Saturday, March 18, 2017

revisiting the "Deadlock of American civic religions" ide, Americans de-churching from the institutional church doesn't mean for a moment they'll be rejecting the red or blue state civic religions

True diversity means true disagreement. Political correctness exists at public institutions, but it doesn’t dominate them. A friend of mine who went to Columbia and Yale now teaches at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. “When you meet someone at Hunter,” she told me, “you can’t assume they see the world the same way you do.” That’s about as pithy an expression of the problem at selective private colleges as I can imagine. When you meet someone at Columbia or Yale or Scripps or Whitman or any of scores of other institutions, you absolutely can assume they see the world the same way you do. And anyone who threatens to disrupt that cozy situation must be disinvited, reeducated, or silenced. It’s no surprise that the large majority of high-profile PC absurdities take place at elite private schools like Emory or Oberlin or Northwestern.

That same safe assumption, about the points of view of everyone around you, does not pervade selective private campuses alone, of course. It is equally the case among the liberal elite: at the Manhattan dinner party, the Silicon Valley startup, the Seattle coffee shop, the Brookline PTA. (That it is also the case in other realms of society, non-liberal and/or non-elite, is true. It is also no excuse, especially not for people who consider themselves so enlightened.) This is not an accident. Selective private colleges are the training grounds of the liberal elite, and the training in question involves not only formal education for professional success, but also initiation into the folkways of the tribe.

Which means that fancy private colleges have a mission public institutions don’t. People arrive at public schools from a wide range of social locations, and they return to a range that is nearly as wide. The institutional mission is to get them through and into the job market, not to turn them into any particular kind of person. But selective private colleges (which also tend to be a lot smaller than public schools) are in the business of creating a community and, beyond that, a class. “However much diversity Yale’s freshman classes may have,” as one of my students once put it, “its senior classes have far less.”

And this, I believe, is one of the sources of the new revolt among students of color at elite private colleges and universities. The expectation at those institutions has always been that the newcomers whom they deign to admit to the ranks of the blessed, be they Jews in the 1950s or African Americans today, will assimilate to the ways of the blessed. That they will become, as people say, “more white.” That bargain, as uncomfortable as it has always been, was more readily accepted in the past. For various reasons, it seems that it no longer is. Students of color are telling the whites who surround them, No, we aren’t like you, and what’s more, we don’t want to be like you. As very different as their outlook is from that of the white working class, their rejection of the liberal elite is not entirely dissimilar.

Over at Slate there's a piece called "There's Nothing Wrong with Stamping Out Bigoted Speech."

Trumpism’s present control of that machinery, as even the harshest critics of political correctness on campus must concede, offers more than a conjectural threat to liberalism’s animating principles, including the belief in the equality of all people before the law and in the eyes of others. But those principles, in truth, have always been threatened. Liberalism comes equipped with a very large self-destruct button. Under liberalism in its purest form, you are permitted to promote bigotry, to argue that certain kinds of people—black people, gay people, Muslims, Jews, women—should be seen as inferior or dangerous. You are free, even, to advocate for their mistreatment and oppression. This is part of the right to free speech and expression. This is also the open back door that Trump walked through, with the forces of a resurgent white nationalism close behind.

The notion that speech could be sensibly regulated was the central idea of one of the conservative movement’s ur-texts. God and Man at Yale, authored by the then 25-year-old William F. Buckley Jr., is little more than an extended plea for speech restrictions on campus. “Question: What is the 1) ethical, 2) philosophical, or 3) epistemological argument for requiring continued tolerance of ideas whose discrediting it is the purpose of education to effect,” Buckley asked. “What ethical code (in the Bible? in Plato? Kant? Hume?) requires ‘honest respect’ for any divergent conviction?”

These are sound questions, as much as a campus liberal today might find fault with the targets of his ire. Yale for Buckley was, among other things, insufficiently religious. Members of the faculty, he alleged, had been using “pernicious techniques to undermine the tenets of Christianity.” These “pernicious techniques” included the deployment of one-liners like, “All I can tell about heaven is that it must be awfully crowded there!” This is perhaps one of the earliest documented instances of students being triggered by a professor.


That is an interesting irony, as stated ... although maybe it's just a little too pat an observation for the internet. :) 

I can't help being ever so slightly pedantic at this point, because liberalism may be distinct from what is sometimes called the libertarian theory of the press.  To say that liberalism inherently invited Trump, so to speak, to emerge may not be a premise that all liberals agree with, or even all conservatives.  If we're a bit more careful and propose that one particular aspect of the liberal tradition, the libertarian view of the press, made Trump's candidacy in the age of mass media more viable than the mainstream press imagined was possible that statement's much easier to agree with.  Because for a liberal to propose that liberalism led to Trump might almost seem like an argument against liberalism, which just seems impossible to take as what's really been proposed by an author at Slate.

It might be apt to say that Buckley was concerned that a particular range of religious beliefs seemed unwelcome at Yale.  Given that we "probably" know Buckley has been associated with political conservativism we might venture to propose that Buckley's religion was not merely a variant of Catholicism but perhaps also a variant of civic religion.  The intellectual truce that may have been brokered ... or the temporary intellectual ceasefire that happened in the wake of the Thirty Years War may never have entirely ended. 

