John Ruskin: Fit the Second

So what interests me about Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera? Several things:

  • a lively interchange of ideas about political economy with ideas about art and aesthetics;
  • a conviction that our tools, our technologies, interact ceaselessly and complexly with art, politics, and economics;
  • an understanding of writing as one way to contribute to the knitting up of a frayed social fabric;
  • a willingness to take up certain traits of one’s age (in Ruskin’s case, the manic energy of a society determined to transform and rule most of the known world) in order to critique them;
  • a persistence in seeking constructive means to engage in conversation when so many of the usual channels are anything but constructive;
  • an embrace of open-endedness, with a resulting willingness to tolerate intellectual and professional risk.

All of those elements are exciting and worthy of emulation, and I can’t help thinking that it would be really exciting if I could, here on this little blog, follow in Ruskin’s footsteps. But there is something missing from Fors Clavigera that I’d like to add to my reflections here.

Ruskin was raised as an evangelical Christian, and his early writings on art and architecture are saturated in biblical language and characterized by deep theological reflection. Indeed, I think that in those early works, especially The Seven Lamps of Architecture, there are profound resources for a theological aesthetics that to this day have not been fully tapped.

But in 1858, when visiting Turin, and having been depressed by a boring and stupid sermon, Ruskin saw Veronese’s painting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and was overwhelmed by the sensual immediacy of the work — which seemed to him far more obviously true than the spectral doctrines of Christianity. He experienced what he called his “deconversion,” and this lasted for nearly twenty years. He returned to some kind of faith only in 1876, when in the midst of writing Fors, but this was accompanied by a deterioration in his mental condition which eventually led to bouts of complete insanity, so his thinking of the time, while deeply embedded in biblical texts and images, is not fruitful for anyone else’s reflection. It wasn’t fruitful for his, either.

(All of these aesthetic and religious experiences were for Ruskin fantastically intertwined with his tormented and disastrous erotic life, first his unconsummated marriage to Effie Gray and later his unconsummated passion for Rose la Touche. But we’ll ignore all that mess.)

What intrigues me is the question of what Fors would have looked like if Ruskin’s reflections on social, political, economic, and aesthetic issues had been informed by religious commitment and theological reflection. To be sure, the letters of Fors are studded throughout biblical imagery and reference: Ruskin had known the Bible intimately from early childhood, and had a terrifyingly powerful memory. (I say “terrifyingly” in part because one of his psychological problems, as he himself sometimes commented, was that he remembered everything he had ever read or seen and therefore found it all too easy to draw correspondences between texts and images and ideas that really had nothing to do with one another. His prodigious memory made his mind too fertile.) But the absence of a theological dimension to Ruskin’s thought in this period makes the social analysis of Fors more agitated, more purely angry and often despairing, than it needed to be.

So — in case it’s not obvious — what I am trying to imagine is a Ruskinian approach to our own moment that uses digital technology against technopoly, that sees art and economics and politics as mutually animating (for good or for ill), and that can situate all these reflections within a serious theological framework. In the days and weeks to come I’m going to try to work through these possibilities, and that will involve reading, in a thoroughly non-systematic way, many of Ruskin’s works. So stay tuned for that, if you’d like. And if you make provocative comments I will try to engage with them in future posts!

In the meantime, check out the posts about Ruskin on my personal blog — there are many wonderful images there. Ruskin drew beautifully.

John Ruskin: Fit the First

Thirteen years ago, when my friend Jamie Smith launched his blog, he named it Fors Clavigera in honor of a strange and powerful project by the great Victorian sage John Ruskin. Jamie rightly notes in that first post that the original Fors Clavigera, though published as a series of monthly pamphlets, could be seen as a kind of “proto-blog.” How so?

Let’s start with some background. Ruskin thought of these pamphlets as open letters: the full title of the project was Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. After decades of work as a historian and critic of art and architecture, Ruskin had come to believe that (a) the arts of his own age were, generally speaking, far less excellent than they should be; (b) that those deficiencies were inevitable by-products of a corrupt system of political economy that promoted profit for the industrialist above all and so enforced impersonal efficiency and productivity over the flourishing of makers and craftsmen; and (c) that, therefore, a critique of political economy had to be articulated before anything else. The political economy of Britain had to be fixed so that the conditions of labor could be fixed so that the arts could be renewed so that persons could thrive once more. Thus Ruskin’s first major exercise in this endeavor was a series of 1857 lectures called The Political Economy of Art.

