The Online World

I was a bit busy over the months of March and April. Coronavirus Chronicles failed. I think it will take an extraordinary event to revive it.

But there is the observation that this whole situation seems to have accelerated the gifts of the internet. YouTube is our encyclopedia now, isn’t it? The internet as library is growing. Growing pains now are things NOT available online, rather than all that is. During the lockdown WTS acquired access to JSTOR and just recently the ODNB. All kinds of ancient legal documents are being placed online.

The internet is multiplying in a fragmenting and reconnecting way. Alternative platforms are emerging, along with alternative publications. It is a bit of a puzzle for someone interested in many things because there are so many things.

Some of the highlights of the internet nowadays, places where one can be surprised for me are:

Tablet
Here is a very interesting leading article on a person endeavoring to succeed at the Heterodox Academy approach. In the middle of the article it tells the story of how he was about to give up, and then got the right advice and figured out a way forward.

The Critic
This meditation on the novel is worthwhile, though it has no solutions. I believe the solution would be better novels, and that is not an easy solution.

This article on Mario Draghi was something I could use more of. The Critic does give one all kinds of things.

The Spectator
I hardly ever look at the US edition of this venerable and excellent publication. I am in regular contact with the original. UK politics are so much more interesting than those of PA.

Quillete
Niall Ferguson is a historian worth understanding. Here is a review of his latest book that is unusual and appreciated by the book’s author.

UnHerd
I have enjoyed a lot of UnHerd’s lockdown TV episodes. And I have found their articles have insight.

The Article
Some of these sites I list are new. This one seems to me the newest. I don’t actually go looking on their site very much. I follow them on Twitter and jump into an article from time to time, and have been impressed.

There are other places to collect obviously, but these are among my top favorites.

Coronavirus Chronicles – April 3, 2021

I went to Philadelphia and was astonished to see all that humans are doing with masks. They walk outdoors in masks, they go inside and behind Plexiglass shields wear masks, they drive with masks. They run with masks! I even saw people outside hurrying along wearing two distinguishable masks. I have to conclude these work for the government.

I suppose in a city is a common thing for people now, but it is strange to see most people outside masked, at least to me. It is also interesting to see who isn’t wearing a mask.

  • The bums. Most of them had one for the neck, but I did not see a single one with the mask for the face. They sit on their corners, with their signs, amid their stuff, and breathe the free air freely.
  • The smokers. And we are not just talking about people standing in designated areas, but those who go along the sidewalks. It is a convention, as everybody else wearing a mask is a convention, now, that smokers don’t need one while they smoke.
  • Coffee drinkers. Any drinkers or eaters, actually, are permitted to go around with their mask not on. That is another convention.
  • Animated phone talkers. No comment.
  • The free. There are those who do not have one and do not show any other compelling reason not to have one. Large black guys are very well represented in this category, and burly workmen of all types. I myself was able to go into the Reading Terminal Market without a mask. They required one to purchase something, but it was not otherwise enforced (I was a coffee drinker most of the time there). At Wawa they told me they would serve me without one but would try to give me one. At the parking place I walked into a building and was asked by a masked security person where I was going. I told him. I asked him why. He just said they wanted to know; nothing else. No request to put on a mask in the building. You know what people are being about it all? Very polite, which is good.

How about the vaccinated or those who have had the virus? No indications.

I think Lord Sumption is right; this only goes away as there is civil disobedience, and it is time for civil disobedience. No shouting, no protesting, nothing untoward; just making them actively require and insist on the mask is my thing now.

Conservatism Today

As badly as the left is faring these days, it seems that the right is also fragmented and thrashing around. And it makes me wonder. Conservatism has to think about what it conserves, and how, and why. That is important. It is not at all clear to me that all the people calling themselves conservative agree on what it is they want to keep.

It also has to think about what it fights, and how, and why. That is as important. There is war, it seems to me, between the more entrepreneurial and the less entrepreneurial in the shapeless mass of conservatism. I think it would be interesting to get some kind of topographical map locating all the conservative nodes (and liberal too). I would like to understand where the alignments and disagreements are forming and shifting.

Here is the conclusion from an essay from the Claremonster end of the spectrum (and the editor of Modern Age), which I prefer these days, about another conservative position.

What Andrew Bacevich’s book lacks most are not women, people of color, neoconservatives, or conservatives who actually agree with Bacevich’s principles. Rather, American Conservatism’s most serious deficiency is its lack of conservatives who accept modern complexity and do not counsel retreat. Conservatism cannot be confined to front porches and poetry, as lovely as those things are. It must be of the world to defeat the wolves who are within as well as outside every community’s walls.

Daniel McCarthy

Writing History

Writing history is not as easy as people sometimes think. Many assume it’s simply a matter of assembling a jumble of facts in chronological order, lacing the narrative with insights borrowed from academics and other authorities, throwing in one or two truly sensational details, and then rounding it all out with comparisons to contemporary events to make it relevant to readers. In fact, though, the real labor of history has little to do with writing down the brute facts of the past. It’s about understanding why people back then acted or spoke as they did, which means understanding the context in which events arose and unfolded. Explaining this context to readers is hard work and doesn’t come easily as praising or blaming historical figures for what they did or didn’t do.

Arthur Herman, Claremont Review of Books (Winter 2020/21), 57.

