Down the political rabbit hole

Cartoon by Joe Mohr

Recently in a comment on Alison Bechdel’s blog, I replied to commenter NLC, who added to a political discussion the observation that not everyone who supports the USA’s Republican Party is equally objectionable.  I agreed, and added:

@NLC: “There are Republicans and there are Republicans.”

That’s very true. I know some Republicans who, however hard I may find it to understand why they vote the way they do, are demonstrably quite all right in all the ways that really matter. I even know some Republicans who do yoga.

Fox News seems to be the separator, young people who are decent watch Fox News and leave the Republican Party, old people who are decent watch Fox News and turn into something like addicts- seriously, that channel is like crack cocaine for them. I suppose that means that in the long run Fox News will kill the Republican Party, but in the meantime it will kill a lot of worthwhile things.

In remarking on Fox News (a.k.a. the Faux News Channel,) I was thinking of some recent posts on a site that is for the most part at an opposite pole politically from Alison Bechdel’s, Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative.  Mr Dreher is still quite conservative, but no longer identifies as a Republican.  One reason for this seems to be the effect that he has seen right-wing media have on its elderly fans.  In a post titled “Fox Geezer Syndrome,” Mr Dreher quotes at length from several of his commenters who have told stories of aging their aging parents who have made themselves difficult to be around, not because of the opinions which Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and the rest of them have encouraged them to hold, but because of the belligerence, the obsessiveness, and the overall childishness with which they have begun expressing those opinions since immersing themselves in a constant stream of such material.  Adding to those comments, Mr Dreher writes: 

I recognize the Fox Geezer Syndrome these readers identify. This is what happens when conservatism becomes an ideology instead of an approach to life. It indicates an extremely unconservative temperament, frankly. I’m not deploying the No True Scotsman fallacy; these Fox Geezers may well be conservative in their politics, right down the line. What they’re doing, though, is allowing politics to consume their minds and their entire lives, such that they are making impossible the kinds of things that true conservatives ought to be dedicated to conserving: that is, the permanent things, like family. I have been around Fox Geezers before, and I see absolutely no difference between them and the kind of self-righteous loudmouths on the left that make reasonable discussion impossible, because all problems are reduced to a conflict between Good and Evil, and decided in advance.

The tragedy — and I think it is exactly that — is that the elderly often have great wisdom to share with the younger generations, to say nothing of the fact that it is they who have the long view, and who ought to understand how important it is to nurture bonds among family members, especially across the generations. Yet in these cases, it is they who behave like teenagers and twentysomethings, full of piss and vinegar and a toxic certainty, plus a radioactive impulse to crusade. What they lack is the principal conservative virtue: Prudence. I have some strong views too, as you know, but I strive never to let them come between myself and the people I am given to love. If I want them to tolerate me for the greater good, then I must extend the same grace to them.

Conservative that he is, Mr Dreher goes on to identify the same dynamic at work among the elderly liberals and lefties who predominate in the comments section of The New York Times.  I’ve certainly seen it at work among acquaintances who regard any criticism of the Obama administration as support for Mr O’s Republican opponents.  Such an attitude seems to be as natural a product of habitually watching the rah-rah, Go Blue Team cheerleaders on MSNBC as Fox Geezer Syndrome is of habitually watching the rah-rah, Go Red Team cheerleaders on Fox.  

How to succeed in politics

As seen on Tumblr:

From Suspense Comics, 1952

“The internet age, one where men too cowardly to post under their real names claim to be entitled to your private sex photos.”

Earlier today, Amanda Marcotte posted an interesting tweet:

This reminded me of a couple of things.  One was this old xkcd:

Another was this even older post of mine about “Why I Post Under a Pseudonym,” in which I say, among other things: 

First, I teach at a college.  Many of my students look me up on Google.  If I blogged under my real name, they would immediately find this site.  I already catch them spouting opinions which they take to be mine in an attempt to make points.  If I were to make hundreds of posts in which I give my opinions about virtually every possible subject so easy for them to find, I could expect to encounter that sort of thing every day. 

Second, I often tell little stories about people I know.  Since I use a pseudonym and do not identify these people, the reader cannot be expected to know who they are.  Even readers who know me and recognize the characters may find something of the detachment of fiction in a story published under a pseudonym.  If I were to use my real name, however, I would have an obligation to give the others a right to rebut what I have written about them. 