Several of Ruskin’s books started as lectures. Nineteenth-century England was devoted to public lectures and readings – audiences were often huge – and Ruskin found it helpful to work to an inflexible deadline and then, later, flesh out certain points at greater length for print. But Fors was a new and different thing for him. By the time he began it, in 1872, he had come to believe that the condition of England, with so much and ever-increasing wealth standing side-by-side with the most appalling poverty, could not be addressed by him through the occasional lectures or books, but by an ongoing project: a continuous prophetic engagement accompanied by practical efforts to ameliorate the condition of the poor. “For my own part,” he wrote at the outset of the project,

I will put up with this state of things, passively, not an hour longer. I am not an unselfish person, nor an Evangelical one; I have no particular pleasure in doing good; neither do I dislike doing it so much as to expect to be rewarded for it in another world. But I simply cannot paint, nor read, nor look at minerals, nor do anything else that I like, and the very light of the morning sky, when there is any – which is seldom, now-a-days, near London – has become hateful to me, because of the misery that I know of, and see signs of, where I know it not, which no imagination can interpret too bitterly.

So what to do?

I must clear myself from all sense of responsibility for the material distress around me, by explaining to you, once for all, in the shortest English I can, what I know of its causes; by pointing out to you some of the methods by which it might be relieved; and by setting aside regularly some small percentage of my income, to assist, as one of yourselves, in what one and all we shall have to do; each of us laying by something, according to our means, for the common service; and having amongst us, at last, be it ever so small, a national Store instead of a National Debt. Store which, once securely founded, will fast increase, provided only you take the pains to understand, and have perseverance to maintain, the elementary principles of Human Economy, which have, of late, not only been lost sight of, but wilfully and formally entombed under pyramids of falsehood.

In order to have a secure place for his financial contribution, Ruskin started a charitable organization called St. George’s Company, later (and still) the Guild of St. George; and for the teaching and explaining part of his program, he began publishing these letters.

In the end he published them monthly, mostly, for over a decade – there are 96 of them in all. And as he went along the style became more and more loose, casual, associative, even chaotic. He called this the third of his “ways of writing,” a style in which he simply wrote whatever came into his head and then later on gave it some measure of grammatical coherence. It is a style especially suited to his topic, because what he wanted to show, throughout the letters, was the complex set of ways in which the natural world, human perception, the human desire to make beautiful and useful things, and our social and political systems all interact with one another. Here is a passage that I have chosen utterly at random from the first volume of the collected letters:

In old times, under the pure baronial power, things used, as I told you, to be differently managed by us. We were, all of us, in some sense barons; and paid ourselves for fighting. We had no pocket pistols, nor Woolwich Infants – nothing but bows and spears, good horses, (I hear after two-thirds of our existing barons have ruined their youth in horse-racing, and a good many of them their fortunes also, we are now in irremediable want of horses for our cavalry), and bright armour. Its brightness, observe, was an essential matter with us. Last autumn I saw, even in modern England, something bright; low sunshine at six o’clock of an October morning, glancing down a long bank of fern covered with hoar frost, in Yewdale, at the head of Coniston Water. I noted it as more beautiful than anything I had ever seen, to my remembrance, in gladness and infinitude of light. Now, Scott uses this very image to describe the look of the chain-mail of a soldier in one of these free companies; – Le Balafre, Quentin Durward’s uncle: – “The archer’s gorget, arm-pieces, and gauntlets were of the finest steel, curiously inlaid with silver, and his hauberk, or shirt of mail, was as clear and bright as the frost-work of a winter morning upon fern or briar.” And Sir John Hawkwood’s men, of whose proceedings in Italy I have now to give you some account, were named throughout Italy, as I told you in my first letter, the White Company of English, ‘Societas alba Anglicorum,’ or generally, the Great White Company, merely from the splendour of their arms. They crossed the Alps in 1361, and immediately caused a curious change in the Italian language.

