. She cannot comprehend that she might be seeing things incorrectly. She thinks that she’s living in truth, but in fact she’s living within a story she was written for herself. A little postmodernism would do Martha a lot of good.
Question to the room: is there a pattern in the way you talk about yourself? Ever thought about it? I haven’t ever thought about it with regard to myself. If I had to guess, my self-narrative usually involves me wandering into a situation in which I have some epiphany — I met the most amazing person/saw the most amazing thing/tasted the most amazing dish — that compelled me to rethink my approach to life in some way, or at least reaffirmed gratitude for the thing I was shown. My stories about myself generally construe myself as a Pilgrim of some sort: someone who sees life as a journey, along which I meet enchanted people, mysterious castles, wicked dragons, and so forth, and find some way to discern meaning from those encounters, and integrate those them into my own perspective. Sometimes in the telling of these stories I am a Pilgrim who is also a “fortunate fool.” There is often a quality of gentle self-abasement to my stories, which sometimes signals that I see myself as unworthy of this knowledge or these experiences. I think the sense of naive wonder I bring to these tales must irritate people — I would probably be irritated if I saw that in others — but for better or for worse, that’s who I am.
But at other times — when I am not so gentle in my self-abasement — means that I was lucky enough to discover what a fool I had been, so that I would not be that same fool in the future if I could help it. There is a quality of confession and atonement in those self-narratives, and I am quite conscious of it. When I tell the story of how I supported the Iraq War, I try to be hard on myself, because I don’t want to be that man again, and I want my listeners to understand how we can lie to ourselves even when we think we are being brave and truthful. When people ask me how I lost my ability to believe as a Catholic, I tend to focus more on my own idolatry of the Catholic Church than on the bad things the Church did. I do that because I want to own my sins, and my part in that painful episode — and do not want to repeat it, and do not want my listeners to set themselves up as idol-worshipers. Auden said (you’ll see the full quote below) that when we are falsely enchanted, we end up wanting to possess the object of enchantment, or wanting to be possessed by it. That’s how I was with Catholicism: I wanted it to possess me. That’s my fault, not Catholicism’s — and that’s the story I want to tell all Christians. Because it could happen to them too. Anything that is not God, but that we wish to possess or have possess us, can become an idol. This is a hard, hard lesson my pilgrimage has taught me.
There’s no doubt that Orthodox Christianity has played a big role in helping me not only to sharpen my sense of myself as a pilgrim, but also as a fortunate fool. Longtime readers will know that within about a single decade — from 2001 till around 2013 — I lost the three frames that helped me understand the world and my place in it. I lost my Catholic faith, I lost my faith in conservative politics, and finally, I lost the illusions I had about my family back in Louisiana (which I had also idolized, in the same way I idolized Catholicism). You can see why Dante’s Commedia was such a godsend! What it taught me to see — and this was backed up by Orthodoxy — was that everything we experience can be an opportunity for deeper conversion, for a more profound dying to self, and awakening to God.
I have always been a seeker and a pilgrim, but the tragedy of that decade of my life made the story darker, but maybe also filled it with more light. I’m not sure, because I don’t stand outside of myself. Just this morning I found this quote from W.H. Auden, and it deeply resonated with the pilgrim inside me:
The state of enchantment is one of certainty. When enchanted, we neither believe nor doubt nor deny: we know, even if, as in the case of a false enchantment, our knowledge is self-deception.All folk tales recognize that there are false enchantments as well as true ones. When we are truly enchanted we desire nothing for ourselves, only that the enchanting object or person shall continue to exist. When we are falsely enchanted, we desire either to possess the enchanting being or be possessed by it.We are not free to choose by what we shall be enchanted, truly or falsely. In the case of a false enchantment, all we can do is take immediate flight before the spell really takes hold.Recognizing idols for what they are does not break their enchantment.All true enchantments fade in time. Sooner or later we must walk alone in faith. When this happens, we are tempted, either to deny our vision, to say that it must have been an illusion and, in consequence, grow hardhearted and cynical, or to make futile attempts to recover our vision by force, i.e., by alcohol or drugs.A false enchantment can all too easily last a lifetime.
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Robespierre And Auden, Autists
Some years ago, in Paris, my son and I read Christopher Hibbert’s history of the French Revolution. When we were done, we talked about how the book had inadvertently convinced us that Maximilien Robespierre was on the autism spectrum. (This, because both of us slightly are, and we recognized the signs.) I wrote this back in 2012 on this blog, but I’m re-upping it because the blog has many more readers today. (I also later read Ruth Scurr’s great book on Robespierre, Fatal Purity.)
