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Home/Rod Dreher

Arendt, Racism, & The Death Of The West

Hannah Arendt in 1964 (Source)

Reading journalist Robert D. Kaplan’s engrossing memoir In Europe’s Shadow, I ran across a quote from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism that sent me back to the original looking for more context. Below is the quote Kaplan uses, plus the paragraph that precedes it:

The philosophy of Hobbes, it is true, contains nothing of modern race doctrines, which not only stir up the mob, but in their totalitarian form outline very clearly the forms of organization through which humanity could carry the endless process of capital and power accumulation through to its logical end in self-destruction. But Hobbes at least provided political thoughts with the prerequisite for all race doctrines, that is, the exclusion in principle of the idea of humanity which constitutes the sold regulating idea of international law. With the assumption that foreign politics is necessarily outside of the human contract, engaged in the perpetual war of all agains all, which is the law of the “state of nature,” Hobbes affords the best possible theoretical foundation for those naturalistic ideologies which hold nations to be tribes, separated from each other by nature, without any connection whatever, unconscious of the solidarity of mankind and having in common only the instinct for self-preservation which man shares with the animal world. If the idea of humanity, of which the most conclusive symbol is the common origin of the human species, is no longer valid, then nothing is more plausible than a theory according to which brown, yellow, or black races are descended from some other species of apes than the white race, and that all together are predestined by nature to war against each other until they have disappeared from the face of the earth.

Racism may indeed carry out the doom of the Western world and, for that matter, of the whole of human civilization. When Russians have become Slavs, when Frenchmen have assumed the role of commanders of a force noire, when Englishmen have turned into “white men,” as already for a disastrous spell all Germans became Aryans, then this change will itself signify the end of Western man. For no matter what learned scientists may say, race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origins of people but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death.

What Arendt is saying is that if we start to think of each other primarily in terms of race, not our common humanity, we doom ourselves. This is why, in my view, the teaching of Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of the high points of the Western tradition. And look how quickly we threw it away! The dominant white power structure of the pre-Civil Rights period saw black people primarily in terms of race, and diminished their humanity. In so doing, whites also diminished their own humanity. King taught Americans to see this, and to repent of it. He was a Christian and a classical liberal in this way.

I see no good coming out of the ruling class’s obsession with racial classification. This is the kind of thing we’re getting every day now:

The people who run our institutions are training Americans to see everyone and everything through the lens of race and other identitarian characteristics, and not focus on our common humanity. This is certainly the death of classical liberalism, and a guarantee of endless strife. Put another way, the universities, media, corporations, and other institutions are teaching Americans to suspect and even despise each other on the basis of race. And as brave teacher Paul Rossi correctly notes, it is creating a new generation of white racists:

And one more Arendt quote from The Origins of Totalitarianism, a quote I used in Live Not By Lies. Here she is talking about how pre-totalitarian societies prepared the way for totalitarianism:

The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the
fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.

We see this now, here. For example:

It’s happening. It’s happening here in America. Solzhenitsyn said, in the introduction to the 1983 edition of The Gulag Archipelago, that many people around the world think that what happened in Russia — the capture of the country by a totalitarian ideology — could never happen where they live. In fact, he said, it could happen anywhere on earth, under the right conditions. One more passage from Live Not By Lies, and from Solzhenitsyn:

In retrospect, this seems almost unbelievable. How could the Russians have been so blind? It was, in a sense, a problem of the imagination. Reflecting on the speed with which utopian dreams turned into a grisly nightmare,

Solzhenitsyn observed:

If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings, that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the “secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.

It wasn’t just the tsarists who didn’t see it coming but also the country’s leading liberal minds. It was simply beyond their ability to conceive.

These progressive activists and their fellow travelers leading American institutions have no idea what evil seeds they are planting in the hearts of Americans. There are people alive in this country who lived in an era when the KKK murdered people over race. This is within living memory. The capacity of decent, everyday Americans to turn into savages when drunk on racialism is not something we put behind us forever. It remains with us, because we are human beings. Our common humanity means we share a common fallenness. For all its problems — and heaven knows I’ve talked about them here — classical liberalism has at least given us a means to rise above racialism, and live together in as close to peace and justice as we are going to manage in this fallen world. There are no utopias; we will constantly be working on making our democracy better. That’s just how it is. But these utopian totalitarians are taking us backward, in the name of progress.

We are watching the auto-destruction of a nation. I wonder if we can still save it.

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Woke Capitalism Comes For Lawyers

">Still from PragerU

Woke Capitalism is now using the power of its purse to force law firms to discriminate on racial and sexual grounds in hiring. From Bloomberg:

Elite law firms in the U.S. and the U.K., long seen as fusty bastions of mostly White men, are being pushed by some of their biggest customers to change. Facebook, HP, and Novartis are part of a growing number of major global companies that have warned they’ll take their work elsewhere or cut fees unless they see more racial and gender diversity in the law firms they hire.

It’s a serious threat: Facebook Inc. last year spent $1.6 billion on legal fees, settlements, and fines. “Money can make movements,” says Lauren Hauber, a Facebook legal operations manager in San Francisco. “And using buying power to push for change will oftentimes start to move the needle.”

It’s not that the companies pushing for change are models of diversity. Most have their own distinct struggles with representation. But corporate law firms have proved particularly slow to shape up, with many structured as partnerships that give relatively few dealmakers decades of influence over how a firm is run. That’s an increasing concern for clients, who say diverse legal teams deliver more creative and well-rounded advice.

How do they know that “diverse” legal teams deliver “more creative and well-rounded advice”? What does that even mean?

This is a great example to disprove the shibboleth one hears from folks on the Left who say that no company would implement a diversity scheme if it caused them to lose money. Anybody who has worked inside corporations that have gone mad for diversity ideology knows how untrue that is. But this is a clear-cut case. When you are a major corporation, you stand to lose serious money if you don’t have the best legal advice possible. You need to trust that your law firm has hired lawyers based only on their legal acumen and litigation skills, not race, sex, or other factors. If your company is demanding that law firms hire on other bases, then it logically follows that you risk lessening the quality of your legal advice. There’s no way around that.

If I were a shareholder in those companies, I would not be happy. I am not happy either that once again, we see American capitalism bullying other parties dependent on it, trying to coerce them to adopt ideological stances that violate fairness, and mandate racial and sexual discrimination.

Both in corporate suites and among activists, these ideological thugs are tireless in their persecution of people who hold to old-fashioned liberal standards. Here is a piece by Dorian Abbot, a distinguished scientist who talks about how activists successfully pressured MIT to cancel its invitation to him to deliver a prestigious lecture. Why? Read on:

On August 12, a colleague and I wrote an op-ed in Newsweek in which we argued that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) as it currently is implemented on campus “violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment” and “treats persons as merely means to an end, giving primacy to a statistic over the individuality of a human being.” We proposed instead “an alternative framework called Merit, Fairness, and Equality (MFE) whereby university applicants are treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone.” We noted that this would mean an end to legacy and athletic admission advantages, which significantly favor white applicants.

Shortly thereafter, my detractors developed a new strategy to try to isolate me and intimidate everyone else into silence: They argued on Twitter that I should not be invited to give science seminars at other universities and coordinated replacement speakers. This is an effective and increasingly common way to ratchet up the cost of dissenting because disseminating new work to colleagues is an important part of the scientific endeavor.

Sure enough, this strategy was employed when I was chosen to give the Carlson Lecture at MIT — a major honor in my field. It is an annual public talk given to a large audience and my topic was “climate and the potential for life on other planets.” On September 22, a new Twitter mob, composed of a group of MIT students, postdocs, and recent alumni, demanded that I be uninvited.

It worked. And quickly.

On September 30 the department chair at MIT called to tell me that they would be cancelling the Carlson lecture this year in order to avoid controversy.

It’s worth stating what happened again: a small group of ideologues mounted a Twitter campaign to cancel a distinguished science lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because they disagreed with some of the political positions the speaker had taken. And they were successful within eight days.

This happens all the time. Notice that Prof. Abbot was canceled by MIT because he publicly dissented from Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity ideology, on liberal principles! Here is an acclaimed scientist who was told by one of the world’s greatest science and technology institutions that he could not deliver a lecture on science because he is politically unreliable.

This is soft totalitarianism. Soft, because Dorian Abbot is not being sent to prison, only being publicly humiliated and denied the opportunity to speak … but still totalitarianism, because these cretinous activists and the gutless institutional administrators are creating an environment in which only one opinion is tolerated.