It might seem like an epiphany to Andrew Sullivan that the collegiate scene has a kind of civic religion that he calls "intersectionality".  It's not much of a surprise to me, but then I've spent the better part of a decade documenting the life and death of an explicitly religious movement here in the Puget Sound area.  I doubt intersectionality is a religion of any kind but it "might" be a relatively observable manifestation of a kind of civic religion.  For those unfamiliar with progressive/left criticisms of libertarian views it's possible to get condemned as a champion of neoliberalism and economic inequality in spite of being for marriage equality and any number of blue state causes that religiously conservative people oppose. 

If Sullivan were to propose a problem with intersectionality it shouldn't be that it's a kind of religion, it should be something more like this--intersectionality may be a concession that at this point it's not enough to simply self-identify as someone in an oppressed or repressed demographic simply on the basis of a single category.  That may have been more easily done in the past when implicit and explicit discrimination or harassment on the basis of sexuality or skin color was considered more socially acceptable to demonstrate in public.  It no doubt still happens.  Reading reports of as pike in hate crimes or hate speech in Oregon was a glum reminder that people who don't know the white supremacist history of the founding of the state need a primer.  The Pacific Northwest has plenty of racism in it in spite of the true blue electoral patterns.  If Sullivan wanted to make a case that there's a problem with intersetionality he could have proposed that the kinds of college students who embrace intersectionality may not fully understand that this ideological move permits them a way to differentiate themselves from a mainstream collegiate culture. 

William Deresiewicz, quoted earlier, wrote:  "... The expectation at those institutions has always been that the newcomers whom they deign to admit to the ranks of the blessed, be they Jews in the 1950s or African Americans today, will assimilate to the ways of the blessed. That they will become, as people say, “more white.” That bargain, as uncomfortable as it has always been, was more readily accepted in the past. For various reasons, it seems that it no longer is. Students of color are telling the whites who surround them, No, we aren’t like you, and what’s more, we don’t want to be like you. As very different as their outlook is from that of the white working class, their rejection of the liberal elite is not entirely dissimilar. ..."

But as I've been musing over the last year or so, what this can also serve to do is to exonerate college students from regarding themselves as dormant or latent participants in the ruling castes of the West. 

Intersectionality could be the kind of manifestation of a faux-progressive civic religion in which a woman of color like Beyoncé can be "below" a white married man who works in a call center for a giant corporation and has family roots in a genteel city somewhere.  Even if at the moment intersectionality may be an attempt to represent the ways that people can be outside the establishment now if such a thought-form persists in academia it could be mutated into a new set of criteria for membership in the elite.  It's not as though elites in the past had any real trouble assimilating diversity into the elite systems.  Orientalism was a thing in 19th century music and early2 0th century music, for instance.  The kinds of college students who can talk about intersectionality and privilege have the privilege of being able to do so.  If someone turned ou tto be the disabled child of a mixed race marriage who tends toward moderately conservative Christian views because Christianity was a common thread across a couple of family lines the trouble with intersectionality as the left and right seem to be seeing it is that the Christian part would be a knock against the disabled mixed race kid part. 

The thing I've been wondering about with these civic religions is that the red state and blue state civic religions are not necessarily Christianity in any orthodox or historic form.  There's no shortage of people who vote red and blue and self-identify as Christian who will insist otherwise but there's a long-form piece by Peter Beinart at The Atlantic lately on what the increasingly unchurched American populace may be up to these days.

... Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

When pundits describe the Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters. But religious attendance is down among Republicans, too. According to data assembled for me by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990. This shift helped Trump win the GOP nomination. During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” A Pew Research Center poll last March found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not.

One of Beinart's more in-passing comments is that within what's getting known as the alt-right there's more signs of secularism or even revived paganism.  This is something I've sometimes come across when I've tried to get some reading in on what's described as the alt right.  There are those who regard preserving the roots of, say, English society as not only needing to embrace traditional blood and soil stuff but to do so in ways that embrace the pre-Christian English culture, to try to recover even past millennia of nominal or sincere Christian piety the vestiges of a more purely pagan English past.  As noted before at this blog the trouble with identity politics is that people of color can walk this path whether the color they are labeled as is black, brown, red or white.  That's kind of a problem in as much as if one form of essentialist ethnic/racial narrative is a kind of hate speech why aren't the others?  They could ALL be inherently racialist and racist at their core, after all.  Liberalism in some key respects is parasitically dependent on a Judeo-Christian ethos and praxis.  The risk of a fully secularized discourse is that the respective mythologies of the ethnic groups who can't see eye to eye won't have any mediating shared narrative or history.  If science itself can be viewed as in the thrall of whatever companies are willing to pay for whatever results they want (let's not forget that the crises in the social sciences haven't exactly gone away)

The Civil Rights movement, as Beinart's article noted, was able to rely on a shared Christian understanding of the human condition. 


Black Lives Matter activists sometimes accuse the black Church of sexism, homophobia, and complacency in the face of racial injustice. For instance, Patrisse Cullors, one of the movement’s founders, grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness but says she became alienated by the fact that the elders were “all men.” In a move that faintly echoes the way some in the alt-right have traded Christianity for religious traditions rooted in pagan Europe, Cullors has embraced the Nigerian religion of Ifa. To be sure, her motivations are diametrically opposed to the alt-right’s. Cullors wants a spiritual foundation on which to challenge white, male supremacy; the pagans of the alt-right are looking for a spiritual basis on which to fortify it. But both are seeking religions rooted in racial ancestry and disengaging from Christianity—which, although profoundly implicated in America’s apartheid history, has provided some common vocabulary across the color line. [emphasis added]

How effective is identifying Christianity with white male patriarchal power going to be in two generations if the alt right continues to have an ascendancy through which it also embraces an explicitly neo-pagan or anti-Christian civic religion?  It's easy to scapegoat white evangelicals for having voted for Trump as if gerrymandering and other political moves made by the GOP didn't play a cumulative role in Trump gaining the Oval Office.  The trouble with the scapegoating could be, besides the simple issue of the scapegoating itself, that it may turn out that the kinds of people who decided to back Trump may not be as evangelical as sometimes advertised.  Lest this seem like a case of no true Scotsman, in the somewhat unusual case of coming across Trump voters in the Puget Sound they have cropped up in what, per Beinart's article, could be desdribed as dechurched or nominally evangelical types. 