Coronavirus Chronicles – March 16

I remember it is one year on from when the pandemic panic set in. March 15th 2020 was a Sunday, and I was surprised to hear that churches had been cancelled. On Monday morning we went to Denny’s and the place was grim, the clustered waitresses glum. It had been announced that the state liquor stores would be closed in just two days, and the place had long lines. Starbucks was takeout only, and all the conforming corporations followed. Came the lockdown, which we thought would only last for two weeks and which continued on through April, till people were flogged to upheaval and unrest. Also, many of us stopped paying attention to the authorities.

It was an inflexion point. A moment of opportunity for many, a moment of clarity. It is interesting to me the way things are realigning.

Today, though there are still restrictions, I was in an unrestricted diner. No limits, just masks required to enter. Table after table, like old times. There are those who want to go on just the way it was, and I’m not against them.

I heard Bret Weinstein saying that the hypothesis that the virus was a research attempt at a coronavirus vaccine that escaped is looking less implausible. Now that the thing is out forever, is the net outcome that they inadvertently accelerated their own botched research?

He also said that youTube is replacing the book. I think that is not a wrong way of looking at it. The printing press ushered in a revolution. The rhythm of scholarship accelerated. Instead of the leisure of circulated manuscripts you had scholarly editions, the writing of letters back and forth as scholars looked each at his own copy, and beyond the old disputations which gradually subsided as time passed, the thunder and excitement of quicker distribution and resulting pamphlet wars. Now the medium is the internet.

Weinstein had an interesting theory about the whole identity thing: that it comes from people whose reality is shaped far more by being online that we who have known life otherwise really appreciate. His idea is that they are more governed by the proprieties that rule in cyberspace than those of the world of personal interaction. It is in one of the Peterson podcasts, most of whose books are bestsellers and who has more than one viral video, kind of like Luther of old.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O55mvoZbz4Y

Coronavirus Chronicles – March 4

We have almost gone full circle with this. I think restrictions are relaxing in PA, but since I don’t keep up anymore . . . I do hear more and more voices against the full-on submission to it all. I remember the hopes of last March and April that kept being dashed—the hope it would soon be over and we’d return to normal. I remember the weird alarms of those who said it could draw out longer. From the charts and graphs I’ve glimpsed, it looks like the worst of the virus was December and January. It didn’t entirely register that way here. It didn’t seem anything like last March when suddenly everything went silent. They tried to replicate it as much as possible from Thanksgiving to New Year hear in PA, but it was like they had been crying wolf.

Our governor is called Wolf, you know. He doesn’t look like one. He’s a slender, bald, managerial looking guy with a professorial beard. He looks neat and harmless. Apparently in success against the virus PA is only second to FL. Our governor has lost his right hand . . . transgender person to the feds. Is that a reward?

Last year at this time, if you had asked me how many Americans would put on a facemask if required I would have laughed. There are still many standing who will only wear one under extreme circumstances, but I doubt these are a majority anymore.

The local bike store is looking restocked nowadays. It ran out of bikes early on and couldn’t seem to resupply. I wonder how RV sales will do this summer, and kayaks and such. The barbershops and hair salons are doing good business.

The Banner is having its conference in Elizabethtown. So it seems things are scheduling to resume.

On the Present Digital Situation

On the way to obtaining Europe you have to pass through Cluny. The structure of Cluny, which was deconstructed in the Enlightenment, was one of the largest of Medieval Europe. It grew up as a reform movement in the always-reforming Benedictine system.

Some read the Benedictine system as one always in need of reform. Others read it as a system always exciting reform and reformers. Whatever you chose, the isolated Benedictine monasteries that emerged to dot the landscape after the high tide of empire withdrew, eventually created a situation in need of reform. The Cluniac way was to network the monasteries, doing so along the highways of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Cluny grew in prestige, in power, and in wealth as it dominated the new network. It had a monopoly.

But then there was a revolt against the excess and luxury of Cluny. Was this Benedictine poverty? So the long proliferation of reform movements gathered momentum. The Cistercians were the earliest successfully attempt to provide alternatives to the monopoly. There was a new entrepreneurial spirit to them: they sought to cut down on expenses by moving to cheaper locations, they axed the frills and promoted institutional austerity, and they patented a monastic serfdom too (read about this echo in R.W. Southern’s Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages). It was one of a growing stream of proliferating options, the fragmentation of network monasticism into monastic networks which gave us the low-burning and late-blooming Carthusians, the mendicant orders who staffed the greatest of Medieval inventions—the University, as well as their renewal, the curiosity that was the military orders, the Augustinian hybrid, the Brethren of the Common Life and Canons Regular (its all off the top of my head, so take it with a grain of salt). Eventually the orders and the studious scholastic monks fragmented Christendom and gave us the Reformation.

Great Cluny, the monopoly of the tenth and eleventh centuries dwindled until France, sometime the heart of Christendom on earth, cannibalized it to build other things. It had betrayed its ideals, and it had withered on the vine.

I have said all this before, however. But it struck me again as I look at links for Gab, Parler, Thinkspot, Locals (I just saw that Dave Rubin is looking to make Twitter irrelevant), the rise of Substack, Medium and other such. Now Clubhouse. James Poulos says that the digital age recapitulates the Medieval. I think he’s right. One wonders: when it has all fragmented from the concentrating giants, will some analog to the university arise to coordinate the network fragments of our dawning digital age.