Third, I am not the sole author of this site.  Others post here, still others comment here.  Some of these are people who are connected to me in some identifiable way (for example, my wife) and who may occasionally make remarks here that they would not want to share with everyone in the world.  If I obscure my identity by using a pseudonym, those others may be able to preserve some measure of privacy.

When I first read the xkcd comic above, I thought of that phrase “some measure of privacy,” and saw it as potentially misleading.  “Privacy” is a problematic word for anything that one puts online.  “Detachment” might be better. That I’ve published hundreds of items over a period of more than seven years, some of them quite lengthy, some expressed with fervor, under the name “Acilius” shows that Acilius and his creator are to some extent the same person.  But only to some extent; important as the opinions expressed in those items may be to Acilius’ creator, he is at the end of the day a human being, who would still exist even if he changed or abandoned every opinion he had ever held, while Acilius, as an online persona, is nothing more than the sum of those opinions and the sensibility that informs them.  That’s why I don’t take any steps to make it particularly difficult for tech-savvy readers to identify Acilius with his creator.

“Private sex photos” would for this reason be in a different category from online commenting personae.  Bodies and their sexual responses are usually closer to the core of what makes a human being into a coherent self than are any set of opinions.  I’m not saying that it’s always easy to draw bright lines between opinions and sexual responses; one opinion might translate into disgust where another might promote arousal, and vice versa.  But I would say that if someone confronted me, in real life, with an opinion that had appeared under the name of Acilius, I would have an entirely different set of options as to how to respond to that confrontation than I would have if someone were to confront me with a graphic image of me engaged in sexual activity.  

That also suggests the difference between data-hacking that results in the public exposure of “private sex photos” and data-hacking that results in the hijacking of financial information.  Banks, credit card companies, and other financial services companies usually offer at least partial refunds of moneys stolen by that sort of hijacking, and those refunds represent at least partial remedies for the injury caused.  But there is no refunding any part of that which is lost when “private sex photos” become public.  

While “privacy” is not the same thing today that it was before the digital revolution, it still isn’t some of the things it wasn’t then.  It isn’t now, and never has been, at all the same thing as secrecy.  A secret is something that cannot be made general knowledge unless those who know it choose to reveal it.  So the precise shape and coloration of your body under your clothes are not secret; anyone looking at you can probably form an estimate of these things to a rather high degree of accuracy.  

Privacy, though, is a concept from the economy of the gift.  We as a society have decided that definite knowledge of the precise shape and coloration of your body under your clothes is a gift which you have the right to share with or withhold from certain people under certain circumstances.  Granted, there are other people to whom we must give this knowledge because of some relation in which they stand to us; for example, medical professionals attending our cases, fellow members of military organizations in which we may find ourselves obligated to serve, etc.  But most of us are in these situations for a finite portion of our lives, and when all is well these situations are themselves governed by well-defined and rigorously enforced rules.  

If, as Ms Marcotte puts it, “men too cowardly to post under their real names claim to be entitled to your private sex photos,” and these claims carry the day, then privacy disappears altogether.  If people who do not stand in any specific relation to us can take as a matter of right what previously we had made available only as a gift, then such things cease to be possible as gifts.  Not only do photos and other graphic representations of nudity or sexual behavior under those circumstances, but also nudity and sexual behavior themselves lose some of the fragile qualities that make each revelation of nudity and each sexual act such an uncommonly precious gift.  The body responds to every stimulus in its environment, consciously or unconsciously; a sex act involves every aspect of the context in which its participants find themselves.  To make a gift of nudity, to make a gift of a sex act, is to make a gift of oneself as one is at that moment, to give everything and withhold nothing.  Even disguises and role-playing and the like only reveal oneself to one’s partner.  Surrender that, not as a gift to a partner, but as payment of a debt collected by a third party, and the economy of gift yields everything to the economy of the marketplace.       

The unliked and uninjured

Earlier this week, Slate‘s Mark Joseph Stern wrote a piece asking incredulously “Do Anti-Gay Christians Really Face Employment Discrimination?”  Mr Stern cites blog posts by Princeton Professor Robert George and The American Conservatives always interesting, often apoplectic blogger Rod Dreher about a survey in which investment bank JP Morgan-Chase recently inquired into its employees positions with regard to the rights of sexual minorities.  Finding the survey a perfectly routine bit of corporate boilerplate, Mr Stern shows impatience with the concerns that Professor George and Mr Dreher voice.  “All of this is extravagantly silly, and I respect Dreher and George’s intellects too much to believe that they’re actually taking it seriously,” he writes.

