I spent yesterday wading through a pile of annotated bibliographies from my freshpeeps, and now I’m relaxing downstairs. A strong front and storms are rolling in from the west, and Gradeapalooza begins on Thursday. Clearly some random observations are in order.
I’ve read a couple of remarkable essays online in the last couple of days, and recommend both to your attention. The first (with a tip of the Mondo Mortarboard to Kathy Phillips Nanney via the Book of Faces) ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Providence College English prof Eric Bennett suggests something that I’ve thought for quite some time — that the politicization of our discipline has done harm both to that discipline and our politics. By exchanging our birthright for pots of message, we have contributed to the fragmentation of our culture, and the accompanying descent onto tribalism that identity politics produces:
For going on 50 years, professors in the humanities have striven to play a political role in the American project. Almost without exception, this has involved attacking the establishment. As harmful as institutionalized power can be, as imperfect as even the most just foundations inevitably appear, they are, as it turns out, all we’ve got. Never has a citizen been so grateful for institutions — for functioning courts, for a professionalized FBI, for a factually painstaking CBO or GAO — as since November 2016.
Essentially, the humanities have been in such a frenzy to destroy Chesterton’s fence that they didn’t consider what that fence may have restrained. Bennett’s conclusion:
For the republic to survive, higher education must emphasize similarity as well as difference, continuity as well as rupture, collective sustenance as well as individualistic emancipation, you as well as me. It must do this without tipping into the old, real, omnipresent dangers of prejudice and bigotry. Liberal academics used to aim to thread that needle. They have long since given up but must try again. The central values of liberal arts education as presently conceived — creativity and critical thinking, originality and individuality — are all sail and no ballast. They might be the qualities of a good tech-sector job applicant or reality-show contestant, but we’re in mortal need of good citizens.
The other essay is adapted from Jonah Goldberg’s forthcoming book, The Suicide of the West. He begins by pointing out how new our world of relative prosperity is, and how it has been created almost by accident, in many cases as a result of unforeseen consequences. But he also notes that it is an artificial development, a departure from a Hobbesian State of Nature:
Nearly all of our laws and customs, from marriage and prohibition of murder to the concept of merit, restrain human nature. For instance, nepotism and favoritism are natural. People prefer family and friends in every society that has ever existed. Westerners often consider developing countries such as Afghanistan corrupt because their political systems proceed from tribal reciprocity. But Afghans and others argue that their ways are ancient and natural. And they’re right. Our system of merit, contracts, blind bidding, etc. is what’s unnatural.
The story of Western civilization, and really civilization itself, is the story of productively sublimating human nature. The Catholic Church had to establish elaborate rules against familial favoritism. We get the word “nepotism” from the Italian nepotismo, which referred to popes’ and bishops’ installing “nephews” (their children and other relatives) in powerful positions throughout the Church. The Chinese and the Turks castrated bureaucrats and slave soldiers, vainly hoping to constrain human nature.
Such tactics worked, temporarily. But groups’ natural tendency to assert their self-interest made such techniques untenable. That is because we’re wired with a “coalition instinct,” an evolutionary adaptation from millennia in which our species sought safety in the tribe against other tribes (as pioneering evolutionary psychologist John Tooby has written). This coalition instinct forms the heart of what people mean by the modern American rise of “tribalism.” Every kind of identity politics — from racial solidarity to ethno-nationalism to ancient notions of hereditary nobility — feeds off this instinct. According to Yale’s Paul Bloom, “neither race nor language is necessary to sort people into coalitions. . . . It takes very little to make a coalition that really matters: to establish group loyalty, to pit people against one another.”
Tribalism explains why liberals decry the anti-Semitism of David Duke or the alt-right but meekly excuse Louis Farrakhan, why Evangelicals excused Roy Moore while pushing Al Franken from the Senate.
Tribalism is one of those bits of human nature that he decries. The other is envy, in its manifestation as ingratitude for what is good because it isn’t perfect:
We teach children that the moral of the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg is the danger of greed. But the real moral of the story is ingratitude. A farmer finds an animal, which promises to make him richer than he ever imagined. But rather than nurture and protect this miracle, he resents it for not doing more. In one version, the farmer demands two golden eggs per day. When the goose politely demurs, he kills it out of a sense of entitlement — the opposite of gratitude.
The Miracle [the term Goldberg borrows from economist Dierdre McCloskey for the rise and benefits of Western civilization] is our goose. And rather than be grateful for it, our schools, our culture, and many of our politicians say we should resent it for not doing more. Conservatism is a form of gratitude, because we conserve only what we are grateful for. Our society is talking itself out of gratitude for the Miracle and teaching our children resentment. Our culture affirms our feelings as the most authentic sources of truth when they are merely the expressions of instincts, and considers the Miracle a code word for white privilege, greed, and oppression.
This is corruption. And it is a choice. Collectively, we are embracing entitlement over gratitude. That is suicidal.
I’m really looking forward to the book.
A friend of mine has asked me if I might be interested in performing in a local theatrical production that he’s directing this summer. I told him — and I tell you — that I don’t know, but that I’ll think about it. I haven’t done theater since my junior year of high school, and I don’t think I was particularly good at it back then (as the reviewers/judges of the time cheerfully attested.
On the other hand, I’ve said in the past that I think community theater is important, in that it’s one of the threads that helps tie the members of that community together, one of the “little platoons” that make up society. And I’ve certainly never had a problem with performing in public, whether it’s behind a drum kit or in front of the audience at a reading (or a classroom, for that matter.) Still, the idea scares me a bit. We shall see.
And speaking of readings, I’d like to remind you that I’ll be reading in Durham, NC, on 3 May as part of the Noir @ the Bar series.
I’d love to see you there!
And for today’s musical treat, here’s one from the intersection of prog rock and glam. I’ve never been as heavily into Roxy Music as I’ve suspected I ought to be, but every once in a while, they hit me just right. Maybe it’s that the descending main progression reminds me both of the 60’s chestnut “Fortune Teller” and Stan Ridgway’s noir-wave “Drive She Said”, or maybe it’s the insane skronk of Brian Eno’s synth work, but I dig this, and hope you will as well. This is a live performance of “Editions of You,” from German TV in 1973.
(And where does one get a pickle suit like the one saxman Andy Mackay is wearing?) See you soon!