Coronavirus Chronicles – February 22

Who wants to even hear about coronavirus?

Here’s a picture of the moment. Picture a roomful of highly trained people monitoring distant events using expensive, sophisticated technology. It’s NASA, and the events are taking place on Mars. And what do we see on their faces? Not one, but two kinds of facemask. I mean, these are people who can and have sent a ton of the most expensive research equipment ever to another planet successfully, control it, operate it at huge distances and enormous costs and effort, and  yet we can’t design something as obvious as a simple, single, working facemask? How about a room where the air is clean?

I have to wonder if the difference isn’t the object. Mars is a measurable and predictable object. However remote, it doesn’t present a moving target. At least not yet. The difference is that the coronavirus does. It is in motion because it is part of the game of political football. The poor virus is no longer just a disease, it has itself become diseased, colonized by unscrupulous lizards and mutated into something that has actually started stacking signaling on dedicated scientists. They had special, NASA designed facemasks to put on top of the apparently inadequate medical mask? NASA can do spacesuits and rockets but not facemasks?

Politically in the land of America, Biden gets weaker and Trump gets stronger.

The interesting economic thing this week was two-fold. Jordan Peterson tweeted out a link to Allen Farrington’s Bitcoin is Venice with three results. It went viral, is one. Another is that the meme is now laser eyes for those who see into the darkness of this present moment. The third is that cryptocurrencies appear to have been definitively explained. The alternative to fiat currency is non-fiat currency; the alternative to trust is verification that requires no trust. I am in no position to judge the essay’s veracity, but it made sense to me! The second of the two-fold (there was a three-point thing in the first fold) is that this comes from what is essentially a blog. Blogs are regaining power, just not under the old name: Bari Weiss, Glenn Greenwald, Craig Carter and now Allen Farrington are recent such entries I have read. Blog posts is what they are. If the coronavirus makes blogging great again, I, for one, will be grateful for this also to the Chinese.

Rocketing to Mars

by Joel Zartman, assisted slightly by the poet Yeats

I

This is no planet for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

II

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
An automated suit, unless
bots wring their hands and ping, and louder ping
For every circuit of this high-tech dress,
Nor is there coding school but studying
Monuments of our own magnificence;
And therefore I have climbed aboard and come
To Mars’ main city at Olympus Mons.

III

O sages standing in the rocket’s fire
As in the heat shield of a wall,
Come from the rocket plume, perne in a gyre,
And be the coding-masters of my soul.
Consume my flesh away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of telemetry.

IV

Once out of orbit I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as engineering makes
Of exoskeleton and print enamelling
To keep the complex circuitry awake;
Beyond the hydroponic bough to sing
In blue lit passages beneath Olympus Mons
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Coronavirus Chronicles – February 2

It is a mask on/mask off kind of moment, isn’t it? Masks are still required and enforced, while the lizard elites grow more and more bold.

The official policy of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is still that consistent wearing of a facemask reduces the transmission of coronavirus. I am astonished how much this practice works as a point of etiquette as well.

I know one person that I’ve talked to who is interested in getting vaccinated—a person who studiously keeps to the guidelines. I know three nurses who are not interested in getting it—all of whom have been kept to the guidelines until life becomes one continuous blur of exhaustion.

I went to the dentist, where of course they have to follow the guidelines rigorously. I had to fill out a coronavirus form. I did not give it to my hygienist, and she did not ask for it, so I brought it home. I did wear a mask into the place, waited with it on, and then took it off for the purposes for which I came. This was my second coronavirus dental visit.

What else? The Crimea is running out of water and the protests in Russia spread. Did anything ever happen in Belarus? I haven’t heard. Protests in Holland and Denmark I hear. In Italy, the police joined the protesters!

In Washington D.C. there are still guards and fences, militarized ever since common people were last seen encroaching on the hallowed seat of undefiled government. I feel like going down and walking up as close as the military will allow, and then doing the Hunger Games thing with three fingers.

It is a time of proliferating network alternatives too. All kinds of new platforms seem to be rising, while the old titans still remain titanic. All kinds of spiders working on all kinds of webs. Even finance is having to look limber for the encroachments of a digital onslaughts. Events keep happening.

Coronavirus Chronicles – January 26

At this time last year I unfollowed Peachy Keenan on Twitter because I was tired at how much she was alarming over the coronavirus. Her constant theme was shut down the airports.

At this time last year, if I remember correctly, Jordan Peterson had decidedly dropped out of public notice for half a year and I was wondering where he was. It looks like he is back, though somewhat less combative by his own admission.

It makes me think of the circle of those who have conversations I want to listen to: he was having a conversation with Douglas Murray. I think of it in many ways as the John Anderson circle. John Anderson has interesting conversations with a repeating group of people, and they are conversations I want to overhear. For that I’m glad to live in an age of youTube and podcasting, for the access to the living voice of contemporary minds. Speaking of podcasting, a year ago the American Mind started The Roundtable. After a rough beginning, they hit their stride just in time for the eventful moments of 2020. They are always running a bit more alarmed than I am, but right now there are so many canaries falling silent in this coronavirus coalmine.