I would agree that Professor George, Mr Dreher, and their fellows have made many hyperbolic statements regarding this and similar matters.  At the same time, I do think they are onto something.  I would refer to an item the retired Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, the Right Reverend Mr V. Gene Robinsonposted on The Daily Beast several months ago.  The Rt. Rev. Mr R, himself the first openly gay person consecrated a bishop in a traditional denomination, denied that anti-gay Christians in the USA are the targets of anything that should be called “persecution.”  At the same time he did acknowledge that they are coming to be a minority, not only numerically, but in the sense that they bear a stigma which sets them apart from the mainstream:

Here’s what victimization looks like: every day, especially in some places, LGBT people face the real possibility of violence because of their orientation or gender identity. Young people jump off bridges or hang themselves on playground swing sets because of the bullying and discrimination they face. In 29 states, one can be fired from one’s job simply for being gay, with no recourse to the courts. In most places, we cannot legally marry the one we love. Some of us have been kicked out of the house when we come out to our parents, and many young LGBT people find themselves homeless and on the streets because of the attitudes of their religious parents toward their LGBT children. And did I mention the everyday threat of violence?

Compare that to the very painful realization that one’s view of something like homosexuality is in the minority after countless centuries of being in the majority. It may feel like victimization to hang a shingle out to sell something or provide some service to the public, only to find that the “public” includes people one disagrees with or finds immoral in some way. It may feel like it has happened practically overnight, when it has actually been changing over a period of decades. Being pressed to conform to such a change in majority opinion must feel like victimization. But as a society, we would do well to distinguish between real victimization and the also-very-real discouragement felt by those who now find themselves in the minority.

I do not mean to brush aside as inconsequential the feelings of those who find themselves in the minority, whether it be around the topic of gender, race, or sexual orientation. But I do mean to question characterizing such feelings as discrimination, violation of religious freedom, and victimization. It’s time we called out our religious brothers and sisters for misunderstanding their recently-acquired status as members of a shrinking minority as victims.

I would amplify the good bishop’s remarks about “the feelings of those who find themselves in the minority.”  I would say that “feelings” is perhaps an unfortunate choice of words here, being as it is a word that often figures in non-apology apologies such as “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings,” which is a polite way of saying “I wish you hadn’t become upset when I was doing what any sensible person would regard as that right thing, you crybaby.”  The beliefs that motivate people who disapprove of homosexuality may be wrong; I am quite sure they are wrong, as a matter of fact, though I am chastened by Mr Robinson’s* own willingness to suspend final judgment on the theological ins and outs of the issue.  However, it is hardly reasonable to expect the members of this new minority group not to share the experience of every established minority group, who are from time to time frustrated when the image of the world that is presented to them in every movie, every book, every TV show, every presidential address, every classroom, every other place where the voice of The Mainstream is heard, is so much at odds with what they have seen and heard and felt in their own lives, from their own point of view, that it begins to seem as if they have been transported to a parallel universe.

I believe Mr Robinson would be quick to agree with this.  I heard him make a speech a few years ago in which he told an audience made up primarily of same-sexers that “we will never be anything other than a small minority group in society at large, no matter how large a majority we may form in this room at this moment.”  He went on to talk about the challenges inherent in minority status, especially the sense of not being heard that comes when an element so central to personal identity as one’s sexuality takes a form that is basically alien to most of the people one meets on a daily basis.  So when he tells his opponents that their new status as members of an unpopular minority does not by itself mean that they are victims of injustice, he is not trivializing their experiences or concerns.  Rather, he is suggesting that in the future he and they will have something in common.  Anti-gay Christians may never again be anything other than a small minority group in society at large, no matter how large a majority they may form in their own worship spaces.  And they can no longer expect culture high and low to be dominated by a worldview in which male and female are categories created by God and inscribed by God with specific meanings, meanings that include a concept of complementarity that exhausts the legitimate purposes of sexual activity.  Nor can they even expect the average person to have the vaguest knowledge of what their views are, or to be at all interested in learning about them.  They can hardly be faulted for considering this an unattractive prospect, yet it is no different from what any other minority group experiences.  On Mr Robinson’s account, the reduced visibility and inadvertent exclusions that come with minority status do not by themselves constitute unjust discrimination.