You think you can escape this? You’re wrong. They will not stop until they have defeated us all. Read Live Not By Lies, and prepare. I tell you who I’m going to vote for going forward: the politician I think most likely to use the power of the state to put a stop to this bullying. Not just talk about it, and raise money by talking about it, but actually do it, without fear or favor.

By the way, check out this PragerU advice on how to thrive within a woke corporation:

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Chicago, Capital Of Soros-stan

George Soros, a godfather of Chicago's lawlessness (GeorgeSoros.com)

Chicago’s Kim Foxx, one of the far-left district attorneys who was elected with the financial backing of billionaire George Soros, has really advanced the insanity of progressive pro-crime anti-carceral activism to a new level. From the Sun-Times:

Five men linked to a deadly gang-related shootout Friday in Austin were released from custody after prosecutors declined to charge each of them with a pair of felonies, including first-degree murder, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

The brazen mid-morning gunfight, which left one shooter dead and two of the suspects wounded, stemmed from an internal dispute between two factions of the Four Corner Hustlers street gang, according to an internal police report and a law enforcement source with knowledge of the investigation.

The source said police sought to charge all five suspects with murder and aggravated battery. By Sunday morning, a Chicago police spokeswoman acknowledged the suspects had “been released without charges.”

In a statement later Sunday, Cristina Villareal, a spokeswoman for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, explained that prosecutors had “determined that the evidence was insufficient to meet our burden of proof to approve felony charges.” Police officials agreed with the decision, Villareal added.

While she wouldn’t specify what other evidence prosecutors needed to file charges, the police report acknowledged that victims of the shootout weren’t cooperating with investigators.

But the report also framed the state’s attorney’s office’s decision to decline charges in a different light: “Mutual combatants was cited as the reason for the rejection.” Mutual combat is a legal term used to define a fight or struggle that two parties willingly engage in.

So these gang members had a shootout on a Chicago street, but the state won’t charge them because they all wanted to have a gunfight?!

Good grief. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, herself a progressive, is worried:

Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, warned that a lack of consequences could send a dangerous message as the city grapples with a continued surge in violent crime.

“If they do not feel like the criminal justice system is going to hold them accountable, we’re going to see a level of brazenness that will send this city into chaos,” she said of those stoking the violence. “And we cannot let that happen.”

City Hall has clashed with Foxx over prosecutions in the past. And the Area 5 detectives investigating the shootout have been at odds with the state’s attorney’s office over other high-profile cases prosecutors refused to take up, including the fatal shootings of National Guard member Chrys Carjaval in July and 7-year-old Serenity Broughton in August.

According to the local crime stats tracker, a person is murdered in Chicago every ten hours.

In other Soros news, it turns out that the rich old radical funded the activist organization whose members chased US Sen. Kyrsten Sinema into the toilet. In fact, Soros’s Open Society Foundation is the local group’s biggest donor.

I’m telling you, the Hungarians had this guy figured out ages ago. If they were right about him, what else are they right about?

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Esteemed Comrade Biden!

Leonid Brezhnev (Source)

A reader who grew up in communist Czechoslovakia said the letter from the National School Board Association to President Biden, asking for the feds to move in to protect school boards from angry parents, reminds him of this August 1968 letter that the Communist leadership of his native country sent to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, fraternally requesting an invasion to protect them from the Czech people:

Esteemed Leonid Ilich,

Conscious of the full responsibility for our decision, we appeal to you with the following statement.

The basically correct post-January democratic process, the correction of mistakes and shortcomings from the past, as well as the overall political management of society, have gradually eluded the control of the Party’s Central Committee. The press, radio, and television, which are effectively in the hands of right-wing forces, have influenced popular opinion to such an extent that elements hostile to the Party have begun to take part in the political life of our country, without any opposition from the public. These elements are fomenting a wave of nationalism and chauvinism, and are provoking an anti-Communist and anti-Soviet psychosis.

Our collective — the Party leadership — has made a number of mistakes. We have not properly defended or put into effect the Marxist-Leninist norms of party work and above all the principles of democratic centralism. The Party leadership is no longer able to defend itself successfully against attacks on socialism, and it is unable to organize either ideological or political resistance against the right-wing forces. The very existence of socialism in our country is under threat.

At present, all political instruments and the instruments of state power are paralyzed to a considerable degree. The right-wing forces have created conditions suitable for a counterrevolutionary coup.

In such trying circumstances we are appealing to you, Soviet Communists, the leading representatives of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, with a request for you to lend support and assistance with all the means at your disposal. Only with your assistance can the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic be extricated from the imminent danger of counterrevolution.

We realize that for both the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Soviet government, this ultimate step to preserve socialism in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic will not be easy. Therefore, we will struggle with all our power and all our means. But if our strength and capabilities are depleted or fail to bring positive results, then our statement should be regarded as an urgent request and plea for your intervention and all-round assistance.

In connection with the complex and dangerous course of the situation in our country, we request that you treat our statement with the utmost secrecy, and for that reason we are writing to you, personally, in Russian.

Alois Indra

Drahomir Kolder

Antonin Kapek

Oldrich Svestka

Vasil Bilak

You may be wondering, along with me, why school boards need to involve the federal government in local law enforcement matters. Why can’t local police deal with genuinely unruly parents (as opposed to parents who are simply angry)? It makes no sense. Right?

Well, it makes sense if you realize that letters like the one the Department of Justice issued yesterday, in response to the NSBA request, serve as a way of making policy de facto without any democratic accountability. Here’s that letter:

Here’s how this works. Back in 2016, the Obama administration, via a joint statement from the Justice Department and the Department of Education, issued a “Dear Colleague” letter instructing public schools that it interprets Title IX to shield transgender students. This was not a change in the law, but a change in enforcing bureaucratic policy. A school could have sued to stop this, but in so doing they would have gone up against the immensity of the US Government. What do you think most schools are going to do in that case? Capitulate, because most institutions don’t have the financial resources to fight the Justice Department.

The Trump administration rescinded that Dear Colleague letter, but it remains a good example of how the Left in power uses the bureaucracy to get around democracy and enforce its preferred policies. Who wants to have to go to court against the world’s largest law firm, the US Department of Justice?

This new letter from Merrick Garland is the same kind of thing. We have had a rash of contentious school board meetings around the country, usually having to do with Covid policy, Critical Race Theory, gender ideology, or some combination of these things. Some of those meetings have gotten out of hand. Is this a national crisis requiring federal intervention? Of course not — but federal intervention is a powerful move intended to shut down all opposition. As we know, January 6 was the Reichstag fire the Left needed to justify a sweeping campaign against right-wing dissent. You had better be careful about what you say and to whom you say it; you don’t want to end up on the government’s radar as a potential “domestic terrorist.” The school board association’s letter to Biden said that these parental protests “could be” covered by laws against “domestic terrorism” and “hate crimes.”

The letter also says, of CRT: “This propaganda continues despite the fact that critical race theory is not taught in public schools and remains a complex law school and graduate school subject well beyond the scope of a K-12 class.” This is an outrageous lie, as Christopher Rufo and others have extensively documented (see here)! That is a tell, and what it tells you is that the NSBA is not operating above board here — that it is requesting a federal invasion, so to speak, of school board meetings to intimidate dissenters into silence.

It’s the Law of Merited Impossibility at work: “Critical race theory is not being taught in our schools, and we want the FBI to destroy parents who stand against it.”

I want you to understand my clearly here. I am NOT defending those who get violent and abusive at school board meetings. I’m saying that these people can be handled with ordinary local law enforcement measures. What the NSBA is doing is providing a pretext for the feds to suppress parental dissent on CRT, on masks, and on gender ideology. What the NSBA is doing is providing a pretext to bring the massive anti-terrorism apparatus of the US Government down on angry parents.

And there are still people who believe that I am being alarmist when I talk about the rise of soft totalitarianism in America.It is here, and it is going to get much worse. Are you preparing? If not, why not?

Here’s something that works in tandem with the DOJ strategy: the redefinition of language by judges and legal elites in ways that circumvent the plain meaning of the law. Law professor Richard Epstein, writing in 2016 in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, explained how this “linguistic relativism” works. 

