1. A brilliant essay in The American Interest by Tara Isabella Burton on What The Culture War Is Really About in which the upcoming NYC Conference speaker burrows underneath the acrimony that surrounds us and reveals a conflict over, well, anthropology. In her view, the divide in our culture isn’t between those with a high (sunny) anthropology vs those with a low (sober) one, so much as between those with different forms of a low anthropology. Put another way, both sides concede that we are, in some very profound ways, bound by factors that cannot be transcended through effort or force of will. The disagreement has to do with where those limitations (and the corresponding freedoms) reside, and if they’re constitutive or incidental to what it means to be human. Progressives are comfortable talking about that “boundness” in collective or social terms, whereas conservatives conceive of it primarily in individual and biological terms. Or something like that.

At the risk of the Twitter transgression known as both-sides-ism (ugh), could it be that each have a point? That our boundness extends in both directions, and with it, the possibility of grace? In any case, cyborgs don’t come off well:

Both Reddit reactionaries and social justice activists are, in two very different ways, combatting the idea that human nature is ultimately rational and disembodied: that we are minds first, and bodies second. Each accuses the other of similar crimes: namely, belief in a naive, false conception of human freedom. Social justice culture is quick to dismiss… the kind of biological determinism common in atavistic circles: we can transcend our bodies and our chromosomes, this culture insists, but we cannot transcend our environment, the structures and hierarchies into which we were born. Atavists, by contrast, posit freedom in the social sphere—words like “privilege” or “oppression” or “structural” are immediately dismissed as valorizations of victimhood—but insist that we are bound by our biology to feel and act in certain ways, concordant with our gender or (in darker corners of the web) our race.

Each group, then, is accusing the other of a kind of hubris: an unwillingness to confront our own limitations. Yet despite the fact that transhumanism is most popular in Silicon Valley—among the techno-utopians and libertarians, with their vision of a hackable humanity unconstrained by nature or nurture—the atavists and activists can’t stop fighting one another.

The question of who we really are is never far from the question of the Real more broadly… But I am speaking of realism in the philosophical and better sense: the idea that there are elements of our humanity—both those within our control and those that come to us as given, whether biologically or socially—that are not merely ancillary to who we are but rather at the ontological heart of it. There are elements of our makeup that are not simply qualities we have, but constituent parts of what make us really us. That we as a society—a philosophically fragmented, quasi-secular (or at least post-Christian) society—have not negotiated a common understanding of what these realities are, and what separates the Real in us from the merely incidental, does not make the question any less important…

If the Intellectual Dark Web is right about one thing, it is that a libertarian vision of disembodied freedom—a self-making self completely unmoored from social or biological or physical or gravitational realities—is insufficient. In the age of the Internet avatar, it’s easy to succumb to a kind of cultural transhumanism, an assumption that our bodies, like operating systems, will soon become obsolete. This faith in human perfectibility—that given the right politics and the right perspectives and the right products and the right apps, we human beings can re-write the scripts for our social and animal lives,… that we can mix and match our spiritual and ritualistic longings to provide us with bespoke philosophical and religious commitments to optimize our pursuit of the transcendent—is more dangerous than many of its progressive adherents will admit. While progressives are often willing to recognize social identities as Real insofar as it is impossible to will oneself out of them, outside the sphere of social influence they are too ready to dismiss what philosophers call “facticity:” elements of the human condition that no amount of reason or sheer stubbornness can overcome. Few outside of Silicon Valley, after all, would disagree that disease, death, and other doggedly biological elements of the human condition define the contours of our selves in ways that transcend personal experience alone. There is something, however poorly enumerated, about the human condition that prevents us from being totally free to self-define, whether on the Internet or off…

[Yet] our social contingency—our need for one another, for attention, for love—is no less constitutive of reality than the effect our chromosomes have upon our bodies, and the way in which our social lives and centuries’ worth of language build-up shape our interpretation of such effects. Our hunger for transcendence is as given as the enzymes that help us process meat.

