A writer for the alchemic Buzzfeed (a philosopher’s stone which turns all it touches into virulent internet content) explains “why we actually hate all things pumpkin spice.” Turns out, we don’t hate syrupy venti Starbucks lattes, glottal fry, or Ugg boots for their own sake, but for what they represent, which is a certain class identity characterized by
a banal existence, obsessed with Instagramming photos of things that themselves betray their basicness (other basic friends, pumpkin patches, falling leaves), tagging them #blessed and #thankful, and then reposting them to the basic breeding grounds of Facebook and Pinterest.
In other words, the conspicuous consumption of products which show the consumer to have uncultivated taste and lack of individuality. The writer suggests that our position of judging said consumer to be “basic” is rooted in class insecurity—the need to separate one’s own more discriminating tastes from those of the petit bourgeois mob.
Near the end of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov, the eldest brother Dmitri is wrongly accused of his father Fyodor’s murder. Spectators at the trial had mostly assumed Dmitri’s guilt, and many in the crowd felt that Dmitri’s personal wrongs against them were being avenged. Only the reader has witnessed the scene in which Dmitri, seething with rage at his wretched adulterer of a father, grasps a pestle in his pocket—and then, mastering himself, swallows his anger and backs out of his plan to kill his forebear. Only the reader has seen Fyodor’s illegitimate son Smerdyakov admit to the murder.
The Brothers Karamozov concludes, some months after Dmitri’s trial, with the funeral of a peasant boy named Ilyusha. Earlier, Dmitri had learned that Ilyusha’s impoverished father, the “Captain,” was involved in Fyodor Karamozov’s illicit business dealings. Dmitri, who had been swindled by the Captain, exacted a humiliating revenge, dragging him through the street by his beard as his son and neighbors looked on. Ilyusha’s schoolmates teased him violently for the incident, throwing stones that hit him hard in his chest. Ilyusha died from his wounds two days after Dmitri was found guilty for a murder he did not commit.
No court could ever convict Dmitri for Ilyusha’s death. The legal system can only sentence the person immediately responsible for a murder. But Dostoevsky’s genius shines a floodlight on the intricate and thorny web of moral cause and effect. Continue reading Conservatism and progress
This Valentine’s Day, Oliver Morrison wrote a self-congratulatory love note to his fellow liberals in the Atlantic, arguing that the Left presently dominates the world of political satire because liberals are more tolerant of irony and ambiguous humor than conservatives.
Despite Morrison’s overtures to neutrality, his argument amounts to little more than the latest in a long line of attempts to demonstrate that liberals are smarter, cleverer, funnier, and subtler than conservatives. Morrison cited a study which found conservatives often failed to recognize that Stephen Colbert is not actually conservative, as evidence that conservatives don’t understand ambiguity. But the study’s authors drew a more [cough] ambiguous conclusion—they wrote, “we have outlined a cognitive process in which individuals who consume ambiguous political messages from ambiguous sources in late-night comedy interpret the messages in ways that support or reinforce personally held political beliefs,” suggesting that their results don’t reflect some difference in liberal or conservative DNA, but rather the fact that people tend to see what they want to see in ambiguous situations. So, confirmation bias.
But Morrison and I could trade stories about clowns on both ends of the left-right spectrum all day without either of us convincing the other. It would be more useful to point out the irony of his argument about irony: in the age of the post-liberal Left, old-fashioned political snark, the kind he says is so dear to liberals, is in grave peril.
Morrison’s article reminded me of the well-publicized case of Justine Sacco, a corporate executive who tweeted a distasteful joke about AIDS, sparked a global wave of Twitter outrage, lost her job, faced death threats, and is now, as a recent New York Times Magazine article revealed, effectively in hiding. Sacco still insists, as she has all along, that the offending tweet (“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”) was intended as satire, a joke about Westerners who are oblivious to the problems that plague the continent in the vein of the beloved hashtag #firstworldproblems. And while Sacco’s satire comes off as more juvenile than Juvenalian, there’s no reason to doubt her intentions in retrospect, since by all accounts she’s a very committed liberal. Sacco’s infinitely more likely to mock Western privilege than to make the insensitive joke that this tweet would have been were it sincere. But she turned the snark up too high, and paid dearly for it.
Steven Colbert himself learned something about the perils of snark in the well-publicized #CancelColbert affair last March. The official Colbert Report Twitter account tweeted an offensive line about Asians, which Colbert had deployed to mock the racism of Redskins owner Dan Snyder, out of context. The Twitter activist Suey Park read the tweet, still out of context, and leveraged her considerable following to start what is commonly known as a “Twitter Firestorm” and demand retribution from Colbert and Comedy Central. Fortunately for Colbert, he’s a darling of the mainstream media, which quickly came to his rescue by pointing out that no, one of the most beloved liberals in America is not actually a flaming racist. But Colbert had stepped over the line. His snark was too snarky, too close to the sort of verbal violence and rhetorical repression progressives imagine they might hear from a gun-toting Harley-Davidson rider at a gas station in rural Alabama.
Liberals have learned from the cases of Sacco, Colbert, and others, which is why the satirical Twitter account Women Against Feminism, with 92,000 followers, clarifies its status as snark by making its tweets grammatically incoherent and rife with spelling errors. “I don’t need feimsis I like my men to be MASCULINE!! I will only date a man if he washes himself with shark blood and exfoliates with gravel.” Unfortunately, even these precautions are not enough, since most of its tweets still attract angry, deadly-serious replies accusing them of furthering the misogynist cause. At least so far there haven’t been any outraged hashtag campaigns against the account. Still, by qualifying itself so painfully, WAF’s snark loses its deadpan quality and ends up so obvious as to be mostly charmless and uninteresting.
No piece about the downfall of satire would be complete without the obligatory reference to “A Modest Proposal,” so here you go: if Jonathan Swift had published his legendary piece of snark today, the Twitter firestorm would probably have consumed several cloud computing storage centers.