Epstein says that everybody believes in the “rule of law,” but people don’t often think about how changing the meaning of language can undermine the rule of law. He writes:

Both the narrow and broad conceptions of the rule of law presuppose that the tools of ordinary language are powerful enough to allow judges and scholars to formulate legal rules that make implementing the rule of law possible. Unfortunately, many scholars despair that the tools of textual analysis are not strong enough to meet the persistent challenges of the linguistic skeptic. Today, many people, both on the bench and in the academy, share this all too fashionable view of ordinary language. This undermines the rule of law, fanning the general populist unease that now infects much of our public discourse. At a theoretical level, it is common for linguistic skeptics to scoff at language as the fundamental unit of law. For example, Mark Tushnet, in his caustic review of my book Design for Liberty: Private Property, Public Administration, and the Rule of Law, celebrates the proposition that terms like “property” and “nuisance” “have no determinate content, which means that the judges must actually be relying on something else to resolve the dispute,” without ever letting us know what that “something else” is. This type of relativism easily extends to other terms, most notably “liberty” and “coercion,” which have similarly been attacked as otiose, most famously by Robert L. Hale. In his highly influential essay, Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State,  he finds that any refusal to deal should be regarded as coercive both in competitive and monopoly markets.

In the introduction to his paper, Epstein recounts how a modernist interpretation of language (to mean whatever power-holders want it to mean) affected the legal problems of Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who declined to make cakes for same-sex weddings. Epstein says that the idea that words and terms don’t always mean what they seem to mean — “legal relativism” — gives immense power to those figures — judges, mostly — whose responsibility it is to interpret meaning. Epstein writes:

So why then the legal relativism—that is, some notion that there are no independent grounds for preferring one outcome to another—which surfaces in different ways in different contexts? The simplest explanation is the best. Let a judge assume that there are fixed meanings to controversial terms, and the scope of judicial discretion in interpreting statutes or constitutional texts is necessarily limited. For progressive law professors like Felix Frankfurter, those linguistic straitjackets would reduce the opportunity to transform constitutional doctrine in ways that displaced the classical liberal conception with the progressive and New Deal views he so emphatically championed. This palpable change in the judicial approach fueled much of Frankfurter’s jurisprudence of the period.

In other words, if plain language gets in the way of the judicial advancement of progressive goals, then plain language has to go. If a judge (or an attorney general) can render a dispute over policy neutral by engaging in semantics, then he can more easily achieve the outcome he wants. This is what the Obama DOJ did with its “Dear Colleague” letter about transgenders and Title IX. It decided by bureaucratic fiat that sex is mutable, so every time Civil Rights law says “women,” it also means “men who identify as women.” See how this works?

In one section of his paper, Epstein talks about how progressives have used an expansive reading of the “commerce clause” to achieve policy goals through court rulings. Look what the NSBA letter says:

NSBA believes immediate assistance is required to protect our students, school board members, and educators who are susceptible to acts of violence affecting interstate commerce because of threats to their districts, families, and personal safety.

“Affecting interstate commerce”? Bull. This is a flimsy pretext for inviting federal involvement in an area where the feds have no place. It is perfectly justifiable for school boards to expect law enforcement authorities to protect them from threats of violence. That is not what the NSBA’s request is. It is a request for the federal government to suppress dissent. Again, note well that the NSBA explicitly denies that Critical Race Theory is being taught in public schools. We know that is a lie, but the NSBA presents it as evidence that school boards are being attacked by irrational liars.

In fact, it’s not hard to imagine the NSBA letter redrafted using the form of the Czech hardliners in their appeal to Brezhnev:

School leaders are no longer able to defend themselves successfully against attacks on public health and social justice, and it is unable to organize either ideological or political resistance against the right-wing forces. The very existence of health, safety, and justice in American schools is under threat.

At present, all political instruments and the instruments of educational power are paralyzed to a considerable degree. The right-wing forces have created conditions suitable for a counterrevolutionary coup.

In such trying circumstances we are appealing to you, President Biden, with a request for you to lend support and assistance with all the means at your disposal. Only with your assistance can America’s public schools be extricated from the imminent danger of counterrevolution.

Last night, I posted about this, and included evidence that local media massaged the facts about conflict at a Virginia school board meeting to make it look like angry white right-wing protesters were the sole instigators of the drama. In fact, the black head of the county Democratic Party was caught on video yelling and cursing at the whites (“F–k you!”, etc) — but this didn’t make it into media reports. You see what they’re doing, right? Manufacturing consent for repression.

We have seen how on transgender matters, school authorities conspire to keep parents from finding out about their child’s gender dysphoria without the child’s consent. In the short NSFW video below, an angry Fairfax County (Virginia) parent is reading aloud from books in her kid’s school library, in which boys talk explicitly about sex with older men — and a school board member asks her to stop reading from these books available to children in a local school library, because there are children present! This is how absurd it has become.

From Live Not By Lies, this passage about how the corruption of language allows totalitarianism to thrive:

It is difficult for people raised in the free world to grasp the breadth and the depth of lying required simply to exist under communism. All the lies, and lies about lies, that formed the communist order were built on the basis of this foundational lie: the communist state is the sole source of truth. Orwell expressed this truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

Under the dictatorship of Big Brother, the Party understands that by changing language—Newspeak is the Party’s word for the jargon it imposes on society—it controls the categories in which people think. “Freedom” is slavery, “truth” is falsehood, and so forth. Doublethink—“holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”—is how people learn to submit their minds to the Party’s ideology. If the Party says 2 + 2 = 5, then 2 + 2 = 5. The goal is to convince the person that all truth exists within the mind, and the rightly ordered mind believes whatever the Party says is true.

Orwell writes:

It was as though some huge force were pressing down upon you—something that penetrated inside your skull, battering against your brain, frightening you out of your beliefs, persuading you, almost, to deny the evidence of your senses. In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.

In our time, we do not have an all-powerful state forcing this on us. Under soft totalitarianism, the media, academia, corporate America, and other institutions are practicing Newspeak and compelling the rest of us to engage in doublethink every day. Men have periods. The woman standing in front of you is to be called “he.” Diversity and inclusion means excluding those who object to ideological uniformity. Equity means treating persons unequally, regardless of their skills and achievements, to achieve an ideologically correct result.

To update an Orwell line to our own situation: “The Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion told you to
reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

If the Biden Department of Justice, the National School Board Association, the media, and others manage to convince Americans that parents angry over how they and their children are being treated in public schools are “domestic terrorists,” then we will have advanced a long way down the road to totalitarianism.

Under an absurd pretext, the NSBA has summoned Leviathan to crush dissent, and Leviathan has responded in the affirmative. This is the fight in front of us now.

UPDATE:

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School Dissent: A Federal Crime?

Loudoun County, Va., parent-protester at school board meeting over summer(Reuters)

Parents protesting school boards that force Critical Race Theory on students have been having some success lately. Time, then, for the Biden administration to put the FBI on them. The Attorney General issued this today:

Chris Rufo, the leading crusader against CRT indoctrination, comments:

Well, it’s more complicated than that. The National School Board Association, in its long letter asking Biden to get the feds involved, listed some specific attacks. I don’t doubt that there really have been completely inexcusable, even violent, incidents directed at school boards by angry parents. But I also have deep suspicion about the Biden administration’s apparent eagerness to slot dissenters into the “domestic terrorists” category. Some of these school board meetings have been quite contentious, with justifiably outraged parents reading obnoxious, and in some cases extremely sexualized, content aloud — content that had been assigned to their children. Of course school boards don’t want to hear that! But they have to hear it. It is not the job of parents to sit quietly while these people indoctrinate students on the public dime.

Take a look at how one local TV station in Washington, DC, construed a story to make a group of white parents out to be the villains at a contentious school board meeting. James Lindsay has it all on this Twitter thread. 

In this tweet in the series, a camera catches a black woman, Tonya James, who is head of the county’s Democratic Party, tearing into the whites in the crowd, who had just sung the National Anthem:

I watched the local ABC report, and it is entirely possible that some of these white parents behaved badly without excuse. But it completely ignores the foul-mouthed provocations of the black Democratic official. You’d get the idea from the ABC report that the problem was entirely one caused by hotheaded white people. There is no indication that a black Democratic party official stood and screamed curses at the white parents. Hey, they might even be “domestic terrorists”! Joe Biden’s Justice Department is on the case.

