Good Journalism, 6/10/18

Here is a seeming resumption of the weekly series of interesting articles that was rudely interrupted by my vacation a month ago and never recovered. There are only two this week, but they deserve to be read.

When it comes to writing grand summations of the failures of recent history, no one does it better than George Packer. The New Yorker writer pumped out the definitive books on the Iraq War (Assassins’ Gate) and the Great Recession (The Unwinding), and his not-frequent-enough articles in the magazine never disappoint, either. He’s back this week with a review of  a memoir by Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s longtime speechwriter and confidante.

When it comes to cataloging the failures of liberal dreams, no one does it as poignantly as Packer does. Rhodes provides the perfect set of eyes for the Obama Era: young, raw, optimistic, and a true believer. He believes his words are guiding the arc of history, even more so than Obama, who usually had a fairly good grasp of his limits, even when surrounded by worshipful choirs. (There is also a call-out to Anthony Bourdain as an inspiration for the Obama Era worldview, which comes across as eerie given Bourdain’s suicide within a week of the publication of this piece.) This makes it all the more jarring when an idealistic foreign policy settles into a “don’t do stupid shit” realpolitik, and when transcendent messaging about a united nation succumbs to the reality of calculating opponents both in Congress and abroad. Hence the title of the book: The World as it Is. It’s the Trump Era liberal’s lament of innocence lost.

If our hypothetical jaded young liberal decided to get all existential as he tried to figure out where the world is going, he might wander off into Nietzsche, who, according to Ian Marcus Corbin, is “fundamentally concerned with how we will thrive in a post-theistic universe, one that emphatically does not care for us, was not made for us, offers icy silence in response to our pleas for solace and succor.” (He’s in a pretty dark place, you see.) Nietzsche is no liberal, and in an essay in the Weekly Standard, Corbin rightfully skewers a recent book that acknowledges this threat to the liberal order, but does little to explore why people would find it attractive, thereby committing much the same error that Rhodes and Obama did. Corbin and I come from very different background, but I suspect we wind up in more or less the same place. Nietzsche offers a valuable critique, though he, too, is incomplete, and paths forward may be both obvious and maddeningly hard, even for committed believers. But we just have to keep chipping away.


Farewell Duluth I: The Answer to Everything

One day in late February 2012, Prof. Patrick Deneen of the Georgetown Government Department (now at Notre Dame) modestly told us students that he was going to give us the “answer to everything.” He proceeded to draw three circles on the chalkboard and explain human nature in the clearest manner I’ve ever seen. It’s an oversimplification, of course, as all such representations must be, but it’s an excellent starting point, and now forms the basis of my worldview, such as it is. What follows is my take on the three circles. I’ve also embellished his drawing with some of my obvious artistic genius.

deneen circles

The three circles represent three rough spheres of human possibility. The center sphere is basic human action; above it we find gods who transcend human appetites and obsessions and lead lives of bliss, and below it we find the beasts, who fixate on instinctive and immediate fulfillment of those appetites.

One very large camp of people, most of them on the political left, draws a line through the center circle and focuses only on the top. They see humanity as fundamentally good, but simply constrained by unfortunate social or historical structures, and believe we can better ourselves by liberating ourselves from them. (This being the left, they often don’t believe in explicit “gods,” but the idea is much the same: humans are the masters of their own fate, subservient to no one, and can be the authors of their own salvation.) The general sense is that everyone has great potential, and it can be unlocked with the right combination of incentives and supports.

Most fundamentally, though, it aims to liberate people so that they’re free from the existing order and can just be their own awesome selves, deciding what’s right and wrong for themselves. If we turn people loose and have a safety net ready when they stumble, things should turn out alright. Humanity can be improved in this way, and the world can become a better place; depending on how far you want to go, we might even be able to perfect it. Marxism took this way of thinking to its furthest possible extreme, but the word progressivism, often used to describe the left-of-center agenda, captures the sense here. Humans are capable of progress and are going somewhere, wherever that might be, slowly making the world a better place. Other relevant philosophers here include Rousseau, the French positivists, John Stuart Mill, and Hegel.