I don’t want to put words in Mr Robinson’s mouth; I’m sure he would be the first to concede that there is such a thing as institutional discrimination, and that injustices no one in the majority intends to commit or even knows are happening can at times wreak horrific consequences in the lives of the minority.  And while Mr Stern is blithely confident that laws against religious discrimination will give anti-gay Christians all the protection they need against any mistreatment they may suffer in the future, Mr Dreher’s American Conservative colleague Samuel Goldman** links to a recent article raising the question of whether “religious freedom” is even a coherent category in our current legal system.   So I see more grounds to the fears of this new minority than does Mr Stern.  I cannot be of much help to them; in the unlikely event that anti-gay Christians were to ask me how they could be sure of receiving fair treatment in a strongly pro-gay America, my suggestion would be that they abandon their false beliefs and join the rest of us in affirming the diversity of sexual expression in today’s world.  I’m sure that would be about as pointless as a Christian telling Muslims that if they don’t want to be smeared by association with terrorists, all they have to do is to be baptized.

*To avoid confusion, let me explain: The customary form in which the names of Anglican clergy are presented is “[Ecclesiastical Honorific] [Courtesy Title] [Proper Name]” at first reference, and “[Courtesy Title] [Proper Name]” at subsequent references.  That’s why I introduced Mr Robinson as “the Right Reverend Mr Robinson,” then switched to plain “Mr Robinson.”  My wife works for the Episcopal Church, and I occasionally read the novels of Anthony Trollope, so I’m aware of all these things.

**Like Mr Dreher, Mr Goldman is always interesting.  Unlike him, he is never apoplectic.

Catastrophic Success

A few weeks ago, Mozilla fired its CEO, Brendan Eich, in response to a wave of criticism about his donation, in the year 2008, of $1000 to the successful campaign to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying in the state of California.  Public discussion of this event has not yet died down.  For example, Richard Kim of The Nation has made interesting remarks about it here and here.  So I suppose I can put my oar in.

When the matter first came up, I would have guessed it was going to play out like this: A variety of groups and individuals would find fault with Mr Eich.  He and the company would respond with assurances that his private political views would have no effect on company policy, and would point to his record of working well with members of sexual minority groups.  Criticism would continue to mount, and calls for a boycott of Mozilla would pick up steam.  Mr Eich would apologize for having supported the 2008 campaign, would make a large donation to some pro-equality group, Mozilla would announce a new, souped-up policy to protect the rights of same-sexers among its employees, and the company would pay a bunch of professional gays and lesbians to come and lecture its executives about the plight of sexual minorities.  After a few weeks, the controversy would have faded, Mr Eich would be getting on with business, and corporate types would have been reminded that there is a cost to siding against gender-neutral marriage.  That may have turned out to be an unpleasant sort of game, but it’s a game that has been played many times and that would have ended with an unambiguous, if rather small-scale, win for the rights and political clout of same-sexers.

In reality, the first two parts of this scenario played out according to the prediction, but Mr Eich did not apologize or make a large donation to a pro-equality group, the company did not soup  up its policy on the rights of same-sexers, and no grand inquisitors of gaydom have been invited to Mozilla.  The whole game was short-circuited by Mr Eich’s departure.

There is a military term of art which I believe has an application here: catastrophic success.  George W. Bush popularized this term in 2004, describing the previous year’s invasion of Iraq.  When an enemy force capitulates more rapidly and more completely than one expects, thereby creating a chaotic situation with which the victorious force is not prepared to cope, that is a catastrophic success.  And that is what the end of Mr Eich’s tenure at Mozilla has presented to his opponents.   I remarked on this in a comment on one of Richard Kim’s pieces, where I said, among other things:

Would-be CEOs are no more likely to react to Eich’s fall by becoming pro-equality than they are to avoid pro-equality causes that may become controversial five or ten or twenty-five years from now. So the big-budget parts of “the Gay Movement” may very well be drying up surprisingly soon.

That is to say, while the anti-Eich campaign may have been an attempt to send the message that same-sexers should be taken seriously, the message that ambitious corporate types are likely to receive is that they should avoid controversy altogether unless it directly promotes the company’s bottom line.  So we’re likely to see a lot less corporate sponsorship or donations from executives to groups that promote the rights of same-sexers as a consequence of the Eich departure. Again, I don’t blame the anti-Eich campaign for this- if the matter had played out as I had expected, it would have been a plus for those groups, and it was certainly not unreasonable to expect that it would play out in that way.  On the other hand, it’s hard to see how we can find fault with Mr Eich and the company for declining to play the game according to the usual rules.