The post-liberal Left, eternally vigilant for the least sign of ideological impurity, is now devouring its own parents, the jesters who made light of conservatism’s worst excesses back when liberals were in the minority.
Among the survivors of the purge is Jon Stewart, whose singularly straightforward brand of humor seems to be ideally suited to the post-snark age. Stewart excels at pointing out silly things that Fox News and Republican members of Congress do or say in clever ways, but his signature moments, which generally involve passionate shouting about the idiocy of X person or Y organization with the occasional self-deprecating joke thrown in, are not exactly ambiguous. And understandably so, because a little snark is a dangerous thing, and being misunderstood can cost you dearly in a world of angry young people with large Twitter followings, and a 24-hour news cycle that loves covering hashtag campaigns.
By the post-liberal Left’s standards, in fact, most snark, whatever its intentions, probably qualifies as the sort of verbal violence that must be eliminated at all costs. When statements are judged not by their meaning but by the internal state they produce in their hearers, and when we speak of being offended as suffering a kind of bodily violation, there is no room left for ambiguity in our discourse. Actually, by these standards isn’t snark—isn’t humor itself—a particularly insidious kind of privilege, afforded only to members of empowered groups who can afford to make jokes out of the cruel words that are even now ravaging the souls of the oppressed? (This particular problem surfaced in That Jonathan Chait Article’s anecdote about the feminist Facebook group.)
As a simple, unsubtle, and humorless conservative, I naturally cheer the decline of snark, but I offer a friendly warning to the liberals who are abandoning it. When, after a heroic struggle, the nameless baker of the original “Hunting of the Snark” finally killed the dread beast, he ran into unexpected consequences.
Every election season, I am newly confounded by those garish bi-colored maps that saturate every media outlet’s coverage of events. You know them well —those “red state, blue state” maps that so neatly divide our country’s political differences into digestible, candy-like nuggets. My confusion lies in the fact that these colors, red for Republican and blue for Democrat, are so obviously wrong. They defy the long-standing tradition, found among numerous modern countries, of red’s association with political leftism and blue’s with conservatism.
Red is, of course, the official color of Communist states—Soviet Russia, Red China, and the Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, to name a few examples—and it is the color for labor and social democracy. It is also the impassioned, incendiary color of revolutionary violence, seen in the likes of the Bolsheviks, or Garibaldi’s redshirts. Is it surprising that it was also Marx’s favorite color? Continue reading What’s red and blue and all screwed up?
Part 3 of Will Barrett’s series on “The Intra-Evangelical Culture War.”
The X could be any number of good and important things the church ought to be doing. Most likely, it means feeding the poor, healing the sick, promoting racial reconciliation, or agitating against economic injustice. It it is possible that some churches neglect their part in these activities, but to point this out in a dialogue about sexual morality serves no purpose but to divert attention away from the question at hand with an irrelevant attack on the credibility of the opponent.
Imagine a formal debate in which one speaker declares that both sides would be better served by calling off the debate in favor of doing something more constructive. Then, after his opponent leaves the room, he proceeds to stump for his own point of view on the issue. This is precisely the tactic some progressive Christians use when faced with conservative arguments about the morality and theology of sex. Although they may complain that conservatives are taking too much time away from works of justice and mercy to preach about sex, I have yet to hear of any sexually progressive Christian commentator hold his own advocacy to the same standard. Continue reading “The church ought to be doing [x] instead of obsessing over sex.”
Part 2 of Will Barrett’s series on the intra-evangelical culture war. Part 1 is here.
To have a decent argument that ends with a bow and a handshake, or maybe even a beer after the crowds have cleared, the parties involved must assume that both sides have come to the debate earnestly and with the best of intentions, even if they haven’t. In other words, both sides need to refrain from blaming the others’ motives for having the discussion in order to focus on the terms of the discussion itself. This limitation is even more important when one or both sides has reason to suspect that the other’s motives are rascally or base. To keep the conversation from devolving into tiresome defenses of honor, the arguers must agree to bracket out questions of motives.
New Atheist debaters like Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris regularly betray either their blissful ignorance of this guideline, or else an amusingly wilful disregard for it, when they regularly open debates over cosmology and first causes with charges that their theistic interlocutors just want to convert the audience to their chosen religion instead of helping them think for themselves. They probably do, but that is beside the point.
All-Inclusive Disclaimer: In this essay I do not necessarily use philosophers’ thoughts as they intended. Any reference to a philosopher will probably be a heterodox or downright incorrect interpretation. I do not use Hegel as a “hipster” would, nor do I claim that Hegel is himself a hipster. His great critic Søren Kierkegaard might have something to do with hipsters, especially since he was into the whole irony thing, but I do not have the purity of heart to elucidate this connection…
G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx are known as philosophers of History. That is, they focus on the process of man making himself and focusing on himself in such a way that he betters the world through technology. Alexandre Kojéve, the French philosopher who created the European Union, synthesized Hegel and Marx to argue that society lives at the “end of history.” For Kojéve, we live in a time where man has evolved to the point where all political, philosophical, and cultural developments have reached their highest apex and man lives as truth.
This “end of history” appeared with the advent of liberal democracy, given that democracy has found a way in which everyone’s rights can be respected so that each person has the freedom or liberation to pursue satisfaction as he sees fit. The dialectical processes that fueled the movement of history have ultimately negated themselves and history has entered a “void of nothingness.” We see this happening tangibly in the ways that man has gained an understanding of nature, made technology, and used technology to counteract or negate nature. This led to a synthesis of the natural and contra-natural that causes man to live in “nothingness,” a realm that is beyond the demands of nature. Continue reading The End of Hipstery and the Last Culture
Most people reading this are already aware of former First Things editor Joseph “Jody” Bottum’s recent rambling essay, “The Things We Share,” in which he apparently defects to the supporters of same-sex marriage. The essay has gathered a lot of scorn from both opponents and supporters of same-sex “marriage” and does seem to be meandering, contradictory, and ultimately unsatisfying in its arguments.