The right also draws a line through the center circle, but focuses on the bottom half, not the top. (Deneen, a self-described conservative whose conservatism bears no resemblance to the contemporary Republican Party, used the term “liberal,” though I think my left/right terminology maps better on to current-day politics.) For the right, humans are fundamentally fallen, and while we may put on shows of benevolence and decency, the self-interest underneath can’t be wished away. Absent strong social mores and an established order, humans will rut around and kill each other and generally live in a miserable state of anarchy. No amount of wishful thinking or fanciful social engineering can get rid of those base instincts that we all have, and the manner in which many on the left react when confronted by conservatism is decent evidence of this. Hence the reliance on tradition, and the insistence on a strong state to keep things in line. (Machiavelli and Hobbes are the go-to philosophers here.)

This way of thinking can take other forms, too. The framers of the U.S. Constitution, for example, saw that those in power were just as likely to be corrupted as anyone else, and sought to limit their ability to exercise power. The Constitution is a fairly conservative document; it makes little effort to guarantee any positive rights that can lead toward the good life. It was written in response to some of the worst of human excesses, and only in some of the amendments do we find a more progressive turn. The emphasis is on recognizing and managing the tragedies in life, which no amount of “progress” can stop.

There is third approach here, less often used but alluring to some: just cut out the middle circle. This is Nietzsche. We have a choice, he argues. We can either be impressive Ubermenschen dedicated to living thrilling and fulfilling lives, taking control of everything and ruling nobly, or we can be feeble, weak people carried along only by resentment and grievance, seeking a pitiful life of bland comfort. It was a good thing for Nietzsche’s already frail health that he didn’t live to see suburban subdevelopments and reality TV. Still, this worldview is attractive for those who slog through Nietzsche: who wouldn’t want to be an Ubermensch? It’s a delightful lifestyle, and it makes for a very crisp, self-serving distinction, as the enlightened ridicule the pitiful masses below. (This is where we’d find the Nazis, who tried to hijack Nietzschean philosophy and turn it into a justification for their atrocities.) That’s a bit of a misreading of Nietzsche, but it also illustrates the weakness of this approach: no matter how hard one tries, it’s impossible to stay on top like that, and very easy to fall back into vindictive backbiting. The divisions aren’t that crisp.

This brings us to the last approach, which encompasses all three of those circles. It recognizes that humans have qualities that overlap with those of gods and of beasts, but that, in the end, we’re somewhere in between, wandering between the two and often in an ambiguous middle realm. We’re not inherently good; we’re not inherently bad. We have moments where we reach toward god-like status, and we have moments where we live among the beasts, and in the end we’re left with a confusing mix that isn’t quite as black-or-white as we’d like. The boilerplate left and the right stances both get part of the picture, but neither one quite grasps it all.

This is a very old notion of human nature, and its modern-day caretakers are, for the most part, Catholics, following in the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas. I’m not Catholic, but Catholicism has always hovered around my life, from deeply faithful grandparents to Catholic universities to travels in Mexico, so it’s probably no surprise I find this worldview most appealing. (Sticking with Nietzsche, we might say I’m living in its shadow, and quite thoroughly.) The very word “catholic” means, roughly, “about the whole” in Greek: it encompasses the totality of life, and tries to cover everything. To use my current favorite word, it’s holistic.

Theology digression: even if this seems obvious, it really isn’t a common worldview in this day in age. One need only look at the reactions of the left and the right to our current pope and his predecessor: one side loves Francis while the other is skeptical of him, and vice versa with Benedict. This is a pretty good sign that people are coming to the popes not as Catholics, but instead as liberals or conservatives who want Catholicism to conform to their preordained political worldviews. This isn’t to say that one can’t disagree with certain aspects of papal teaching, and that popes themselves may not be influenced by different forms of thought, but it reveals the disconnect, and how wholly we’ve adopted the modern political mindset in how we try to analyze things. Faith, for most moderns, has become a crutch in times of need and a source for inspiration that can give people a little nudge down a preordained path. But rarely is it a way of life, and when it is, it seems fundamentally alien. Moral therapeutic deism reigns triumphant.

