Another Week Ends

1. Leading off this week, the philosopher Michael Sandel has some hefty critiques of the […]

Todd Brewer / 9.18.20

1. Leading off this week, the philosopher Michael Sandel has some hefty critiques of the idea of meritocracy, specifically its disastrous effects on social and individual wellbeing in a global capitalist economy. Within a meritocracy, success becomes the law to live by that ruthlessly judges personal failure, dividing the self-righteous deserving from the unrighteous lazy.

Even a perfect meritocracy, he says, would be a bad thing. “The book tries to show that there is a dark side, a demoralising side to that,” he says. “The implication is that those who do not rise will have no one to blame but themselves.Centre-left elites abandoned old class loyalties and took on a new role as moralising life-coaches, dedicated to helping working-class individuals shape up to a world in which they were on their own. “On globalisation,” says Sandel, “these parties said the choice was no longer between left and right, but between ‘open’ and ‘closed’. Open meant free flow of capital, goods and people across borders.” Not only was this state of affairs seen as irreversible, it was also presented as laudable. “To object in any way to that was to be closed-minded, prejudiced and hostile to cosmopolitan identities.”

A relentless success ethic permeated the culture: “Those at the top deserved their place but so too did those who were left behind. They hadn’t striven as effectively. They hadn’t got a university degree and so on.” As centre-left parties and their representatives became more and more middle-class, the focus on upward mobility intensified. […]

Blue-collar workers were in effect given a double-edged invitation to “better” themselves or carry the burden of their own failure. Many took their votes elsewhere, nursing a sense of betrayal. “The populist backlash of recent years has been a revolt against the tyranny of merit, as it has been experienced by those who feel humiliated by meritocracy and by this entire political project.”

In place of an ethic of success and meritocracy, Sandel offers the virtue of humility, opposed to notions of self-sufficiency and independence.

“Humility is a civic virtue essential to this moment,” he says, “because it’s a necessary antidote to the meritocratic hubris that has driven us apart.”

The Tyranny of Merit [Sandel’s book] is the latest salvo in Sandel’s lifelong intellectual struggle against a creeping individualism that, since the Reagan and Thatcher era, has become pervasive in western democracies. “To regard oneself as self-made and self-sufficient. This picture of the self exerts a powerful attraction because it seems on the face of it to be empowering – we can make it on our own, we can make it if we try. It’s a certain picture of freedom but it’s flawed. It leads to a competitive market meritocracy that deepens divides and corrodes solidarity.”

Sandel draws on a vocabulary that challenges liberal notions of autonomy in a way that has been unfashionable for decades. Words such as “dependency”, “indebtedness”, “mystery”, “humility” and “luck” recur in his book. The implicit claim is that vulnerability and mutual recognition can become the basis of a renewed sense of belonging and community. It is a vision of society that is the very opposite of what came to be known as Thatcherism, with its emphasis on self-reliance as a principal virtue.

2. A wise man — you might call him God’s gift to humanity — once encouraged a rich person to “go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasures in heaven” (Mt 19:21). As told by Forbes, one billionaire set out to do just that and now he’s officially broke. The only thing he has left is the “thanks” from all those he’s helped, which sounds a whole lot like grace in practice to me.

The man who amassed a fortune selling luxury goods to tourists, and later launched private equity powerhouse General Atlantic, lives in an apartment in San Francisco that has the austerity of a freshman dorm room. When I visited a few years ago, inkjet-printed photos of friends and family hung from the walls over a plain, wooden table. On the table sat a small Lucite plaque that read: “Congratulations to Chuck Feeney for $8 billion of philanthropic giving.” […]

While his philanthropy is out of business, its influence reverberates worldwide thanks to its big bets on health, science, education and social action. Where did $8 billion go? Feeney gave $3.7 billion to education, including nearly $1 billion to his alma mater, Cornell, which he attended on the G.I. Bill. More than $870 million went to human rights and social change, like $62 million in grants to abolish the death penalty in the U.S. and $76 million for grassroots campaigns supporting the passage of Obamacare. He gave more than $700 million in gifts to health ranging from a $270 million grant to improve public healthcare in Vietnam to a $176 million gift to the Global Brain Health Institute at the University of California, San Francisco.

One of Feeney’s final gifts, $350 million for Cornell to build a technology campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island, is a classic example of his giving philosophy. While notoriously frugal in his own life, Feeney was ready to spend big and go for broke when the value and potential impact outweighed the risk.