Other bloggers have done well in pointing out the essay’s explicit nonsense, and I do not intend to retread the same ground. Rather, I want to take a more careful look at the essay from the standpoint of “Straussian” criticism.
Persecution and Democracy
In “Persecution and the Art of Writing” Leo Strauss suggests that modern critical scholarship has overlooked a fundamental factor that affected the writing of many of the great philosophers: the threat of “persecution.” A Jewish or atheistic philosopher writing in an Islamic context, for example, would have been in danger of denouncement if his true beliefs were too openly shared. For this reason, Strauss posits that philosophers living and writing in an intolerant age developed ways of expressing the free thoughts of their minds while apparently endorsing the current official “orthodoxy.”
“Nobody would prevent him [the philosopher] from publishing a passionate attack on what he would call the liberal [i.e., heterodox] view. He would of course have to state the liberal view before attacking it . . . Only when he reached the core of the argument would he write three or four sentences in that terse or lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of the young men who love to think.”
The philosopher would even present the “liberal” view more lucidly than its own proponents, before eventually mounting a relatively flat, conventional attack upon it in the customary style of the time.
It is important to note that, in Strauss’s opinion, the most significant instances of esoteric writing appear in societies that exist somewhere between the two extremes of utter persecution of free thought and complete license. ‘Persecution’ does not necessarily mean the Spanish Inquisition. Strauss lists a panoply of philosophers he considers to have written esoterically to some degree — all of whom lived in relatively tolerant societies: Plato, Maimonides, and Locke, to name a few. A common feature of these societies is a strong state, with some degree of official religious tolerance. Free inquiry may have been more circumscribed than religious belief and practice. Without pretensions to divinity, the secular power was considered to be “right,” a correct embodiment of the political truth. In democracies, this ‘truth’ is of course the “will of the people.” Political “orthodoxy” then, in the democratic context, is first to assume that the opinions of the majority are natural and correct, and then to seek to determine what those opinions are and declare one’s opinions to be in accord with them.
According to Strauss, it was in a context of quasi-persecution that Plato developed the concept of the “noble lie.” In the Republic this is expressed when Socrates says that political society ought to be organized around a fictitious hierarchy of social classification; the “myth of the metals.” The divisions don’t actually exist but it is better to say that they do for the better ordering of society. Strauss believes that this public-spirited “lie” is a subtle hint to guide the careful reader toward Socrates’ more “liberal” true beliefs. Elsewhere, in the Laws, the philosopher suggests that vice, in this case the consumption of alcohol, can help to teach the virtue of moderation. However, in Crete, where the Laws is set, drinking is forbidden. Strauss draws the analogy between the “vice” of drinking, which loosens the inhibitions, and the “vice” of talking about the illegal act of drinking, which liberates the philosophically inhibited mind to consider a truth that exists beyond the law of the state.
Strauss observes that during the rise of modern liberalism, liberal philosophers abandoned the caginess which characterized ‘liberal’ philosophy in earlier ages (as Strauss interprets it), most notably eventually abandoning the concept of the “noble lie” in favor of strict sincerity. This tendency did not take shape immediately though, and even the plain-speaking John Locke exhibits strong esoteric tendencies and a capacity for concealing his true thoughts, especially in his hidden critiques of religion. It is not until the complete triumph of the Enlightenment, when even Immanuel Kant wondered if the French Revolution had gone too far, that liberals completely scorned the “noble lie” in favor of a kind of radical truth-telling.
The other assumption that changed with the rise of liberalism was the question of whether “the masses” could, or should, be able to understand a philosophical argument. Esoteric writing tended to shield unorthodox thought by writing inoffensively on a level that the literate populace could understand, but by means of certain techniques pointing toward a subtler meaning that only the truly thoughtful, considered to be “men of good will,” would recognize. Democratic ideology takes for granted that the majority of the public are in fact people of good will and understanding, since they hold, by franchise, the public trust. To conceal one’s meaning from them became a “vice.” Thus the practice of esoteric writing apparently withered away after the Enlightenment, at least among sincerely liberal philosophers.
In today’s intellectual world, liberalism has assumed the “orthodox” position. Thus, one intending to advance an un-liberal argument might do so under the guise of attacking it from the viewpoint of the liberal “orthodoxy.” He might exercise certain techniques to conceal this intention from the mass of readers.
One characteristic of Bottum’s essay which marks it as not being for the masses is the fact that it is prohibitively long: 90 full paragraphs or about ten thousand words; much longer than the average length of an Internet essay. What is also immediately clear is that he did not need this much space to make the argument he claims to make. He does most of that in a few paragraphs at the conclusion.
Everyone acknowledges that for an intellectual as wise and respected as Joseph Bottum, as good a writer as he is, this is some remarkably strange and sloppy work. Might it be that his essay should not be taken at face value? Perhaps he is, as Strauss puts it, “writing between the lines.”
The Funding Acknowledgement
As others have observed, the essay’s most significant feature does not at first glance appear to be part of the text. The acknowledgment at the end of the piece appears on the surface to be merely conventional: “Funding for this essay has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.” However, given on one hand the argument the author claims to have made, and on the other hand the moral and religious views the author attributes to himself which are in conflict with this argument, the reader is led to the rather unsatisfying conclusion that the writer is corrupt — i.e., that he is accepting payment to write in support of views not fully his own. To claim to be a person of good will and yet to draw the reader’s attention to the possibility of corruption is unmistakably to raise the suspicion that there may be intentions buried beneath the surface reading of the text. It raises the possibility of unfree or even coerced action on the writer’s part — in Strauss’s terms, of “persecution.”
For this reason, as good Straussians, we must return to the text, paying more careful attention to aspects of its arrangement and style which the ordinary reader might have overlooked or dismissed as accidental lapses in style or unintentional errors in fact.