Of course, political quietism is not the only possible way for ambitious corporate executives to respond to the Eich affair.  If most companies are staffed by executives who decline to support any cause other than their own profits, then there will be passionate sections of the public who will be attracted to firms that aggressively identify themselves with one side or another of a particular issue.  We see that already, of course.  I suspect the Eich affair means that we’ll see a lot more of it.  If you live in a part of the country where same-sex rights are popular, then you’ll see companies that either go out of the way to identify themselves with those rights or are walls of silence regarding them.  If you live in a more conservative part of the country, you’ll find the opposite.  And that, I suspect, may reverse the tide of public opinion that has carried same-sex rights so far in recent years by creating social spaces in which the cost of supporting those rights increases.  I don’t know how best to respond to this, but I very much suspect that Mozilla’s response shows that threats of boycott will not help.

Meeting Alison

acilius:

I wish I’d been in New Zealand to see brilliant young cartoonist Sarah E. Laing meet her hero, comics titan Alison Bechdel.  Exxtraordinary to compare the photo below with the comic Ms Laing is giving Ms Bechdel- powers of prophecy that one has.

Originally posted on LET ME BE FRANK:

This is the trailer for The Curioseum – what do you think? I was pretty excited to see all my illustrations animated, albeit in a low-fi way.

Also, I gave Alison Bechdel my Metro comic, the one with her in it.

BiRkusdCEAAp4WA

She seemed pretty excited to see herself there, and she accepted my bundle of Let Me Be Frank comics, but I think I scared her with my enthusiasm. When I saw her at the NZ comics panel the next day she looked a little guarded and apologised for not reading my comics yet. I told her it was ok – she could throw them in the recycling if she liked – but I hope she doesn’t. I felt a bit sorry for her – she probably has half-crazed cartoonists foisting comics on her all the time and she’s too nice a person to tell us to piss off. We…

View original 46 more words

Unreal city

The other day a man named Fred Phelps died.  He died alone, and no funeral is planned for him.  Unlike most who exit life under these circumstances, Mr Phelps was a well-known public figure.  A disbarred lawyer, Mr Phelps declared his family to be a church and himself to be its pastor.  For many years, the Phelpses have traveled the USA, forming picket lines outside funerals and other events carrying signs with such lovely slogans as “God Hates America,” “God Hates Fags,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”  The Phelpses don’t conduct funerals for their own dead, and had evidently disowned their patriarch before his death.

I saw the Phelpses in action twice.  Once, they were picketing a military funeral, celebrating the death of a 19 year-old soldier.  A few years later, they were picketing the funeral of a 16 year old girl who had taken her own life.

So I have first-hand evidence that there was such a person as Mr Phelps.  But I can’t entirely get over my disbelief that he could possibly have existed.  What could possibly possess anyone to devote his life, and to influence his children to devote their lives, to such a perverse endeavor?  I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know whether mental illness would be a viable explanation.  And I’m not a theologian, so I don’t know if it would be appropriate to attribute Mr Phelps’ behavior to demonic possession.

I can sympathize with those who suspect that Mr Phelps was some sort of agent provocateur serving the interests of those who wanted to discredit the causes he ostensibly supported; certainly the level and form of publicity he attracted shows that he made himself remarkably useful to precisely the people he targeted with his message of hate, and a conspiracy in which he was deliberately acting to promote equal rights for same-sexers by tarring the opposition with the brush of sheer lunacy would be intelligible in a way that a world in which someone could sincerely believe that what Mr Phelps was doing was a worthwhile way to spend a life would not be.  Having seen the Phelpses up close, though, I can’t accept so simple a theory.  They struck me as something radically alien and radically hostile to the life of the world.  Any explanation of them, I suspect, would have to be, not only complex, but also a challenge to our usual assumptions.

Dim enlightenment

Mold-BUUG!

The internet is to catchy phrases what shag carpet is to unwrapped hard candy.  Put a catchy phrase online, and you’ll be horrified to see what ends up attached to it.

What brings this to mind is a phrase much discussed in certain quarters recently, “Dark Enlightenment.”   When Curtis Yarvin started blogging under the name “Mencius Moldbug” in 2007, I looked at his site occasionally.  I gave up on him sometime before the average length of posts began to suggest the Russian novel, though you’ll find the name “Acilius” in the comment threads there in the first several months.  I mentioned Mencius Moldbug on this site a couple of times in those days (here and here, in posts that reveal the origins of this site as a continuation of a long conversation among some old friends.)