Still, the three circles begin long before St. Peter. Prof. Deneen is a staunch Catholic, but he wrote one of his first books not on anything Catholic, but on the Odyssey and how it fit this conception, with Odysseus constantly pulled both up toward the gods and down toward the beasts. Philosophically, the man at the root is our old buddy Aristotle, who said that beasts or gods are unique from humans in that they’re capable of living free from community. But since we can’t ever live entirely in one of those realms, we’re neither. This doesn’t mean we have to submit ourselves solely to a communal order, whether it be of the left or the right; it just means we have to live in constant accordance with that fact. Instead of starting our theories by considering humans in vacuums and making presumptions about their nature from there, we need to understand each other socially. You can find a lot of spilled pixels on that topic elsewhere in this blog, so I won’t belabor it here, but in the end it does boil down to living in community and finding our niches within whatever ecosystem we call home, realizing it is neither heaven nor hell. Instead, it is complicated, and complication deserves respect, though once we’re inside it we can certainly leave our own marks. (Equally important is the need to step out of the community from time to time, in order to gain some perspective, before heading back in.)

Six years ago, when I left Duluth for Georgetown, I cared only for the top half of the diagram. My admissions essay for the School of Foreign Service was a paean to the power of liberal education to change the world. I don’t think my evolution was a complete surprise—in retrospect, I’m pleased with the subtlety expressed in the more thoughtful writings of my adolescent self—but evolve I did, from a fairly activist man of the left to something a lot more murky. Fixing the world’s problems proved a lot more difficult than waving some liberal magic wand, and my personal experience also suggested I was missing something.

Eventually, I found it. This was great for my understanding of the world, but something of a disaster for someone whose pre-college career interests had involved saving the world, and using the progressive agenda as my vehicle. I went home to Duluth, part out of philosophical belief in the community closest to me, and part because it was the only place I could go to figure out what the hell came next without undue stress. “Duluth needs people like you,” Prof. Deneen told me in our final meeting, and I took those words to heart.

I don’t know if Duluth needs me, but I sure needed Duluth. I’ve slowly gotten myself tied up in community affairs over the past two years, and I’ve found that this whole philosophy really does work in practice. I’ve also started down a career path that nurtures those goals; one that seems to have a healthy balance between practical work and the up-in-the-clouds thinking I enjoy but can take too far. It all worked out. I’ve found healthier channels for some of my instincts, both the ones that told me I could be a god and also the ones that had me wallowing in muck. (Channels, I hastily add; not stoic suppression.) I’m only human, so there will be continued temptation in both directions. But for now, I spend most of my time grounded in the middle circle and reveling in my community, where I belong.

Part Two is here.

Defining Ourselves

As many Duluthians—or, at least, the ones who are likely to read a blog like this one—know, Duluth has a weekly newspaper called the Reader Weekly. It is a staple in the local media; it is known to inhabit areas just inside the doors of restaurants, and is read by people riding the local bus system. On more than one occasion, I’ve felt a bit of awkward elitism when my seatmate is reading the Reader and I whip out my New Yorker. But, loyal Duluthian that I am, there’s a reason you won’t find me buried in the Reader during my commute.  I find large parts of it predictable, exhausting, and not worth reading.

Okay, that’s harsh. It’s a free paper; you take what you can get. The Reader does some things well. It has a nice calendar of local events, their reviews and nature pieces can be good, and some of the syndicated columnists they bring in are alright. There is some good, campy humor, especially in the April Fools’ Day issue, which is one I do make sure to read. John Gilbert’s sports columns are an institution, and every now and then, someone stumbles into something intelligent. It helps fill in some of the gaps that our venerable daily, the News Tribune, cannot as it continues its noble but desperate fight to stay afloat in an era of collapsing newspaper revenue. (Aside from the obvious shrinking content, am I the only one who’s noticed a serious drop-off in the editing recently?) The Reader, on the other hand, is beefing up its local content with a bunch of new hires, some of whom will be covering the local political meetings. Welcome to the club, boys. (They are all boys.)