One of the first indications that a writer intends to communicate on both an “exoteric” and “esoteric” level is when he, not being the sort of writer to make casual mistakes, errors of fact, or self-contradictory statements, seems to do so. This may be a signal that the surface interpretation of the work is not to be trusted.
A pleasing feature of Bottum’s text is the folksong, “Shady Grove,” with which he begins and ends the essay. He describes it in the last paragraph as “A bit of old-timey Americana, the stuff we all still share.” The verse he quotes in the first paragraph goes:
When I was just a little boy, / all I wanted was a Barlow knife.
But now I am a great big boy, / I’m lookin’ for a wife.
In the last paragraph he quotes the verse:
Some come here to fiddle and dance, / Some come here to tarry.
Some come here to prattle and prance. / I come here to marry.
Given the subject of the essay, is not at all clear whether we all do in fact share this “bit of old-timey Americana.” The song is about romance and married love of the decidedly traditional kind. Maturity, it implies, is about valuing and seeking the joys and responsibilities of marriage. In the course of a ten thousand word essay Bottum has done a lot of fiddling and dancing, a lot of prattling and prancing, a lot of shucking and jiving, but not much talking about marriage itself — that is to say, he has devoted hardly any time to actually arguing in favor of a view of marriage that would include same-sex couples.
Another contradictory element is Bottum’s purported Americanism. Catholics, he suggests, should support same-sex marriage because it is now (possibly) an accepted part of American culture. This reminds me of Strauss’s observation that in states where speech is restricted, the law of the land is regarded, especially by the young, to be right by virtue of being the law. The authority speaks truly, according to the “logica equina,” and since nobody is contradicting him, the young person assumes what he says must be true.
Arguments Against Same-Sex Marriage
The clearest indication that Bottum intends an esoteric reading of his essay is the way he addresses the arguments against his stated position. Toward the beginning of the essay he off-handedly dismisses Ryan T. Anderson with the remark that the view of natural law Anderson wants to promote has “no purchase,” i.e., no widespread acceptance in American culture. Nevertheless, a few paragraphs later Anderson pops up again, with the writer calling his 2011 essay and 2012 book, What is Marriage?, “the clearest, most cogent defense of traditional marriage.” This seems, at least, like a book recommendation or a whispered word to the wise: If you want to understand the best argument in favor of traditional marriage, read this book. Those who take this implicit advice will find that its authors do not in fact rely on any obscure, hackneyed ideal of “natural law,” but present a prudent, comprehensive political defense of traditional marriage as a common good.
In no way does Bottum mount a critique of Anderson’s secular arguments. Instead, he spends most of his time in the realm of religion, lamenting how darned inconvenient the consistent Catholic teaching on sexuality continues to be. His citations, from G.K. Chesterton to Pope Francis, present an unchanging — one might almost say, a God’s-eye view — of marriage and sexual morality. Reading Chesterton, one is reminded that the Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality was countercultural long before the vaunted “sexual revolution.”
This also Bottum acknowledges. His narrative of the “disenchantment” of modernity would, in a less defeatist context, form an excellent program for a young Catholic culture warrior, more clearly stated than most of the popular Christian literature on the subject of sex and marriage. This reminds me again of what Strauss wrote. For ‘liberal’ read, in this case, “Catholic”:
“He would of course have to state the liberal view before attacking it; he would make that statement in the quiet, unspectacular and somewhat boring manner which would seem to be but natural; he would use many technical terms, give many quotations and attach undue importance to insignificant details; he would seem to forget the holy war of mankind in the petty squabbles of pedants.
One may recall here Bottum’s petulant excursus on his quarrels with Maggie Gallagher and Chuck Colson over the “Manhattan Declaration.” Strauss continues:
“Only when he reached the core of the argument would he write three or four sentences in that terse and lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of young men who love to think. That central passage would state the case of the adversaries more clearly, compellingly and mercilessly than it had ever been stated in the heyday of liberalism, for he would silently drop all the foolish excrescences of the liberal creed which were allowed to grow up during the time when liberalism had succeeded and was therefore approaching dormancy. His reasonable young reader would for the first time catch a glimpse of the forbidden fruit.”
The “central passage,” the fruit of knowledge which Bottum explicitly commands the reader not to grasp, is found in the following paragraphs, just after the writer has reminded us of Pope Francis’s latest recapitulation of the unaltered Catholic teaching on the family:
The stony ground on which the church must sow is the landscape created by the sexual revolution. Made possible by the pill, accelerated by legalized abortion, aided by easy pornography, that revolution actually needs none of these any longer to survive, because they never defined it. They merely allowed it, and the completed change is now omnipresent. The revolution is not just in the way we use our bodies. It’s in the way we use our minds.
One understanding of the sexual revolution—the best, I think—is as an enormous turn against the meaningfulness of sex. Oh, I know, it was extolled by the revolutionaries as allowing real experimentation and exploration of sensation, but the actual effect was to disconnect sex from what previous eras had thought the deep stuff of life: God, birth, death, heaven, hell, the moral structures of the universe, and all the rest.
This is nothing less than a comprehensive critique, an unmasking of the liberationist creed, stripped of its sentimental trappings, in a few words. Bottum even underlines it with some sly satire:
The resulting claim of amorality for almost any sexual behavior except rape reflects perhaps the most fascinating social change of our time: the transfer of the moral center of human worry about the body away from sex and onto…well, onto food, I suppose. The only moral feeling still much attached to sex is the one that has to hunt far and wide for some prude, any prude, who will still condemn an aspect of sexual behavior—and thereby confirm our self-satisfied feeling of revolutionary morality.
The turn against any deep, metaphysical meaning for sex in the West, however: that is strange and fascinatingly new, unique to late modernity.
What kind of moral or social victory do you obtain if the marriage you’re granted is defined as nothing more than a way in which individuals define the concept of their own existence?