One of Jesus' parables was about the Good Samaritan and provided a sharp teaching on how you don't get to decide who your neighbor isn't.  It's possible to be formally diametrically opposed to the alt right while embracing a religious path that could be exemplified by some of the alt right, that salvation is for those who have the same skin color you do. 

More from Beinart's piece:

Black Lives Matter activists may be justified in spurning an insufficiently militant Church. But when you combine their post-Christian perspective with the post-Christian perspective growing inside the GOP, it’s easy to imagine American politics becoming more and more vicious.

In his book Twilight of the Elites, the MSNBC host Chris Hayes divides American politics between “institutionalists,” who believe in preserving and adapting the political and economic system, and “insurrectionists,” who believe it’s rotten to the core. The 2016 election represents an extraordinary shift in power from the former to the latter. The loss of manufacturing jobs has made Americans more insurrectionist. So have the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and a black president’s inability to stop the police from killing unarmed African Americans. And so has disengagement from organized religion.

Maybe it’s the values of hierarchy, authority, and tradition that churches instill. Maybe religion builds habits and networks that help people better weather national traumas, and thus retain their faith that the system works. For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict. It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum. [emphasis added]

Of course it will be even more convulsive and zero-sum.  If there is no resurrection of the dead and this material life is all we will ever know then the more people realize what a zero-sum game is at stake in the human condition the more those who have will have to justify why they deserve it (and most likely do so in the West on the basis of liberal education as credentialing) and the more those who don't have will find it impossible to accept the prestige system as it is.   When this pie is all there is it becomes all the more pressing why your slice of the pie is as big or as small as it is and whether or not, so far as you can tell, you've been given a piece of the pie at all.  Why wouldn't things get more convulsive and zero-sum if we all accept as given that nobody exists on purpose, that  everybody's going to die, and that there's no grander over-arching purpose to what we call life than whatever we manage to get ahold of while we live it? 

links for the weekend: The Atlantic muses on how American innovation might be complacency; Gopnik at the New Yorker briefly pretends liberalism might be on the wrong side of history; thoughts within the left on the gulf between the feminism off the 99 and the 1

Americans have fallen in love with the idea of their entrepreneurial spirit. Silicon Valley seems to have replaced New York City as the country’s metropolitan mascot of dynamism. Innovation is the unofficial buzzword of corporate America, and news organizations heap praise on the zillionaire startup heroes of the Millennial generation.
But this is a mirage, according to the economist and popular writer Tyler Cowen, whose new book is The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. In fact, the nation's dynamism is in the dumps. Americans move less than they used to. They start fewer companies. Caught in the hypnotic undertow of TV and video games, they are less likely to go outside. Even the federal government itself has transformed from an investment vehicle, which once spent a large share of its money on infrastructure and research, to an insurance conglomerate, which spends more than half its money on health care and Social Security. A nation of risk-takers has become a nation of risk-mitigation experts.
The sign of a good book is that it helps readers see the world through a useful lens. Cowen’s book is a full of “huh, I hadn’t thought about it like that” moments, even on topics that I’ve spent years thinking about. For example, in the last few years, many people, like myself, have argued that the American Dream is dying in America, while it seems to be flourishing more in Canada and northern Europe. But Cowen argues persuasively that many international comparisons fail to account for the fact that lots of people are achieving the American Dream—they just weren’t born in America. “When there is mobility in the American labor market, it comes disproportionately from Mexicans and Mexican Americans,” he writes. “Denmark hasn’t elevated nearly as many immigrants, in either absolute or percentage terms, as America.” In other words, America didn’t completely lose the dream. Rather, the only dreamers left are immigrants.

in the realm of effective clickbait, Washington Post notes a NY assemblymen has proposed a bill that could create an American "right to be forgotten" on internet search engines.

Seeing as one of the unique aspects of our freedom of speech culture, in legal terms, that makes us different from European legal precedents is that we don't have a "right to be forgotten" it'd be nice to keep that element.  Alastair Roberts wrote a bit about the problems of viewing freedom of speech entirely in negative terms earlier so I don't feel like linking back to that just now, but regulars of this blog probably already knowI think the "right to be forgotten" precedent in European culture is not something the United States press and blogging culture needs.  I spent some time at a church where a guy used to preach regularly about the importance of legacy.  Part of the importance of legacy is not being forgotten so by extension no one who cares about legacy should WANT to be forgotten. :)

Also in a clickbait realm (it's all clickbait but not all clickbait is of the same flavor) Adam Gopnik has
"Is Liberalism on the Wrong Side of History?"  Don't think liberalism as "blue state" but as the Western tradition of the last few centuries.
...As in painting and drawing, manual dexterity counted for as much as deep thoughts—more, in truth, for everyone had the deep thoughts, and it took dexterity to make telescopes that really worked. Mokyr knows Asian history, and shows, in a truly humbling display of erudition, that in China the minds evolved but not the makers. The Chinese enlightenment happened, but it was strictly a thinker’s enlightenment, where Mandarins never talked much to the manufacturers. In this account, Voltaire and Rousseau are mere vapor, rising from a steam engine as it races forward. It was the perpetual conversation between technicians and thinkers that made the Enlightenment advance. TED talks are a licensed subject for satire, but in Mokyr’s view TED talks are, in effect, what separate modernity from antiquity and the West from the East. Guys who think big thoughts talking to guys who make cool machines—that’s where the leap happens.