(The Woolwich Infant was a mighty cannon of which the celebrants of British power were perhaps inordinately proud.) Notice how Ruskin swerves from history to the observation of nature to his memories of his literary reading and then back to history. This kind of free association of ideas is very characteristic of Fors – as it is of many blogs. So that’s the first way in which Fors may be said to be a proto-blog.

But another way is more important: Ruskin received many letters in response to each issue of Fors, and, because of his stature in English society, received a good deal of commentary in newspapers and other periodicals as well. Ruskin simply incorporated these responses, and his reflections on them, into later issues of Fors. So gradually the series became less of a monologue and more of a rich, complex, polyphonic conversation.

Fors was a marvel in its own time, as important a literary/cultural/political project as any produced in the second half of the nineteenth century, but it is little known today. To some degree that is because of its intrinsic topicality, its sensitive responsiveness to the issues of its own day; but I think a more important reason for its neglect is is its combination of massiveness (hundreds and hundreds of thousands of words) and unexcerptability – you just can’t get the feel of it without reading each letter in full. Here are two early ones to give you a taste, though they are not as dialogical as the later ones would become: Letter 7 and Letter 10.

But why am I so interested in this project of Ruskin’s? I’ll explain that in my next post.

Edmund Wilson on Marxism


I have just re-read, for the first time in decades, Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station — which, it appears, NYRB Classics has allowed to go out of print, which is nearly a tragedy. It is a truly remarkable book — it is difficult to imagine anyone of our own time (least of all a journalist) handling ideas with such assurance and such verve, seeing in them the kind of drama that we typically associate with action heroes. The structure, the pacing, the style — all are superb. Perhaps the best thing about the book is how it centers itself on Karl Marx himself, bookended by predecessors (Proudhon, Robert Owen) and successors (Lenin, Trotsky). As a portrait of Marx it has not, to my knowledge, been equalled.

Wilson’s Freudianism, though essentially wrong, is actually quite helpful to him in understanding the Marxists, because, as he rightly points out, the great deficiency of most Marxist analyses of society is their oversimplified picture of human motivation. There’s even a passage where Wilson seems to be anticipating the rise of modern behavioral psychology and especially the role it plays in understanding of economic behavior. ”Prices are the results of situations much more complex than any of these formulas, and complicated by psychological factors which economists seldom take into account.… Let us note the crudity of the psychological motivation which underlies the worldview of Marx. It is the shortcoming of economists in general that each one understands as a rule only one or two human motivations; psychology and economics have never yet got together in such a way as really to supplement one another” (294, 295).

On the psychology of Marx himself Wilson is especially acute. After tracing Marx’s lifelong near-poverty, and his struggles to provide for his family, and his embarrassment when one of his daughters had to hire herself out as a governess, and his constant dependence on his friend Engels to keep the Marxes out of the poor house — Engels, who worked as a manager in a factory owned by his arch-capitalist father — Wilson writes:

Such is the trauma of which the anguish and the defiance reverberate through Das Kapital. To point it out is not to detract from the authority of Marx’s work. On the contrary, in history as in other fields of writing, the importance of a book depends, not merely on the breadth of the view and the amount of information that has gone into it, but on the depths from which it has been drawn. The great crucial books of human thought – outside what are called the exact sciences, and perhaps something of the sort is true even here – always render articulate the results of fundamental new experiences to which human beings have had to adjust to themselves. Das Kapital is such a book. Marx has found in his personal experience the key to the larger experience of society, and identifies himself with that society. His trauma reflects itself in Das Kapital as the trauma of mankind under industrialism; and only so sore and angry a spirit, so ill at ease in the world, could have recognized and seen into the causes of the wholesale mutilation of humanity, the grand collisions, the uncomprehended convulsions, to which that age of great profits was doomed. (311-312) 

That is an extraordinarily rich and provocative reflection.