Bottum goes on to argue, I think satirically, that since secular protestantism has, through embracing divorce, contraception, abortion, pornography and the like, already destroyed any real meaning that sex and marriage have in the modern world, why should we not allow same-sex couples to participate in this meaningless farce of “marriage?”
He references G.K. Chesterton’s tract The Superstition of Divorce:
G. K. Chesterton once suggested that if there truly exists such a thing as divorce, then there exists no such thing as marriage. The root of the paradox is his observation of the metaphysics implicit in marriage ceremonies: “There are those who say they want divorce in the second place without ever asking themselves if they want marriage in the first place. So let us begin by asking what marriage is. It is a promise. More than that, it is a vow.” If we allow divorce, then we have already weakened the thick, mystical notion of marriage vows. Adultery is an everyday sin. Divorce is something more: a denial of a solemn oath made to God.
Then, as if nodding before the hearth, he rouses and seems to abandon this line of argument with a sort of disclaimer: “I’m not trying to argue here directly for an end to the culture’s embrace of legalized divorce, much as the sociological evidence about the harm to children now appears beyond dispute.” The important word here is “directly.” Indirectly, as I have shown, he does much to strengthen the Catholic case against perversions of marriage; little to actually promote the views he claims to hold.
Since the essay is addressed to Catholics, and yet the argument is based on secular Protestantism, the implied rhetorical critique, the “esoteric” teaching if you will, is clear: Why should Catholics (or other orthodox Christians) play by these rules? Why should we pawn our Christian identity and beliefs for a mess of stale American pottage?
If any devotees of Ockham’s razor, having read thus far, are inclined to think I have built up an elaborate structure of bogus argument in order to extract something other than the plain sense of Bottum’s words from his essay, consider one final point before you give my arguments a close shave. I do not want to be uncharitable to the man, and in order to be charitable I am even willing to consider that he may not have intended to be correctly understood by every reader. After all, there are only two other possibilities:
That Bottum is a candid, well-meaning, but stupid man who cannot reason or coherently express his sincerely-held views without accidentally contradicting them; or
That Bottum has sold himself out to a cause he does not believe in, for money, while attempting to play both sides with his incompatible and vague sympathies, in a way that provides little support or comfort to either.
Yet Bottum is both a good and honorable man, and a capable and even excellent writer, as his friends and associates all testify, even as they disapprove of his essay. My interpretation allows this essay to be the work of a virtuous and sincere man, as well as an excellent, even subtle writer, as long as you accept that he does not intend to be correctly understood by everyone. I think Bottum hinted at this in an interview he gave, in which he said,
“I didn’t really think that it would be misread in quite the way that it has been.”
I think I can make a reasonable guess as to what Bottum believes the young Christian truth-seeker should be doing:
He goes so far as to say openly that theological and philosophical reasoning has “no purchase” among the American public. This does not mean that it is wrong, just that your average Joe will not find it convincing by itself.
Again, he explicitly argues that the real problem is “disenchantment,” the loss of a sense of wonder at things that points to the spiritual realities of creation.
If disenchantment is the problem, it should follow that re-enchantment, rather than renunciation, is the answer.
Since for most of us, this cannot be done through reasoning alone, those who understand the truth on a philosophical level need to communicate it in other ways.
The reason we say “the naked truth” is that in order to conceal her own ugliness, Falsehood steals Truth’s garments. The naked Truth is still beautiful, if severe. Clothed in her own raiment — poetry, art, music, kindness, and peace — she is glorious. Here are some ways that young Christians can present her more effectively:
Telling the truth about sex and marriage in clear and sympathetic ways;
Being living examples of married and unmarried people who honor their vocations;
Making art and music that adorns truth with beauty;
Being gracious and sympathetic to our friends who suffer from various kinds of sexual pathology, whether it be lust, pornography, or disenchanted self-image;
Standing up against all forms of domination and sexual violence;
Recognizing the gift of children as precious souls, neither to be destroyed in the pursuit of ‘freedom’ nor selfishly commodified in any way.
In doing these things, we will be counteracting by deed, word, and example the “disenchantment” of secular modernity, attracting our friends, neighbors, and even adversaries to the holistic, truly affirmative way of life to which God calls the world through Jesus Christ.
It is about 11:30 p.m. and I have mistakenly revealed my fascination with existentialist philosophy. I immediately stare into my drink. My blurred reflection reveals one eyebrow and a semi-shiny eyelid masked with a greenish film. PowerAde on the rocks. The figure before me is male, about six foot, and lanky. He sports a saggy maroon beanie and an expensive olive utility jacket. He begins, his voice purposefully sounding sedated,
“You like existentialism? Cool.”
“Yes, it is.” I gaze to a far corner of the room.
“Awesome. Like Camus . . . dude’s the shit.”
“I guess so.”
“Yeah . . . you know, Sisyphus? Crazy shit—”
Suddenly he turns—caught by a friend’s beckon. His dissertation on The Myth of Sisyphus would sadly, I believe, have amounted to something as meaningless and periphery as his beanie. Because, with my extensive experience basking in its presence, I’ve found that everything about the contemporary hipster amounts to just another borrowed signifier or identifier. The problem with hipsters today isn’t what they are so much as what they aren’t. They aren’t thinkers, nor are they individuals.
The beatniks of the ‘50s and ‘60s, were signified by ideology, thought, and literary zeal. The antiwar movement was alive. People read things in retaliation, said what they believed, and wore what they did because they were broke or simply liked it. The purity and practice of the original hipsters died with them and their memory remains only in clothing styles, empty references, and “that one time I read Ginsberg’s America in high school.” Idiosyncrasy has been put to bed—there is, really, no such thing any more; and in its place is the mass-marketed “counterculture.”
Like a page of Where’s Waldo, but it’s all Waldo, the hipster herd is a magnificent display of banal aestheticism—metaphorical murals that often assume the shape of a restaurant, bar, neighborhood, or even an entire city. Fashions represent large-scale identities, and identities are fashions. Face it: the beat died with the beats. The hipster is dead, and we are his murderers.