My interest in Mencius Moldbug stemmed from time I’d spent studying thinkers like Irving Babbitt, intellectual historians who found that ostensibly up-to-date ideas were hopelessly dependent on obsolete theology, while some apparently antiquated doctrines accord surprisingly well with the most thoroughgoing application of the critical spirit.  Mencius Moldbug claimed to have reached similar conclusions, though his windy and unstructured writing, coupled with the vagueness of his references, ultimately made it impossible to determine what, if anything, he had in mind.

I had hoped for a popularized version of the kind of thing Babbitt did, but that may be impossible.  You have to have an editor, and footnotes, and lots of time for redrafting and revision to accomplish a project like that.  As a recent example I’d mention a book I’m still reading, Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.  Professor Gregory’s book is obviously not likely to reach a mass audience, anymore than Professor Babbitt’s did, but it will likely give whatever readers it does attract a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as an institution and as a fetish than Mr Yarvin could offer writing as a pseudonymous blogger.

Since 2007, I’ve adjusted my expectations for blogs quite a bit.  No longer do I look for a writer who will offer daily doses of the kind of insight Irving Babbitt developed in his magisterial studies;  now I’m content with a pleasant style punched up by occasional flashes of insight. A blogger who usually meets these criteria is Mark Shea.  His “Catholic and Enjoying It!” is usually cheerful, with a steady stream of self-deprecating humor and links to provocative, well-developed pieces by writers whose views are similar to his.  It is impossible not to conclude from regular attention to it that Mr Shea’s heart is in the right place, even if he himself rarely shows any particular flair for sequential reasoning.  Of late, Mr Shea has posted a series of items about the “Dark Enlightenment.”  In these items, I must say that Mr Shea has allowed his emotions free rein, so much so that it is a bit difficult not to laugh at some of his more hyperbolic statements.  At least one of Mr Shea’s readers has laughed hard enough to dupe him into publishing as fact a breathtakingly ridiculous tall tale about an imaginary cult of Dark Enlightenment enthusiasts.  Mr Shea has gallantly admitted that he was fooled, even though he continues to insist that the phrase “Dark Enlightenment” should always and only be understood by reference to the very worst elements that have attached themselves to it.

Some of those who embrace the label are appealing enough that Mr Shea’s attitude must be called, not only intemperate, but wrong-headed.  I would mention hbd* chick, whose response to Mr Shea made me laugh out loud.   Even a few minutes spent on her blog should suffice to disabuse Mr Shea of a notion he asserts persistently and rather obnoxiously, that “Human Biodiversity” is absolutely nothing but a euphemism for racism.  Not that I am convinced that we need the term- why not just call it “Physical Anthropology”?  The newer phrase, like that unwrapped hard candy in the shag carpet, is sure to stick to something disgusting, while an old label like “Physical Anthropology” points us toward an established academic field with generally accepted professional standards.  Be that as it may, hbd* chick is clearly much closer to the canons of Physical Anthropology than to the sort of online bigot-bait Mr Shea supposes users of the term “Human Biodiversity” to be peddling.

I’d also mention Foseti, who has recently started a series of posts reviewing Mencius Moldbug’s output (see here and here.)  His reviews are as punchy and clear as Mencius Moldbug’ originals are meandering and opaque, so I would recommend them as the first stop for someone looking to see what the “Dark Enlightenment” is really all about.  Also, you can turn to Mencius Moldbug’s sidekick Nick Land for a relatively coherent explanation of their shared ideas.  And there are some good links in this article by Nicholas Pell.

A blog post by Rod Dreher, again in response to the hoax for which Mark Shea fell, includes a reader comment that I’ve stewed over a bit:

Most of these “Dark Enlightenment” bloggers (and that’s really all they are) are fantasists and contrarians with a weakness for obscurantist and melodramatic language. However, many of the writers whom they’ve claimed (e.g., [Steve] Sailer) are serious thinkers who are challenging all of the above–all that is unchallengeable in politics, law, art, mainstream/mass journalism and most tragically, academia. If these are discussions that the elites of our society continue to suppress, I do think that we are the verge of a new political movement–one that will hopefully be led by cooler heads.