What else would it be though? Who could have predicted all that came of this last year? We certainly learn that pandemics bring mass hysteria. Nevertheless, I think those of us from whom the gift of prophecy has been withheld should not count the chickens of doom before they’re hatched.

I think, for example, after last year and heading into whatever the Biden administration bodes, the right is more combative, and this is good. There are lessons to be learned from that great catalyst, Trump our timely political entrepreneur. Angelo Codevilla did an assessment on American Greatness—of all places—that I found compelling. It leads me to reflect that American society appears to be rearranging itself in all kinds of ways and places, or accelerating a rearrangement that was taking place.

The constellations in which publications align are changing.

The status and appeal of higher education is another change.

I think grade and high school have to be undergoing some kind of change, even if it is only in terms of reinforcing what was already right, if not outright course corrections, even as the whole is obviously pulling in different direction.

What will happen in the churches? Apart from the one in which I find myself, most of the churches I have contact with are growing. But I wonder if that is the case overall. Still, I think a situation calling for more seriousness and gravity can only benefit true religion.

Politically, it has always seemed better to me instead of having a two-party thing to have more, to fragment the big parties. Perhaps that’s unamerican of me. It is probably wishful thinking on my part, but I’d like to see political fragmentation and the need for party coalitions, not coalitions within the parties.

Next election here is going to break records in terms of women vying for the nomination, and not just in terms of the possible candidates already getting poised. This transgender moment will have women up in arms.

One last bright note: already the poison of the moment has summoned up literary antidotes.

Coronavirus Chronicles – January 16

Well, though the virus is on the rise it also appears to be on the wane. Are we seeing the crest of the last wave? In Israel they appear to be confident they will soon come out of it. They’ve had an organized and competent rollout of the vaccine, and that from coming behind in that they were not the first to obtain it. But obtain it they have, use it they have, and ahead they apparently are.

New strains of the virus have arisen, and that news sounds ominous. We also know now that you can get the virus more than once. But even the possibly ominous news is not received with the same panic—from what I can tell. I think there is a certain salutary weariness with the situation. The ability cheerfully to ignore the experts is another consequence of this moment. It does sound like relaxed restrictions are both desired and expected.

In our county in PA, the government has put of signs that say that coronavirus is no joke. There’s an example of a competent response to the situation for you.

Speaking of competent responses, the inflection point in US politics of January 6 is overshadowing the coronavirus concern. There is a general principle that you get from reputable historians; it is that however polarized and far apart the people of any given time perceive themselves to be, they are in many ways fundamentally alike. I think that what is happening with the President of the United States shows how much the hysteria of cancel culture has mutated and has a strain going on the right. Public Discourse just changed its leadership, and they lead today with an apology to those who were first colonized, the never Trumpers. It really was an inflection point.

And there’s the Big Tech angle to all this. Are they rapacious oligarchs? Are they scared and finally see a way to purge themselves? I think many are scrambling, or trying to scramble. It’s hard to scramble if you’re so big. I think the natural end of tech monopolies has been accelerated, but I do think it was coming and we are watching them endeavoring to scramble. They are used to being big and dominant, but all of a sudden that is looking like a liability.

Mollie Hemmingway is urging calm rather than panic. In times of panic, it is good to remain calm. The positive note that seems to me growing in this moment is from Victor Davis Hanson, Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro, in short, that segment of commentariat as they react to the situation. There is an optimism that in moments shades into something not entirely unlike glee. There is also a growing number of cancel survivors, and they testify that there is thriving life after cancelation for the entrepreneurial. The inflection point is accelerating growing realizations and alliances, and that is making competent people who have learned to learn and are now in opposition cheerful.

The Biden administration is already gearing up. It looks to be a lumbering beast. I have a feeling these are times that favor those who are more nimble.

Living Authors of the Unexamined Life

There are quite a few gems in the literary world at this moment, and I wanted to list them. I have been thinking of cancelling out of Twitter. The problem is the discoveries I would miss. Should I subscribe to a literary quarterly instead? Is there one that’s worth consulting? I don’t know that the literary crowd always identifies things correctly. I wonder if things aren’t missed.

Is it that I’m idiosyncratic? Perhaps. Here’s what I’ve gained mostly in the past decade that I’m grateful for in terms of fresh novels.

Donna Tartt. This American author goes slow, a book every ten years or so. Her first book, The Secret History, is a rejection of the pagan allure of learning the classics. It is a rejection of that which looks down on Christianity from learned alternatives. In that way, it is a restatement of Augustine’s City of God. It is an intriguing, off-putting, gradual, explosive, and amazing book.

Her best book, I think, is The Little Friend, in which she tries something similar to the first but with a different revelation. Tartt is most like Flannery O’Connor in this book: it is about people in the raw, the strange a violent pulse of life in most anywhere and yet particularly that place of America.

I think her most difficult and least rewarding book is The Goldfinch. It goes to the city, to New York and Las Vegas, and this America is not the America of The Little Friend. It is nevertheless intriguing to follow her complex plots. One encounters characters in so many varieties. She is always going somewhere, the climax is worth waiting for.

Her style does not pander to contemporary expectations. She writes well, but not to draw attention to her skills. She writes in order to demonstrate how character is revealed in action.

Lev Grossman. Grossman, let me be clear, is a bit of an orc; he’s endeavoring to practice arts not entirely of disenchantment but of less rapturous and chastened enchantment. He is writing to disabuse those who were enchanted by Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. He has a new book out, one targeted at children, unlike his Magicians series, which perhaps will be more mild.