Violence — real or threatened — in school board meetings is unacceptable. But here’s the thing: why federalize this? Why isn’t local law enforcement capable of handling these cases? Why involve the Justice Department? One wonders if the Left is not trying to deploy the same strategy the FBI used against the KKK during the Civil Rights era against parents today who dissent from CRT and/or gender ideology taught to their kids, and vaccine policies. How many parents will be willing to show up at all at school board meetings to object if they fear that in so doing, they will become ensnared with the FBI?

Perhaps this is the point.

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Gary Shteyngart’s ‘Gentile Region’

Novelist Gary Shteyngart, whose penis hurts a lot (PBS News Hour)

I have never given circumcision a single thought, other than to consent to my sons’ circumcision. Europeans think its weird for American Gentiles to be circumcised, and I think they’re right … but I remember the one kid we had in my elementary school class, a black boy who had been born at home, and who was not circumcised. All us boys wanted to stare at his primitive root wiener when we were at the urinal during recess, because it was monstrous. Nobody told us that wieners could look like that. The kid didn’t know why his penis was so strange looking, and neither did we. Third grade, man.

Reading the novelist Gary Shteyngart’s harrowing tale of dealing in mid-life with a late circumcision gone wrong caused me to send the link to my sons, asking them to strongly consider not circumcising any male children they may one day have, as it is not necessary for Christians to do this. Don’t get me wrong: I believe that people who circumcise for religious reasons should have the right to do so. The Shteyngart piece changed my mind on whether doing it is advisable for those for whom it is not a religious requirement. Shteyngart was circumcised as a teenage immigrant to the US, after some Chabadniks convinced his non-religious Soviet Jewish parents that their son needed to have a bris to be properly Jewish. It did not work out as it ought to have done, but this wasn’t a real problem for Shteyngart until a couple of years ago, well into middle age. Here is an excerpt:

For the first time since the initial surgery, I felt that I was being cared for and looked after. Is this it? I thought. Is this my liberation? “In seven to ten days,” the doctor said, “the new skin will grow in and I expect you’ll feel great.”

In seven to ten days, I was in the worst pain of my life. There were some improvements. My penis was no longer covered with scabs, and yet walking for more than ten minutes was impossible. I was losing my mind. I had finally tried gabapentin, but it brought about a mild psychosis during which I wasn’t sure what was real and what was not. The penis is an outcropping of privilege in the male of the species, but it is also a pleasure palace constantly sending signals to the brain. Having pain in the region amounts to a never-ending genital tinnitus. It is impossible to think of anything else.

I’ve always had a rational fear of dying, but when I imagined a life without being able to walk or swim or have sex or travel or do anything without pain or an Elizabethan collar, I wondered what it would be like to kill myself. I looked out the window and onto the fresh snow gathered below and considered the coldness of its eternal compress. Shortly thereafter, I read a BBC article about Alex Hardy, a British man who had committed suicide in 2017 after being circumcised in Canada as a young adult. He did not share his travails with anyone after his operation, but in a long farewell note to his mother he wrote that “these ever-present stimulated sensations from clothing friction are torture within themselves; they have not subsided/normalised from years of exposure. . . . Imagine what would happen to an eyeball if the eyelid was amputated?” That analogy perfectly articulated my own experience.

The stomachs of every male in my readership just rolled over. Shteyngart’s account is about the experience of chronic pain, both physical and psychological (because the penis is not just any body part, but a symbol of one’s manhood, and the instrument of sexual communion with one’s partner. I expected to read a very funny novelist being very funny about an embarrassing malady. Shteyngart does show a sense of comic irony in the piece, but mostly it’s about how much he hurts. It’s a surprisingly moving essay. Read it all. 

(I expect that nine out of ten male readers of that Shteyngart piece will send it to all their male friends. It’s that kind of essay.)

Here is a link to the book trailer for Shteyngart’s hilarious memoir Little Failure, about growing up in Soviet Russia, and then in New York as an immigrant. Note to those not in the know: Shteyngart is a comic novelist, so he’s not really married to James Franco. He is, in fact, married to a woman, and the father of a child. And he’s got a very, very angry penis.

UPDATE: For some reason, Disqus won’t let me reply to some comments wondering about my phrase “primitive root weiner”. Hey, I thought it was funny. More than half the boys in my class were black, and everybody, white and black, but this one kid was circumcised. None of us had ever seen an uncircumcised penis before. It looked very weird to us, like a root (ever seen an uncircumcised wiener?). We used to have to stand at a pee trough at recess, whip it out, and do our business. Little boys being little boys, things were noticed, and comments were made. We thought the kid was deformed. I brought it up to my dad later, and he said this was a common thing for children in the country born at home. I was trying above to make fun of how weird it is, coming from a circumcision culture, to see an uncircumcised penis, when you didn’t even know such a thing existed.

For the record, many years later, I was in an all-male gym shower in the Netherlands, as an adult, and someone asked me in all honesty if I was Jewish, because I was the only circumcised person in this shower full of white men.

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Lotus Eaters & The Experience Machine

In my subscription-only Substack newsletter (please subscribe!) the other day, I wrote about a thought experiment:

Have you ever heard of the philosopher Robert Nozick’s “Experience Machine”? He wrote:

What matters other than how people’s experiences feel “from the inside”? Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience that you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside? Nor should you refrain because of the few moments of distress between the moment you’ve decided and the moment you’re plugged. What’s a few moments of distress compared to a lifetime of bliss (if that’s what you choose), and why feel any distress at all if your decision is the best one?

Would you plug in? This is the concept behind The Matrix — the idea that everybody lives inside a mass hallucination, when in fact their bodies live in a kind of suspended animation. This is the substance of the red pill vs. blue pill choice in the movie: would you prefer to live within a pleasant lie, or within the unpleasant truth?

A subscriber sent me a great response, and has given me permission to publish it:

Your latest Substack letter about the Experience Machine got me thinking.  I was born in 1982, and video/computer games (I’ll just call them “games”) have always been part of my life.  That “Experience Machine” concept — that’s games!  I don’t have time to write a carefully thought out email, but I think my experiences may help you with the task you’re dealing with: arguing why people should prefer reality to “reality”.  If what I have to say interests you and you’d like more detail, let me know.  I apologize in advance for the length: “I wrote you a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

  • I had a lot of growing up to do in my thirties, and a lot of it had to do with putting games in their proper place.  I was a successful attorney with a wife, children, a house I bought with the money I earned (in California!), I was a leader at our church, I had all the outward trappings of maturity.  But the thing I usually wanted to do in my spare time was sit down at my computer and play games, as I had done all my life.  That caused me to be a distant husband and father who wasn’t very involved in my kids’ lives and who largely left my wife to deal with all the work of running our house.  It took years of counseling and slow, painful growth — think of that chapter in Voyage of the Dawn Treader where Eustace Scrubb, having turned into a dragon, has his dragon skin peeled off to become a boy again — and I’m not there yet for sure, but I’m getting better.

  • When I was a child, games were an important way my friends and I spent time together, and relative skill at whichever game we collectively decided was the most important to us at the time was a means of establishing position in the social hierarchy.  If you were the best in your circle of friends at, say, Street Fighter II in 1993, you were respected for that.  Modern online games offer all sorts of ways for players to distinguish themselves and attempt to impress other players.  In other words, games offer the possibility of prestige among your peers – either your real-life friends or other people who play the same games – which is something real and not just a simulated experience.  The catch, of course, is that the thing that gets you that prestige – your mastery of a game – has little to no utility in the real world.

  • Getting better at a game usually involves learning real skills – coordination, decision making, memory, strategic thinking, reflexes, pattern recognition, planning – and so there is genuine satisfaction for the player because there is genuine improvement.  I’ve experienced that satisfaction countless times.  Again, however, while the skills learned from games may be partially transferable to the real world (I think of the people who coordinate dozens of fellow players in MMO raids – that takes real management skills), mastery of any game is largely useless outside of the game environment itself.  I’m skilled at many games, but none of them help me feed my family or keep my house clean.  (Yes, I know some exceptional people can make a living as professional competitive gamers or streamers; but most people cannot parley gaming into a living any more than most people can make a living playing professional basketball.)

  • What I’m trying to get at in the above paragraphs is that games are so addictive – at least, they are for me – because the fantasy, the virtual experience, is admixed with real things – the development of skills and respect from other people.  It’s a heady brew.

  • I really was good at the games I chose to play, and that skill was a big part of my self-image.  A big part of growing up – and something I still have to remind myself about most days – is that being good at games is worth very little in the real world.  At best, it gives me a way to entertain my friends and children.  At worst, it drives me away from them to isolation.