Saturday, March 9, 2013. Le Bain, The Standard, High Line.
The meatpacking district does not live down to its name. Several windows display cowhide dress forms; some totally bare or even tipped over, others sporting taupe frocks with studded cowl necks, or large fringe circle scarves worn atop animal-spotted denim. The Standard, too, is oxymoronic in name. From its entrance, I note that the corridor is lit in sepia. The building itself is a characteristic byproduct of modern architecture. Its eastern wall straddles the High Line Park. A living testament of recycled genius, the High Line is essentially an aerial greenway constructed to preserve the century-old railway. It is urban greening at its finest, but in the summer months, when the West Side becomes an amplification of year-round Manhattan squalor, it is like Le Bain at the Standard Hotel.
I first notice the men. I say this because, as a woman guilty of measuring myself to the smells, curls, waistlines, and posh of other women, I am not typically attuned to men when anywhere. But here the men are extraordinary. They give more kisses than my dog. They come in two dispositions. One is revved-up, chattery, pocket-scarfed and jacketed. The other is dark, small-eyed, hands-in-pockets, ear-ringed, dead-beat and windowed with bold glasses frames. Inwardly, though, they do not seem to lack many similarities. They all eye me, as we staggeringly join one another on a baseboard-lit elevator. The lighting is ideal: dark as hell, so everyone looks sexy, if visible at all. The women are taller than me and it is perhaps the single moment of my semi-adult life that I am most aware of my own height.
I am accompanied by a friend, who we’ll call Stef. To ensure that our transfer from sepia corridor to 18th floor is nothing short of expedient, she has enlisted the company of her friend, who we’ll call Ramón. His hair is combed over and visibly moussed into a perfectly side-swept, coiffed creation. His crisp and skin-tight clothing emits stale fumes of vodka and marijuana. Ramón zigzags through hordes of women clad in black and animal fur, fingers, knuckles, and cartilage decked and pierced with gemstones and other platinum or brass-colored obscenities. As we enter the room adjacent to Le Bain’s main vortex of drink, dance, and revelry, Ramón begins kissing cheeks and greeting public relations types with sing-songy darlings and dears. This new room, formally known as the Boom Boom Room, brims with swanky cocktail servers in white tuxedos and crisp gowns.
The bar is like a Roman bath, a gold-walled oval implanted in the floor. Flanked by crackly gold columns and embellished with an ivory marble backsplash, it is a fermented tub fit for Caesar. I suddenly realize that someone is buying us a round. I am shaking hands with French girls, French guys, someone named Ivan. Meanwhile, I am handed a translucent lime-colored beverage, a far cry from the smooth, un-iced ochre I prefer. Ramón pulls Ivan into him, his arms wrapping round the front of Ivan’s waist. Sticking his hands into Ivan’s pockets, Ramón snickers. It is the hour of unbridled laughter. Women and men alike are laughing all around me. These laughs are accompanied by empty gestures, mindless hair twirls, and “I’ll have another Tanqueray and Tonic”s.
My self-confidence has plummeted and I am beginning to wonder whether my inability to sway my hips and swirl my tumbler about in mid-air is marking me incapable of living the Dionysian. What am I doing wrong? It dawns on me then, with an overwhelming sense of metanoia. The tyranny of self-awareness is too evident in situations like this. I am myself far too self-conscious, even as I am acutely and frighteningly in tune with the self-conscious tendency of those around me. What am I doing here,or anywhere if I can’t seem to make myself fit?
Perhaps half a century ago, when mainstream society was a force to be reckoned with—when good little soldiers “pinned” their gals and spun them around down at the town rec center and no one thought about why—people really did reckon with it; they really said no to it, and they became the counterculture. Now, the dominant “counterculture” resonates with about as much authenticity as Bob Dylan’s shades or Ginsberg’s suspenders, divorced from the men who turned these objects into icons. And here I am, thinking about it, and somehow that too feels out of place. What is presented now as “counter” or not the norm now involves submission to a Nietzschean “slave morality,” a moral blueprint that requires denying one’s own free, individual will and submitting to the scene.
At the bar, I am totally enveloped in the celebrity-seeking agendas of my company, most of whom I do not know. This does it for me. The babbling chorus has completely unraveled and I am actually thinking about things now—thoughts I cannot abate . . .
In a standstill moment of total situational rebirth, my inner loathing of all around me is vindicated. Something is wrong with this Instagram™-filtered sea. Then again, a sea is more forgiving to diversity. Here, I feel like a salmon, trapped in a school of trout. Moreover, here at Le Bain, diversity is muffled not only within the group, but even within the person. For instance, let’s take the girl beside me with the Rosie the Riveter bandana, chunky cat-face sweater and ripped nylons, raving about how she spent her first six months out of college following a band called Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head* from Seattle to Audubon. The self-conscious scene of contemporary hipsterdom dictates a very one-dimensional profile by which she must abide.
I would bet she’s an atheist (a clairvoyant at best), her rusted (and she likes it that way) vintage Volkswagen Rabbit is stamped with the Human Rights Campaign logo and SUPPORT LOCAL FARMS, she has 26 canvas tote bags for grocery-stowing purposes, she lives in an old bungalow in Williamsburg which she shares with a watercolorist and a couple who conducts in-home sex therapy and sells pickled things at the Sunday farmers’ market, and her favorite film is Wet Hot American Summer. When you pay the membership fee, you receive the starter package, or perhaps, the starter package receives you—that’s contemporary hipsterism. As I stand atop the covered ‘70s style cruise ship swimming pool, I feel, more than ever, a strong connection to my literary brother Sal Paradise. We are two tramps under the same night sky, crying for our brothers and sisters:
Somebody had tipped the American continent like a pinball machine and all the goofballs had come rolling to LA in the southwest corner. I cried for all of us. There was no end to the American sadness and the American madness. Someday we’ll all start laughing and roll on the ground when we realize how funny it’s been.
