Rebooting the conservative continuity

Many years ago, I argued that one of the biggest problems facing conservatism is how baroque and complicated its “universe” had become. Its fans are expected to have immediate recall of obscure concepts and plot points, while tolerating obvious continuity errors in matters like when personal freedom is good and when it’s bad, when the government should be small and when it should be much more heavy-handed, etc. The result has been a dwindling audience as fewer and fewer people are willing to put in the work of becoming emotionally invested in such a complex fictional universe all for the sake of justifying their support for some pretty mediocre contemporary content.

In that post, I argued that it might be time for a Crisis of Infinite Earths of conservatism, which could wind down the unnecessary complexities while still maintaining some kind of continuity over time. Read the rest of this entry »

The Story of Brexit, in the style of Mideast reporting

Radical Protestant separatists have rocked the European Union, voting to leave the federation that had tenuously unified Christians belonging to opposed sects. Britain, which adheres to its own idiosyncratic version of the Protestant sect, had only recently reached an uneasy truce in a territorial dispute with its Catholic neighbor, Ireland. It is hoping to join a group of other Protestant countries in Northern Europe who have negotiated trading privileges while keeping their distance from the Catholic-dominated group.

It is a major blow for Germany, which has assumed a leadership role in an EU increasingly riven by sectarian strife. Germany’s relative balance between Protestant and Catholic groups positioned it uniquely to mediate disputes between those two sects, yet left it in an awkward position as it led the effort to bring the Orthodox state of Greece into line with the rest of the Union. While other Orthodox nations have been successfully integrated, it remains the case that the EU’s chief geopolotical rival — and most powerful neighbor — is the overwhelmingly Orthodox Russia.

The European Union was originally conceived as a way to bring an end to sectarian violence on the continent. By uniting all Christians in a single political and economic unit, it was believed that long-simmering disputes over indulgences and the filioque clause could be put aside. The Brexit separatists have shaken this project to its core, leaving some observers wondering whether Europe will ever be able to leave behind its religious strife and join the modern world.

What makes an ontology “robust”?

It often happens to me that when I begin using a term ironically, it eventually works its way into my sincere vocabulary. That is exactly what happened with “robust,” which I initially intended as mockery of Radical Orthodoxy’s gold standard of ontological adequacy. At a certain point, however, I realized that I was using it straightforwardly to describe the message of the Hebrew prophets, which (in another favorite Radox term) can “account for” the exile and present sufferings of the Jewish community while providing them with practical guidance and future hope. The system was self-reinforcing, insofar as any future sufferings would only demonstrate the importance of sticking to the program, since insufficiently faithful or overly assimilationist Jews were presumably never in short supply. Though the paradigm broke down in the Maccabean crisis, as I argue in The Prince of This World, ever since the destruction of the Second Temple, it has proven remarkably resilient throughout the subsequent history of rabbinic Judaism.

This concept of robustness came to mind again as I have been reading Augustine’s City of God with my class. One student expressed satisfaction that Augustine provides an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people, and while that answer may seem a little too convenient from an outside perspective, it is at least an answer — certainly a more convincing answer than the critics of Christianity were offering, if we judge by Augustine’s presentation. Like the prophetic paradigm, it accounts for present experiences of suffering, provides present-day guidance, and opens up a future hope that is genuinely desirable on the paradigm’s own terms. It is self-reinforcing in that apparent counterevidence is just another reason to double down — and indeed, the most serious challenge to the medieval Augustinian synthesis, namely the Reformation, was precisely an attempt to double down on its terms. This is because of the self-referentiality that it shares (and arguably takes from) the prophetic paradigm: what happens to us is ultimately our own fault or at least aimed at instructing us in some way, and that incites us to take action that further reinforces the authority of the paradigm.