  • In my mid-thirties, I was really into a certain online military game.  I played it in every spare moment I had, and I was genuinely good at it; like I was among the top 50 players on the North American server.  It was also ruining my marriage; it drained my time and attention away from everything else.  Ultimately I had to walk away from the whole thing cold turkey – deleted my account and everything – and I haven’t been back for a couple of years.  That was really hard to do, and painful, but man, am I glad I did it.

  • Nozick is right: we don’t just want to feel like we’re doing things, we want to actually do them.  Or perhaps it is more precise to say we want to be able to honestly say we have done them.  (Why do people put themselves through hell climbing Mount Everest?  Surely it is not because it is a pleasant experience in the moment, but because they want to be able to say they did it.)

  • Nozick is also right that we want to be a certain way, and a person hooked up to the Experience Machine is just a blob.  Well, for most of my life, I was a high-functioning blob: I got good grades, I got a good job, I made good money, I married and had children, etc., but in my heart of hearts I just wanted to plop down in my chair in front of the computer and blob out.  I have been realizing that I don’t want to be a blob, I want to be a man.  I don’t want to look at myself from the outside, with my mind’s eye, and see a pasty dude sitting in a chair staring at a screen for hours at a time; I want to see a man teaching his children, helping his wife, praying, giving of himself to the people around him.

  • I became an Orthodox Christian around the same time video games began to loosen their grip on my life.  I think the two things are related, but I’m not quite sure which came first.  I think they work synergistically; probably the real first mover in all this was the Holy Spirit.  Certainly, Orthodoxy’s focus on spiritual growth, discipline, and practice offers me a satisfying real alternative to the mostly illusory achievements offered by games.

  • Why should I care more about reality than the “reality” of games?  Well, the obvious answer that you and I can agree on as Orthodox Christians is that reality is reality, and we are made for union with God, not to sit as blobs in chairs amusing and pleasuring ourselves.

  • But there’s another reason that I think any honest person who plays a lot of games – or who spends a lot of time in the Experience Machine – will have to admit: the more you do it, the deeper into it you get, the more boring and job-like it gets.  (Gamers have a term for when playing a game feels like a chore or a job: we call it “grinding.”)  There’s a point in every game, no matter how deep and complex, where it ceases to surprise and delight and it becomes boring and familiar.  You reach the other side of it and it is no longer a trackless forest, just a shabby little wood (so to speak).  So you move on to another game, or you try to invent challenges for yourself to keep the game interesting, but it never works for long.  At bottom, the Experience Machine is shallow and empty, and the harder you throw yourself into it, the harder that bottom hits you.

  • I’m a “geriatric millennial” – almost 40 years old – so I’m an old fart and I don’t really have my thumb on the pulse of what people in their teens and 20’s are into now.  But I’ve witnessed games grow from the crude, simple Nintendo games of the ’80s to the massive, complex, always-on, always-expanding online games available today.  I can’t imagine the temptations I faced growing up are anything but more intense now.

  • I should hasten to add that games serve a healthy purpose in my life, too.  My wife and I live in a large metropolitan area, and between all of the responsibilities and scheduling problems of adult life, the omnipresent traffic, and sheer geographic distance, it is really difficult to see our friends in person.  We average maybe one face to face visit every two to three weeks, and seeing our friends in person is a high priority for us.  Online games and the Discord app have bridged the gap and enabled us to hang out with our friends at will, as much as we want to.  We play with a regular group an average of four evenings per week, two hours per evening, and then we usually spend another hour just shooting the breeze.  (That last hour is where we really get to know each other and bond, but it wouldn’t happen without the first two hours playing games.)  That group includes friends from our former church and people we met online who live on the other side of the country.  Those people are our closest friends now.  Our lives would be poorer and we would be much more isolated if we didn’t have the Internet and games over which to bond with these people.

  • Tellingly, I think, out of all the people we knew at our former church we only truly befriended the ones we played with regularly (because they were the only ones we regularly spent time with outside of Sunday morning), and those friends are still playing with us on Discord every week.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that those same church friends are the only ones we continue to see face to face despite the difficulty of doing so.

I like that Orthodox argument against “virtual culture”: we are made for unity with God, so anything that seriously gets in the way of that should not be in our lives — or should not dominate our lives. I’m not a Puritan, and I don’t think fun is inherently ungodly. To the contrary, feasting can be part of what helps us participate in the life of God.

Sometimes artificial things are needed to integrate us more fully into reality. In my case, reading Dante’s Commedia harrowed my soul, and turned up ugly things buried in the rocky soil of my own heart — things of which I had to repent in order to be spiritually healed. I could not have seen those things if I had been told about them in non-fiction. It took art — the artifice of art! — to bring me to reality.

One of the things you learn in the Commedia is that Hell — the Inferno — is populated by people who are all radically disconnected from each other. Communion is impossible in Hell, because everybody who dwells there lives in isolation. Only in Purgatory (Purgatorio, the second book) do we begin to see the rebuilding of community among the penitents. If a technology exacerbates our isolation from others, as well as from the world outside our heads, is it not an Experience Machine?

And if that’s true, what is the difference between a passive gamer who spends his days enmeshed in the artificial world of the game, and somebody like me, who spends his days — often very long days — online reading and writing and trying to make sense of the world … but who, in the end, doesn’t often leave the house, because he’s so caught up in the world inside his head?

I think there is an important difference — one is about total escapism, and the other can be productive — but in terms of what’s good for my soul, there’s less difference than I wish.

Another reader sent me this argument against the Experience Machine:

I’ve been a grad-student in philosophy since 2016, first at [university] (for an MA), and now at [university] (for a PhD).  So I’ve had to lead discussion sections as a TA, and have also taught classes as the instructor of record for undergrads where we’ve talked about Nozick and his Experience Machine.  My experience is much as you say, that the thought experiment doesn’t really work anymore, because students think that being in the machine is just fine.  From talking to professors who have been teaching students for more than 30 years, they say there’s been a steady decline over the years in students who respond to it in the way you and I do.
However, I did find a similar thought experiment, I forget where I read it, though it might also be from Nozick, which tends to bring some students over to the other side.
Imagine two lives, Life A and Life B, which internally to the subject, let’s call him “Rod Dreher,” are identical.
In Life A, Rod is a successful columnist for The American Conservative.  His readers really appreciate his work, his wife loves him, his children respect him, and his employers really value his work.  He feels that he has a pretty good life.
In Life B, everything seems the same to Rod, but His readers think he’s a clown, though they respond just the way they do in Life A, his wife stopped loving him years ago, and has been cheating on him, though she perfectly hides her infidelity.  His children have nothing but contempt for him, though they’re outwardly respectful.  His employers keep him on, but they mock him behind his back.  But Rod B feels exactly the same as Rod A.
So the question is:  Is one life, A or B, better than the other?  Which life would you rather have, given the choice?  If you think Life A is better, why do you think so?  If you think they’re equivalent, why do you think so?  If it’s because the affective experience is the same, I would ask: Does it matter to you that your wife really loves you, or just that you think your wife loves you?
A lot of students who say they would be plugged into the Experience Machine will come over to the other side given this thought experiment.  I think they start to get the intuition that there’s something important about reality—that we’re genuinely valued by others, or that we have legitimately accomplished something, that matters.  For some reason, the Experience Machine example doesn’t bring this intuition out anymore.  Figuring out why this is would be an interesting project, which fortunately for me, is outside of my bailiwick.
I forget where I saw it, but somebody on Twitter said that if you raise young people in a culture where they have their faces in their smartphones all the time, you get a generation that would prefer the Experience Machine to reality. This is actually a profound observation. Culture is the barrier between raw experience and the individual. That is, it is what helps us to make sense of raw experience, and to integrate ourselves into the world. Technology is both a product of culture and a producer of culture. The fact that most of us in the West live in a televisual culture matters enormously, because most of our experience of the world is mediated electronically. This causes weird distortions, like the fact that I, with my face buried in my laptop, have a better idea of what’s happening in Washington right now than what’s happening in my own city. I’m not trying to be holier-than-thou here. I am deeply implicated in this too.
It becomes easy to substitute the simulation of the world that exists inside our heads for the real world. I was astonished to hear over the weekend from two friends who have recently been down on the Louisiana coast, in the area hardest hit by Hurricane Ida, how much destruction and suffering is still happening. A friend from Ohio who is here doing relief work said that every day, he and his crew discover poor people in St. Charles Parish who are living in the ruins of their own houses (or trailers), because they have nowhere else to go. This is no longer in the news, or at least in my news feed. Imagine that: people in the United States of America living in the ruins of their houses after a hurricane because they are too poor to go anywhere else. It’s happening about 100 miles from where I sit. But I wasn’t aware of it until I spoke to actual flesh-and-blood people who had been there.
OK, back to the Experience Machine. Whatever my own personal flaws are regarding plugging into the EM, I do it because I am on a constant search for the Truth, which ultimately means for God. I want to participate more fully in the life of God, which means not simply knowing what is true (True), but living it. This is what Orthodox Christianity tells me I should desire and should pursue, but all my life I have been driven by an insatiable curiosity for knowledge. This is part of what it means to be human, and it can certainly be misused. In Dante’s Inferno, Odysseus (Ulysses) is in Hell as a False Counselor, because he used his gift of fine speech to convince his crew to abandon their duties to their families and go with him to a forbidden place, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, in search of knowledge. It ended with their deaths. The search for knowledge is not unfailingly good. The search for Truth, though, is.
The Experience Machine experiment is a deliberate retreat into a comfortable, pleasurable lie. It involves choosing to live within a lie because it is more pleasurable. As with students today who don’t recognize Huxley’s Brave New World as a dystopia, those who would accept the Experience Machine of Nozick’s thought experiment surrender their human dignity, and become neutered animals. I think of a physician friend who told me a couple of years ago that he is seeing more and more cases of young men with failure to thrive. He said these are middle-class, even upper middle class, young men who have had lots of advantages in life. They don’t want to go to college. They don’t want to do anything but play video games and smoke dope.
That’s an extreme example, but what kind of society do we build when many people believe that there are no ultimate Truths to be learned in Nature or anywhere else; that life is about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain (to oneself or to others); and that the material world is filled with stuff that we can rearrange in whatever pleasing ways we like?
We are going to find out.
Remember my story about the Harvard professors who adjusted their teaching to prevent students who didn’t want to hear things that made them anxious from hearing them? The meaning of this is that we have a student generation of elites who deliberately wish to cut themselves off from information that makes them anxious, and a generation of older people abandoning their responsibility to prepare the young for the world as it is, and instead allowing them to believe a more comforting lie. This is corruption. Mind you, it’s human nature to want to believe things that satisfy our prejudices and make us feel good, as opposed to things that upset us. But in this case, you have students at one of the world’s greatest universities deciding that they would prefer not to know certain things, because it makes them too anxious … and professors honoring that request.

Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist, is a star psychology professor at Yale. She is world-renowned for a course she taught in 2018 titled “Psychology and the Good Life,” which made headlines when over a quarter of Yale’s undergrads enrolled. Santos assures young Yalies—and now, through online coursework and a popular podcast, the rest of us—that we can all live happier lives with the scientific, “evidence-based tricks” she teaches. This is critical since—as Santos is quick to inform us—students at Yale, despite being poised to take over the levers of wealth and power in this country, turn out to be anxious, depressed, lonely and adrift. With good-hearted cheer and solid technique, Santos aims to change this—indeed, she claims to have transformed thousands of lives through her lectures.

I came to know of Santos by way of an invitation to participate in a dialogue with her, which was extended to me by some Christian student organizations at Yale. I am a philosopher who works at the flagship university of the state of South Carolina, where we were, at the time, at the tail end of a multimillion-dollar grant project bringing together philosophers, theologians and psychologists to explore how virtue, happiness and meaning in life might be plausibly related. I am also a Roman Catholic reasonably well-versed in my own intellectual tradition. Presumably, I had been summoned to remind students that Christian philosophers and theologians have concerned themselves with the question of happiness for over two millennia now, and this too is worthy of our attention.

The first stop on my trip to Yale was to visit Santos’s famous class. The topic that day was procrastination, and its upshot was the demonstration of a technique for students to reprogram their brains for better time management, enabling them to be more successful and productive. Santos, like most social and cognitive scientists, thinks of happiness within an entirely subjective frame. Happiness is about feeling good, which means experiencing more positive than negative psychological states over a period of time. This suggests, of course, that a life is nothing more than a series of moments we might call good or bad depending on how they made us feel, and the good life one with more good than bad in the final tally. What Santos calls “life hacks” and “science-based tips”—in this case, to enhance students’ time-management skills—are mere techniques for ensuring, as much as one can, that one’s psychological perspective has a net gain on the positive side. As Santos herself admits, it makes no difference whether the objects that make you feel happy are even real, let alone tethered in some way to the demands of morality.

Santos made this commitment plain during a dialogue that night with me in front of about six hundred Yale students. To test how wedded she was to the idea that happiness was fundamentally a subjective state, I posed the following hypothetical: if we could design a virtual-reality machine that was sophisticated enough to guarantee that we could no longer tell the difference between real goods and their simulacra, would she choose a “happy life” plugged into a machine over the complicated mess of a real human life? Without skipping a beat, Santos replied that she would certainly choose the solipsistic “happiness” the machine offers. This was when I realized that Santos’s vision was much darker than the gimmicky self-help she had offered earlier that afternoon.

Frey makes a distinction between Santos’s version of the good life, and the one she offers, through philosophy. And then:

As much as I disagree with Santos (who was kind and generous to me on my visit), I am less interested in particular professors than in the institutions that have indelibly shaped their minds and careers. Santos’s popularity at Yale tells us something about the contemporary university, an institution not only structured so as to produce Santos’s class, but also to promote it with the sort of devotion that I, as a philosophy professor, can only look upon with a mixture of envy and despair. Philosophy, the traditional home of serious reflection about the good life, is marginalized in most American universities, including Yale. Treated as just one discipline of study among many others, it is not understood as central to a university education; the prevailing assumption is that it can be safely ignored by most students.

Universities, more than any other institution, shape our conception of what constitutes worthwhile knowledge. Therefore, if we want philosophy to thrive in the contemporary university, we will need to clearly articulate a very different vision of what a university is for, one that does not instrumentalize the life of the mind to pragmatic ends and that does not hold up expertise as the paradigmatic form of knowledge. The best philosophers were never experts or specialists, but broad and deep thinkers who strove for a unified knowledge of the whole of reality—at least to the extent that they saw this as possible. They did not seek this with an eye to improving the world, but from a deep and natural desire to understand. There was a time when such desires were not only recognized but respected and honored. We do not live in those times, and our universities are in some measure to blame for this.

A unified knowledge of the whole of reality. I understand what Jennifer Frey means here, and agree with her. But if you are the sort of person who believes that there is no knowledge to be found embedded in reality, or at least that there is no such thing as a “right relationship” to the material world, because it’s just stuff, you may not be able to see the point of Frey’s strivings. Homer wrote about this kind of person in the Odyssey, when Odysseus visits the Land of the Lotus Eaters — lost men who have become addicted to eating a narcotic plant that causes them to forget about going home, and to live in this timeless sense of pleasurable apathy.

From a Christian point of view, our true home is Heaven, and the purpose of life is to live so that we will spend eternity there united with God. The goal is not simply to avoid Hell, but to participate fully in the life of God — and that starts right here, in this life. Noble pagans who did not have a god, but who held strong views about living out one’s ideals, understood the danger of the Lotus Eaters. Do we? Or have we professionalized lotus-eating? Every middle class person knows that a slob who does nothing but smoke pot and play video games is a failure, but what happens if lotus-eating — living within a pleasurable simulacrum of life — becomes professionalized?

I contend that this is what is happening in a world that believes it can free itself from suffering if only the right technologies can be deployed, and the wrong people can be crushed. This is where soft totalitarianism is going to come from.

It also has something to do with why cinema is dying, according to Angela Nagle, who writes:

[T]he Internet has created a fundamental and possibly fatal dilemma for cinema: namely, if real people today live their lives in an entirely internal way, scrolling on phones and staring at screens, where little to no observable physical action is taking place, what is there for cinema to do? Like all forms of cyberutopianism, early claims that the Internet would revitalize art and culture don’t seem to have aged well. The Internet has caused a decline in art in general but particularly in cinema, which makes experimental forms of adaptation to this new reality all the more important. Cinema is technologically advanced theater. If it were to portray much of the younger generation accurately today, the viewer would be watching a world largely without expository sound or physical movement, with a stream of text appearing awkwardly on screen.