Grossman is a spectacular American writer. He can do things, amazing things with setting up scenes, placing details, understands dialogue, all that kind of stuff. He is a very good writer, and he figured out something about something that intrigued him in The Magicians which he explored thoroughly. He is also making a serious point. It is not a point I entirely agree with, but it is interesting to wrestle with. I do not recommend Lev Grossman to most people I talk with about books, but I really, truly enjoy his books. I haven’t read his latest yet.

Eugene Vodolazkin. Russian literature lives on in Vodolazkin. We have to read him in translation, but the translations work well. He brings his readers on serious journeys that illuminate something of the strengths of Russian culture. He is both building and retrieving in a ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ kind of way. There are three of his books available to us in English.

Soloviov and Larionov is one of his earlier works and intriguing, but it doesn’t quite add up to the other two. It plays with the themes of history and memory and Russian particularity. Still, I think this book is more useful for understanding Vodolazkin than as a novel on its own, though it is good. It anticipates Laurus without quite succeeding the way Laurus does.

Laurus is his masterpiece. It explores the Russian Orthodox phenomenon of holy folly. It is set in Medieval Russia, mostly, and is miles and miles away from most of our experiences. And yet it is close too, because Vodolazkin wants to open that up to us and succeeds. If you have any acquaintance with the history of the ancient Christian church, that of the fourth and fifth centuries, there are echoes in this of that: the undisciplined and spontaneous eremitical impulse that leads into monasticism. This book in our lifetime has signally enriched the literary heritage of this world.

The Aviator is entirely different and as intriguing. Just figuring out why it has that title takes the whole book, and it is a discovery worth making. The book is hard to describe without giving away the interesting discoveries that compel the reader’s interest. I have yet to read it a second time in order to see what it is like without them. If it is a worthwhile book, however, it will be the richer for having been read once, and so I am looking forward to it. It is about Russia, it is about Russians, it is about what there is in the subterranean Russian that existed long before and emerges after the Communist interlude.

Paul Kingsnorth. An English author, Kingsnorth is the most challenging writer in this list. His ability to do things stylistically is his great strength, which means the reader has to master his stylistic innovations. These are considerable. That he did not get a prize for his first book is a sign that the system for prizing is broken. The Wake is set in England after the Conquest and is written in an approximation of Old English that requires intense effort for a few pages to master (reading aloud, as when learning to hear poetry, is recommended). It is worth it. It is illuminating, in fact, how much Kingsnorth accomplishes. He takes us into the consciousness of an Anglo-Saxon landholder: his bitterness, his failure, his demons, his deep pagan roots. It is one of the most astonishing books I’ve ever read.

The Beast is the second book, and it is set in our time. One can see the stylistic antecedents from The Wake in this one; it is not, of course, written in a adapted Old English style. It traces the mental deterioration of the subject as he is alone. Yes, another eremitical kind of thing, this time with admiration of St. Cuthbert. It is a shame Kingsnorth’s sympathies are more with the pagan than with the Christian past (in contrast with Vodolazkin), but there is still this lucid comparison at the heart of the novel that is favorable to ancient Irish monasticism. It is also an extraordinary book in communicating the consciousness of a man reduced to a feral state and wrestling with his demons in a compelling way.

I have not read Alexandria yet. It is set in the future. Kingsnorth used to be an environmental activist and is still thoroughly pessimistic: the calamity, he believes, is about to strike any moment. Because he became disillusioned by the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of activism, while at the same time meeting many of the kind of people who still live a hardscrabble life where volatilities in the ecology have greater impact, he expresses a desire for an old pagan connection with nature and its forces. I find it an intriguing impulse, one that I think with the upheavals our machines are causing is likely to increase, rather than diminish.

Susanna Clarke. Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a feat. We live in a world of proliferating genre fiction, much of it trivial or intolerable. But just because we are awash in a sea of mediocrity doesn’t mean that out of it objects strange and rare cannot emerge. In fact, I think in some ways the sea of bad stuff is to be expected and has to be sorted through. If people weren’t trying and failing, there would be nobody trying at all. I don’t think it is realistic in any age to expect the majority of what is attempted to succeed. Susanna Clarke earns her success through long and patient labor, and she does not settle for less.

What prompted this whole outburst from me is that I’m in the middle of her third book. The second was The Ladies of Grace Adieu, which is nothing but a collection of short stories continuing the time and place of JS&MN. But in Piranesi she has delivered something different that is still in keeping with her extraordinary abilities. She really wants to write in a remote and oblique way about religious themes, and their absence from our world. I ought not to stick my neck out too far, being where I am in Piranesi, so I’ll say no further at this point. It is looking to be a triumph though.

It makes me glad to live in times when unanticipated joys are still springing forth. This list is not entirely of the last decade, but it is mostly. I think that’s something. And to think my view is no doubt partial!

Fallout

There are those who are angry at how Donald Trump is being treated. “They aren’t coming after me,” he told a crowd some time ago, “they’re coming after you.” Many Americans believe this is true and they will stand by a anyone who will stand by them.

The problem for the right is that the experts have betrayed those who look up to them time and time and time again. This erodes confidence in their expertise and makes people think their expertise has dwindled to one thing: expertise in manipulation.