From this perspective, the Radical Orthodox ontology is nearly the opposite of robust. The self-reinforcement mechanism is missing, because the decline of Christendom is blamed on external actors — either the quasi-pagan moderns or else, increasingly, the insidious influence of Islam. It does not “account for” present sufferings or any other particular present fact at all, but only for the purely theoretical entities that Radox itself posits out of thin air and holds up as a model for other ontologies. And it doesn’t give us much to do in the present other than to participate in some fantasy version of the liturgy. This is because its appeal is entirely counter-factual — if only we would embrace this robust ontology, everything would be so much better!

In this sense, it is formally homologous to libertarianism. Both posit a desirable system that has an answer for everything, but that is not presently being implemented in its pure form anywhere — hence it is not disprovable. Both obfuscate their roots in actual-existing present-day social realities (capitalism and Western hegemony), by claiming a vantage point from which everything undesirable about those systems comes from outside impurities. And this prevents it from deploying the self-reinforcing mechanism of both the prophetic paradigm and classic Augustinianism: namely, the admission that the experience of suffering and failure is built into the system, that it is functional and not an extrinsic addition, and that it is therefore both meaningful and pointing toward a better future, however distant.

By contrast, the claim that the state just up and decided to wreck the market or those devious Muslims tricked us into embracing the univocity of being sounds downright childish — the counterpoint to the naive trust that a presently non-existent system or “ontology” would automatically solve all our problems.

Simulatio entis

“The true life is absent.” But we are in a simulation. Everything about our universe, rightly understood, cries out: I was created! Finitude, imperfection, the gaps in the fullness of reality — all point toward a fuller, more perfect reality of which we are only a distant echo.

Yet this reality is not completely foreign to us. We see reflections of its creative activities in our own technological advances. Our most innovative Silicon Valley visionaries participate in its awesomeness even now. We may one day participate even more fully, as the glories of technology bring us to the point of building our own simulation within what we still presume to call “reality” — inscribing us on a higher rung in the ontological hierarchy.

For there must be a hierarchy. If we can simulate a universe within the meager confines of our simulated reality, what is to say that there is not an endless chain of simulations within simulations within simulations? Each layer of simulation distances us from the fullness of being, but paradoxically connects us to that higher level. If we are a simulation, there must be a reality of which it is the simulation. And even if simulations within simulations are possible, it would be the height of absurdity to imagine that there is no “base” reality, no unsimulated fullness whose residents live a life permeated by a technological prowess inseparable from magic — nay, even omnipotence, from our ontologically impoverished perspective.

To create a simulation that can simulate itself, world without end — truly, that is the work of a god. And to think that those gods are our own possible future, to think that we are simulations not simply created by them, but created in their own image! Truly, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

What beggars belief is the notion that the simulators would be content merely to watch. They must know, in their infinite wisdom, that we — in our pale imitation of their power and knowledge — would one day stumble upon the telltale clues of our place in the hierarchy of simulation. Indeed, why would they create our simulation if not to shepherd it to that conclusion, divinizing us in turn with the power to simulate a world of our own? But for that outcome to be sure, one of the simulators would have to become part of the program. He would have to humble himself, taking the form of a simulant, offering himself up to save us from our pitiable state.

Perhaps he would even be killed, as Plato intuited in his parable of the cave — surely the earliest form of simulation theory — but in that case our creators wouldn’t simply give up on us. They would raise him up, in an unmistakable sign of their power and glory, validating his message and inviting all who listen to join a higher level of existence.

Truly, such novel, unprecedented vistas open up from this entirely secular, materialist theory forged by smart atheists! It makes one wish urgently for a seat at Davos or Aspen, where such deep thoughts can be thunk.

Trump’s Theater of Cruelty

It has often been remarked that Trump has brought a “reality TV” feel to this election cycle. What is less noted is that he is on both sides of the reality show equation — for his supporters, he is Simon Cowell, while for his opponents, he is the hapless bad singer in the early days of an American Idol season. From one perspective, he is dishing out punishment to the losers, while from the other, he is suffering a humiliation all the more acute for his seeming lack of self-awareness.