What an incredible line! Say it with me: #Sec-u-los-it-y. Better yet, sing it with Grimes:

2. Burton’s diagnosis found traction this week in a piece by sociologist Joseph E. Davis on The Deeper Roots of Youth Anxiety. According to Davis, without an inherited or agreed-upon understanding of, well, anything, more and more young people have been made responsible for crafting their own personal metaphysics–which understandably prompts anxiety. I often see this at non-church weddings where couples, in a laudable attempt to accommodate each other’s religious baggage, decide to write their own vows. All of a sudden they find themselves having to construct an entire theory of love, family, and ultimate meaning from the ground up. That’s a lot to worry about on top of the catering. Anyways, Davis writes:

In my experience of listening to young people talk about the pressures of their social worlds, what stands out is the way in which they are required to conceive of their lives. Much of what once constituted a way of life that was imparted to children—involving traditions and communal purpose, rites of passage and stable institutional reference points—has disappeared. Now, youth like Megan must define themselves and the shape of their lives—who they want to be and become—by primarily referencing their own preferences, desires, and choices. They are urged to project a future and treat themselves and the social world as though every constraint and limitation is essentially malleable. Obstacles are “variables” that can be moderated or eliminated by their hard work and creative efforts. And they are virtually compelled to represent this biographical project, this “story you choose to live in,” as one young man put it, to others—from peers to college admissions officers—in a way that demonstrates and confirms its upward progress and realization.

For young people, especially, enacting their life in terms of choice carries many risks. It creates a powerful and relentless type of ethical responsibility for their own well-being. They become their choices, so to speak, in the sense that their choices are taken—by themselves and by others—as the realization of their personal attributes, values, and priorities, as reflecting back upon them as the sort of person they are, and as demanding justification with reasons, motives, and aspirations. In the face of failure, confusion, or disapproval, decisions cannot be attributed to social obligations, institutional norms, or role requirements.

3. One particularly popular way of filling the ontological vacuum these days would be the division of the world into Personality Types. Everywhere you look, it seems, you find Enneagram numbers and Myers-Briggs codes, Proud Introverts and OKBoomers, Geminis and Pisces, etc, i.e., there’s a reason those bingo card memes go viral. Vulgarity notwithstanding, “Raising a Person in a Culture Full of Types” by Dan Brooks in The Outline spelled out beautifully some of the dangers of this mode of over-categorization, what you could even call the ‘algorithmization’ of our social lives:

Online discourse is presently shaped by what I call Type of Guy Theory. Its project is to name a series of essential identities that express themselves in certain behaviors — speaking to the manager, reading David Foster Wallace, breaking up with someone who writes for The Cut — but are not limited to those acts. The bedrock assumption of Type of Guy Theory is that identity exists independently from behavior; you are a type first, and you behave accordingly…

The world of the middle-schooler is a world of types. My son talks incessantly about VSCO girls and Karens and other categories of people he has learned about from YouTube. He described a classmate as “the kind of person who borrows your pencil and doesn’t give it back,” i.e. she borrowed his pencil and didn’t give it back.

Readers of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre will recognize here a formulation of his classic argument that existence precedes essence: example being soldier who deserts from war. People say he deserted because he’s a coward, but really he’s a coward because he deserted.

This admittedly fine point is not just a matter of language; it also carries an ethical implication. The coward can’t really be blamed for doing cowardly stuff, because that’s his nature — the same way you can’t blame the kitchen table for being hard and heavy when you stub your toe. The illusion of a fixed nature gives us an excuse to repeat bad behavior.

We talk about this quite a bit on The Mockingcast this week. On the one hand, I’m with him 100% when he points out the perilously thin line separating “personality types” as tools for self-understanding vs self-justification. And I greatly sympathize with the concern that no one be reduced down to a pre-determined set of (usually negative) bingo moves that can be judged and dismissed, especially when we’re always changing anyway. There’s a reason that the word “type-casting” has such a negative connotation, and Lord knows we can use these tests to type-cast ourselves. Labels so often become cages. But he loses me when he uses this as a jumping off point to argue that we are what we do, a la Aristotle. I suppose the Christian in me has a hard time hearing those words as anything but law (i.e. just do the right stuff, you human doing, you!). As my father used to say, identity is a game that no one wins. Though maybe that’s exactly what an ENFJ would say.

Thank God the Sermon on the Mount puts us all in the same humble, hopeful category.

4. Probably overdone it on the #lowanthropology at this point but just in case, witness Outside Magazine’s look into “The Great Fitness Scam” AKA the fact that the United States leads the world in spending for health and fitness but still ranks lowest in measurements of actual health. This little bit stuck out:

The health and fitness industry has become obsessed with complexity. Sometimes this is warranted, but often it’s not. One reason people make things complex is so they can sell them. It’s hard to monetize the basics, but come up with an intricate and sexy-sounding approach to something and people will pay for it. So why are so many of us willing to fork over cash for often unnecessary services? Perhaps because complexity is a way to avoid facing the reality that what really matters for health and fitness is simply showing up and doing the work. Not thinking about it or talking about it. Just doing it.