The thing about manipulation is, it doesn’t work when those who are being manipulated catch on. There are those on the right ready to offer Trump up as a whole burnt offering to placate the outraged decencies of this decent country. And yet, he has been more manipulated than manipulating in the eyes of many, and this is for him political capital. The clumsy scheming for which he lives rent-free in the minds of many is what he most brings out in anybody who opposes him. Beware of opposing him!

The notion that Trump is too toxic is for those who are unwilling to represent what they’d like to think of as the fringe but is in fact a large part of the USA. The problem with taking the moral high ground is that it is hard from that limited territory to find sufficient common ground.

There are those who think they oppose him out of courage and not from lack of prudence. What does it say about their fine principles, however, when because they are so scrupulous about their bedfellows that they find themselves in bed with the left’s outrage machine?

President Trump is earning still more capital, and I predict he will proceed entrepreneurially with it. Those who are disgusted with their fellow-citizens for following him are in full cry again. They want principles of leadership, integrity, decency! Why, after all, would anybody choose to be born in this country if it were not, after due consideration, solely on its merits as a land of decency? Donald Trump is more in touch with all the varieties of what America actually is. And his knowledge of their circumstances is for him political capital. He can be sidelined to the role of kingmaker, but only if there is someone who has the strength to stand up and take the abuse like he does. Are there conservatives who can when so many are ready to dish it out instead?

In politics there is of course a lot of manipulation. With the internet, we can even pick whose manipulation we prefer by tuning out all the rest. But to assume that the divide is between those who manipulate and those who do the manipulating seems to be a fundamental miscalculation. It is a miscalculation that those merely signaling about the moral high ground are doomed to repeat.

There are people who clean the floors, who hand coffee and breakfast sandwiches through windows, who dig up the streets, who still smoke in bars, who install solar panels, whose career is in call centers or in what is starting to look like another dead end: driving vehicles. Many of them are decent in many ways, but many of them fall below the high-minded ideal of American decency. Who, after all, lives an ideal? There are people who have only learned by trial and error how to spend and save money, who live in a chaos or borderline chaos of disrupted families and situations in which a pretense of decency eludes them, who talk about their first bankruptcy and can’t keep their closest relatives straight because there all too many factors going into the calculation. Even John Podhoretz acknowledges, Trump says to Hillary Clinton’s deplorables: I like you, I like you, I like you. People should learn from Hillary Clinton how little political capital there is in activating reflexes of disgust and fears of contamination.

Now there is another unscrupulous attempt to peel decent people away from Trump. The problem is that if it is not decently done, it is going to backfire.

The shifting of the spectrum is interesting. Robert George has been watching Tulsi Gabbard and predicts she will switch parties and run next time. She’s getting poised to do so. She’s the only appealing candidate the left had to offer last time, and she did not appeal that much to the left. It may be that this intellectual dark web political coalition might pull enough together to launch an alternative, and perhaps she’s the figurehead at the prow of their accelerating ship. Perhaps there will be a new political party that is more representative.

Coronavirus Chronicles – January 6

Lots of things going on right now.

  • Starship SN9 just static fired and should be destined for the skies maybe as soon as this weekend. From California, to Texas and next stop Mars.
  • The Democrats just wrested control of the senate from Mitch McConnel. No majority! That will make for some interesting tactical possibilities, one would think.
  • A guy in some kind of wild-Bill outfit got into congress and achieved his moment of glory, horns and all. Everybody is handwringing about the assault on the capital.
  • What appears to be an innocent bystander was shot by the police. Everybody is condemning the violence of the mob.
  • Must have been some mob, to storm the US capitol that way and sweep the security and bomb detectors and secret service and everything.
  • The headlines all over the world are roaring mayhem in Washington DC. The stain will probably never ever wash out from the purewhite fabric of this once great country.
  • The left is gleefully pouncing on it, hypocritically condemning while the horrified and infinitely manipulable right are pearl-clutching and . . . also condemning.
  • How Donald Trump turns this one to his advantage is a bit of a poser. And yet, my money is not on the scolds.
  • And the conspiracy theories multiply because people beyond shadow of a doubt believe there has to be someone masterminding it all.
  • The unexamined life is not worth leading.

Coronavirus Chronicles – January 5

Israel is in its third lockdown, England and Scotland are locking down fast, Germany is similar, and so on. Parts of Bogota are back to more lockdown, but the incentive this time around for everybody seems to be make better economic sense. These lockdowns are not as drastic. I do wonder if in some way they are targeted by political expediency more than scientific considerations.

I watch youTube videos of the streets of Bogota, the streets of Caracas, of Buenos Aires, Mexico City and St. Petersburg. Looks like facemask use is on the wane in Russia . . . where they are free? In Latin America the streets seem back to normal, but the masks are ubiquitous. I’m happy to say that lax mask discipline is still the thing in York Co.

In PA we just came out of a heightened restriction that blanketed the holiday season. You can go back to the restaurants that followed the governor’s directives—though you would have had options going to places which did not. Traffic never really dropped to the levels we saw in March this time around; stores didn’t implement all kinds of patchy and random approaches. By now we all know the drill.

The governor of FL is in the crosshairs of the media for being the most competent with the vaccines. He fights back, which is something learned, a new lesson and a positive sign. Our Trump is still fighting because he has never learned to do otherwise. And so another year begins.

