Another Week Ends

1. “Gnostic” is the dig du jour, apparently. Has anybody else noticed it everywhere? Perhaps […]

Ethan Richardson / 5.19.17

1. “Gnostic” is the dig du jour, apparently. Has anybody else noticed it everywhere? Perhaps it is because “righteousness by knowledge alone” pretty aptly describes what’s going on in the never-ending politically divisive/campus sensitive saga we can’t seem to get clear of. Another article to add to that pile came to us from American Conservative this week, about the inherent gnosticism of the term “woke.” “Woke,” which is an ever-changing, never-achievable term, represents the ideal form (or infinitude of forms) of social consciousness:

This new adjective woke is a stamp of approval, a self-congratulating label, a goal, a challenge. Most importantly, it’s a boundary line separating people. The word is a floating signifier serving as a PC litmus test while concealing the often shifting requirements to pass.

This divisive signifier—shifty though it may be—represents a connection of private knowledge to some form of very solid, very serious moral standing. Which is why the term (and the action it engenders) has been talked about repeatedly as a kind of secular religiosity.

Thus woke is more than a throwaway word. It’s a slang term working as a cultural clue. It signals that cultural progressivism is a secular spirituality in want of a coherent theology. In the catechism of this ersatz religion, woke is a kind of creed. It epitomizes the decay of deep engagement with cultural and moral issues into a cheap buzzword which mutes debate and confounds discourse. “Are you woke?” is a question meant to be answered with a simple yes or no, but the correct answer is always yes.

…The immense weight of all of these progressive assumptions is carried by the single diminutive syllable of “woke.” As Andrew Sullivan suggests in his take on intersectionality and the attack on Charles Murray at Middlebury College, radical ideology trends toward stifling debate, usually on dubious “moral” claims. And despite all the parallels with gnosticism, this is where the metaphor ends. Ultimately, the progressive goal becomes not truth but power.

Of course, it’s not just secular religions that get all the gnostic fun. Alan Jacobs’ “Text Patterns” blog discussed Walker Percy’s idea of “angelism”—a term that he recovers from Percy’s Love in the Ruins. “Angelism,” as Jacobs sees it, is being disembodied, “alienated from one’s own life,” living in the abstractions and ideas of one’s life rather than in the ordinariness of it. Of course, we are all culprits of self-alienation—I will say for myself that in preparing a “Love and Death Issue,” it is much easier to write from the idea of death than from the lived experience of it. So Percy sees this self-exile is a part of how we make life more manageable/bearable. But to become human again? Jacobs quotes Percy’s character, the psychiatrist Tom More:

What I want is no longer the Nobel, screw prizes, but just to figure out what I’ve hit on. Some day a man will walk into my office as a ghost or beast or ghost-beast and walk out as a man, which is to say sovereign wanderer, lordly exile, worker and waiter and watcher.

And speaking of ideologies and disembodied people and the appeal of gnosticism, what about this one: “This Is Your Brain on Ideology” over at Ario (ht RS). The diagnoses for a brain “on ideology” are spot on (“When you hear a counterargument you can’t explain, you become angry rather than interested” or “You find the idea that you might be wrong about your theory intolerable”). But so are the prognoses. For example:


You find yourself in an echo chamber, with no access to contradictory information. Your social media choices dictate that everything you see validates your opinions. You think that you are gathering more and more evidence which proves your theory, but in fact you’re screaming gibberish into a mirror. You think that the world is relentlessly confirming your ideology, but in fact you’ve stopped thinking. Your investigations into the assumptions underlying your ideology are nothing more than a self-propelling spiral of logical fallacies. What’s the point in thinking once you already know the real truth?

As a consequence, you are very skilled at defending terrible opinions, but not so skilled at nailing those opinions together in the first place. Because you have little reason to think otherwise, you assume that, in any conversation about your favorite topic, you know more than anyone else, even if they are qualified in that area and you are not.

2. Okay, enough of that. The New York Times Magazine this past weekend gave us some insight on fundraising for Mockingbird (did you get your letter in the mail, yet, btw?)…the article says, in order to get the wealthy to donate, you must appeal their own sense personal heroism.