We made our case that Robespierre was a high-functioning autist from what we know of Robespierre’s manner. All quotes below are taken from Hibbert’s book. For example:
1. Robespierre was extremely nervous and high strung.
2. He was very fastidious about his appearance.
3. “He rarely laughed, and when he did, the sound seemed forced from him, hollow and dry.” Some people who are more intensely on the spectrum do sound forced in their laughter, because they have trouble gauging emotion and its proper expression.
4. “He appeared to be unremittingly conscious of his own virtues.” This is key, because many spectrum folks are rather severe in their sense of order, and intolerant of anyone who doesn’t think and behave in what they consider to be the “correct” way.
5. “But if [young Robespierre] joined in [his sisters’] games, it was usually to tell them how they ought to be played.” Standard behavior. My late father, who was the coach of my Little League team, told me that he always felt so sorry for me as a player, because the game was nothing but a source of stress for me. He said that he could always tell that I had worked out in my mind, before every pitch, where the correct play would be, no matter where the ball would be hit. But I could not enjoy myself, because none of the other boys, being little kids who just wanted to have fun, would focus on the mechanics of the game, to my satisfaction.
6. “… and when they asked [young Robespierre] for one of his pet pigeons he refused to give it to them for fear that they might not look after it properly.” Again, standard behavior.
7. At university, “He seems to have been a solitary student who made no intimate friends and was apparently content to spend most of his time alone in the private room with which his scholarship provided him.” Spectrum folks tend to be loners.
8. According to his sister, the adult Robespierre “was almost completely uninterested in food, living mainly off of bread, fruit, and coffee.” Autists tend to eat simple diets, in part because of the predictability of a simple diet, and in part because sensory variety is unpleasant to them.
9. He would lose himself in his work, sometimes forgetting that there were other people around him, or what had been going on around him. Autists are characterized by their intense focus on their work, or whatever occupies their attention at a given moment. This, by the way, is one thing that my son and I share. Just the other day, my daughter stood next to me saying, “Dad. Dad!” five times before I heard her. I was laser-focused on a book I was reading. It’s kind of a super-power, but it also gets you into a world of trouble under certain conditions.
10. He was not a carnal man, nor was he interested in ordinary pleasures. Even when he was the most powerful man in France, he kept his same spare rented rooms in the rue Saint-Honore, and didn’t use his position to make his life more lively or comfortable. The work, and living by virtue, was the thing.
The called Robespierre “L’Incorruptible,” and I believe it. But I don’t think it was a matter of virtue, as people believed at the time, as much as it was neurological. He believed in a severe code of behavior, and followed it because that’s what made him feel at home in the world. He was incorruptible for the same reason that someone who has sensory processing disorder (a syndrome associated with autism) can’t wear a shirt with a tag in the back: it is extremely irritating.
The problem is that when Robespierre came into a position of supreme power, he tried to force all of France to do what he believed needed to be done. He saw the people as a problem to be solved. He saw governing as a game to be played strictly according to his rules. That did not work out well for all the people he sent to the guillotine. Eventually, he was made to join their number. He no doubt went to his death genuinely not understanding what he had done wrong.
Do I really need to say that I don’t believe people on the spectrum are all bloody-minded dictators in waiting? Yes, I probably do. In fact, people on the spectrum really do have gifts. I used to work for the philanthropy founded by the late Sir John Templeton, a legendary stock-picker. He died before I joined the foundation, but the more I talked to people who had known him, the more I picked up clues that the cheerful investor might have been on the spectrum. Once I visited his old office in the Bahamas. Someone who had been there with him told me that it was amazing to watch him work. They told me he would spread the stock pages out in front of him at his desk, and go into a kind of fugue state, deeply concentrating on the data. And then he would come out of it, and make his stock buys. This is how he became a billionaire.
I heard that and thought, “Of course! If he was on the spectrum, then he was able to perceive patterns in the stock data that nobody else could.” This, you might know, is how Michael Burry, the investor profiled in Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, became a billionaire. He saw stock market patterns leading up to the 2008 crash that nobody else could see.
There’s a blogsite called Autism-Advantage.com that talks about how autism really does help one think through certain problems. For example:
In an interview on MBUR, Michael Lewis commented about Michael Burry and Asperger’s Syndrome:
“ … it’s not an accident that these people are the ones who saw what the system failed to see and was blind to. They had qualities in them that enabled them to see. And in his case, it was a total resistance to the propaganda coming out of Wall Street coupled with an insistence on seeing what the numbers were.”