Coronavirus Chronicles – December 23

I think the moment is revealing a lot of incompetence. It is what I find most striking in what I see and hear. We have mistaken privilege for competence, and we are learning that there really is a difference. We thought the credentials and certifications all meant more than we are seeing they actually do. Now we are looking at the hollowness of the shell. We are seeing the inside and it doesn’t have what we thought it did. Think about it: the USA is today a country in which a man such as our president, Donald Trump, no moral paragon, can stand up and indict the whole of Washington for its greed and incompetence with all the credibility of an Old Testament prophet. What a blast!

We are living the latest lockdown here in PA—all the way till January 4. The first one was due to panic. Now it is the idiotic repetition of what cannot give results because they do not know what else to do. People, however, know what to do. There is still competence to be found, just not credentialed or certified. The roads are not as deserted as they were the first time around; the government has not dared shut down as much as it did then; and, at least here, among those who are supposed to be shut down, not all comply. The outposts of resistance which began to bloom last May, continue spreading.

Speaking of which, at the American Mind they are talking about what we need to deal with next: the fact that in all the West there are now two competing and incompatible ideas of what a human being is. It does seem that the effect of the politics of our moment along with the coronavirus have accelerated the polarization this is causing. I don’t think the Biden years are going to be more quiet.

Coronavirus Chronicles – December 12

Some coronavirus season joy. This week saw the exhilarating flight of Starship Serial-Number 8. It is 9 meters in diameter and 50 meters tall. It is powered by methalox, and designed as the first completely reusable rocket—besides being among the largest rockets ever. The goal is to start parking Starships on the Moon and Mars soon, and eventually to come and go.

The problem with reusing all of a rocket is not simply the problem of landing it, but that of re-entry. Objects re-entering Earth’s atmosphere burn up. The way the Starship overcomes that is by re-entering belly first, its abdominal sections more thoroughly protected than Smaug’s but with heat shielding. Then the problem is righting the ship in order to use the engines to slow it down so that it touches the ground gently, right way up, and on its legs. The SN8, may it rest in pieces, managed almost all of it. It rose spectacularly on a bare minimum of engines, it descended laterally, belly first, and then reignited its rocket engines and swung itself over at just the right time. It nevertheless made contact with the landing pad more violently than intended and performed what in the industry is known as a rapid unscheduled disassembly. It was determined that the problem was with the pressurization of the tank fueling the landing burn. With insufficient fuel, the engines failed to provide the necessary thrust to slow the beast.

Which is a spectacularly successful first time test of a prototype! It outperformed your average rocket being launched all over the world if you consider that all these do is shoot up as far as they’ll go and then tumble back into the sea. Emotionally, it could not have been better, with the joy of waiting long months over, the frustration of several last-minute delays, the intrigue of the in-flight camera trained on what the engines were doing, the awe of the precise airborne maneuvering of this air-whale, and the celebratory conflagration at the end. Lots of people are fond of the SN8 as a result.

The bad news is that its successor, SN9, fell over not long after that in the construction bay. Everybody will be very happy if it makes it out and up and back again.

* * *

PA, like many other places in the world, is seeing an increase in restrictions over the holidays. Hospitals are full: apparently almost 14% of the population has tested positive for it. On the grounds that the hospitals are full and the staff is stretched there is cause for concern. On the other hand, nobody is talking about opening stadiums or bringing hospital ships into the harbor of the city of Philadelphia. The restrictions have shut down bars and all indoor dining for the duration of the holidays. There is much tail-gaiting going on in certain places. If you can do outdoors for football then, I suppose, you can do outdoors for beer.

I do think that at this point there are two considerations for Christians in this. First let me discount a third, though. I do not myself think the sixth commandment is at this point an obvious consideration. This may be due to the fact that I have during the course of my life not been plagued with bad health. I am not, when it comes to physical hazards, all that risk-averse and I take a more minimal than maximal view to the considerations the sixth commandment brings up. There are Christians for which the sixth commandment offers compelling considerations in this time. I think this is in large part due to the sensationalizing of the whole thing, the over-awareness creating a phenomenon similar to another exaggeration of the imagination: germophobia.

I think Romans 13 is a much more compelling consideration. What I don’t want is for some part of Scripture to lose its force because of this. Paul told people to submit to Nero and his government, a tyrannical empire. And, in the end, the highest consideration for any Christian is to keep a clean conscience before God. We will answer to his government, and defiling our conscience is much more important than whether or not we have civil liberties.

But I do think there are the stronger (as opposed to the weaker) in all this, and these are those who believe that we also need to defend our civil liberties. Not because having them is more important than a clear conscience, but because keeping a clear conscience means behaving with courage and intelligence in the face of creeping despotic tendencies. I do think we have ceded too much and I do not believe we do well to cede any more.

I don’t think the government of PA is malevolently despotic, though many of those who inhabit this commonwealth do. I think they are benevolently incompetent, and this mostly accounts for the whole. There is in all this too much, as Christopher Flannery put it in the latest Claremont Review of Books, of a “deference to the authority of opaque and demonstrably fallible science” that in good (informed) conscience cannot be tolerated. Some sense that precedents are being set, that opportunities are being tested, that the unscrupulous are gaining insight. While we still have the sense that ours ought to be limited government, we should challenge that which exceeds the limits placed on it. One thing was the emergency of uncertainty and panic that beset us in March, but to play the same cards in December is a telling presumption on the malleability of the populace. There is a coronavirus that has colonized the mutilated moral imagination of our moment, and the immune response of indignation and dismissal I think is warranted of people who insist, if not on being free at least on refusing to encourage despots.