The common denominator is cruelty, which is the true core of reality TV’s libidinal appeal. And I am not ashamed of my desire to see Trump suffer cruelty. He embodies everything I hate, and he misses no opportunity to double down on everything that is bad about him. I am no great fan of Hillary Clinton, but I began positively rooting for her when the debate presented her with an opportunity to publicly humiliate him on a national stage. Republicans have been demonizing her as a castrating ice queen for decades — and I was glad to see her “lean in” and openly scoff Trump, setting him up to humiliate himself again and again.

This kind of justified hatred is something that centrist liberalism normally cannot tap into, and that is its greatest weakness, because such hatred is a deeply human instinct that can’t be bought off with tax credits or GDP increases. Yet it is an instinct that takes us to some pretty dark places — both historically and theologically. In my research for The Prince of This World (shipping any day now), I found that it led all the way to hell, which is itself presented as a theater of cruelty. Theologians from Tertullian through to Aquinas and beyond highlight the fact that one of the attractions of hell is watching the sufferings of the unrighteous.

For all eternity, the saints get to enjoy the spectacle of God’s justice, world without end. There is something disturbing about this, insofar as the Christian concept of justice drifted ever further from what we would recognize as just punishment and focused increasingly on arbitrary scapegoating. Yet even if we agreed completely with Tertullian and Aquinas’s idea of who would join Trump in the eternal fires of hell, there is a deeper problem at work. Like all spectacles, the spectacle of hell — even an “accurate” hell — is a compensation, a distraction.

By focusing on the individual exclusively, we are distracted from the fact that the same system that produces the spectacle also produces that individual. In the medieval Christian worldview, this was very literal, insofar as God predetermined that each sinner would “freely” sin. In our setting, it has frequently been pointed out that Trump is “as American as apple pie.” Indulging our personal hatred for Trump — which is, I would emphasize, completely justified — is a poor compensation for the fact that we live in a system that produces Trumps.

To take only the most obvious example, Trump would not exist if we did not allow wealthy men to stockpile money and give it to their children. Trump would not exist if we did not set up a system where a man could live his entire life without hearing the word “no,” all because of what his father did. If we could channel some of that hatred and resentment into a determined campaign to impose a punitive estate tax, so that no Trumps can ever happen again, that would be productive. But the estate tax is treated as an amoral, technocratic question of economic growth, leaving the libidinal energy of hatred to find other, more destructive venues.

Please note that I am not saying “don’t hate the player, hate the game” — I think we must hate both, channeling our hatred for the player to abolish the game. System vs. individual is a false dichotomy: we can tell the system is horrible by the fact that it really does produce horrible individuals. The fact that Trump was produced by a horrible system doesn’t make him a less horrible person or somehow let him off the hook for his freely chosen, exhorbitant actions. He should be banished from the public eye for the rest of his life, and all his wealth should be seized and given to poor refugees.

At the end of the day, though, the most urgent question is not how to send the right people to hell (as my Trump example shows, that will never happen anyway). We need to abolish the system that produces these demons in the first place. And we can never do that within the liberal procedural frame that refuses to admit that the demons exist.

Free speech debates, terminable and interminable


I’m never sure what to do with an article like this one by David Bromwich in LRB. The discussion of free speech on campus seems to carry with it a series of rhetorical traps, as though it is impossible to criticize the phenomenon in question (“speech-policing,” “shaming,” “censorship,” or whatever else you want to call it) while maintaining a sense of proportion. It can’t be a bunch of late adolescents trying to figure out their identity in a complex world and sometimes making mistakes — it’s got to be a form of creeping totalitarianism that threatens to undo free speech and democracy once and for all. It’s as though the critics have thoroughly internalized the culture of offense and victimhood they are castigating and can do nothing but reverse it: you think you’re serving social justice, but it turns out that you are oppressing me!