The history that Mokyr details can be seen as a story of gradually decreased metaphysical illusion, with ineffable spirit being driven, by turns, out of the cosmos, the biological tree, and the human mind. In the final reduction, the idea of the “human” itself may vanish into algorithms and programs. The coolest machine of all thinks its big thoughts for itself.
This is the view of Yuval Noah Harari, a lecturer at the Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, and the author of “Sapiens,” a bracingly unsentimental history of humankind, which was praised by everyone from Jared Diamond to President Obama. “Homo Deus” extends Harari’s argument about man’s fate far into the future. The first fifty or so pages go by smoothly, with a confident, convincing account of the transformations that have made the world less treacherous than ever before. He reprises, in rosy if not Pinkerian hues, the long peace and our advance toward an era of declining violence; we moved from an age where divine authority sponsored our institutions and values to a human-centered age of liberal individualism, where values were self-generated. Then he announces his bald thesis: that “once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end, and a completely new process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend.”

A reader can’t help noting that anti-liberal polemics, today as in the lurid polemical pasts that Mishra revisits, always have more force and gusto than liberalism’s defenses have ever had. Best-sellers tend to have big pictures, secret histories, charismatic characters, guilty parties, plots discovered, occult secrets unlocked. Voltaire’s done it! The Singularity is upon us! The World is flat! Since scientific liberalism of the kind Mokyr details believes that history doesn’t have a preordained plot, and that the individual case, not the enveloping essence, is the only quantum that history provides, it is hard for it to dramatize itself in quite this way. The middle way is not the way of melodrama. (That’s why long novels are the classic liberal medium, and why the best one is called “Middlemarch.”)
Beneath all the anti-liberal rhetoric is an unquestioned insistence: that the way in which our societies seem to have gone wrong is evidence of a fatal flaw somewhere in the systems we’ve inherited. This is so quickly agreed on and so widely accepted that it seems perverse to dispute it. But do causes and effects work quite so neatly, or do we search for a cause because the effect is upon us? We can make a false idol of causality. Looking at the rise of Trump, the fall of Europe, one sees a handful of contingencies that, arriving in a slightly different way, would have broken a very different pane.

So if we pivot from The New Yorker to The New Republic we get a proposal that if there's a problem in liberalism it's a problem that can be described in terms of privilege.

It was only in 2016 that politics went full privilege turn. The Democratic contest was all about “privilege,” with Bernie Sanders’s and Hillary Clinton’s supporters incessantly accusing the other side of supporting their candidate because of their (that is, the supporters’) unearned advantages. Privilege accusation, however, is by no means limited to intra-left battles. Conservatives regularly accuse liberals of unchecked privilege, and they have been doing so for years. The old “limousine liberal” cliché became the ideological underpinning of intellectual conservatism. In 2010, political scientist (and controversial The Bell Curve coauthor) Charles Murray wrote in The Washington Post that “the New Elite spend school with people who are mostly just like them—which might not be so bad, except that so many of them have been ensconced in affluent suburbs from birth and have never been outside the bubble of privilege.” This insight led him, two years later, to produce a “bubble” quiz, which if anything anticipated the viral privilege-checklist phenomenon. It asked (and asks; a reissue appeared in 2016) well-educated white liberals to admit they had no idea what NASCAR was, and that they thus were too out of touch to know what’s good for the country.  ...

A theme that could be extrapolated from this is that what passes for feminism in the contemporary American age may not be feminism for all women but a feminism for the one percent, to wit, the Clintons and Beyonces of the world.


As far as [Ariel] Levy is concerned, the fruits feminism owed her were a vibrant career, a marriage, and the ability to bear a child. The fact that one week she thought she had these things but the next week, she didn’t, is the book’s central action, the reality treated as both exemplary and instructive for readers who apparently would otherwise not believe that “we can’t have it all.” “It’s all so over-the-top,” she writes, referring to her divorce, the sale of her house, and the end of her pregnancy. “Am I in an Italian opera? A Greek tragedy?” While surely she suffered, nothing about the vehicles of that suffering is rare or unexpected. Millions of Americans have divorced; millions more than once. As many as ten million Americans lost their homes in the recession alone, and it’s estimated that up to a quarter of all pregnancies result in miscarriage. People in Greek tragedies kill their children, accidentally marry their mothers, and commit suicide; they don’t amicably separate from their partners before flying to South Africa on a self-devised writing assignment for their high-paying job.

In a phrase, Levy is a member of one of the ruling castes, to use the useful old left/Marxist way of putting things.  The debates about what privilege is and who has it could be a lot of smoke or a lot of heat without light, but it could also highlight that in educational terms the sorts of people most likely to recognize privilege may be those who have ideological incentives to exonerate themselves of having the privilege they have. 