3. The effects of social media, for most of us, go unnoticed. Sure, we spend more time on our phones than we might prefer, we feel anxious about what we’ve just posted, or are insecure about the critical comment left by a stranger, but life feels pretty normal otherwise. The change to our lives has been imperceptible, too gradual and subtle to quantify, which makes this story by Jeff Reimer all the more helpful. With a simple picture of his gorgeous bookshelves he went from an internet nobody to an online sensation overnight and his reflection on what the whole experience did to him is invaluable:

I do not have an expansive social media presence. I am on Facebook and Twitter, but I try to keep a certain critical distance, knowing that I will not regret conversations had or books read, but I will regret hours spent scrolling through feeds and arguing with strangers. The irony was not lost on me that as I watched the likes tick into the thousands I became glued to Twitter. [… I felt] the need to further certify the space by photographing it and publishing it online so that it (or rather he, or rather I) becomes a real, actual thing in the world. Every like is a certification that I exist.

This desire to see your own reality mediated back to you is a distinctly modern impulse, and a really weird one at that. I got twenty-five thousand certifications, and boy did it feel good. But it was also unsettling to me that it felt so good. Practically all I did the two days while the tweet was peaking was look at comments and likes and retweets and follows, and reply when necessary. And when I wasn’t doing that, I was happy just to sit there watching the ticker go up, every notification providing a little hit of endorphins. […]

While it was gratifying, almost immediately I could tell it was awful for me. I suddenly had trouble gauging what was normal. Every little interaction was now performative. I found that I was scrutinizing my every keystroke, because every keystroke was under a new kind of scrutiny. During those two days of peak virality it was interesting to watch myself phase in and out of this new sort of self-awareness. In the moment I would come to myself and realize how absurd and laughable it all was. I had to exercise a sort of discipline to remind myself of the sheer triviality of what I was experiencing. So I’d log off Twitter and try to move on with my day. But it wouldn’t be very long before my hand started twitching toward my mouse. […] How long would it take before that self-awareness wore off? How long before the impulse to check myself became imperceptible, or I learned to ignore it, or it just evaporated altogether? How long before I was immune to the surreality, the strangeness, the unnaturalness of this kind of phenomenon, of going viral?

It occurs to me that this surreal, absurd world of constant mediated performativity is the one we already live in. Our national discourse is now shaped by these psychological dynamics. And success is gauged by how good we are at putting ourselves into this bizarre moral situation. This experience of mine is really just social media on hyperdrive. It makes me wonder how much of this mindset I’ve already assimilated. Probably more than I think.

4. We’ve discussed Tara Isabella Burton’s book Strange Rites a few times on the site before, but it’s worth highlighting a recent review on Reason that has ventured to offer a bit more of a substantive critique of these new religious expressions:

For Burton’s purposes, religion consists of meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. By meaning, she means some way of demarcating the line between good and evil, coupled with a sense of what life is fundamentally about. By purpose, she means your own role within that meaning. By community, she means the people you rely on. And by ritual, she means how you and your group mark the passage of time together, with acts of mourning, celebration, coming of age, penitence, and commitment to the faith.

Within that framework, Burton finds religion among SoulCycle obsessives, social justice warriors, far-right atavists, kink and polyamory communities, and Silicon Valley techno-utopians. As with the faith traditions of yore, they all have something that provides them with meaning, purpose, community, and ritual.

This rise in choice is good for personal autonomy, but these new religions tend to be thin on community building. Burton’s thoughtful analysis bolsters the sense that these young, syncretic religions might be less durable than traditional communities of faith.

One of the chief differences between today’s remixed faiths and conventional institutionalized religions is the premium the former place on personal experience, which is often considered irrefutable. […]

An absence of established dogma, hierarchy, and tradition can be freeing. […] But having fewer cohesive principles comes at a cost. A focus on personal experience doesn’t always work against building community—shared experience can be a powerful social glue—but it often does. In none of these belief systems is there an explicit call to always love your neighbor as you love yourself, or to care for the poor and downtrodden regardless of their sins and failings, or to work to conquer your own vanity and self-indulgence. The social justice community comes closest, but it does not extend its gospel of dignity to those who engage in problematic behavior.

The bespoke communities of the Remixed and the Nones often have little room for children, the elderly, or people with severe disabilities. Sometimes this exclusivity is accidental, other times intentional: Many in the kink and poly communities disapprove of monogamy, while some members of the occult, social justice, and wellness cultures find little help navigating the hardships of parenthood, if only because they’re severely outnumbered by the childless. […]

it’s a rich book, one that gave me insight not just into my society but into myself. I used to be an atheist, today am a Christian, and am certain the evangelical church that I currently attend won’t be my final spiritual landing spot. An Eastern Orthodox depiction of Jesus hangs in my home, I’ve been deepening my understanding of scripture by learning about the Jewish Sabbath, and I don’t think weed or psychedelics should be verboten for believers. In other words, I’m remixed. But that syncretic faith has been a gateway drug to something more like traditional religion, drawing me to a place of sturdier Christian belief and more durable community. And I don’t think I’m the only one who can say that.