Except I wasn’t laughing—not yet. My eyes welled with tears as I stood, back to a wall, trying not to incur platform shoe-induced contusions to the feet. But before a single tear could break loose, I was released. We were going.
Le Bain taught me everything about social class I never wished to learn. The dustiest and most decrepit corners of this metaphysical world opened up to me, but I was too small to complete the remodeling job myself. If this was what the ‘50s and ‘60s intellectual rebel—the questioner, the writer, the creator—had become, then what really was the sociology of the contemporary hipster if the new homogenous herds assumed the old name and trashed the meaning? They are like the mannequins: identical; naked, yet festooned with gaudy signifiers. This is why I retreated. I cried for all of us.
Kerouac’s post-war literary dominance stood as a totem for counter-culture. To create a culture in retaliation to war was a raw representation of disciplined harmonization of life with one’s individual will. Kerouac’s hipster was a far cry from today’s Dionysian herd of the same name. In an interview on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show in 1959, a mere two years after the publication of the Beat Generation’s Holy Bible, On the Road, Kerouac is asked by the goofy-eyed, hook-nosed, piano-playing Plymouth, “How would you define the word beat.” Kerouac is quick to reply, but rather than providing a definition, he reads from his holy novel. And, aside from Plymouth’s wildly incongruous swanky cocktail parlor-esque accompaniment, it is beautiful. He reads with vigor, then comments, “Anyways I wrote this book because we’re all gonna die.” It is a curious statement, loaded with purpose.
In a 1968 episode of William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, a drunken Jack Kerouac discusses the hipster and the post-beat insurgence of pre-apocalyptic art, writing, and music. Buckley (who, it must be acknowledged, is sporting a seersucker suit jacket) opens the episode with jolly raillery:
“The topic tonight is the hippies—an understanding of whom we must, I guess, acquire or die painfully.”
When first introduced, Kerouac is sweaty, evidently drunk, and smoking a cigar in drawn-out inhales, followed by frantic, yet erudite puffs. It is at first a sad scene, like the fallen Christ. He is a goddamn mess, but still, a goddamn mess that is not afraid to state beliefs and take sides, even if those sides seem to contradict or fail to align with a particular prototype. He blurs his brilliance with infantile displays as he verbally flips-off his intellectual counterparts, Ph.D. and author of The Hippie Trip Yablonsky, and artist and pacifist Sanders, by correcting their pronunciation of foreign words and emitting a disruptive slew of moans and “Hah’s!” Yet, drunk as he may be, Kerouac exudes brilliance amid hiccups and facial twangs.
Buckley: Now Jack—Mr. Kerouac—to what extent do you believe that the Beat Generation is related to the hippies? What do they have in common? Was this a revolution from one to the other?
Kerouac: It’s just the older ones. See I’m 46. These kids are 18. But see, it’s the same movement, which was apparently some kind of Dionysian movement in late civilization and which I did not intend any more than I suppose Dionysius did, or whatever his name was.
Although the last two minutes of the episode are almost solely devoted to Sanders’ vehement profession of the hippie’s inclination toward non-violent forms of protest in a war-immersed society, it is Kerouac who gets the last word. Quoting the Bible. Kerouac, was, self-professedly, a devout Catholic. As described by fellow Beat Generation originator, Allen Ginsberg, he was “a very unique cat—a French Canadian Hinayana Buddhist Beat Catholic savant.” Kerouac, like many original beats, was a wild, motley mix of ideologies. His identity was not handed to him, there was no Wikipedia page outlining his habits or institutionalized behaviors, nothing really was institutionalized. He just was. At the close of the interview, Kerouac turns to Sanders, eyes three-quarters of the way closed and mouth perfectly puckered and rounded, aping unbeautiful Lowellian semantics: “Beware of false prophets who come unto you dressed in sheep’s clothing, but underneath, they are ravening wolves.” It is a wild, uncontained display, but a great one, nonetheless.
Now Ginsberg, who called Kerouac “a unique cat,” also exuded idiosyncrasy. Though like Kerouac he was not always a charmer either in or out of the limelight, he assumed a multi-faceted identity that seems to be exactly what’s been lost among contemporary hipsters. In a 1994 interview with BBC, Ginsberg stops the interviewer to correct his opening inquiry: “Now, the beard and the hair are trimmed, you wear a suit, a collar, and a tie, but is the REAL Allen Ginsberg still in there?” (Note: “realness” is presumed to be something that can be lost through a simple change in grooming and dress). Ginsberg, unperturbed, interjects:
Though, I’m a Buddhist and I think the Buddists would say there is no real, permanent self. In any case, there are many appearances of self, so I am certainly a Beat poet, and I’m certainly Jewish, and I’m certainly gay, and I’m certainly Jewish, and I’m certainly a meditator, and I suppose a part of the counter-culture in America which is now under attack by the neo-conservative, theo-political televangelists . . . So, I don’t know if there is a real Allen Ginsberg.
The hipster Ginsberg posits, then, is one whose most revolutionary feat was the reshaping of identity. The mass movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s did not invent nor market the countercultural identity of the beats. The mass movement was in place as a comfort zone, an antinomian framework which enabled young, confused, questioning men and women to learn, be, and create whatever the hell they wanted in whatever way they wanted.
Kerouac’s hipster, his beat movement-er, had faith, a strong political opinion that wasn’t tied to anything mainstream, and was always aching to lend an ear or a word to a any such riveting, thoughtful conversation. The bars were a place for drinking, yes, but they were also for the intellect—a place to exchange ideas and theories. And people wrote. Yes, in On the Road and The Dharma Bums, it is difficult not to notice all the writing that happens. It was admirable and talked about; it was more than a fad. But now, even if our ideas and our styles feel and seem to ourselves to be wholly invented, we must fear that they will soon appear in Cosmopolitan or on that postmodernism readers message board—right there, yes, we know the word: TREND. In Rob Horning’s acclaimed 2009 Pop Matters blog post, “The Death of the Hipster,” he writes:
In always pushing ourselves to repudiate hipsterism, we may drive ourselves to new ways to conceive of our identity—but what good are these if these are always ripe for becoming the new modes of hipsterdom? . . . How do we stop running that race, stop worrying about the degree to which we are “hip,” the degree to which our treasured self-conceptions can be made into clichés against our will?