I've been writing off and on about how the old coalitions on the Left and the Right have crumbled in the last thirty years.  It can be too easy for those ensconced within either the bubble of the left or the bubble of the right to presume that the other team has a unified front, neither side seems to have a unified coalition any more.  For want of a better way to describe things, being unified out of spite for whatever you think the other team stands for is not the same thing as sharing values in common.  D. G. Hart had a little book about how the coalition on the right that Reagan held together briefly, so to speak, crumbled in the wake of the Cold War's end.  A comparable alliance on the left seems to have, at length, also crumbled.  Part of what that means is that the feminism that holds Clinton or Beyoncé as emblems of girl power or the sisterhood may discover that even from within the left, to say nothing of the right, women may come to regard the basking in the power and privilege of class will not suffice. 

I'm not particularly liberal/left in my own tendencies, as regular readers will have worked out, but it's been fascinating to read across the political spectrum and get the impression that if a Trump appealed to angry white reactionaries on one side that Sanders could appeal to angry white radicals (and others) on the other.  I do try to read across the span between Jacobin and The Weekly Standard as I can. That the DNC didn't let Sanders get the nomination by dint of late arrival makes sense at one level, but at another level the DNC's refusal to let a populist agitator hijack the game may signal that the DNC has been managed by a ruling elite that doesn't want a populist agitator to have influence.  In other words, it's not a false equivalence to suggest that the DNC liberal/left may ultimately represent entrenched power preserving its own collective interests over against the public good within the blue machine as has been said of the red machine. It was easy last year for people within the blue scene to snort that the Republicans were stuck with Trump back when it seemed certain Trump couldn't possibly win, back when the assumption seemed to be that there was no way Trump was going to win the Electoral College system.  And now who is stuck with Trump?

There may be those who regard the election of Trump as an apocalyptic event.  There's two ways of understanding apocalyptic among many.  Much of the time in American popular imagination, perhaps due to some strange mixture of dispensationalist/futurist thought or residual postmillennialism or something else, presents us with the apocalyptic as the end of all things.  The world as we know it comes to an end when Skynet becomes self aware.  Authors at local weeklies can talk about how in Trump's America it no longer feels safe to be a woman even though just ten months ago it may not have been any more safe to be a woman in the Seattle area than it has been since.  But the apocalyptic imagination proposes that an era has changed, and often in popular imagination that era change is for the worse. 

But the apocalyptic genre does not only ever deal with what Christians call eschatological topics, the things of the end.  Apocalyptic can also be a kind of theological and political idiom that reveals the true nature of what things are.  Cal P mentioned this over at a blog post earlier and it seems useful to mention now, the apocalyptic idiom having both an eschatological and a revelatory component that we should keep distinct may help us in an era of Trump.  It's obviously not "the end" here, since people can read stuff on the internet.  But at another level Trump may constitute an apocalyptic moment revealing to blue state America what the real nature of the political order has always been.  But it seems that to go by debates and differences within the liberal/left scene there's room for debate as to whether the liberal/left has recognized its own role in this apocalyptic transition. 

TO put it dryly, I've become jaded about the apocalyptic panic of red and blue partisans in the last twenty years.  Obama did not replace the dollar with the amero.  Christians did not get sent to FEMA camps.  Conversely, George Bush 2 did not suspend the Constitution, declare martial law, appoint himself president for life and set  out to invade Iran. 

Hollywood may have sold us and itself a magical vision of what passes for journalism and truth-telling.  During the years I was documenting the history of Mars Hill and tracking things it could seem as though there were people wanting a silver bullet, a single incontrovertible revelation of this or that that, once revealed, could bring the entire empire crumbling down.  That's Hollywood fantasy, and it's ultimately a power fantasy of an egregious and deceptive nature.  In the post-mortem of Driscoll's Seattle empire the observation was rightly made that it was no one thing that brought him down.

What seems missing in both the liberal reaction to Trump and the conservative reaction to Trump can seem like a crisis of core principles.  Liberalism of .... what?  Liberalism can be thought of as a tradition but also as a trend.  What is being preserved?  The puzzle is more or less comparable on the other side, conservatives are trying to conserve .... what, exactly?  Despite the labels liberal and conservative or even radical and reactionary, it's as if everyone has gone into reactive reactionary mode since November.  What are we trying to conserve and why?  Are we sure it's worth conserving?  One of my progressive friends told me that if, for instance, the global ecological crisis is what it seems to be is there really a point to a redistributive economic program if our global economy needs to shift away from being dependent on fossil fuels in the long run?  That can seem like a fair point.  Redistributing the economic pie in the post-industrial West could seem like a fool's errand if the global ecosphere will be harmed by a continual reliance on fossil fuels.  And if that's true then what's the value in pushing for the kinds of socially progressive aims the Western left has been shooting for?  Letting more post-industrial Westerners enjoy a higher standard of living that may be the doom of the global ecosphere?  If that's the case then the worst thing to be is a asocial progressive in the contemporary Western style if the long-term goal is a more sustainable ecologically informed approach to social life.  The priesthood of social progress and the arts could, in this kind of light, turn out to be the real bad guys regardless of red and blue concerns. 