One final point, only tangential to Wilson’s narrative: he is also very good on the ways in which a conviction that one is on “the right side of history” compromises one’s ethics:

History, then, is a being with a definite point of view in any given period. It has a morality which admits of no appeal and which decrees that the exterminators of the Commune shall be regarded as wrong forever. Knowing best – knowing, that is, that we are right – we may allow ourselves to exaggerate and simplify. At such a moment the Marxism of Marx himself — and how much more often and more widely in the case of his less scrupulous disciples — departs from the rigorous method proposed by “scientific socialism.” (283)

Yep. I see it every day.

sad compatibilism

Sohrab Amari writes in Commentary about two kinds of Christian response to the dominant liberal order, the compatibilists and the non-compatibilists: 

 The “compatibilists” (like yours truly) argued that liberalism’s foundational guarantees of freedom of speech, conscience, and association sufficed to protect Christianity from contemporary liberalism’s censorious, repressive streak. The task of the believer, they contended, was to call liberalism back to its roots in Judeo-Christianity, from which the ideology derives its faith in the special dignity of persons, universal equality and much else of the kind. Christianity could evangelize liberal modernity in this way. Publicly engaged believers could restore to liberalism the commitment to ultimate truths and the public moral culture without which rights-based self-government ends up looking like mob rule.

The latter camp — those who thought today’s aggressive progressivism was the rotten fruit of the original liberal idea — were more pessimistic. They argued that liberal intolerance went back to liberalism’s origins. The liberal idea was always marked by distrust for all non-liberal authority, an obsession with promoting maximal autonomy over the common good, and hostility to mediating institutions (faith, family, nation-state, etc.). Yes, liberalism was willing to live with and even borrow ideas from Christianity for a few centuries, the non-compatibilists granted. But that time is over. Liberalism’s anti-religious inner logic was bound to bring us to today’s repressive model: Bake that cake — or else! Say that men can give birth — or else! Let an active bisexual run your college Christian club — or else! 

I have been for most of my career what I call a sad compatibilist: I have tried to describe and promote a model of charity, forbearance, patience, and fairness in disputation to all parties concerned, not because I think my approach will work but because I am trying to do what I think a disciple of Jesus should do regardless of effectiveness. In these matters I continue to be against consequentialism. For reasons I explain in that post I just linked to, I’ll keep on pushing, but it feels more comically pointless than ever in this age of rhetorical Leninism. (And by the way, if you weren’t convinced by the example I give, take a gander at some of the responses to Jordan Peterson that Alastair Roberts collects in this post.)

Speaking of pushing, Amari concludes his post thus: “It is up to liberals to decide if they want to push further.” But as far as I can tell that decision has been made. There are two kinds of liberals now: the Leninists and the Silent — the latter not happy with the scorched-earth tactics of their confederates but unwilling to question them, lest they themselves become the newest victims of such tactics. The Voltairean [sic] liberal is, I believe, extinct. “Not only will I not defend to the death your right to say something that appalls me, I won’t even defend it to the point of getting snarked at in my Twitter mentions.”

What I find myself wondering, in the midst of all this, is whether there is a different way to do sad compatibilism than the one I’ve been pursuing. Do I just keep on banging my head against the same wall or do I look for a different wall? I’m thinking about this a lot right now.

(Cross-posted from my personal blog, Snakes and Ladders, though off-topic here, because I don’t have comments enabled there and someone might want to come back at me.) 

rewriting ancient history

This fascinating article by David Graeber and David Wengrow challenges a strongly established historical account — one, they say, having its origins primarily in the work of Rousseau — that posits, in the early human era, egalitarian hunter-gatherer cultures displaced by farming cultures that brought technological progress but also social inequality. That narrative is, shall we say, problematic:

That is the real political message conveyed by endless invocations of an imaginary age of innocence, before the invention of inequality: that if we want to get rid of such problems entirely, we’d have to somehow get rid of 99.9% of the Earth’s population and go back to being tiny bands of foragers again. Otherwise, the best we can hope for is to adjust the size of the boot that will be stomping on our faces, forever, or perhaps to wrangle a bit more wiggle room in which some of us can at least temporarily duck out of its way. 

Graeber and Wenbow think the existing evidence — which necessarily is rather spotty — tells a different tale:

Abandoning the story of a fall from primordial innocence does not mean abandoning dreams of human emancipation – that is, of a society where no one can turn their rights in property into a means of enslaving others, and where no one can be told their lives and needs don’t matter. To the contrary. Human history becomes a far more interesting place, containing many more hopeful moments than we’ve been led to imagine, once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there. 

You can read the essay for their argument, which I think is strong, if not utterly compelling. (It will be interesting to see the responses it gets from paleohistorians and archaeologists.) For now, I just want to call attention to the concluding paragraph:

The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history. For the most part, we’re just too blinded by our prejudices to see the implications. For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place. 