5. “I often ask African friends who have immigrated to America what most struck them when they arrived. Their answer is always a variation on a theme—the loneliness.” Thus writes David Brooks in The Long Read of the Week, his monograph-anticipating treatise on the thesis that “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” If you can get past the clickbait headline, there’s a lot to chew on here. Makes a guy want to re-watch Radio Days yet again:

Only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families and only one-third of American individuals live in this kind of family. From 1970 to 2012, the share of households consisting of married couples with kids has been cut in half. In 1960, according to census data, just 13 percent of all households were single-person households. In 2018, that figure was 28 percent. In 1850, 75 percent of Americans older than 65 lived with relatives; by 1990, only 18 percent did…

When you put everything together, we’re likely living through the most rapid change in family structure in human history. The causes are economic, cultural, and institutional all at once: People who grow up in a nuclear family tend to have a more individualistic mind-set than people who grow up in a multigenerational extended clan. People with an individualistic mind-set tend to be less willing to sacrifice self for the sake of the family, and the result is more family disruption. People who grow up in disrupted families have more trouble getting the education they need to have prosperous careers. People who don’t have prosperous careers have trouble building stable families, because of financial challenges and other stressors. The children in those families become more isolated and more traumatized.

Our culture is oddly stuck. We want stability and rootedness, but also mobility, dynamic capitalism, and the liberty to adopt the lifestyle we choose. We want close families, but not the legal, cultural, and sociological constraints that made them possible.

Nations where a fifth of the people live alone, like Denmark and Finland, are a lot richer than nations where almost no one lives alone, like the ones in Latin America or Africa. First, the market wants us to live alone or with just a few people. That way we are mobile, unattached, and uncommitted, able to devote an enormous number of hours to our jobs. Second, when people who are raised in developed countries get money, they buy privacy…

When we discuss the problems confronting the country, we don’t talk about family enough. It feels too judgmental. Too uncomfortable. Maybe even too religious. But the blunt fact is that the nuclear family has been crumbling in slow motion for decades, and many of our other problems—with education, mental health, addiction, the quality of the labor force—stem from that crumbling.

In response, here’s a pretty good essay about the local “Church as Foraged Family.”

6. Haven’t checked in with Tim Kreider in a bit, but there’s a good deal to draw from his recent column for Medium on “The Age of Rage”. Does he check his own (partisan) rage at the door? No. But he’s ultimately more interested in the preponderance of “free-floating rage” out there–and how it operates–than in the specific targets of that rage. Kreider even paraphrases our own Jacob Smith:

I sometimes feel as if I’m only one bad day away from ending up on the cover of the New York Post, though I don’t know whether it’ll be as hero or villain. In my subway daydreams I can imagine being the kind of ordinary passerby who seizes a narwhal tusk to gore a would-be terrorist; I can also imagine being jailed for manslaughter over some stupid dispute with a stranger…

Wrath is one of the seven deadly sins, yet anger always comes disguised as a virtue… Outrage is what we call it when we think our rage is justified, which we always do.

There’s something selfish about rage; it is always, in the end, less about its ostensible object than about itself — like those conspiracy theorists who care a lot less about the enormous crimes they claim they’ve uncovered than proving how smart they are. Rebecca Solnit distinguishes between rage and outrage, arguing that the latter is motivated less by vengeance than by empathy.

7. In Humor: Self-Care for Toddlers on McSweeney’s made me chuckle as did Wow! This Woman Cut Out the Toxic People in Her Life But Still Follows Them On Instagram on Reductress. But the one that actually made me laugh out loud was this collection of People Trying To Sell Mirrors.

8. By way of devotional content, as we slide into Lent this week I thought Wade Johnston’s reflection on Transfigurtion and Cross was beautiful:

Transfiguration is like a farewell party for a dear friend drafted and going off to war. It’s a joyous day, and yet a joyous day over which hangs great sadness. We celebrate all that has brought us there, we rejoice in our friend, and yet we know we are sending him off to great danger.

So it is with Christ. And yet Christ goes, not by conscription, but by choice. He goes freely because His love for us is so great. Even more, He goes, not for friends, but those born as His enemies. He goes to redeem us, who have nothing to offer…

This is the Father’s Son, whom He loves. And He loves you. For this reason, we dare not linger. We dare not build tents and stay there, as astonished Peter suggested. No, we go forth, hopeful, even as things get seemingly hopeless, because we know who it is who goes forth for us, and why.

Strays