Another Week Ends

Alrighty, one last lap before the plunge (and this hits): 1. Another week, another […]

David Zahl / 5.12.17

Alrighty, one last lap before the plunge (and this hits):

1. Another week, another report (or three) of ideological insularity in the halls of higher learning. This week the flashpoints were a peer-reviewed philosophy paper about transracialism and a sensitivity training seminar at a divinity school. Next week there will no doubt be fresh ones. The specifics vary and, even if I knew all the parties involved, I wouldn’t deign to comment on them here. I’ll spare you the links in fact; they can be easily found. What’s clear is that it’s only getting uglier out there, both in the academy and elsewhere–and not just for so-called ‘traditionalists’ (just google “Rebecca Tuval”). I did my best to address the mechanics (yet again!) a couple weeks ago in NYC, but it would’ve been a whole lot easier if I’d had Vaclav Havel’s 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless” in front of me. Havel, the renowned Czech politician/playwright, may have been writing about totalitarian societies – the greengrocer he refers to puts a Marxist slogan in his shop window – but his insights/descriptions transcend their context, ht KW:

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe.

In other words–and to paraphrase W. Deresiewicz’s brilliant talk the other day–ideology in this sense is engineered to diminish (or outright eliminate) all uncertainty. Its goal, no matter its stated priorities (be they liberal or conservative in shape), isn’t inquiry but mastery, and the intellectual gloss tends to obscure the psycho-spiritual factors that form it. Of course, where Havel writes “excuse”, we would put “self-justification”. Heavy, I know.

Truth be told, while I sincerely hope some kind of tipping point arrives in the not so distant future (before my kids head off to college – !), I’m not going to hold my breath. It’s the 500th anniversary of the Reformation after all; we’ve seen far too many churches poison themselves on a diet of ever-shrinking doctrinal purity not to know where this is heading. Clue: nowhere harmonious. In the words of Reinhold Neibuhr, “there is no deeper pathos in the spiritual life of man than the cruelty of righteous people.”

2. Then again, all this hand-wringing has certainly inspired some wise and incisive writing on, yes, all sides of the aisle. Who knows, perhaps the polarities of our over-politicization have gotten so pronounced that reaction is now heading back toward the middle rather than further to the outer darkness limits. Exhibit A might be a fabulous short essay for Aeon, in which Justin Tosi tackles the increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon known as “moral grandstanding” (Tagline: “there’s a lot of it about, all of it bad”), which he defines as using moral talk for self-promotion. Think Luke 18:11.

Grandstanding takes many forms. In a quest to impress peers, grandstanders trump up moral charges, pile on in cases of public shaming, announce that anyone who disagrees with them is obviously wrong, or exaggerate emotional displays. However, there is one particularly troubling form of grandstanding, which we call ramping up. Consider this example:

Ann: ‘The Senator’s behaviour was wrong. She should be publicly censured.’

Biff: ‘If we cared about justice, we should seek her removal from office. We cannot tolerate that sort of behaviour, and I will not stand for it.’

Cal: ‘As someone who has long fought for social justice, I’m sympathetic to these suggestions, but I want to suggest that we should pursue criminal charges – the world is watching!’

Ramping up happens when discussants make increasingly strong claims in order to outdo one another. Each wants to show greater moral insight and care for justice, and one way to do that is to stake out increasingly extreme claims. When ramping up, discussion devolves into a moral arms race…

My favorite paragraph, and the reason the essay hits so close to home, comes toward the end, where he addresses the very human tendency to “grandstand about grandstanding” or as we might say, become “pharisaical about Pharisees”. It’s an occupational hazard to be sure:

After reading about grandstanding and why it’s bad, it may be tempting to figure out how to positively identify cases of grandstanding and call out grandstanders in public. However, this is the wrong response. For one thing, issuing public condemnations of grandstanding reflects bad priorities, just like grandstanding itself. The point of public moral discourse isn’t to separate out the morally pure from the pretenders. It’s to help us understand and address serious moral problems. Calling out individual offenders might make the accuser feel powerful, but it’s unlikely to actually do much good. More likely, the charge of grandstanding will be returned, or a pointless public discussion about what’s in someone’s heart will unfold.