Yeah, anybody trying to make a documentary about me would have to contend with a subject who lives 95 percent of his life online.

Tanner Greer has an interesting comment about how Xi Jinping is using his authority as China’s dictator to break the Chinese people of these habits. Excerpt:

That is the thread that ties all of these crackdowns together. Each targets an industry that seems to strip people of their agency and rob them of their dignity. Each seems to hijack healthy behavior with a set of short term incentives whose end results are self destructive and degrading. [Emphasis the author’s — RD]

This is how Chinese have been describing these industries themselves. I was interested to see one crackdown explainer state that the after school tutoring industry was “guǒ xié-ing our people.”7 Guǒ xié (裹挟) means to coerce or compel a behavior or attitude; it carries with the imagery of being swept away by a natural force, like the wind or a riptide. It is an apt metaphor for an industry that urban Chinese hate to pay for yet feel like they cannot opt out of. One does not wish to waste a child’s youth away on 18 hours of evening cram school a week, but to do otherwise is to risk falling behind. It is a classic arms race problem: no player can stop the game from the inside, even though all players would benefit from a cap on the game. An outside force is needed to halt the madness. Xi Jinping has decided to be that force.

Very similar rhetoric has been used to describe the cultural crackdowns (as on video games or online fan clubs). In an interview posted on the Central Commission on Discipline Inspection’s website this summer, Jiang Yu blames both on the “irrational expansion of capital.” He argued that “‘Fan culture’ is capital using its power to create a consumption culture, and to manipulate youth spending habits and influence public culture.” Under this framework, the popularity of video games, celebrity rankings, K-pop forums and the like are an unnatural social contagion. The instant gratification provided by their consumption hijacks healthy development and produces disgusting excess. In this sense, computer games or fan forums are similar to narcotics–but worse, for narcotics are illegal, peddled in the shadows under threat of death. Today’s addictions, in contrast, have billion dollar conglomerates behind them. But the video game developers, executives, and admen are only doing what they are incentivized to do. Within the system there is nothing to stop these conglomerates from enmeshing their citizens even further in addiction. An outside force is needed to halt the madness. Xi Jinping has decided to be that force.

Greer points out that you aren’t helping people when you free them from one kind of slavery only to deliver them to another (that is, to state bureaucracies). Still, it is interesting that Xi Jinping sees this sort of thing as a threat to China’s prosperity, and is acting to rein it in. He believes it is self-destructive and degrading for Chinese citizens to hook themselves up to Experience Machines. But of course the man behind the Social Credit System is not against the Experience Machine per se, only against one he doesn’t control. That said, Xi is not wrong in his diagnosis, is he?
So: from a Christian perspective, as well as from the perspective of traditional philosophy, “happiness” is not simply about feeling good, but about living a meaningful life grounded in reality. Our confusion about that is the source of so many of our problems today in the West. I was talking not long ago to a woman in her twenties who was unhappy, and rushing from this thing to that thing to outrun her unhappiness. I told her that her method is guaranteed to produce happiness only as a fleeting chimera. The way to be truly happy is to seek truth and meaning; happiness will follow. But why is that? People like me, we have to convince young people today that true happiness requires them to accept suffering, and to transform it. Because that is how things are in the real world.
I have my work cut out for me in this new book I’ll be starting work on soon, that’s for sure.
How about you and the Experience Machine? Would you do it? Would your friends? Why or why not?

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Attack Of Left-Wing Campus Mobs

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema: leftists will not let her potty in peace (Sinema website)

This is blowing up Twitter:

They chased a US Senator into a bathroom and kept harassing her. This is the kind of thing that amounts to an in-kind contribution to Republican candidates for Congress. Every one of these piss-ant Stalinists should be expelled from Arizona State. You watch, though: they won’t be. There aren’t many university presidents in this country who have the guts to stand up to a left-wing mob.

Maybe ASU’s president Michael Crow is different. E-mail him and urge him POLITELY to hold these thuggish student activists accountable for the harassment of a US Senator:

Certainly the president of MIT, Rafael Reif, is no profile in courage. University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot was invited to give the annual Carlson Lecture at MIT — but then the university disinvited him under pressure from left-wing activists. Prof. Robert George at Princeton broke the news this afternoon on Twitter:

Here is a link to the Newsweek piece co-authored by Prof. Abbot, and cited by Prof. George above. Excerpts:

American universities are undergoing a profound transformation that threatens to derail their primary mission: the production and dissemination of knowledge. The new regime is titled “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” or DEI, and is enforced by a large bureaucracy of administrators. Nearly every decision taken on campus, from admissions, to faculty hiring, to course content, to teaching methods, is made through the lens of DEI. This regime was imposed from the top and has never been adequately debated. In the current climate it cannot be openly debated: the emotions around DEI are so strong that self-censorship among dissenting faculty is nearly universal.

The words “diversity, equity and inclusion” sound just, and are often supported by well-intentioned people, but their effects are the opposite of noble sentiments. Most importantly, “equity” does not mean fair and equal treatment. DEI seeks to increase the representation of some groups through discrimination against members of other groups. The underlying premise of DEI is that any statistical difference between group representation on campus and national averages reflects systemic injustice and discrimination by the university itself. The magnitude of the distortions is significant: for some job searches discrimination rises to the level of implicitly or explicitly excluding applicants from certain groups.

DEI violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment. It entails treating people as members of a group rather than as individuals, repeating the mistake that made possible the atrocities of the 20th century. It requires being willing to tell an applicant “I will ignore your merits and qualifications and deny you admission because you belong to the wrong group, and I have defined a more important social objective that justifies doing so.” It treats persons as merely means to an end, giving primacy to a statistic over the individuality of a human being.

DEI compromises the university’s mission. The core business of the university is the search for truth. A university’s intellectual environment depends fundamentally on its commitment to hiring the most talented and best trained minds: any departure from this commitment must come at the expense of academic excellence, and ultimately will compromise the university’s contribution to society. This point is particularly urgent given that DEI considerations often reduce the pool of truly eligible candidates by a factor of two or more.

Read it all. Believing this, and saying it out loud, is considered so offensive that MIT disinvited Prof. Abbot from speaking there.

Folks, MIT is not East Wahoo A&M. If this is the kind of standard that reigns at one of America’s most elite colleges, we are in severe trouble. This is soft totalitarianism — and it won’t stay soft long if our institutions keep yielding to these monsters.

From the MIT website, information about how you can reach out to university president Rafael Reif and urge him to reinstate Prof. Abbot, and apologize. DO NOT BE ABUSIVE WHEN YOU WRITE! That is counterproductive at best.

 

UPDATE: Back in January, The Federalist reported on Prof. Abbot being under assault in the university itself for dissenting from the DEI policy. Excerpt:

Last year, Abbot served on a committee for a competitive postdoctoral fellowship, and on the hiring committee for the Geophysical Sciences department. Abbot reported in his videos that both of these committees made selection decisions based on sex and race. According to Abbot, a few common phrases he heard in these meetings were the following:

We need more X diversity in our department, not more Chinese…[b]ecause Z is a white male, he has no right to discuss certain issues…[and] [w]e should hire Y primarily because he or she will help us with our problem with X diversity.

Abbot also disclosed to the “Thinker” that when he was on the department’s hiring committee, he and the other committee members were told that the dean of the division would not consider a faculty candidate, regardless of ability, unless the person was a woman or an underrepresented minority.

Abbot provided the following quotation from an email he received while on the hiring committee: “…the only hires that will be considered are for women and/or under-represented groups.  I know we cannot legally say that for an advertisement, but it may affect how things play out if we move forward with interviews…”

This wasn’t an isolated incident. According to Abbot, Assistant Professor Graham Slater, who is a member of the EDI departmental committee, gave a seminar to the department, which included the following quotation: “If you are just hiring the best people, you’re part of the problem.”

UPDATE.2: 

Hadn’t thought about it that way. If we had a reasonable government in Washington, deportation proceedings would begin this morning.

UPDATE.3: This is from the dingbat who chased the senator into the can:

UPDATE.4: Yep.