In reality, people on the spectrum are not seeing anything differently to what everyone else sees. Autists are not better at looking per se. But what they are better at is removing the obstacles that obstruct the view. The “unique insights” or “creative solutions” that are often cited in regards to autistic employees are often not much more than being able to see what’s staring us in the face, of being able to “cut through the crap” (excuse the French). When solutions are hard to find, even when they shouldn’t be, it can often be because we’re misled by “this is how we did it last time”, “we always do it like this” or “everyone feels that this is the best approach”. None of which cut any ice for an autist and none of which will necessarily help find a solution.
A Vancouver-based consultancy, Focus Professional Services, speak of their autistic consultants as having “unique ways of filtering information”. This goes to the heart of the autistic advantage: being able to eliminate unnecessary and confusing data by rejecting information noise.
If you’re searching for a needle in a haystack, the first thing you want to do is reduce the size of the haystack. And autists are very good at removing hay.
A reader wrote to me this week that I remind her of a roommate she once had, a woman who was on the spectrum. My correspondent said that her friend had a PhD in the hard sciences, and always had
this annoying habit of always darkly prognosticating about trends in society and science. I used to inwardly pooh-pooh her ideas about many things, or argue with her that her views were too dark. But, dang! She was nearly always right! The thing I realized is that she did not let her emotions cloud her judgment with a desire for things to be a certain way. I think this allowed her the ability to clearly see patterns in society that led her to crucial and unpopular but logical conclusions. It was as if she could just turn off her emotions with a switch — what a gift!
And yes, the friend had been diagnosed as on the spectrum. Anyway, the correspondent said she has wondered if this expresses itself in me with regard to seeing the logic of underlying patterns and forces in society and culture. I have thought that too — the extent to which my cultural pessimism is based on the perception of deep patterns in cultural life that elude most people’s vision.
Just yesterday, I mentioned to my wife that a friend of ours reacted badly when I sent the friend a news article about how an event in the friend’s city might be shut down in 2021. “How strange that she would react that way,” I said to my wife. My wife said that it’s not strange at all. “One thing that makes you good at your job,” my wife said, “is how you can separate your emotions from things you read. But most of us can’t do that. Most of us don’t find it easy to read bad news.”
Well, she has a point. My wife has always wondered how on earth I can lie in bed at night, read a history of the gulags, or the Holocaust, then turn the light off and go right to sleep. Come to think of it, that’s why so many people who only know me from my writing perceive me as much gloomier than I actually am in real life. I really can turn this stuff off. For me, doing this blog is like the old Warner Bros. cartoon about the sheepdog and the coyote, both clocking in to play their roles:
I’m not “playing a role” to be fake; I’m just saying that I can switch easily from the intensity of writing about the news, and decline-and-fall, to ordinary life. Cheerful life, believe it or not. It’s just business. Serious business, but just business. I am often surprised when others can’t do that. That’s a fault of empathy on my part — though when I do find empathy for someone, boy, does it ever take off like a rocket.
The weird thing is that I can focus like a laser on certain things, but others fall by the wayside, sometimes in big and consequential ways. I was once editor of a newspaper section. I can say with no false modesty that I was superb in finding essays to publish, and composing a balanced, interesting section, week after week. But I was terrible at doing the non-idea-related detail work necessary to be an editor — things like making sure writers got paid on time. Eventually I had to step down. Thinking back on it, whatever very mild autism I have made me exceptionally good at finding unusually interesting essays and editing them for publication. But it also made me a disaster at the important managerial work that needed doing for the section to function. I genuinely could not focus on that stuff; I was thinking constantly about the Big Ideas.
I was like this in college. My grades were not great. Maybe I graduated with a 3.2 GPA. Straight As in history, English, humanities; abysmal grades in math and science. I don’t actually believe I was as bad as all that in math and science. I believe that I could not bring myself to hold the focus I needed to do to succeed. I don’t know where the line was between laziness (a moral fault) and neurological incapacity. I used to think it was 100 laziness, but having learned more about the autism phenomenon through my family’s experience with it, I think the explanation is more complicated.
My desk, and my bedroom, have always been a huge mess. At some point my wife gave up on me. If you go into our bedroom now, it looks like Goofus and Gallant share a bed. Her side of the room is neat and clean. My side, full of books and papers stacked everywhere. I read the other day in a Clive James essay that W.H. Auden, who wrote the most crystalline, well-constructed poetry, was a world-class slob. I mean, off the charts messy. Just now, as I was writing this blog entry, I thought, “I bet he was on the spectrum.” Lo, I did a bit of online research, and indeed Auden diagnosed himself as on the spectrum. Not surprised. Not surprised at all.