What I find noteworthy here is the pre-cooking of the evidence. The “historical verdict” isn’t in yet, but Graeber and Wenbow, miraculously, already know what it will say: that when we peer into the distant past we see that the great impediment to human freedom is not the technological and capitalist order created by farming, but rather, yes, the family. The family is the monster in the closet of human prehistory. It is the family that must be destroyed. [UPDATE: Graeber and Wengrow do not say this, and I was wrong to claim that they do. See Graeber’s comment below. I’ve also struck through some of my extravagantly premature conclusions below, while leaving them visible in order to accept the shame I deserve.]

To which my first thought is, more or less, this. And my second thought is that I’m tempted to blog my way through Carle Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization.

But beyond that, I’ll just note that it’s pretty sad that this from-the-ground-up reconsideration of history, this utter dismantling of conventional narratives, this opening of the door to radical new possibilities, is all in the service of … reaffirming and reinscribing the decontextualized, autonomous subject of the liberal order. Graeber and Wenbow throw out the historical narrative pioneered by Rousseau in order to provide a slightly different justification and celebration of Rousseau’s picture of the human being. “I love to tell the story, … to tell the old, old story …” It seems yet another illustration (as if any were needed) of Patrick Deneen’s thesis that liberalism fails through succeeding, and when confronted by that failure, always replies with the demand for mo’ better liberalism. Graeber and Wenbow lack the imagination to think their way beyond what in our time is the most conventional of all anthropologies. It turns out that a thoroughgoing revision of our understanding of early human history just happens to confirm everything Graeber and Wenbow already believe. What were the chances? 

I have more to say in another post about hunters, gatherers, and Adam Roberts. Stay tuned.

so many questions

I have many questions — real, deep, sincere questions — about this.

  • Does Katherine Dettwyler really believe that a person deserves torture and death for stealing a poster?
  • Or does she, rather, believe that a person deserves torture and death for being a clueless privileged culturally-imperialist white male?
  • Or does she, perhaps, believe that a person deserves not torture and death but maybe arrest for being a clueless privileged culturally-imperialist white male, and just wrote carelessly?
  • Is she right that a significant number of her white male students “think nothing of raping drunk girls at frat parties and snorting cocaine, cheating on exams, and threatening professors with physical violence”?
  • How do any or all of these beliefs affect her ability to do her job as a teacher?
  • How many college teachers share these beliefs?
  • Is this a situation in which no “beliefs” as such are involved, but Dettwyler’s Facebook post was rather an unfocused spur-of-the-moment venting arising from frustration with a lousy job or lousy working conditions?
  • If your answer to the previous question is “Yes” or “Probably yes,” how do you account for the fact that Dettwyler seems to have made very similar comments on blogs?
  • How might a tendency to go off on unfocused spur-of-the-moment venting arising from frustration with a lousy job or lousy working conditions affect a person’s ability to do her or his job as a teacher?
  • Did the University of Delaware ask Dettwyler for an explanation of her post and/or comments?
  • Did the university ask her to apologize for them?
  • Suppose that she did apologize — would that be sufficient for her to keep her job?
  • What would the University of Delaware have done if a tenured faculty member had made precisely the same comments?
  • As those outside the academy go apoplectic over these matters, those inside the academy shrug. Is shrugging enough?
  • What does it mean that so many people these days wish death on strangers whom they dislike or disagree with?
  • Should we feel better when we’re told that people don’t really mean it when they, for instance, respond to a tweet expressing a view about English grammar by wishing an entire generation of Americans dead?
  • Like, if you don’t really in your heart of hearts want those people you disagree with to die in a fire or be raped and tortured, then we don’t have a problem? Is that the argument?
  • Presumably all of the above, and worse, has been said to Katherine Dettwyler since her Facebook post went public — does that help?
  • Does vigilante vengeance have limits?
  • Even if it’s just verbal vengeance?
  • Is forgiveness a social good?

being right to no effect

This post of mine from earlier today, which was based on this column by Damon Linker, has a lot in common with this post by Scott Alexander:

I write a lot about how we shouldn’t get our enemies fired lest they try to fire us, how we shouldn’t get our enemies’ campus speakers disinvited lest they try to disinvite ours, how we shouldn’t use deceit and hyperbole to push our policies lest our enemies try to push theirs the same way. And people very reasonably ask – hey, I notice my side kind of controls all of this stuff, the situation is actually asymmetrical, they have no way of retaliating, maybe we should just grind our enemies beneath our boots this one time.
And then when it turns out that the enemies can just leave and start their own institutions, with horrendous results for everybody, the cry goes up “Wait, that’s unfair! Nobody ever said you could do that! Come back so we can grind you beneath our boots some more!”
Conservatives aren’t stuck in here with us. We’re stuck in here with them. And so far it’s not going so well. I’m not sure if any of this can be reversed. But I think maybe we should consider to what degree we are in a hole, and if so, to what degree we want to stop digging.

Which in turn has a lot in common with this post by Freddie deBoer:

Conservatives have been arguing for years that liberals essentially want to write them out of shared cultural and intellectual spaces altogether. I’ve always said that’s horseshit. But I’m trying to be real with you and take an honest look at what’s happening in the few spaces that progressive people control. In the halls of actual power, meanwhile, conservatives have achieved incredible electoral victories, running up the score against the progressives who in turn take out their frustrations in cultural and intellectual spaces. This is not a dynamic that will end well for us.
Of course by affirming this version of events from conservatives, I am opening myself to the regular claim that I am a conservative. Which is incorrect; I have never been further left in my life than I am today. But you can understand it if you understand the contemporary progressive tendency to treat politics as a matter of which social or cultural group you associate with rather than as a set of shared principles and a commitment to enacting them by appealing to the enlightened best interest of the unconverted. That dynamic may, I’m afraid, also explain why progressives risk taking even firmer control of campus and media and Hollywood and losing everything else.

Which, in another turn, has a lot in common with this column by Andrew Sullivan:

I know why many want to dismiss all of this as mere hate, as some of it certainly is. I also recognize that engaging with the ideas of this movement is a tricky exercise in our current political climate. Among many liberals, there is an understandable impulse to raise the drawbridge, to deny certain ideas access to respectable conversation, to prevent certain concepts from being “normalized.” But the normalization has already occurred — thanks, largely, to voters across the West — and willfully blinding ourselves to the most potent political movement of the moment will not make it go away. Indeed, the more I read today’s more serious reactionary writers, the more I’m convinced they are much more in tune with the current global mood than today’s conservatives, liberals, and progressives. I find myself repelled by many of their themes — and yet, at the same time, drawn in by their unmistakable relevance.

What all these writings have in common is this: We are all saying to the Angry Left that it’s unwise, impractical, and counterproductive to think that you can simply refuse to acknowledge and engage with people who don’t share your politics — to trust in your power to silence, to intimidate, to mock, and to shun rather than to attempt to persuade.

I think we’ve all made very good cases. I also think that almost no one who needs to hear what we have to say will listen. So what will be the result?

Freddie is right to say that the three industries where the take-no-prisoners model is most entrenched are Hollywood, the news media, and the university. And that entrenchment leads, as I have explained before, to the perception of ideological difference as defilement — a thesis that I think goes a long way towards explaining the intensity of the outrage about Bret Stephens’s NYT column on climate-change rhetoric. The purging of those who have defiled the community is a feasible practice unless and until the departure of those people is costly to the community; and each of those three cultural institutions assumes without question that no costs will be incurred by cathartic expulsion of the repugnant cultural Other.

Hollywood could be right to make this assumption: certainly there are no plausible alternatives to its dominance, though that dominance might take new forms — e.g. more movies and series made outside the conventional studio structure by new players like Netflix and Amazon. (It’s possible, though I think highly unlikely, that those new players will attempt to exploit a socially conservative audience.)

But it’s hard to think of two white-collar professions more imperiled than journalism and academia. The belief that left or left-liberal university administrators and professors, and journalists and editors, have in their own impregnability is simply delusional. If they connected their political decisions to their worried meetings about rising costs and desiccating sources of revenue, they would realize this; but the power of compartmentalization is great.

So what I foresee for both journalism and academia is a financial decline that proceeds at increasing speed, a decline to which ideological rigidity will be a significant contributor, though certainly not the only one. (The presence of other causes will ensure that publishers, editors, administrators, and the few remaining tenured faculty members will be able to deny the consequences of rigidity.) I also expect this decline to proceed far more quickly for journalism than for academia, since the latter still has a great many full-time faculty who can be replaced by contingent faculty willing to work for something considerably less than the legal minimum wage.