The Reader is also self-consciously alternative. It says so, right there on the cover. It’s trying to give perspectives you may not see in the traditional media. It’s more critical, gives editorial freedom to fringe figures, and covers some things that would otherwise slip aside. It lets people who would otherwise be ignored have a platform. Most of this is cool by me; diverse voices are my thing. Problem is, many of these people are painful to read.

I offer some cautionary notes here, too. Personae that come out in writing may be nothing like the ones people display in person—and that can be a good thing or a bad thing. I’ve read of some columnists who get their hackles up in writing on a weekly basis and drive me nuts, but in person are utterly charming and lovely company. I make no judgments on these writers as people, but merely on how they come across in writing.

The thing that comes out in so many of these writers, however, is how they define themselves. They appear in opposition to something. They have gone and learned about something, and they just hammer on those same few hobbyhorses, over and over again. Their worldview is set in stone, and they must expose those who cloud it. There is no intellectual curiosity here, no exploring of new ways of thinking. It is just “I know a lot about X. The people in X are stupid and/or evil.” A policy prescription may or may not follow, but if it does, it is probably either vague or completely divorced from reality, or both.

They aren’t necessarily wrong, mind you. Sometimes they are, but there’s often at least a grain of truth in what they write. Take Loren Martell, for example. (For the unenlightened, he’s a Duluth man who’s spent the past six years railing against a school restructuring plan at every public meeting imaginable, school-related or not, and now writes for the Reader.) I’ve belittled him for his obsession numerous times on here, but he has some fair points to make, and his passion is obvious. I could probably find some common ground with him if the two of us sat down together. The man also really needs an editor, both for his prepared remarks and for his writing; he is so hit-or-miss that I’d sooner go hunting with Dick Cheney than with him. But whether we agree or disagree, whether he speaks cogently or in a muddle, I still find him grating, and I no longer bother to pay much attention to him. His perspective is locked, his revolt unending, and the end result is neither pleasant nor compelling, except in the eyes of a handful of fellow revolutionaries.

This way of thinking afflicts every political stance imaginable. There are some marvelously hypocritical conservatives out there who rant about liberal victimization politics while also claiming to be victimized by the liberal overlords at every turn.  (For example, I once had the pleasure of attending an event for wealthy conservative donors designed to call out the liberal bias in the media. To their credit, it actually was pretty funny and delightfully irreverent, though liberal doses of wine do help.) It’s just as bad on the left, though, where a few theories on legitimate oppression have been hijacked and applied to every human interaction imaginable. At the Reader, most of the animus is directed at the Republican Party and people in local government. This can seem like a funny juxtaposition, since there are very few Republicans in local government, but in the end it amounts to a power play: those distant people in power are controlling things, and we’re powerless to stop them, so let’s yell at them in a free weekly newspaper.

I’m not the first person to gripe about this phenomenon, and plenty have tried to figure out where it comes from. Nietzsche blamed Christianity and the grace peddled by priests; modern-day conservatives blame Marx and his stoking of class divisions, leading to narratives of oppressors and oppressed. I’d just blame a gut human instinct that usually emerges sometime in adolescence, when we see things in life we don’t like and define ourselves against them.

God only knows I’ve done this. There was a time in my life—let’s call it my quarter-life crisis—when I allowed my concept of myself to be defined by the things that have gone wrong in my 24 years on this earth. I wasted a lot of ink (well, pixels, mostly) ranting about things that had wronged me, and humanity in general. I don’t think that was entirely misguided; I’ve had a few life events that demand a thorough reflection, and I had to make peace with some of those demons. I had to bottom out to see the whole picture, and a few of the things I learned in that unpleasant place now manifest themselves in deeply held values. This whole process, whatever you call it, defines life, and is a big reason why coming-of-age stories usually make for my favorite books and movies.

But that’s the thing: it’s a process, not something we ever stop doing. Time passes, things change, thoughts evolve, and our narratives keep on writing themselves. I’ve written before that people can’t throw away their pasts, but clinging to one rigid worldview to explain that past is just as bad. And when people cling to a worldview, when there are no more questions, of course they’re going to end up sounding grumpy: they’ve reduced the absurd complexity of it all to one simple formula, and try as they might to jam things in, they just won’t fit. It is a mindset trapped in adolescence.