I would hesitate call Steve Sailer a serious thinker who is challenging the basic presuppositions of the age.  I do think he’s worth reading, and I read him every day, but he always puts forth a great deal more top-of-the-head speculation than careful reasoning.  Which is all right- that’s one of the strengths of the internet, the sort of thinking out loud that used to lead nowhere unless it took place in just the right room when just the right people were listening can now lead to great things even if you are far from any center of innovation.  But that only makes it the more important to to remember that the first stage of the scientific process, as of every other form of knowledge-making, is bullshitting.  The next phases all refine out the bullshit and isolate any particles of non-bullshit that may be among it.  Mr Sailer’s particular brand of bullshit includes lots of aggrieved white guy defensiveness, which attracts racists, but I think there is more to him than that.

Speaking of Rod Dreher and Steve Sailer, I should mention a post Mr Dreher put up a couple of weeks ago about Mr Sailer and my response to it.  Mr Sailer’s writing has so convinced Mr Dreher that evidence of variability in inherited characteristics related to socially desirable behaviors among humans will shake the world-views of people committed to equal rights that he wishes we could forbid such knowledge, as if it were some kind of witchcraft.  I think this fear is grossly overdone.  I wrote:

I read Sailer all the time and I grant you that he has his unattractive sides, but I’m not worried that he’ll relegitimize racist scientism a la Madison Grant. For one thing, he engages deeply enough with the relevant science that a regular reader can see that any sort of utopianism, including racist utopianism, is not something that nature is going to allow to work. Secondly, his own self-aggrandizing B.S. (continually presenting himself and his favored authors as a plucky band of truth-tellers set upon by the unreasoning hordes of the politically correct establishment) wears thin pretty quickly. If anything, several years of reading Sailer on a daily basis have moved me to the left politically.

I’d mention just one more piece, a critique of Mencius Moldbug’s positive ideology that Adam Gurri put up the other day (I’d seen it, but hadn’t really read it until Handle recommended it.)  It leaves me with the same conclusion I keep coming back to, that the goals the “Dark Enlightenment” types are trying to achieve on their blogs are goals that can really be achieved only in conventional academic writing.  That conclusion frustrates me, in part because I do think that these bloggers have some points to make about civic religion in the West that should be discussed among a broader public than is likely to look at scholarly publications and in part because few scholars are willing to tackle to questions that they raise.  But I don’t see any way around it.

What they could never kill went on to organize

By now I suppose everyone knows about “Prism,” the massive program of eavesdropping that the National Security Agency has been carrying out for a number of years.  Many have asked what it means for our freedoms that the NSA is listening to all our phone calls, reading all our emails, etc.  The question fewer people seem to be thinking about is just who the people are at the NSA who are doing those things.

The NSA is famously an outgrowth of US military intelligence.  Its top leaders are senior military officers, and much of its staff is also drawn from the uniformed services.  However, the total number of active duty personnel in the US military is something less than 1.5 million.  Only a minority of that rather small group would be in a position to develop the skills and obtain the security clearance required for assignment to a project like Prism.  And that same minority would be in demand wherever the US military is tasked with a complex and dangerous operation.  So it seems unlikely that the NSA would have enough military employees to sift through everyone’s personal communications.

So, most of the work of Prism must be in the hands of civilians, employed either by the Department of Defense or by private contractors.  Those people, unlike their uniformed coworkers, are eligible to form unions and demand collective bargaining.  So, if you want to give the NSA’s bosses an incentive to tell their people to stop reading your communications, fill all of them with the case for organized labor.  Granted, that won’t take away the rest of the incentives that have motivated US authorities to create and maintain this system and the US public to accept it, but at least it’s something.

Worshiping coitus

Sacred art

One of our recurring themes here on Los Thunderlads is the remarkable weakness of arguments against gender-neutral marriage.  The law-courts of the world are full of lawyers advancing ingenious arguments in support of the most ludicrous propositions; wealthy business interests can suborn economists and other social scientists to make very impressive cases for any policy that will increase their profits; sectarians and enthusiasts of all sorts can build formidable intellectual defenses for even their most far-fetched crochets.  Yet the idea that the title of “marriage” should be granted exclusively to heterosexual pairings, a familiar idea throughout human history and one that enjoys the support of many extremely powerful institutions and of solid majorities of public opinion in much of the world today, seems to find no rational backing whatever in contemporary public discourse.  Opponents of gender neutral marriage have noticed this circumstance; I can recommend theologian Alastair J. Roberts’ recent note, “Why Arguments Against Gay Marriage Are Usually Bad.”  Mr Roberts doesn’t convince me that gender-neutral marriage is a bad idea, but he does come up with a number of interesting remarks to make as he goes along his way.