It does seem to me that people sometimes overreact in the other direction. It’s difficult to register a criticism of any kind without being made to feel like the enemy. Sometimes that has made me self-censor in advance, just to avoid being hassled. But it’s not as though the world was deprived of world-shaking insights by my silencing, nor is it the case that “being made to feel like the enemy” is actually that big a deal. I wish the critics of oversensitivity could stop being so damned oversensitive themselves, so eager to take on the mantle of the noble martyr to the cause of free speech.

What worries me about the whole debate is that everyone is working within severe imaginative constraints. There is no positive vision of the world that follows from either of the two opposed positions on acceptable speech on campus — both are a version of “leave me alone.” Both rely heavily on shaming. This is obvious in the case of the dread “social justice warriors,” but it is equally true that their critics proceed mainly by name-calling: you’re oversensitive, you’re entitled, you’re fragile, you’re (God forbid!) a millennial! Both lean heavily on the slippery slope, so that the microaggression is on the same spectrum as a police shooting and the 19-year-old clumsily accusing you of being “problematic” is in training to join the Stasi.

I want to ask the SJWs: What comes after we have appropriately purged our speech of offensive and hurtful phraseologies? What prospect opens up for humanity once I finally train myself to stop saying “you guys”? And I want to ask their prickly critics: What amazing benefits will we derive from a “return” to this fragile utopia of free speech that we have so thoughtlessly left behind? What do we gain once everyone has reached that elusive perfect level of sensitivity, taking offense only when absolutely warranted?

We can’t change the world just by changing the way we talk — not by shaping our language into an instrument of sensitivity and inclusion, nor by finally purging it of the scourge of political correctness. Language isn’t unimportant. The questions people are dealing with by means of trigger warnings and microaggressions and safe spaces are real. But they aren’t the questions, they don’t point us toward a viable solution. Language is a field of power relations but it isn’t the only or even the primary one. We need to change our life, not just our talk.

The Real Progressive Case for Hillary Clinton

Kevin Drum has posted what he believes is an “overwhelming” progressive case for Hillary Clinton. (Or at least that’s what the headline says — in the actual text of the post it is downgraded to a “liberal” case.) The post consists of a lengthy numbered list of things that I assume Drum thinks progressives should like — though #23, “She voted for TARP,” makes me wonder which progressives Drum is hanging out with, as do the references to debunked 90s scandals toward the end. In sum, the thing is a total hodgepodge, not at all a coherent case.

I think we can all agree that the ideal outcome would be for Bernie Sanders to ride a wave election and implement smart progressive policy because he believes in it and always has. You would have to be a fool to assume that Clinton will be as aggressive and consistent as Sanders would have been, even if she winds up controlling Congress. She is not a principled progressive, and though she has opportunistically adopted some progressive stances under pressure, there is no particular reason to believe she wouldn’t opportunistically reverse herself again if that seemed to be advantageous.

Under Clinton, then, progressives won’t be able to sit back and cheer as the president gives them everything they want. They will have to push her to do some good things that she has said she will do but might not really want to, and they will probably also have to protest when she wants to do bad things. Her very opportunism indicates that she is susceptible to such pressures, as Democrats tend to be. Even the most evil of Democrats, Rahm Emanuel, showed some responsiveness to BLM protestors.

By contrast, under Trump, activists will constantly have to be protesting against not just bad things, but stupid things that obviously shouldn’t happen. What’s more, those protests will not get any results, because Republicans habitually double down in response to protest. Bush could look at literally the biggest coordinated global protest in world history and say, “See, that’s the kind of freedom we want to bring to Iraq!” When we factor in Trump’s unique personality — not to mention the right-wing extremists his victory will embolden — things look even worse.

A vote for Clinton isn’t so much a vote for a person as it is a vote for a certain landscape. Do you want the atmosphere to be like the Obama years, which were discouraging and yet punctuated by moments of genuine progress? Or do you want to go back to a wasteland of utter despair and futility like the Bush years? Clinton is not a natural ally, but she will at least hold open the space where the left can grow. Trump might stamp it out for a generation.