Well, sorry for that digression. Because of my own, and my own family’s, experience with neuro-atypicality, I am fascinated by the way this phenomenon manifests itself in different lives and contexts. Robespierre is obviously a great outlier. Still, it’s fascinating to think about how the arc of his extremely consequential life might have been shaped by autism. Robespierre started out as a provincial lawyer who fought for justice for the poor. He was, no kidding, a social justice warrior — and I mean that in a complimentary sense. Can you imagine the courage it must have taken to fight for the poor under the French monarchy at the time? Well, Robespierre did. He hated injustice. Couldn’t live with it.
And then, years later, when he had become the most powerful man in France, his white-hot passion for justice, untempered by mercy and the capacity for empathy, became extreme cruelty.
It is easy to discriminate against autists, even those with high-functioning autism. They can be difficult to deal with. But they often have real gifts — somewhat unique gifts — that can serve the community if they are allowed to flourish. What they need (and I’m talking here about myself, though again, I’m probably not diagnosable) is the freedom to do what they’re good at, but also the limitations to keep them from attempting what they’re not suited for. You need Mr. Spock on the bridge of the Enterprise, but you don’t really want Spock to be the captain.
UPDATE:Auden once wrote:
Between the ages of six and twelve I spent a great many of my waking hours in the fabrication of a private secondary sacred world, the basic elements of which were (a) a limestone landscape mainly derived from the Pennine Moors in the North of England, and (b) an industry — lead mining.
It is no doubt psychologically significant that my sacred world was autistic, that is to say, I had no wish to share it with others nor could I have done so. However, though constructed for and inhabited by myself alone, I needed the help of others, my parents in particular, in collecting its materials; others had to procure for me the necessary textbooks on geology, machinery, maps, catalogues, guidebooks, and photographs, and, when occasion offered, to take me down real mines, tasks which they performed with unfailing patience and generosity.
From this activity, I learned certain principles which I was later to find applied to all artistic fabrication. Firstly, whatever other elements it may include, the initial impulse to create a secondary world is a feeling of awe aroused by encounters, in the primary world, with sacred beings or events. Though every work of art is a secondary world, such a world cannot be constructed ex nihilo, but is a selection and recombination of encounters of the primary world…
Secondly, in constructing my private world, I discovered that, though this was a game, that is to say, something I was free to do or not as I chose, not a necessity like eating or sleeping, no game can be played without rules. A secondary world must be as much a world of law as the primary. One may be free to decide what these laws shall be, but laws there must be.
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Google App Censoring Covid-19 Courses
I have taken and really benefited from the Great Courses series of recorded college lectures. The one on Dante is so great that I wish I could buy a copy for everybody I know. Turns out that the Great Courses folks recorded some lectures from academic authorities offering takes on Covid-19.
A reader writes tonight:
A friend of mine took these screenshots. I have no idea the quality of the lectures on Great Courses, or if the info is legitimately misinformation, but it seems a bit dangerous for google to be able to censor apps that have info about COVID-19.
Here are the screenshots:
Here is a link to Dr. David Kung’s app-banned clip on How Math Predicts the Coronavirus Curve.
Here is a link to Dr. Kevin Ahern’s app-banned clip titled Viral Intelligence: What Is Coronavirus?
Here is a link to Dr. Roy Benaroch’s app-banned clip titled Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need To Know
What could these courses possibly say that offends Google? Maybe Google simply has a blanket policy of not allowing any non-official Covid-19 discussion on its platform. If that is the case, then the reader is right: it is really bad news that Google exercises its right to censor any non-government app featuring Covid-19 information — even from college professors.
Google is a private entity. It has the right to control what goes out on its app platform. Whether Google is morally correct to exercise that right to suppress any unofficial pandemic information is a different question — and a very important one. Google owns YouTube — how long will they allow these courses to remain on YouTube?
UPDATE: A reader writes:
Your website is one of the only ones I could find that has covered the banning of the Great Courses covid videos from Google. I wanted to add that this content was not only removed from the Android (Google version) of the app but also from the entire app itself, including the online version, and the Apple app version (I would presume). Definitely a ripple effect. What recourse the Great Courses has to fight back, I don’t know, but it will be interesting to see.
UPDATE.2: Reader Mario Diana comments:
I just got off the phone with one of the Great Courses Plus representatives, because the lectures cannot be played via their Apple TV app either. She told me that they had to remove it from their Google app, and so they have removed it, for now, from their other platforms, while they figure out if they can offer it on their other platforms (such as Apple TV), and that hopefully the lectures unavailability is just temporary. (I’m sorry if that leaves questions.)
The representative told me the lectures are available through their “Great Courses Daily” on the web.
I have a large library of their CD’s and DVD’s, as I’ve been their customer for years, and I just recently subscribed to their “Plus” service. This is really sad.
You can see the removed courses in the links I provide above. They are short — each only about 15 minutes.