New piece on “Leadership,” Christianity, and Neoliberalism

This was a fun one.

Awhile ago Angela Reistma Bick, the intrepid editor of the Christian Courier, mentioned that she was doing a special issue on leadership and its rhetoric within protestant American Christian circles. I said something cranky. She invited me to be cranky at greater length. I did a little research among Christian leadership blogs. My crankiness turned to outright bitchiness. (Which is usually a sign you’re doing something wrong, Christianly speaking.) I posted about the article-in-progress on Facebook, and my friends, several of whom are in ministry and/or better people than I am, turned the whole thing around by giving me some examples of writing that helps them to do their jobs. So this isn’t really my article; it’s their article with some animadversions about global capitalism slapped onto the beginning. (But I’m still the one getting paid. Am I part of the rentier class now?)

Here it is!


A friend is mystified by Brexit and, even more so, by the certainty with which various people hold their opinions on it. “I don’t understand myself,” he writes. “How in the world do people hold neat, coherent worldviews?” It occurs to me that they don’t. Or at least that I don’t, despite my best efforts. I think the way a distracted person rearranges a room: tidy up this corner, try to establish some sort of harmony between these bits of furniture, take a break, go to the bathroom, start on another corner, repeat, realize only hours or months later that you’ve built several little islands of consistency that belong to totally incompatible floor plans. And then you do it again. And that’s intellectual life. Is it different for other people? How?

“Do Universities Discriminate Against Conservatives” is a Horribly Framed Question

Nicholas Kristoff is once again raising the issue of whether academia discriminates against conservatives. Since I go on basically the same rant every time this topic comes up, I thought I’d better place the rant in a central location and save myself some time.

I find this conversation frustrating every time it happens, for several reasons, the main one being that “conservative” is almost as hopeless of a descriptor as “liberal.” It can mean not only different things, but diametrically opposed things.

Which “conservatism” is being repressed from academia? Certainly not the flavor of conservatism that uncritically celebrates markets or finds ways to blame the effects of inequality on personal failings. That’s dominant in academia—in business schools, econ, etc. Most of all, it’s dominant among the people who sign our checks. It’s less well-represented in humanities departments simply because the value of the humanities is more or less unintelligible from within the terms of that worldview. It’d be like trying to join the clergy when you don’t believe in God (though that’s happened too!).

The various traditionalist conservatisms have a lot more to offer the humanities. I profit from reading Samuel Johnson, Hugh Kenner, John Ruskin (though he was a hypocrite and pedophile), Wendell Berry, on all sorts of issues, even when fundamentally disagreeing with them. But the more you believe that education, or exposure to other ways of life, or cosmopolitan places and values is in and of itself a ruinous kind of deracination, the more your fundamental commitments are going to be in tension with any kind of job at a secular university, or even at a religious university insofar as that university does anything besides indoctrinate. If people are better off just listening to grandpa and pastor, it’s hard to say what use universities are.

So, basically, how much I want conservatives to be better represented in academia depends on which of the million meanings of that word is relevant in a particular case. Yes, it makes me mad that my thoughtful and compassionate Burkean friend feels (accurately or not) that he’ll never be able to get a job in the professoriate. On the other hand, no, I don’t want more climate change deniers in academia. That position is horseshit and people only seriously argue it when you pay them to. No, I don’t want more slavery apologists in history departments. No, I don’t want people who lie about the extent and cruelty of the British Empire teaching history. This is as much as to say “I don’t want more liars to get paid for lying.”

Or, there’s this: William F. Buckley is considered the founder of “modern” conservatism. His career basically started with a call for a) the Ivies to be purged of left and liberal faculty and b) universities to explicitly devote themselves to teaching whatever the billionaires funding them want taught. (Basically, as I understand it, he wanted universities to operate more or less as think tanks do—Heritage’s donors want certain conclusions reached; so do those of the Center for American Progress; those conclusions are duly reached. Sounds like an awful way to live, but whatever.) No, I don’t want as my colleague a person whose understanding of intellectual life is basically prostitution.