But at least the people who run those institutions will be able to preserve their purity right up to the inevitable end.

into the morass

Following up on yesterday’s request for help with the notorious Bret Stephens op-ed on climate change — no help has been forthcoming, by the way — I’d like to call your attention to this superb column by Damon Linker:

Stephens didn’t deny the reality of climate change. He merely dared to advocate a slight rhetorical adjustment to the way environmental activists and their cheering sections at websites like Slate and Vox, and newspapers like the Times, go about making their case to the wider public. What followed was not a reasoned debate about the rhetorical effectiveness of claims to modesty and certainty, dispassionate concern and outright alarmism. Instead, there was simple, pure, satisfying, but politically impotent condemnation: “You can’t say that!”

Perhaps the most telling response was that of Susan Matthews at Slate, who admitted that Stephens had not denied any of the facts of climate change, and agreed that Stephens is exactly right in his claim that scientists and journalists who speak for scientists often mishandle probabilities and discount their own biases — but insisted somehow all that makes his column even “scarier and more damaging.” Your overall argument is not wrong, and that’s why it’s unforgivable.

I think journalists are so upset with Stephens not because he challenges the scientific consensus on climate change — he clearly doesn’t — but because he challenges them. His argument, as Linker suggests above, is about rhetorical effectiveness: He claims that if people who are seriously and legitimately concerned about climate change went about their business in a more epistemically modest way, they might well win over more people. That is, rhetorical extremism might not be the best way to go, even when the facts warrant it. But, it appears, if there’s anything worse that climate-change denialism, it’s journalistic-wisdom denialism.

Yet in other arenas, arenas where they don’t perform, I’d bet those same journalists could understand the legitimacy of Stephens’s general point. For instance, when people have accused Rod Dreher of being “alarmist” in The Benedict Option, Rod has typically replied that he writes that way because he’s genuinely alarmed. To which some of his critics have said “Yeah, but you don’t have to sound so alarmed. You’re scaring people off who don’t already agree with you.” And isn’t this a a reasonable criticism? Especially given what we have learned about the backfire effect — the tendency people have to double down on wrong ideas when they’re presented with facts that challenge those ideas? And if it is a reasonable criticism, mightn’t it apply to journalists too? Believing in SCIENCE doesn’t give you infallible judgment.

There’s one more context for this whole argument. I have been meditating over the last couple of days on this tweet from my friend Yoni Appelbaum:

For some time now I’ve asked the New York Times to give better and fairer coverage of social conservatives and religious people, and hiring Stephens seems to have been at least a small step in that direction. But if their core constituency continues to engage in freakouts of this magnitude over any deviation from their views, will we see any more such steps? Given the economic realities Yoni’s tweet points to, I’d say: not bloody likely. The pressures of the market are relentless. And the more of our institutions, especially our intellectual institutions, are governed by those relentless pressures, the fewer places we will have to turn for nonpartisan inquiry.

Again, my concern here applies to every institution that deals in ideas. When people ask me how academic administrators can allow student protestors to behave so badly — can allow them even to get away with clearly illegal behavior — I answer: The customer is always right. And I’ve got a feeling that’s exactly what the publishers of the New York Times are thinking as members of their core constituency cancel their subscriptions. Religious weirdos like me are a lost cause; but they can’t lose their true believers. Mistakes were made; heads will roll; it won’t happen again. And America will sink deeper and deeper into this morass of “alternative facts” and mutually incomprehensible narratives.

the fragility of platforms

In a comment on my previous post, Adam Roberts writes:

In terms of human intermediation, facebook and twitter are radically, fundamentally ‘thin’ platforms, where things like the church or the family are deep-rooted and ‘thick’. FB/Twitter-etc are also transient—both relatively recent and already showing signs of obsolescence. The sorts of institutions we’re talking about need to endure if they’re to do any good at all. Doesn’t this very temporariness magnify the volume of the reaction? People have been living with quite profound changes to social and cultural mores for decades, much longer than there has been such a thing as social media. When they take to Twitter they are trying to express deep-seated and profoundly-contextualised beliefs in 140 characters. It’s not surprising that what emerges is often just a barbaric yawp.