We've had years of Jon Stewart or other comedians providing political commentary being heroes to liberals and leftists and yet the signal aspect of that priesthood seems to have been that for the most part the priests and prophets stayed out of formal political power and stuck to the priesthood, so to speak.  There might be exceptions like Al Franken, of course.  Hollywood tradition seems to be that the priests don't seek the royal scepter but anoint those worthy of receiving it.  Preferably a Kennedy or a Clinton, perhaps.  You don't seize the scepter for yourself because it's unbecoming.  Or at least that seems to be the blue state variant of civic religion.  The red state variant of civic religion has shown us it has a different set of convictions.  When a red state priest gains the level of brand recognition and popularity typical of a blue state priest it seems the conviction is that reaching for the royal scepter is almost a requirement.

It's hard to shake a general loathing of the two-party system at this point.  These two civic religions will not be satisfied with compromise.  Nor will the red and blue civic religions grant sustained internal criticism.  This has nothing to do with the fact that substantial and sustained internal criticism has been happening within the left and right in small ways; it's more about how what we seem stuck with is the polarity of propaganda campaigns, how for the red and the blue the coherence and sustainability of the internal program is dependent on the assumption of the other team being already unified.  It becomes the basis from which to ignore the possibility of internal criticism because the assumption is that if we don't all get on the same page NOW the enemy will win.

That mentality had a firm place in Mars Hill over the course of a decade.  Once that viewpoint could be dropped internal criticism and division did happen.  It needed to happen.

But a comparable internal critique of a gap between stated first principles and real-world behavior seems off the table for the left and right establishments in the US.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

links with a theme, the kleinmeister factories of Russian music in the late 19th century and French cinema here and now, plus the loss of classical music criticism in mainstream publications


Kleinmeisters: an early 21st-century typology of the term would be easy to delineate. Kleinmeisters are those composers who get dozens of orchestra commissions, especially for concertos, and hundreds of performances. Most of them, virtually all of them, are very nice people – naturally, since they’ve made careers out of their ability to accommodate. (The younger generation of kleinmeisters is astonishingly good-looking.) Because the major-paper critics are part of the system, the kleinmeisters get incredibly positive reviews in the top 15 or 20 newspapers and music magazines. They excel at two genres: the ten-minute concert opener with lots of brass and percussive momentum, and the concerto whose solo part is visibly at the limits of endurance. Their music thrills with its virtuosity, its patent sense of difficulty; it is neither remembered nor asked for afterward. Frequently their performances are greeted with a vindicating roar of applause that is taken to attest to its quality, but is really either intended for the poor soloist having survived his ordeal, or else a reflection of the piece’s noise.

What’s lacking with the kleinmeisters is any sense that their music is taken seriously. It is praised, usually in vague and unconsciously patronizing terms (“X really knows her way around an orchestra”), but it is not discussed. Its methods are not problematized. It may be considered thorny, but no one pretends it presents a new perceptual paradigm. Reviews most often cite as praiseworthy its orchestration – in other words, its professional clothing, not its content. Most of all, there is no buzz about the kleinmeisters among younger composers. Harbison, Chen Yi, Penderecki, Higdon, Zwilich, Sierra, Paulus, get to command vast musical resources, but no young composers heatedly argue the merits of their pieces. Their names don’t come up in internet discussions. No one acts as though they hold any key to the future. After all, these composers write in styles in which far more vivid music had already been written decades ago. The kleinmeisters of 19th-century Russia were ridiculed by the musical intelligentsia outside that circle, but today’s American kleinmeisters have a whole Potemkin music scene built to support them and protect them from reality – reality being that their music is drab, unoriginal, and cared about by no one, for good reason.

If the French Ministry of Culture were to hold hearings on why there are so few innovative young French filmmakers today, Claire Simon’s documentary “The Graduation” (“Le Concours,” better translated as “The Entrance Exam”) could be Exhibit A. (It played last fall in the DOC NYC series and this past weekend at the True/False Film Fest, which is where I saw it.) It’s entirely possible that France’s movie-doldrums are merely a passing chill and that there’s an underground current in the French film world that’s soon to burst forth with inventive energy. But, for the moment, it’s hard to avoid noticing that France hasn’t produced a historic director in three decades.

Many excellent French movies have been made in that time; many talented directors have arrived on the scene with noteworthy débuts—and most of them have become quickly less audacious after a first film or two. Some exceptional filmmakers have built unusual careers on the margins of the system; some have worked within the system to bring distinctive worlds to life; none have revolutionized the art. For the most part, France’s filmmakers get old while they’re still young, normalized and formatted by a rigid system of financing and production, which is embodied in the hurdle-hopping that Simon shows prospective film students enduring at France’s most prestigious film school, La Fémis.


The most original filmmaking is comprehensively original—as creative in terms of financing, administration, and methods of production and post-production as in directorial imagination. The ways of working, the inventiveness that creates a new mode of organization and new techniques behind the camera, are reflected in the originality of the film itself. The fuller the existing system that young filmmakers must slot themselves into, the thinner the scope of their attention, the narrower their spectrum of innovation, and the less likely that they’ll be able to innovate radically within it. Seeing, in Simon’s documentary, the directing candidates forced to analyze a scene, submit a dossier, step on a set and direct a dictated scene, is like watching the training of hired hands rather than original artists—people better suited to writing grant applications than scripts, better suited to following orders than creating new worlds, to playing the urbane part of a director in meetings and interviews than actually being one

I think Brody's crazy to think Susan Vernon was the hero of Love & Friendship.  Even if she was the protagonist in that film there was no real room for doubt in Austen's tale or even in Stillman's adaptation of it that Lady Susan was an unusually nasty piece of work.