Or, there’s this: In humanities departments, a “conservative position” has often been indistinguishable from “a position that dismisses intellectual curiosity wholesale when applied to the Wrong Subject.” The wrong subject, yes, usually has dark skin and/or a vagina (whether born-with or newly-built). Ishmael Reed has called the refusal to even look at black literature by its right name: anti-intellectualism. That’s all it is. So is the refusal to admit that it might be worthwhile to know something about how black children came into the world during the nineteenth century. A conservative journalist lost her job at Chronicle of Higher Education for that refusal. I’m damn glad she did. If you think curiosity about humans is stupid, you really have no place in the humanities.

There are probably other varieties of conservatism I’m overlooking. Then there are beliefs that get labeled “conservative” for weird and eccentric reasons. I’ve been accused of conservatism, hilariously enough, because I’m not a relativist; because I think old books are worth reading too; because I use the word “beautiful” unironically; because I hold to a high Christology; because I think human rights are real; because I think the anti-humanism that prevails in pop-scientific writing is stupid and incoherent and will have evil outcomes; because I hate a lot of the Age of Theory writers and I hate the dumbed-down, soundbite versions of them that constrain the allowable conversations within English departments even more. Also, I just a couple of paragraphs used “prostitution” pejoratively, which puts me at odds with a whole wing of the modern left. (Note: I think sex work should be legal and union-protected, and its stigma redistributed to its consumers. Which, given the mainstreaming of porn, is much of the society, at one time or another. There are a lot of things I wish we humans didn’t do that I don’t want anyone put in jail or publicly mocked for.)

My point is, when we talk about the question “are conservatives oppressed in academia?”, we could mean anything from “Should we hire more slavery apologists in history departments” to “Should we hire more philosophers who argue seriously for the existence of the soul” to “Should Alan Jacobs be able to get a job wherever the hell he wants” to “Should aesthetics matter in English departments.” (If anyone’s wondering, my answers to those questions are No; Yes; Yes, That Guy is Brilliant and I’ve Heard He’s Dynamite in the Classroom; and Yes, There Should Be Room For Aesthetic Considerations In the Study of Literature, But Maybe Actually Check Whether Women and POC and Third World Writers AreDoing Beautiful Work Before You Laugh Them Off the Syllabus.)

No good can come of acting like those are all the same question.

“Got to keep searching and searching and oh what will I be believing and who will connect me with love?”: My piece on Bowie

Yeah, yeah, I’m late. I like to think about these things. You’ll be hearing from me about Prince sometime in 2020.*

Anyway, here’s the piece I spent most of February on; it’s a meditation on Bowie and also an attempt to boost the sales of Chris O’Leary’s superb Rebel Rebel, one of my favorite books of music criticism in some years.

*Just kidding; Tressie’s already said everything I’d want to say on that. Darn her to heck.

Old piece on Raymond Tallis and Mary Midgley

My friend and Christian Courier book review editor Brian Bork informs me that this piece was published a long time ago. Figures, because I wrote it almost a year ago. Man, I had fun compressing the experience of twelve or so philosophy books to a few pages. But “experience” is just a trick your brain plays on your nonexistent mind, or something. 

In college, I had a roommate who could spend whole evenings arguing that he, the first-person being we knew and (sometimes) loved, did not exist. What he called himself, what he experienced as a unified being with agency and will, was just the firing of neurons in a predictable response to random stimuli—a soulless program. Nature, of course, was the programmer, or, as we’d say now, the brogrammer: cheery, rapacious, and utterly amoral.

Once, he mocked me for having cleaned the kitchen without calling attention to the fact that I had done so. This, he informed me, was poor strategy from an evolutionary-psychology perspective (I forget why). I had gotten tired of the subject, and snapped back—with unpardonable self-righteousness—“Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” He shook his head and muttered, “I just can’t quite trust that rule…” Even in my irritation, I was struck that he found a twenty-year-old pseudoscience more trustworthy than the words of a guy who, Son of God or not, was surely a successful organism, having bent billions at least partially to his will over a period of two thousand years. But that will was precisely the issue. By denying his own personality, agency, personhood—his own existence as a human being, properly so called—my friend, who had been raised in a strict and sometimes inhumane fundamentalist environment, was actually displaying considerable agency. He was willfully seizing on bad arguments in order to throw off a religion that, for very good reasons, he associated not with love—the thing that makes Jesus’ claims on our own wills something other than mere tyranny—but with masochism and repression.