Speaking of call-outs, ht SC:

3. Shifting gears, on the heels of the announcement about Jenna Lyons leaving J. Crew, Joshua Rothman theorized for the New Yorker about “Why J. Crew’s Vision of Preppy America Failed”.  His answer, believe it or not, is not (exclusively) Internet-related, but has to do with a shift in little-l laws about image and identity:

The most striking thing about the store was, for lack of a better term, its pervasive, all-encompassing J. Crewness. Every item—critter shorts, pocket squares, the Frankie sunglasses—represented a facet of a familiar, imagined life. The names of the products—the Ludlow and Crosby jackets for men; the Rhodes and Maddie pants and Campbell and Regent blazers for women—fixed J. Crew in a certain place and milieu. Once, this was comforting. Now it felt odd to be told by a company that I was, or wanted to be, a certain kind of person. I didn’t want to be a member of the J. Crew Crew, or any crew.

Later the same day, I logged onto Facebook. My newsfeed was, as usual, full of ads for streamlined, nondescript clothing that might be described as “normcore”: sneakers from Allbirds, T-shirts from Buck Mason, crowdfunded trousers from Taylor Stitch. A few friends, I noticed, “liked” Bonobos. The ads rejected, or claimed to reject, the whole idea of “life style.” In many cases, they showed products without models, just floating in space. The implication was that I was a self-defining, self-sufficient person. I didn’t need to aspire to some other life; I could build one myself, without entering some bubble-like subculture. In theory, these clothes said almost nothing about me. (In practice, of course, they say as much as clothes always do.) It’s this insistence upon independence that, more than anything, may have dethroned J. Crew. These days, we prefer the subtle manipulation of the algorithm to the overt glamour of the “style guide.” It’s luxurious to think that we are choosing for ourselves.

4. Next up, a gem from our man Alain de Botton, produced back in 2015 but validating our existence as an organization (and individuals) here in 2017. This guy…, ht RS:

5. Too bad de Botton is only cathecizing those at his (decidedly a-religious) School of Life at the moment. If we could get him into some of our churches, I doubt we’d be dealing with the “religious illiteracy” stats that Matthew Hennessey mentioned in his Houses of Worship column in the Wall Street Journal last week:

[A 2010 Pew survey] found that 53% of American Protestants couldn’t identify Martin Luther as the man who inspired the Reformation. (Oddly, Jews, atheists, and Mormons were more familiar with Luther.) Fewer than 3 in 10 white evangelicals correctly identified Protestantism as the faith that believes in the doctrine of sola fide, or justification by faith alone.

6. Humor: The above vid of Jimmy Fallon and Aziz Ansari reading yelp reviews/responses had me guffawing (plus, Master of None is back tonight!). Then, Babylon Bee turned in one of its best with “Calvinist Health Insurance Company Declares All Conditions Pre-Existing”. And a few folks who were in NYC have been asking for this bit of brilliance:

7. Finally in television, if you’re in need a Twin Peaks refresher before May 21st, The AV Club has you covered. Otherwise, Leftovers has really been heating up these past few weeks, as Damon Lindelof’s case for faith (and how bananas it can be while still legit #nicolecliffe) closes in on its finale. It’ll make a great binge, imho. My other recent favorite is Catastrophe which bounced back from a dour second season with an increasingly touching (and always hilarious) exploration of ex-pat intimacy/marriage/life/death/addiction/career. Sharon Horgan is a major talent. And Carrie Fisher’s appearance in the finale may have been bittersweet, but it makes my heart smile that she went out on such a galactically funny note.


  • “Every clown represents a bottle of beer that he would have bought.” Want to know more? Click here.
  • The Atlantic traces How Pixar Lost Its Way (one clue: rhymes with “Bisney”). I’m still hopeful for Cars 3.
  • The recording of Oliver Burkeman’s excellent talk at the NYC conference was cut off midway through but is now fixed. You can listen here. We also posted the first breakout, Ethan Richardson’s “Jesus and Therapy”. Just subscribe to The Mockingcast (or go directly to Fireside).
  • Finally, after I press publish, yours truly is off on sabbatical for three months (thank you, Mboard!). The site will continue at its normal clip, as will most of our various undertakings, with Ethan Kyle Richardson taking the reigns. But I’ll miss you. Say a prayer for me and the fam if you think of it. Oh and be nice to Ethan–he looks tough but he’s really quite fragile. See you in mid-August, -DZ