5. Lots of fun humor articles this week. McSweeney’s rewrote classic show tunes for 2020 life: “Hello, Dolly — Stand Over There Six Feet Away, Dolly.”  The Hard Times hits it out of the park with “How to Practice Self Care When a Stranger ‘Needs’ CPR.” At the New Yorker, twitter sensation Kim Kierkegaardashian (a surreal mashup of Kierkegaard and Kim Kardashian) offers life advice for a socially-distanced social distancer:

Pandemic isolation is tough, even for us natural loners, because it’s compelled and long-lasting, like a juice cleanse that never ends. In your case, the juice cleanse is made worse by a boyfriend who has started hoarding his emotional superfood and attention antioxidants. […]

I know from experience that times of stress take a painful toll on relationships. But if you can build a bridge of calm communication, you might end up coming out of this with a timeless new look.

Whether or not this works, now is the time for you to do an existential detox. Glance into the terrifying void you refer to as being “so scared to lose him.” What is it, precisely, that scares you so? Is it losing your active love for the actual person he is? Or is it a fear of Gulfstreaming solo through this pandemic and through life — of having to live with, and love, yourself?

And “One Star Yelp Reviews of Heaven” seem a bit like if sin somehow made it past St. Pete at the pearly gates.

6. In music this week, Justin Bieber dropped his latest single “Holy” and it hits all the right notes, including a cameo from Chance the Rapper:

7. And finally, Comment magazine has some serious #Seculosity reflections in Elizabeth Oldfield’s article “Sacred Conversations.” Profiling her podcast, The Sacred, she inquires whether the language of religious devotion can help to explain how and why people act and think the way they do in otherwise non-religious areas of life.

When I interviewed sociologist of non-religion Lois Lee she said that it is common to not know what you hold sacred until it is transgressed, until you feel that emotional-disgust reaction. Lynch says, “We experience the sacred as exerting an unquestionable claim over the conduct of social life, the breach of which elicits a powerful response.”

For most of us the “cares of the world,” the mundane or overwhelming business of living, keep the sacred at the edges of our minds, until moments of moral profundity like birth, death, defeat, or collective threat cause sacred meanings to erupt into our consciousness. Partly because of these limitations, whenever I am speaking to someone about what they hold sacred, I am reminded of the story of Moses asking to see God’s face, and being treated instead to a back-view. But back-views, shadows, and refractions still tell us something. And right now, the whole world is experiencing a moment of moral profundity. […]

For Christians, being aware of the way sacred values play out is one way we, like the sons of Issachar, can understand our times. What rituals unite our churches, our cities, our societies? Where are our deep sacreds clashing, in conflicts that might look like they are about “argument” and “evidence” but in fact aren’t? […]

Christian anthropology tells us that humans are worshipping creatures. We should agree with Lynch that we cannot escape our desire to make sacred and to gather around those sacreds we share, but pay attention instead to exactly what we hold sacred.

Moral psychology and theology have, at the very least, similar intuitions about the dangers of ascribing sacred value to the wrong things. Christianity says there are bad things to hold sacred. We call them idols. We know in our own lives and in Scripture how easy it is to follow “a hope gone haywire.” The Hebrew Bible can be read as a tragicomic attempt by God to show his people how poorly their sacred values are serving them. For Christians, we should exercise self-skepticism, seeking to ask what we ourselves as individuals and communities are holding sacred, and if we may have fallen into idolatry.

When I pray “hallowed be your name” the words too often roll past me, too archaic to connect, now forever linked with the Harry Potter franchise. The root of “hallow,” though, is to make holy, to make sacred. When I pray “hallowed be your name,” I want to mean “sacred be your name,” though it may take a lifetime to work out what that really means.


  • The next episode of The Mockingcast comes out next Friday, but until then there’s plenty of time to check out Jason Micheli’s podcast, which features a wonderful conversation on sanctification.
  • In sports, The Ringer has an excellent write-up about Duncan Robinson, the three-point shooter of the Miami Heat who came out of nowhere to lead his team to the NBA Conference Finals.
  • MB Contributor Heather Strong Moore has a fascinating interview with the creator of the @blackliturgies instagram account.
  • The Elegy Beta, by Mischa Willett was glowingly reviewed by The North American Anglican, calling it “Audenesque light verse” and “Irreverent. Colloquial. Unexpected. And daringly funny.”