My friend’s was a sad case, and fairly advanced. Nevertheless, you too may know someone suffering from reductionism. Help is at hand. Two recent books of philosophy, Are You an Illusion by Mary Midgley and Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis, have pointed out, quickly, wittily, and thoroughly, all the ways in which this line of thinking is not only self-destructive but unscientific. And because both authors are, at a minimum, agnostic about God—Tallis is a very firm atheist—they can’t be dismissed as religious special pleaders. It further helps that both Tallis and Midgley, unlike many philosophers, can write. Tallis is a true polymath: doctor, professor of geriatric medicine, clinical neuroscientist, poet, philosopher, novelist. (One example of his range: He wrote the great takedown of those overrated French sophists whose ideas dominated literary theory during the 1980s and 1990s. It’s called Not Saussure, and I hereby recommend it to any student or teacher of the humanities who groans when she or he hears the words “More theory!”) As for Midgley, she was a lecturer in philosophy for many years, and her many books have a directness, simplicity, depth, and dry humor that make one envy her students. If we wanted a truly educated populace, an army of Midgleys dispatched to all of the world’s community colleges would be a great start.

Tallis’s book is a virtual encyclopedia of what he calls “neuromania,” the idea that we are our brains. He knows the science. In fact, this book gave me the clearest explanation of what a neural impulse is, and how one works, that I’ve ever read. (A stimulus travels through the brain, in a wave. As it travels it sends positively charged sodium ions into the axon; to maintain its negative charge, the axon has to spit out positively charged potassium ions. I feel like I should win a contest for knowing that.) Tallis is very entertaining and informative on the history of brain science (did you know squids have giant axons, almost visible to the naked eye, which makes them helpful for lab work?), and that’s long before he’s even gotten to the kind of philosophical brawling of which he is a master. I can’t begin to do justice to the number and intricacy of his arguments. Here is one: we often hear from science journalists that neuroscience has “disproved” free will. Tallis gives a detailed response to Libet’s experiments of the 1980s that supposedly established this (and in doing so he somehow refrains, as I won’t, from pointing out how ironic it is that “libet” is the Latin word for “like, prefer, want,” i.e. will.) Libet told his subjects to decide, at a certain point in the experiment, either to flex or not flex their wrists, and to note the moment at which they were conscious of making a decision; he then found wrist-flex-related brain activity somewhat preceded that moment. Ergo, we are mere puppets of our brains! Tallis points out that the action of flexing the wrist, here, is just as easily read not as an action in itself but as part of a larger process, participating in the experiment, undertaken for all sorts of reasons; that a snapshot of brain activity taken at one moment in this process tells us essentially nothing about how intentionality would function over the course of a weeks-long action far more involved than flexing or not flexing a wrist. In fact, the picking-out of a single, isolated action—of one particular moment of flexing—is itself unavoidably a matter of perspective, i.e. of consciousness: there is no perspective without mind, no view from nowhere. The scientist’s findings, already laden throughout with such acts of mind, can’t possibly prove the absence of mind.

Many of Tallis’s arguments converge on this point, actually: that those who dismiss consciousness often do so by means of arguments that smuggle in the idea of a point of view from somewhere, and that this concept is unintelligible—literally just gibberish—unless we’ve already conceded that consciousness exists. Take the argument that consciousness evolved at some point in time because it conferred survival advantage upon single organisms (who were then more reproductively successful, etc.). Aside from the fact that this constitutes a massive, undeserved slam on unconscious processes—ants build cities, bees make maps, animals make new animals, with no help from consciousness—it overlooks the fact that, in a universe without mind, there is no distinction to be made between an organism and its environment. Till mind steps in and starts naming things, it’s all just chemicals interacting, all the way down.

I have barely scratched the surface of Aping Mankind, which, given the importance of its themes and the breadth of its treatment of them, becomes practically an intellectual history and critique of the last thirty years. (As this is a religious newspaper, I have to recommend his takedown of the “God gene” theory, and of efforts to dismiss God’s existence by waving at some putative God-sensing area in some peoples’ brains.)

Midgley’s book is much shorter. She’s a burrower, the sort of thinker who gnaws at the same problems for decades, throwing off a brief, intense book every few years. (I have read eight or nine; they’re all great.) Are You an Illusion offers compelling arguments that you are not, but where Midgley is especially helpful is in tracing the philosophical history of this kind of silliness. She points out, for example, that the habit of reducing the mind to the body is, in some ways, a twisted cousin of the fascinating-but-batty Enlightenment argument that, moving from the other side, tried to reduce the body to the soul. (Think of Bishop Berkeley.) And, though Midgley is not a Christian, her lifelong interest in the natural world makes her helpful to those of us who want to think more deeply about what it means to be an embodied soul.