I think this is a very powerful point, because it reminds us that when we replace institutions with platforms, especially now that those platforms are uniformly digital, we’re moving from structures that, if not altogether antifragile, are relatively robust to structures that are either palpably fragile or untested.

Thought experiment: What if Twitter actually does as many have suggested and bans Donald Trump? They would be perfectly within their rights to do so — he would have no one to appeal to — so what would he do? The very platform he uses to howl his anger and outrage would be denied him, so where would he go? Facebook? But the architecture of Facebook doesn’t lend itself quite as well to his preferred tactics of engagement (for reasons I wish I had time to explore but do not). Trump’s ability to disseminate his messages in unedited form, and more particularly to change the subject when things aren’t going his way, would be dramatically curtailed. He would be dependent on others to share his message, others whose voices don’t reach as far as his now does. Could his Presidency survive his being exiled from this platform that he has made his own?

platforms and institutions

In the new edition of his book on the modern Left, which I review here, Roger Scruton writes,

Occasional lip service is paid to a future state of ‘emancipation’, ‘equality’ or ‘social justice’. But those terms are seldom lifted out of the realm of abstractions, or subjected to serious examination. They are not, as a rule, used to describe an imagined social order that their advocates are prepared to justify. Instead they are given a purely negative application. They are used to condemn every mediating institution, every imperfect association, every flawed attempt that human beings might have made, to live together without violence and with due respect for law.

Like Scruton and most other old-school conservatives, I believe that healthy mediating institutions are essential to a healthy society. And I think he is right in noting how relentlessly the Left attacks such institutions. But international capitalism does too, because every healthy mediating institution, by providing security and fellowship and belonging to its members, reduces its members’ dependence for their flourishing on what can be bought and sold. Neither the Left nor the Market want to see such institutions flourish, though their hostility sometimes stems from different agendas.

I’m usually allergic to generalizations in these matters, but let me risk a big generalization: I think what we have seen and will continue to see in our social order is the fragmentation of institutions and their effective replacement by platforms.

Let’s take education as an example: for much of American history people were educated in a wide range of (often highly eccentric) ways. This was generally perceived as a problem, and efforts at standardization kicked in, reaching their peak in the Sixties. Since then we have seen increasing fragmentation, with ordinary public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, various kinds of private schools, homeschooling, unschooling … but all of these work on the same platforms, that is, they rely on the same communications technologies, using either the open web or walled gardens like Facebook in order to promote interaction and accomplish goals (e.g., the completion of projects and other assignments, remedial tutoring, etc.). We will more and more be asking technological platforms to do the kind of unifying work that educational institutions can clearly no longer do, which, I believe, is asking platforms to do things that by their nature they’re unsuited to do.

They’re unsuited to do it becasuse platforms are unresponsive to their users, and unresponsive by design (design that emerges from their desire to be universal in scope). It is virtually impossible to contact anyone at Google or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and that is so that those platforms can train us to do what they want us to do, rather than be accountable to our desires and needs. A model of education tied to platforms rather than institutions may seem liberating at first — “I can learn everything I need to know at Khan Academy!” — but that sense of liberation will continue only insofar as users train themselves to ask the questions the platforms already know how to answer, and think the thoughts that the platforms are prepared to transmit.

Very few people will see any of this as problematic, and only those very few will look to work outside the shaping power of the dominant platforms. This means that such institution-building as they manage will have to happen on a small scale and within limited geographical areas. As far as I’m concerned that’s not the worst thing that could happen.

But the majority will accommodate themselves to the faceless inflexibility of platforms, and will become less and less capable of seeing the virtues of institutions, on any scale. One consequence of that accommodation, I believe, will be an increasing impatience with representative democracy, and an accompanying desire to replace political institutions with platform-based decision-making: referendums and plebiscites, conducted at as high a level as possible (national, or in the case of the EU, transnational). Which will bring, among other things, the exploitation of communities and natural resources by people who will never see or know anything about what they are exploiting. The scope of local action will therefore be diminished, and will come under increasing threat of what we might call, borrowing a phrase from Einstein, spooky action at a distance.

I for one don’t welcome our new algorithmic overlords.