But then it seemed last year The New Yorker staff spent the whole year telling their readership to vote for Clinton and then spent months doing book-of-the-month blurbs about books that supposedly predicted the rise of Trump.  For the mainstream fourth estate to have botched predicting an outcome so badly it can sometimes seem as though what we'll lose if we lose the freedom of the press will be sadly negligible.  What if the critics themselves are susceptible to those vices of the life of the mind they regret to document in the artists of our era?

Sure, we're losing arts critics left and right ...

Cultural criticism is a form of journalism—odd journalism, but journalism nonetheless. The Times film critic A. O. Scott mounted a vibrant defense of this sour science in his recent book “Better Living Through Criticism.” He writes, “As consumers of culture, we are lulled into passivity or, at best, prodded toward a state of pseudo-semi-self-awareness, encouraged either toward the defensive group identity of fanhood or a shallow, half-ironic eclecticism.” The role of the critic, Scott says, is to resist the manufactured consensus—to interrogate the successful, to exalt the unknown, to argue for ambiguity and complexity. Virgil Thomson immortally defined criticism as “the only antidote we have to paid publicity.”

But, bah.  The role of the mainstream critic at an established publication is to manufacture the consensus. 

Maybe people in the smaller-scale press have a chance at formulating counter-consensus or whatever you want to call that, but once you're writing for The New Yorker or a similarly large-scale prestige publication your work is what establishes the consensus in critical terms.  Yes, yes, critics can dissent that Michael Bay's movies make so much money and that we're on a fifth Transformers film now.  Sure, there can be requisite complaints about how Disney keeps raiding the vaults to remake stuff and who's going to complain that much that Emma Watson is Belle now?  We've got ourselves a live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell coming along ... which I might end up watching out of curiosity in spite of the fact that I have thought since day one of the original anime release it was a seriously over-hyped film. There are good reasons Oshii is not as famous as Hayao Miyazaki is here in the West or even in Japan. 


Besides, Thomson's bromide forgets that an antidote to paid publicity is exceptionally bad word-of-mouth.

Critics may tell themselves their role is to stand athwart popularity shouting "stop!" but that seems too self-aggrandizing an approach.  I've been less than impressed by the A. O. Scott variation of criticism as the art of the voice stuff.  I'm one of those dour Calvinist Presbyterian types so whether I'm reading a Presbyterian or a Marxist I do appreciate that both of these sorts of people care about what the content of the art work is.  I might disagree utterly with Adorno on jazz but I don't begrudge Adorno's concern that whatever art proposes to address should have something to do with truth.  Ironically Francis Schaeffer would have argued ore or less the same thing. 

If anything its the critics who are most likely to be champions of a shallow, half-ironic eclecticism.  People who are purists about punk or rap or country or blues or mid-century jazz or Baroque music are not necessarily going to be demonstrating the kind of "shallow, half-ironic eclecticism" that could be easily displayed by a critic.  I'm not necessarily suggesting Alex Ross has that kind of problem.  Anybody who stumps for the sacred choral music of Frank Martin can't be all bad in my book.  :)  Frank Martin's Mass for double chorus is one of the gems of 20th century Christian liturgical music as far as I'm concerned.  But in a way critics like Ross and Scott may still paradoxically exemplify the kind of problem they write about. 

Maybe the theme here is that as with artists themselves so it may be with critics, that we may have an era of kleinmeister critics riffing on kleinmeister artists. 

I know that Ross and Brody write for The New Yorker and all but ... when peeps at that magazine have moments of almost Spenglerian doubt about contemporary Western arts ...

On internet memes

People best display
their folly in what they think
best displays their wit

feminisms formal and informal, Ethan Iverson interview sparks controversy, and a fearless girl statue gets called out as crass corporate pandering

For those who don't consistently read the blog of the jazz pianist Ethan Iverson ... the last week and a half unfolded with some probably fairly usual internet controversy in the wake of Iverson's interview with one named Glasper.

One of the implications in some (by no means all) of the back and forth on the Iverson interview is that the expectation is that misogyny is, more or less, entirely the purview of people on the right.  Iverson's early self-defensive approach leaned on that a bit and then he understandably had second thoughts and misgivings about whether or not insisting on his progressive/feminist credentials necessarily mattered.

There are plenty of guys on the right who have low views of women ... but what if that trope is part of a problem on the left?  Why would it be that everyone who is to the left of somebody like ... just pick somebody ... is by definition not a misogynist?  It's not as though Christopher Hitchens convinced me when he asserted that women just aren't funny.  Here we are in 2017 able to consider the bicentennial of the death of one of the great comedic genius of English literature, Jane Austen, and Hitchens isn't around for it.  How much of Hitchens' work will or should be remembered two centuries from now? 

People have highlighted how few women Iverson has interviewed.  Now, sure, Higdon could potentially be interviewed.  How about Joan Tower?  As a guitarist I'd lean slightly more toward Annette Kruisbrink or Nadia Borislova--Kruisbrink has written superb chamber music for guitar and double-bass, for instance, and Borislova has written some fun chamber music for clarinet and guitar but neither is anywhere in the zone of the music Iverson seems into.  So it goes.  Perhaps in time we can get around to discussing those two guitarist composers here at this blog.  The backlog of music and arts stuff I've meant to blog about got pretty big while I spent half a decade documenting the life and times of what was once Mars Hill.