Embodied soul: that blessed paradox. You finish both of these books with an increased respect for both of its sides, and with much-sharpened awe at the fact, and mystery, of their coinherence. Midgley and Tallis make you thankful to inhabit that complex state of being, so beautiful and fragile, and from which so much of contemporary thought seems to recoil.


A Piece of Wisdom from SO SAD TODAY

I read Melissa Broder‘s So Sad Today (2016) last night. I have a fascination-repulsion thing going with her work. Like Ben Lerner, she reminds me of what would happen to me if a) I were (or had been) a little more willing to put myself out there socially; b) I hadn’t found a drug that works on my anxiety more or less as soon as I was diagnosed with it (granted, that was after ten years of living with it); c) I’d had less faithmeaning in this case, and for once, not religious belief but more like the ability to shrug off some of my emotions when these deny what I believe to be true. (I don’t feel like my teaching is worth doing some days, but I know it is, and so I don’t self-sabotage my way out of a job.) And both of those writers, more than any other contemporaries, are also d) good enough to make me pay attention when they describe exactly the sorts of messes I can see my other self, that other, slightly bolder and more mercurial and more charismatic version of me, making.

I am threatened by these writers because they make that other self and his mistakes uncannily close, uncannily real. The way that I experience this sense of threat is as annoyance. I find myself yelling at the books: “Put your damn phone down.” “Go outside.” “If porn makes you feel squicky, maybe stop watching it.” (If I can stay away from that stuff, anybody can. Really. Anybody.) I don’t like the moralistic, hectoring older brother that I turn into when I read these two writers, so I tend to read their books once, with grudging admiration, and then give them away. I can’t spend that much time with my doppelganger.

I will probably give away my copy of So Sad Today, but not because I’m not glad I read it. Broder describes General Anxiety Disorder with breathtaking (a sadly appropriate word) accuracy, and also the kind of insane self-consciousness that (at least for me) goes along with it, the way you can register others’ possible disapproval of you like a smell in the air. But what struck me most was a passage near the end:

I walk into the kitchen and I kiss [my husband] with an open mouth. I kiss him with an open mouth, as if he is not my husband. Or I kiss him as though he is my husband, but that the words husband and wife mean something else—not what I have perceived them to mean through my own fears.

In this moment I resolve to kiss my husband with an open mouth forever. I want to freeze him the way I see him in this instant: dark eyebrows, sexy, sleepy hair and sleepy eyes. But we can’t freeze the way that we see the people we love, as much as we would wish. I know that I will kiss my husband with a closed mouth again, at some point. I know that I will even kiss him with a closed heart.

I pray for our love. I pray that even if I kiss my husband with a closed heart, my heart opens again to him. When I desire my husband, I am grateful to desire my husband. What can we hope for in a marriage but to keep seeing things anew? With the people we love, it is so easy to stop seeing them at all. 

This passage beautifully and honestly exemplifies what I meant by the word “faith,” above. (Broder and her husband are not always “faithful” in the conventional sense of the word; many of the preceding pages have described their, especially her, experiments in polyamory.) If you’re going to have any kind of a distinctive life at all, you sometimes have to ignore your internal weather, the evidence not necessarily of your senses (though sometimes those too) but of your emotions. You have to be kind when you’re irritated, because you know the person in front of you doesn’t really deserve your irritation. You have to enjoy people and things when you’re hurting, because you know that those people and things merit the attention that in your woundedness you want to withhold from them. You have to work when you’re lazy, or when you’ve despaired of the value of your work, to the best of your ability, and with as little self-condemnation as you can manage. It’s a kind of perception: notice how she keeps talking about “seeing.” (Cf. Paul’s “The substance of things not seen.”) For those of us with mental-health issues, especially anxiety, “faith” in this sense is especially necessary. General Anxiety will tell you there’s a blizzard all the time, so that when in fact it’s sunny and seventy degrees and your nephew wants to be taken to the park, you have to tell yourself, loudly, “No, actually, it’s fine, you can leave the house.” Faith is a kind of faking-it-till-you-realize-you’ve-already-made-it.