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Hard To Be A Tory Boy

Ed West, author of 'Tory Boy' (Source)

I thoroughly enjoyed English journalist Ed West’s essay about growing up Tory, and how he settled into voting for the Conservative Party not because he loves it, but because it’s the only protection on offer from the monster raving loonies of Labour. His story is not my story, but it rhymes. I bet there are a lot of you who, like me, vote GOP with no enthusiasm; it’s only that the alternative is far worse. West says that even though the Tory party has won most of the elections in his lifetime, they have done little to nothing to stop Britain’s slide into progressivism — and in some cases even advanced it.

West says that the Tories face a generational wipeout:

The cohorts born after about 1975 and especially after 1990 tend to hold a range of views that will make it hard for the Tory Party to win their support, without abandoning their values to the point of meaninglessness. On most of the key identity issues, such as racial diversity, immigration, sexuality and gender, and (increasingly) our treatment of animals, there is a generational shift that dwarves anything seen before.

The causes are varied; the globalised digital economy and the rise of English has weakened nation-states; the decline of religion has made utilitarian arguments about bodily autonomy impossible to resist; increased urbanisation makes people more liberal; progressivism financially suits the ruling class in a way it never did previously, and because politics is much to do with status, others imitate them.

Such a generational shift has only happened twice before in European history; during the Reformation, and in the period when Christianity itself replaced polytheism. Just as with progressives in our own time, in the fourth century Christians had started off as a small, cranky minority, but had come to dominate the education system; they won because they were popular among the young, and especially young women, and were concentrated in cities where they could control institutions.

West says that the same thing is happening today: all of society’s institutions are controlled by the Left. More:

The problem is not just with institutional control; the most important comparison with the last days of Rome is in the control of taboos. Whoever owns society’s taboos comes to win, and Christians just believed with greater force that to blaspheme their God was an offence against public morals, while the polytheists had stopped caring to defend theirs. And the ancient world impiety was often viewed as a worse crime than murder.

Today it is progressives who own taboos, and those who offend the sacred ideas of race and sexual identity face the terror of being charged with impiety (or “cancelled”, to use the secular term). And if you don’t control society’s taboos, it doesn’t really matter how many elections you win — you won’t shape the future.

Read it all. 

Once again, let me urge readers interested in the historical comparison, and urge you in the strongest possible terms, to get a copy of historian Edward J. Watts’sThe Final Pagan Generation. It’s the story of the last generation of Roman elites born before Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the year 315. It might as well be the story of the Baby Boomers in American life: the last generation born when America was still identifiably Christian, before the great 1960s shift. In Watts’s account, the pagan elites of the fourth century did not see the civilizational shift coming. Nearly everything remained in place — pagan temples remained open, for example — but everything changed, because Roman civilization had lost the old religion. People just didn’t believe anymore.

Granted, the shift of imperial government into Christian hands played a very significant role here. Still, a tectonic civilizational shift like that — a culture abandoning the religion it had held for many centuries — does not happen overnight, and it certainly doesn’t happen because the government said so. Christianity rushed into a void created by the breakdown of the old religion. Similarly, something is waiting to rush in to fill the void left by the breakdown of Christianity in the West. This accounts for wokeness. When God is dead in the hearts and minds of modern people, politics becomes deified.

The things Ed West points to in his column are why I wrote The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies. I have been seized by a sense of mission to prepare the Church in the West to continue its life under adverse conditions — even persecution. Watts points out that members of the final pagan generation in Rome suffered from a failure of imagination: they simply could not imagine that the religion that had served Rome from time out of mind could expire. Reading Watts’s book is to think of Christian leaders (and Christian followers) today who are still living as if the faith will be here forever.

It won’t. Some form of religion will be here — even if it’s deified politics, as in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia — because man is a religious creature who has to live with some connection to transcendence, even if he denies transcendence. But absent a miracle, it won’t be Christianity. The young have been raised in a world — and conditioned by institutions and popular culture — in which traditional Christianity at best makes little sense, and at worst seems bigoted. Here, from The Benedict Option, is what two prominent sociologists of religion found starting twenty years ago (!):

Even more troubling, many of the churches that do stay open will have been hollowed out by a sneaky kind of secularism to the point where the “Christianity” taught there is devoid of power and life. It has already happened in most of them. In 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton examined the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers from a wide variety of backgrounds. What they found was that in most cases, teenagers adhered to a mushy pseudo-religion the researchers deemed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). MTD has five basic tenets:

• A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
• God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
• The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
• God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
• Good people go to heaven when they die.

This creed, they found, is especially prominent among Catholic and Mainline Protestant teenagers. Evangelical teenagers fared measurably better, but were still far from historic Biblical orthodoxy. Smith and Denton claimed that MTD is colonizing existing Christian churches, destroying Biblical Christianity from within, and replacing it with a pseudo-Christianity that is “only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition.”

MTD is not entirely wrong. After all, God does exist, and He does want us to be good. The problem with MTD, in both its progressive and conservative versions, is that it’s mostly about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness, and getting along well with others. It has little to do with the Christianity of Scripture and tradition, which teaches repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart, and commends suffering—the Way of the Cross—as the pathway to God. Though superficially Christian, MTD is the natural religion of a culture that worships the Self and material comfort.

As bleak as Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, published in 2009, was even grimmer. Surveying the moral beliefs of 18 to 23 year olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only forty percent of young Christians surveyed by Smith’s team said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are Biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.

An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms, but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”

How does Christianity thrive in a world in which people believe that the point of life is to enjoy it, and to keep yourself from being tied down so that you can’t enjoy it? It doesn’t — at least not without hollowing itself out to the point of denying its core.

There are young people who are not satisfied with this. We are seeing them showing up now at our little Orthodox mission parish in Baton Rouge. All of them say, in one way or another, that they are looking for a faith that is rock-solid, and that is not going to change with the times. These people may never have read any of my books, but they are my audience. To live for Christ in the world now coming into being is going to require a dying to self the likes of which relatively few people in the West have had to do in the entire Christian era. But this is where we are. We didn’t choose to be born into the world at this time, but we have to do the best we can to be faithful within it.

As West says, the future belongs to who controls the taboos. Biblical Christianity is increasingly taboo in the West. It’s just getting started. This morning some folks on Twitter are making fun of this ridiculous Vox essay in which a self-described “queer, genderqueer atheist” whines because a new horror movie is not sufficiently mean to Christians, making the Exvangelical author feel unsafe. It should be widely mocked, this stupid piece of writing, with its grotesque anti-Christian bigotry. But keep in mind that Vox is a voice of the liberal elites, especially the young liberal elites. Reading the essay, I thought of something that the pseudonymous Ivy League law professor “Kingsfield” told me years ago: that the future of religious liberty in the US is in grave doubt because fewer and fewer people in legal elite circles believes in God, and has any experience of what it is like to be a religious believer. It is alien to them. It makes no sense. Therefore, according to Kingsfield, we can expect in the future judicial rulings that are hostile to religious belief and practice, simply because it strikes judges that religion is irrational and even hostile to socially positive values. Kingsfield stressed that the institutions that produce the nation’s senior jurists are filled with people who think atheism is normative.

Most Americans disagree, but religious believers do not control elite institutions. Regarding the future of the American republic, 15 million fervent Southern Baptists (for example) have less influence than the combined faculties of the Ivy League law schools. If young people want to join the elites, they will need to internalize elite taboos. I would love to see the Republican Party fighting back effectively against woke taboos, but in the end, I fear that it will capitulate, because the culture in which young Americans have been formed is all about instilling woke taboos. This is why I keep saying that we are not going to vote ourselves out of this crisis. We Christians had better learn how to adapt. Millennials and Generation Z are leaving religion, and probably aren’t coming back. They’re not becoming atheists, but rather are adopting DIY religion — a bricolage of a little this, a little that. The idea that a person can make it up as they go along, and that truth is entirely subjective, means the death of normative Christianity, even if the bricolage people identify as Christian. 

As with the Tory party in the UK, the Republicans here might manage to hold onto power simply by positioning themselves as less crazy than the Democrats. But their move leftward on cultural issues will be unstoppable, absent a rebirth of orthodox Christianity, or some other unforeseen event that shatters the worldview of Americans born after 1975. We Christians can hope and pray for that to happen … but unless we’re fools, we had better plan for a Dark Age.

By the way, read Ed West’s excellent memoir, Tory Boy: Memoirs of the Last Conservative, about growing up conservative in Britain. Here’s how it starts. American conservatives of a certain age will relate:

I’ve been meaning for a while to interview Ed West about this book. Need to get on it.

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