I’ll be taking the month of June off email and, for the most part, the Internet. FPR will continue publishing essays while I’m away–we have some substantive essays on tap–but my weekly Water Dipper posts will be on hiatus until sometime in July. I’ll be enjoying some good books while I’m away!
“The Meta-Positioning Habit of Mind.” L.M. Sacasas reflects on some features of our digitized discourse, particularly the tendency for us to deal with complex issues by focusing on what position or group we oppose rather than articulating and working toward particular goods: “It is the picture of being adrift in the middle of the ocean with no way to get our bearings. Under these circumstances the best we can ever do is navigate away from some imminent danger, but we can never purposefully aim at a destination. So we find ourselves adrift in the vast digital ocean, and we have no idea what we are doing there or what we should be doing. All we know is that we are caught up in wave after wave of the discourse and the best we can do is to make sure we steer clear of obvious perils and keep our seat on whatever raft we find ourselves in, which may be in shambles but, nonetheless, affords us the best chance of staying afloat.”
“How to Curb the Culture War.” Yuval Levin makes a sane case for refusing to allow our partisan culture wars to become totalizing: “Such compartmentalization is not an alternative to an integrated moral framework for our lives but an embodiment of such a framework. Properly conceived, it is a grace given to our limited selves from beyond ourselves—a reminder that we are not fully merged with the world and defined by our society’s categories, but have our own dignity and agency, shaped and provoked by distinct invitations and circumstances. And it is a way to moderate our partisan passions and to recognize the multifaceted complexity of other human beings. No one is simply a partisan. Everyone has a more layered array of identities. That’s why we can respect people and engage with them in those domains that are not set out for cultural contention but for cooperation.”
“Permanent Pandemic.” Justin E. H. Smith is tired of the regime:
When I say the regime, I do not mean the French government or the U.S. government or any particular government or organization. I mean the global order that has emerged over the past, say, fifteen years, for which COVID-19 served more as the great leap forward than as the revolution itself. The new regime is as much a technological regime as it is a pandemic regime. It has as much to do with apps and trackers, and governmental and corporate interests in controlling them, as it does with viruses and aerosols and nasal swabs. Fluids and microbes combined with touchscreens and lithium batteries to form a vast apparatus of control, which will almost certainly survive beyond the end date of any epidemiological rationale for the state of exception that began in early 2020.
The whole essay is quite perceptive. To give just one more example, Smith notes one of the odd ironies of this regime: “What has seemed unprecedented is the eagerness with which self-styled progressives have rushed to the support of the new regime, and have sought to marginalize dissenting voices as belonging to fringe conspiracy theorists and unscrupulous reactionaries. Meanwhile, those pockets of resistance—places where we find at least some inchoate commitment to the principle of popular will as a counterbalance to elite expertise, and where unease about technological overreach may be honestly expressed—are often also, as progressives have rightly but superciliously noted, hot spots of bonkers conspiracism.”
“Freedom of Inconvenience: Andy Crouch on the Dangers of Digital Life.” Jen Pollock Michel reviews Andy Crouch’s The Life We’re Looking For and argues that “in confronting the widely perceived crises of rising social anxiety and loneliness, we can’t simply change our technological behaviors. We need our desires rightly ordered. We must learn to want effortful goods. Like having dinner with friends—and doing dishes.”
“Discover the Charm of Wendell Berry’s Rural Tales.” The Economist has a brief and somewhat odd essay on Berry and his Port William fiction. Its rather banal conclusion gives a flavor of the whole piece: “These stories may be conservative fables about cherishing soil and rustic communities, but they offer profound advice for readers living through ecological disaster. Though few can return to agrarian basics, Mr Berry’s messages of building communities, being a good neighbour and resisting the destructive temptations of modern life are still valuable. Besides, his mission to find the ‘peace of wild things’ is easily accomplished by spending a few hours in Port William.”
“The Timeless Way of Christopher Alexander.” Matthew Schmitz praises the architectural vision of Christopher Alexander, who advocated for vernacular styles and “comfortable” buildings: “Alexander insisted that this timeless way of building was not an occult tradition known only to the members of an aesthetic elite. It reflected common intuitions and operated according to “a pattern language” that could be learned by all.” (Recommended by Bernie Franceschi.)
“Behind The Porchlight: The Local Hang-Ups On Being Hosts and Artists.” Abbey Sitterley writes about the joys of hosting and performing in house concerts: “Opening your home to strangers and friends alike is a vulnerable thing. But the togetherness it cultivates is sweet and true. New local connections were made and familiar ones strengthened.”
“What Progress Wants.” Paul Kingsnorth continues to publish essays that can only be described as radical. And very good: “Faced with this challenge, Del Noce insisted that ‘current political formulas are completely inadequate’. Neither left nor right were equipped to understand what was going on: both, instead, would typically retreat to their historic comfort zones, with the left blaming ‘fascists’ and the right blaming ‘communists’ for the ongoing disintegration. The real source of the disintegration, though, was not partisan: it was the Machine.”
“Reformation in the Church of Science.” The New Atlantis continues to publish essential essays probing our culture’s understanding of science and truth. In this piece, Andrea Saltelli and Daniel Sarewitz trace a long history of technological and institutional shifts in the way we establish and convey truth: “Fake news is not a perversion of the information society but a logical outgrowth of it, a symptom of the decades-long devolution of the traditional authority for governing knowledge and communicating information. That authority has long been held by a small number of institutions. When that kind of monopoly is no longer possible, truth itself must become contested.”
“The Last Battle, Revisited.” Michael Ward draws needed wisdom from the last book in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia: “Saturn, alongside all his pestilences and plagues, has that one good thing to bestow: on those who respond aright to his influence he confers an ability to see beyond the surface of things and penetrate the heart of reality with a wise, godly insight, undeflected by superficial appearances to the contrary.”
“What the Insect Crisis Means for Food, Farming—and Humanity.” Tilde Herrera interviews Oliver Milman about his new book The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires That Run the World: “In parts of the world, insects are in free fall—not gradual declines but absolute carnage.” (Recommended by Brian Miller.)
“Can Conservatism Ever Become Sensible Again?” Geoff Kabaservice interviews Joshua Tait about his work on the history of American conservatism: “Louis Hartz was essentially correct: the mid-century conservative intellectuals committed themselves to bourgeois liberalism. Unable to recognize it as such, they called it conservatism. Russell Kirk’s hope for an authentic conservative alternative to liberalism was stillborn.” (Recommended by Gil Harp.)
“Don’t Cancel the Classics, Broaden and Diversify Them.” Angel Adams Parham argues in the Wall Street Journal that classical education remains a helpful model: “Excellence and diversity, however, can coexist with an education in the classics. The classics should be elevated and broadened, diversified through context and accumulated knowledge. And they have much to teach us, with a proven record of lifting the performance of students, especially the disadvantaged.”