In this sense, Broder, who spends much of the book making herself sound like a person with no discipline or capacity for self-denial whatsoever, has built a marriage worth admiring: her husband, as the essay describes, suffers from a chronic illness that keeps him bedridden more and more of the time. She has shown considerable character and love (these are the same thing, in a way: character is love that has temporarily lost its vision) in sticking with him. My wife and I don’t have to face these challenges, but no marriage stays alive without at least a little grit on both sides. On May 22, we’ll have been married six years. Between my depression and anxiety and her overwork and overwhelmedness, we’ve had to kiss each other with closed hearts before, and I guarantee we’ll do it again. Very young people think of this as a kind of treason to the self, but actually it’s the opposite. It’s refusing to let today’s mood, today’s bullshit, be the final vote on what you are to each other. It’s losing the vision but caring enough about it to let it come back. I am grateful to this brilliant poet and essayist for so beautifully articulating the point.


(I’m gonna try to keep track of my reading here a bit more. I keep finding myself wanting to make exactly the the kind of throwaway points that blogging is great for, but they usually need the context of whatever I was reading at the time. Also, I’d rather type than copy out quotes in a Moleskine.)

Yesterday I finished with George MacDonald and His Wife, a double biography, though heavily concentrated on George, the novelist, fairy tale writer, translator of the German Romantics, and lay theologian whose work has inspired a Tori Amos musical and also basically C.S. Lewis’s entire life.

The book was published in 1924 by MacDonald’s son Greville and seems not to be available online. It’s the kind of fat, shamelessly biased memorial they used to do before everyone foolishly decided that biography should be exhaustive, impartial, and judicious, i.e. boring. It’s also full of excerpts from letters written between MacDonald and his family, or between the MacDonalds and their friends, which include such notables as Lady Byron (the poet’s scorned first wife), Lewis Carroll, and John Ruskin. (The MacDonalds seem never even to imagine that Ruskin’s notorious obsession with the preteen Rose LaTouche could possibly be sexual in nature. That’s the one disadvantage of a nature as good as MacDonald’s: you can’t see ugliness when it’s right in front of you. Same with Carroll, though apparently scholars are still debating what exactly happened there and how perverse it was.) I think publishers used to sometimes do this sort of book in cases where there wasn’t a market for separate Collected Letters of and Life of volumes. This alone makes the book something of a must-read for MacDonald lovers, though I can’t say that I “finished” the book in the sense of reading every page. I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to do that with a biography, save Boswell. Nobody’s every-single-word-of-567-pages interesting except Dr. J.

The book, needless to say, is beautiful and inspiring, as indeed it could hardly help being, longeurs and all. These were a few of my favorite pages.

  1. Ruskin writes a letter of recommendation in 1865, hoping to get MacDonald a teaching gig. In the course of this dashed-off letter, Ruskin also manages to anticipate, and extend, some of my own darkest questions about the nature and value of teaching rhetoric. (In turn, Ruskin is probably echoing Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana book IV, where he points out that knowing the rules of eloquence and being eloquent are distinct or even, in the moment of utterance, opposed things, and then suggests that you ditch the rulebook and have the kiddos study models of eloquence. The clever ones will sort it out and the others are hopeless.)

    That Ruskin is the kind of writer who can propound a mini-rhetorical theory in the middle of a routine LOR is one reason so many of us still read the old muttonchopped pedophile.


  2. This is of mainly personal interest: Louisa MacDonald, during George’s successful (but health-threatening) 1873 speaking tour of the US (he chilled with Mark Twain!), writes to their daughter Lily from my town, Ann Arbor, MI. MacDonald kept pissing off his tour promoter by doing free sermons for any church that asked, because that’s how you roll if you’re George MacDonald. He preached one night in Ann Arbor, and every other church in town shut down evening services so that the clergy could go learn from a master. Except the damn Episcopalians. Figures.


  3. MacDonald’s vision is among the most joyous in literature, but a great melancholy took him in last years, though he appears never to have lost his faith. (Indeed, Lilith is a product of these years, characteristic of them both in its hope and its gravity.) Even a belief in universal reconciliation and resurrection from the dead can’t fully save us from, well, life. This is Greville’s utterly devastating portrait of MacDonald in the very last years, when his wife had already died. He sounds like Odysseus’s dog.