In one experiment, we teamed up with a poverty-relief organization called the Life You Can Save. For three months, we manipulated the messages that appeared on its website to emphasize either common goals (“Let’s Save a Life Together”) or individual achievement (“You = Life-Saver”). We tracked the behavior of 185 website visitors whose annual income ranged from less than $10,000 to more than $2.5 million. When wealthier people — those with incomes higher than $90,000 — were greeted by the message that framed charitable giving as an opportunity for individual achievement, they were significantly more likely to click “Donate Today” than when they encountered the message that stressed common goals.

The idea is that tickling the ego-strings of any of our “life stories” is bound to be more successful than simply asking for help. Bleak, but I’ll believe it. Of course, the writers argue, this may not be the kind of pure, from-the-heart giving you hope to receive from when you venture out to raise money.

But as the behavioral scientist Christopher Bryan has said, “We’re often so focused on getting people to do the right thing for what we think is the right reason, we forget we just need to get them to do the right thing.”

So, in keeping with solid scientific research: Be the hero you know you are. Only you, dear reader, can keep Mockingbird alive! (Remember, a free subscription to The Mockingbird with $500 gift or greater!) ?

3. In the vein of Erika Christakis’ book last year on early childhood development, The Importance of Being Little, this one looks just as good, by Alison Gopnik: The Gardener and the Carpenter. In it, Gopnik expounds on the importance of parents who know when to let go to of outcomes. Her main analogy, which gives the book its title, attests to the product-focused work of carpentry, versus the environment-focused, surprise-ready work of gardening.

The Berkeley psychologist would have us cease using the verb form of “parent”; it is not a particular kind of work, she argues, but rather a kind of love. One does not engage in “wifing” one’s husband, “friending” one’s friends or even “husbanding” one’s wife. Nor do we, in other relationships, Gopnik says, judge our “success” or “failure” by how happy and successful our spouses or friends are as a result of our love, but we do this in “parenting.”

4. An unreal depiction of the all-pervasiveness of the law, and the all-pervasive human desire to get around it. It comes from the Wall Street Journal and talks about New York’s eruv, a virtual enclosure of thick fishing line which allows the city’s Jews to observe the Sabbath rules (no lifting, carrying, etc.) without exactly doing so. As long as the line is up and unbroken, a Jewish family can do all the things they’d normally do. Rabbi Tauber is the man who drives throughout NYC to make sure the line is intact (ht LG).

Under cover of the eruv, which symbolically extends one’s residence into the public domain, carrying and pushing are kosher. This means parents can walk with baby carriages and strollers. Ditto for those guiding wheelchairs or walkers. The mingling of private and public space reflects the definition of eruv, a Hebrew word for “mixture.”

Despite spanning so much territory, the Manhattan eruv has never been vandalized—unlike counterparts in Brooklyn, where Orthodox purists opposed to bending Sabbath restrictions have ripped down the lines. Which raises a serious question: Isn’t the eruv a giant loophole? A piece of the downtown line could snap during Shabbos’s 25-hour blackout, and no one uptown would know.

Rabbi Tauber was philosophical about the issue. “New York is so big and you’ve got so many families relying on it, you have to have some faith. Plus, I’m good at my job.”

5. Humor. How about this one over at McSweeney’s: “Fact-Checking Your Facebook Status Updates”:

“Going to try taking some time away from Facebook, guys. If you really need to reach me, try my mobile.”

Fact check: If anything you will be checking Facebook more regularly and more intensely in the next few hours and days in order to keep tabs on the responses to your claim about not checking Facebook. No one will notice your social media detox and the only text you receive will be from your mother, who will have sat on her phone again.

Oh, and did you know the Not Hotdog app is real?

6. Finally, Fleming Rutledge being Fleming Rutledge in an interview with Religion News Service.

RNS: Why do you believe that Jesus’ crucifixion is the “center of the gospel?” Why not the incarnation and birth of Jesus? Or the resurrection of Jesus?

FR: In my book I emphasize the essential doctrine of the incarnation, because it proclaims that the man who was crucified is none other than God’s own self, God’s Second Person in human flesh. I also make a point of insisting that the crucifixion and resurrection are a single event, incomprehensible if separated. But the cross is the uniquely non-religious feature of the Christian message, and that gives our faith its ultimate grounding. There is nothing remotely like this shocking dénoument in any other faith. In the final analysis, I find this a convincing argument for the truth of the Christian proclamation.

Note: We’ve got an interview of our own with Rev. Rutledge in the upcoming Love & Death Issue, stay tuned!


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