Today’s hipsters are the wolves in sheep’s clothes, no doubt. Or rather, vegan clothes—but they are certainly wearing clothes nonetheless. And oh, the clothes!
Urban Dictionary’s definition of the modern hipster is a characteristic representation of customary hipster dress, where to find a hipster on a map, and social conformity to hipster norms. A condensed version of the panoply of definitions on the site would look like this:
A composite of individuals with a certain bohemian life situation and lifestyle.
Lives in a young, artsy neighborhood of a major city such as Wicker Park in Chicago, Greenwich Village in Manhattan, or Williamsburg in Brooklyn. [ . . . ]
Favorite band is likely Bright Eyes, The Arcade Fire, The Arctic Monkeys, The Libertines, The Strokes, or something of that nature.
Watches independent and foreign films and reads independent books, magazines, and periodicals.
Dresses in progressive yet retro fashion that is often changing.
Eats chic ethnic food and prefers organic and Fair Trade fruits and vegetables.
Favorite beer is Pabst Blue Ribbon.
One must understand that intellect rarely factors into these remarkably superficial definitions One must also understand, at a very existential level, that this is a definition:a remarkably un-beat mechanism; a marketed identity. Club-going, Nylon-reading hipsters are ravenous wolves. Like many of those who surrounded me at Le Bain, they stand for chunky sweaters, beer labels, and neighborhoods. They are also the reason why my own chunky sweaters and love of local produce falls under suspicion, making it necessary for me to apologize for my tastes. And though they may be spotted reading an old battered copy of The Dharma Bums, they are not Kerouacian beats. No, they are the herd.
I can’t help but ask myself when this paradigm shift occurred; when counterculture became trendy. What began as a rough-and-tough rebuttal to pastel-painted kitchens, Kenmore appliances, and Joe Shmoe mercenaries has become an unsubstantiated façade. The hipsters of today go to Le Bain. They do their best to appear as floral-printed paupers. What is wrong with this? Well, it’s plainly written right here: THEY DO THEIR BEST. Doing one’s best and breaking a buck—bending over backwards—to appear as a hitchhiking, reclusive poet is an inherently flawed act. Hitchhiking Sal Paradise wore the same shoes till the soles fells out. His patchy jacket withstood exhaust smoke and booze stains. It was not bought that way. He did not “do his best” to look, to act.
The herd is a transcontinental mass movement. Individuals everywhere are sporting ripped, stained, tribal-looking, baggy, hooded uniforms. Everywhere there are club-goers who, like schoolgirls, turn to their neighbor, marking their straggly hair, suspendered satin trousers and tousled chemises. Does it ever dawn on them that they are facing their own mirror image—the image of the American boy or girl whose compass is always pointing toward regularity? At Le Bain, all the pretty kids stand, swaying, in a shameful sort of homeostasis.
This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.
My wife and I have an open marriage. Before any friends have a heart attack or misunderstand, let me say that I am misusing this stupid term provocatively to make a point. Nevertheless, the type of relationship we have is the most authentic and open relationship to be found on earth. I will explain.
A year and a half ago, my wife and I were united in holy matrimony, which is a covenant not only between two people, but between them both and God. What this means is that our relationship is not defined as a closed-off, limited agreement between two contracting parties, but instantiates our complete giving of ourselves to each other, and our openness to God’s presence and guidance. This openness is important because it means God is involved in our marriage and is interested in whether we are continuing faithfully in it.
Openness to God in our marriage is key, because God is the ground and source of our being, and it is to him that we ultimately refer when attempting to understand the mystery of marriage. We learn from his Son that marriage is built into the nature of human beings; that it is God’s design for a man to “leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” We also learn that this mystery itself is a symbol of the Son’s relationship to his people. He is the Bridegroom, he says, and his bride is everyone who he has redeemed from the curse of sin that entered the world through disobedience. In marriage, then, we create an image of the unconditional love God offers to mankind.
Holy matrimony, as a living image, an instantiating symbol of God, is a way of opening ourselves to ultimate reality by establishing a special, sacramental connection to the ground of our being.
This openness manifests itself in other ways. Just as God welcomes anyone into his family, holy matrimony means having a welcoming and generous attitude toward the gift of children, and a commitment to bring those children up to know the love of God. Hospitality and charity too, being ready to welcome and meet the needs of others, are important aspects of the marriage vocation.
What marriage is “closed” to is anything that disrupts the union between one another and God. This is why the church prohibits sexual activity outside of the marriage union. (Law and custom also have powerful reasons to discourage adultery, but those aren’t the subject of this essay.) The marriage union acts out the relationship of desire and affection that draws us to one another and to God. I take the view that our love for God is erotic in the Socratic sense. We are drawn to him with desire in a dynamic, directional movement. Marriage is thus a form of noetic exaltation. Non-marital sex, by contrast, breaks the noetic chain between us and God. It is to some degree an opposite movement away from divine love, receding back into the disorder of primordial chaos from whence we emerged.
The sexual chaos of the modern world is one of the clearest signs of its overall disorientation to the divine ground of being. Not just “gay marriage” and the divorce rate, but especially the direct and indirect sexual exploitation of women and children reveals our age as one of the most severely blind, heartless, and gnostic epochs in history.
“No one is obliged to take part in the spiritual crisis of a society” wrote Eric Voegelin; “on the contrary, everyone is obliged to avoid this crisis and live his life in order” (Science, Politics, and Gnosticism). With this watchword, we reject sexual alienation and instead embrace holy matrimony as an expression of redeeming grace for our time and for all time.