The way out, curiously enough, involves holding on to certain things associated with youth: a sense of wonder, and a willingness to have fun with it all. The world becomes a plaything to explore, not a charged partisan environment driven by an agenda; even if that searching doesn’t change our thoughts, it should at least give us some respect for the complexity of it all. And while I won’t be so pretentious as to try to sort legitimate grievances out from the rest of the noise, I will say this: letting some of that resentment go can be wonderfully liberating. Instead of defining ourselves by the things that have made us victims, we define ourselves by the things that truly animate us, the things that are more in keeping with the sides of ourselves we like best. At the very least, it’s a mindset worth exploring.

In the end, I wish the Reader all the best for its continued growth. It has potential. I just wish a few of its writers would aspire to something more.

Side note, for clarity’s sake: this takedown is not directed at John Ramos.

The Water Freezes Over

A week after my last post about David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address, I fished a little book out of a pile of library donations, and started reading it while busing down to Minneapolis for the weekend. The book is called All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, and it has a cheery-looking whale gamboling across the cover. (A Moby Dick allusion, as I soon learned.) I figured I was in for a pleasant little read about the timeless wisdom of classics that would leave me nodding in agreement but without any lasting insights. To my pleasant surprise, once the authors (a pair of philosophy professors, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly) dispense with the necessary background information, they head into a chapter entitled “David Foster Wallace’s Nihilism,” in which the Kenyon College address figures prominently.

The authors then proceed to rip DFW’s argument to shreds.

Dreyfus and Kelly use a character in DFW’s The Pale King, Mitchell Drinion, to make their point. Drinion is DFW’s absurd hero: he has the most mind-numbing job imaginable, and he is not only at peace with it, but he is happy. Their critiques are threefold. First, it sets an incredibly high bar for happiness. It says humans need a very intense sense of awareness to be happy, but by adopting that awareness, people naturally become aware of how often they themselves fall short of the ideal. Second, the authors question the value of Drinion’s happiness. If he lives his entire life in a contented haze, can he even know that he is happy, with nothing to compare it to? Is the ideal state really one with no apparent variation in human emotion. Finally, DFW’s “ecstatic bliss” comes about through the careful harnessing of the human will, which is a rather dangerous place to expect to find it. Unless we’re talking to Nietzsche, the odds of success are near zero. The implied conclusion of the chapter is, ‘no wonder DFW killed himself!’

I’m not sure this is entirely fair to DFW. As with most all pop philosophy works (perhaps all philosophy?), the book needs a target; something for the authors to pit their argument against. While useful and often mostly true, this technique can lead the authors to over-simplify the views of their target, and set them up as something of a straw man. The Drinion character is an extreme example, probably deliberately set up to be ridiculous, and we need not accept all of DFW’s nihilistic premises, or go as far as Drinion does on the road to ecstatic bliss, to find something useful in his writing. My takeaway for “This Is Water” can stop at agreement with his views on worship and acknowledge an occasional need for greater awareness for my surroundings and leave it at that. It can still be a profound piece, even if I disagree with DFW’s over-emphasis on the will as opposed to other parts of the human psyche (soul?) and think we need to go through cycles of emotion to truly understand things.

At this point, a disclaimer is probably necessary: I’ve only ever read a few of DFW’s short stories. To be completely honest, I find his prose rather pedantic and filled with a lot of post-modern navel-gazing. It is possible that I am being very unfair to him in my judgments, and for a variety of reasons. He is brilliant, obviously, and if I were to take the effort to read Infinite Jest or The Pale King, I’m sure I’d wrestle with it and get something out of it.

At any rate, Dreyfus and Kelly’s book was a welcome addition to my thoughts on any number of themes, and did a very good job of putting words to the thoughts I’d often had when studying various strains of existential philosophy: “this is all very lovely,  but something about this view of humanity just isn’t quite complete.” I can know throw their views into the cycle and see how they hold up under further scrutiny.

If the rest of the book proves as compelling as this chapter, I’ll have more on it, though I also promise I will have some less esoteric content on the way soon, too.