In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed advocates of gender neutral marriage making themselves look almost as silly as their opponents routinely do.  First up was an article in Slate magazine by Mark Joseph Stern, one subtitle of which is “Why do defenders of DOMA and Prop 8 worship coitus?”  Mr Stern reports on legal briefs recently submitted to the US Supreme Court in defense of measures that seek to reserve marriage for heterosexual couples only, briefs in which penis-in-vagina sex is presented as an essential defining characteristic of marriage.  Mr Stern seems incredulous that this is in fact the premise of arguments presented to the US Supreme Court.  “This argument puts gay marriage opponents in an awkward position. For years, they said gays were too libidinous and licentious to create stable marriages. Now, as proponents of gay marriage emphasize love, fidelity, and commitment, the right is fetishizing coitus,” he writes.  He goes on: “In [Professor Robert] George’s primitive understanding, marriage isn’t about love or raising children. It’s about copulation.”

Mr Stern’s piece went up a couple of weeks ago.  Yesterday, Tom Tomorrow reminded me of it.  Click on the image to go to the strip:

I’m not an expert in comparative religion, but it does strike me as rather odd that there might be cultures which do not “fetishize coitus” and grow elaborate institutions around penis-in-vagina sex.  After all, penis-in-vagina isn’t just another arcane sexual practice, but is the act of procreation.  Among animal processes, only eating and death compare to it in the range and gravity of their consequences.   If you’re going to worship any events in nature, it would seem that penis-in-vagina sex would be first on the list.

Now, the institution of marriage in the West has evolved in such a way that “love, fidelity, commitment,” romance, and other abstract  considerations are more important than anything so concrete as penis-in-vagina sex.  The religious life of the Protestant West has evolved to emphasize the purely abstract over the concrete to a remarkable degree.  Throughout the Western world, same-sex couples are usually treated by their relatives and neighbors as the equals of opposite-sex couples in every way; the exceptions come in legal formalities and in random acts of hostility.  I believe that laws should reflect and sustain the actual practice of society, not assert transcendent standards that would revolutionize that practice, so it seems reasonable to me that marriage as an institution should drift free of its last formal links to penis-in-vagina sex.  However, it is no more “primitive” for Robert George to hold to an understanding of the nature of institutions that precludes such a development than it is for Hindus and Buddhists to revere lingam-yoni symbols.

The whole debate, left and right, strikes me as an example of the modern West’s inability to take sex seriously as a moral concept.  Moderns can be quite calm and serious when discussing the legal standards of consent to sexual behavior, but characteristically respond to moral questions about other aspects of sexual behavior with one of two avoidance strategies.  Either they try to laugh the topic off, or they refer it to medicine, psychology, or some other therapeutic discipline.  This is a real problem with modernity.  Since sexual behavior is such an important part of life, people who try to follow a moral code which has nothing serious to say about sex are likely to become unserious people.   Yet it seems to be an insoluble problem.  Modernity appeals to the formal, abstract rationality of the marketplace, of the courts, of science, of bureaucratic organization.  An institution built to support, celebrate, and commemorate penis-in-vagina sex jars with this formal, abstract rationality; but so, eventually, does everything else that makes life possible and enjoyable.

Again, I hold that the function of the law is to affirm society as it is, not to remake it according to some abstract plan; it is because many same-sex couples in fact operate as married couples in the USA that I hope the law will change and recognize the actually existing reality of our society.  As I pointed out here four years ago, to change that fact and the social conditions underpinning it would require a very far-reaching restructuring of US society.  Modernity, with its attachment to abstract theoretical schemes,  might endorse some such restructurings, and people with a romantic hankering for the premodern might wish they could recreate a world in which the concrete and particular take precedence over the abstract and general.  But as a student of the works of Irving Babbitt, I see in such impulses nothing but the drive to assert one’s own power over the world and the people in it, a drive that can never be satisfied, but that grows with each success it encounters.   If we are ever to recover the sense of the sacramental as something inherent in particular actions, particular things, and particular places, it won’t be the law that leads us to that recovery, but a much broader social development that the law will notice only after it is already so far advanced that few people can formulate a coherent argument for or against it.

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