Which reminds me, there's all sorts of ways in which it behooves folks on the liberal/left side to not congratulate themselves as automatically being exempt from misogyny because they're not like that guy.  Driscoll and his fan base may be misogynists but they don't see themselves that way, and even if by some astonishing circumstance Driscoll could concede he'd said things that could be construed as misogynistic the defense would be that it's only insulting to compare MEN to women as if that were a negative thing because women being like women is how women should be. 

But ... really ... there are other reasons even from within a left scene to not take the  Iverson or Whedon style feminism as sufficient.  Whedon has lamented recently that all the left seems to know how to do is attack itself.  Well, depends on what gets defined as the left.  There's neoliberalism, it seems.  Then there's progressivism and then there's the Frankfurt scene and then there's old-school Marxists and communists and post-Marxists and ... surely by now you get the idea.  As noted here a few times in the last year it'd be foolish to ignore the fact that the coalitions of the traditional left and right in the United States both crumbled in the post-Cold War period.  One person's powerful feminist statement is another person's crass and opportunistic corporate crony capitalist ruse even if we're talking about just intra-left thought.  The fearless girl statue seemed like crass opportunistic publicity shilling for something to me.  Apparently you don't have to be on the actual left to regard that statue as a mercenary corporate shill.

Last night, I spent half an hour with “Fearless Girl,” the bronze sculpture created by artist Kristen Visbal and installed by financial firm State Street Global Advisors (SSGA) on Wall Street for International Women’s Day. I watched people pose for photos with her in nonstop succession — young and old, male and female, literally everyone wanted their picture taken with “Fearless Girl.” I listened to a young man compare “Fearless Girl” to his sister. I got yelled at by a group of photo-takers for blocking the view of “Fearless Girl” confronting the “Charging Bull.” I heard a man who was shooting a long exposure of “Fearless Girl” strike up a conversation with a nearby woman about the sculpture. “It’s complex,” he said. “It IS complex!” she exclaimed. Another man joined the conversation and offered that “Fearless Girl” was “pretty profound.”
Having witnessed all of this firsthand, I do not think it’s a stretch to say “Fearless Girl” represents basically everything that’s wrong with our society.
Here is the narrative being spun about “Fearless Girl”: An advertising firm and a financial services firm got together to drop a “remarkable,” “guerrilla” sculpture of a young girl in front of Wall Street’s famous “Charging Bull” in the middle of the night. The girl is part of a campaign to encourage companies to increase the number of women on their boards. The girl “is a remarkable evolution for Wall Street.” The girl might even represent “the turning point of gender equality in corporate America.” The girl “celebrates all the people who resisted by staying in place.” If installed permanently, the girl would be “a constant source of strength” for women who work in the vicinity.

That’s fuzzy and inspiring and stuff, but here is the truth about “Fearless Girl”: It features a branded plaque at its base. The companies that installed it had a permit. They are advertising firm McCann New York — whose leadership team has only three women among 11 people, or 27% women — and asset manager SSGA — whose leadership team has five women among 28 people, or 18% women. SSGA is a division of State Street, which has a board of directors that includes only 27% women. SSGA is also, according to Wikipedia, the world’s third-largest asset manager, managing more than $2.4 trillion in assets in 2014. And, like any good capitalist behemoth, it has some shady dealings in its history — like the time the SEC charged State Street with misleading investors during the subprime mortgage crisis. Or the class-action lawsuit brought against it for mismanaging retirement funds. Or the over $64 million that the company agreed to pay in January to settle fraud charges brought by the government, as Nick Pinto pointed out in the Village Voice.

But don’t worry about those cheating Wall Streeters who can’t be bothered to take care with people’s investments and lives — “Fearless Girl” will stop them! She has, as a visitor commented last night, “no doubt” and “no fear”!

I spent International Women’s Day on strike and not looking very much at the news or my phone. When I heard about the stunt, sometime in the evening, I felt offense begin to bore a hole deep in my core. Could there possibly be anything more patronizing than two massive, male-dominated capitalist companies installing a branded statue of the most conceivably non-threatening version of womankind in supposed honor of a day devoted to women’s equality that was founded by the Socialist Party?

No, alas, I think there could not.


Ah, but that was written five days ago.  Three days ago something happened that may or may not have been worse. 

All the same, the point has been presented ,that what passes for feminism these days may not be good enough if it isn't socialist enough, or if it's turned out to be paid for by firms with a history of misconduct. 

So in a way the point of the op-ed was anyone who fell for the fearless girl statue as a symbol of feminism isn't quite left enough.  If Whedon's, say, a third generation screenwriter within the Hollywood scene there might be all sorts of reasons he wouldn't understand why his version of feminism couldn't possibly pass muster with more radical and less Hollywood elite versions of feminist thought.

And while Iverson's a consistently entertaining and readable blogger who often has stuff I like to read as a musician, Iverson seems to have realized his defense from earlier this month came off badly.

Much of the music I've played in the last fifteen years has been church music so Glasper's whole way of describing musical grooves would be something I would scrupulously avoid!

Monday, March 13, 2017

what can contributors to The New Criterion and The New Republic have in common? They probably don't feel bad about the new news about Jeff Koons

One of the very few things writers from the two magazines seemed to have agreed on was they couldn't stand Jeff Koons.

From The New Republic

From The New Criterion
which is now behind a paywall.  Meh.  Well, it didn't used to be.
it's actually some kind of reprint/linkathon to this

So it's unlikely any of those authors feel bad for Koons now that it's been reported Koons has been convicted of plagiarism.

It's also been reported a few other places but we'll stick with this one for now.