At the same time, I do not believe our civil liberties are more important than a clear conscience. Civil liberties are of the temporal realm, and part of human government; a clean conscience is a matter with eternal consequences and a part of God’s government. God’s government is far more consequential than this fleeting moment’s human arrangement. And so I would urge the strong in this matter to be clothed in lowliness and meekness when dealing with their weaker brothers, those who do not see how they can do other than submit.

Coronavirus Chronicles – December 8

Well, people are being vaccinated. I think Russia was the first a few days ago, Britain is starting today, and even the massive and incompetent bureaucracy of our own administrative state is lumbering toward grudging approval.

We have learned many things in this time, haven’t we? The only way the problems of this swift year are not otherwise unprofitable is if we learn from them. Learn how persistent unscrupulous and incompetent people are at remaining in charge. I think we have learned that a long, concerted effort is always required to weed these growths. Learn to follow the money. Learn not to consider credentials the same as a real education. Learn to be more ready and even more eager for adversity. I’m thinking a lot about how much we live for prosperity, convenience, low-hanging fruit, irritation when comforts are lost, and all those kinds of things. These ways habituate us to character traits that then make us susceptible to tyranny. Of course, all these things were true before, but thanks to this year, I understand them better than formerly.

I read a good article in the CRB about the future of higher education. The author suggests that online learning will thin out the rank of bad teachers and make the option of good teachers and the best courses more widely available. He argues that there aren’t enough good teachers available for the demands made by the prevailing model. I think this also is part of realizing how many mediocrities persist and cling like parasites, debilitating the whole. He sees two problems to be overcome in higher education. One is that of obtaining credentials for studying with a patchwork of online courses. Surely that can be coordinated by means of the accreditation systems in place. Already the movement back and forth seems to me to be pretty fluid. The other more formidable obstacle is the social dimension of learning. I wonder if that’s not something that malls could be repurposed to do. How would malls attract students? Well, they could have libraries and such services for people who want to study. Can you imagine if your old J C Penney were turned into a standardized research library? Or a port for a subscription library with based on interlibrary loans? Also, look at how people use coffee shops. So open a mall with those kinds of venues, put in exercise facilities, put in coffee shops, put in pizza joints, put in stores with office supplies and electronics, put in high speed internet connections, and also provide the kinds of labs and the infrastructure that online learning doesn’t but that learning does require. Something like that. Instead of putting careerist administrators in charge of it, put it on a competitive business footing. Subject it to the market forces. And let them gather in those kinds of spaces with others who are studying the same things, or just others who are studying. Or people who want to be around books and coffee and pizza, the salt of the earth! And let the college outreach groups rent locales, the religious groups, the political groups, and such. The only thing we have to lose is college sports. Of course, you could be creatively readjusted as well, and branded, and marketed no doubt..

Coronavirus Chronicles – November 20

Well, I think in the contest between Turkey Day Authoritarians to eliminate Thanksgiving PA won. Godfather Cuomo is trying threats in NY, Newsom is shooting himself in the foot, but our wily governor and his able transgender assistant score. What did they do? Decree a quarantine for anybody coming from out of state to discourage attendance and then decree that face-masks must be worn even in homes if there are non-residents in attendance. It is not enforceable, but it will do what it needs to: discourage many plans. It works because there’s always someone who believes it is well-intended, because many Christians will submit as to proper authorities, because there are people who are sick of it and it conjures up apathy, and because there are those who really think there will be cops out counting the cars in their driveway. Multi-pronged.

It worked in our case. The plans are off. Well, it makes the workweek easier to schedule and accomplish.

I was wondering what to do about church. Do I tell people they have to submit? What I will do is just to ignore it. If anybody wants to wear a facemask, my policy has always been you are welcome to. I do not enforce the State’s declarations, they have no authority to tell God’s people to muffle the praises of God, at restaurants you can take your facemask off, at bars, to smoke, but the worship of God is less necessary? I think you could argue either way, and that is the whole of my reasoning: or my sheer ambivalence at this point.

Will the aftereffects of all these restrictions be a libertarian backlash? I have a feeling they will. There is apathy and weariness, but eventually there will be rest and there is also unchanneled resentment in all this. We have already known some explosions.

I observed recently that the facemask situation in the markets of York was a lax one. I had occasion to visit the market at Lancaster and noticed that the facemask discipline there is very thorough. No slipping masks, no brave souls in bare defiance, everything snug and even entry limitations. All is enforcement there.

Interesting also to see how much vagrancy they have in Lancaster. They have far more people begging at the traffic lights than ever. The vagrants stand out for their lack of masks and the carboard signs they carry. You don’t see that here. In fact, recently, the deadbeats that clustered around certain parts of Hanover first lost their comfortable seating and have gradually all managed to disappear.

I don’t think it is the colder weather. One thing the colder weather does for me, however, which I noticed in Lancaster where I had to wear a mask more than I normally would: the cold makes you glad for that thing on your face.