Monday, September 25, 2017

Special Feature: The New Center (Part 1 of 3)

We are at a turning point in this country...again. Seems to happen a lot these days, you know. As I write this, Congressional Republicans are desperately continuing their nihilistic quest to nuke health care in America for reasons they can't explain, the Toddler-in-Chief is doing his damndest to provoke an international incident with the only leader on the planet who is even more childlike and erratic, and we're continuing to tick off the destructive storms because counting them is about the only research we're allowed to do when it comes to the weather.

All of which means that it's time once again to discuss what Both Sides have done wrong.

I'd like to thank Drifty for turning me on to this story, although I'm not sure that "thanks" are in order so much. The topic this time was from our old friends in No Labels. You remember them, right? Of course you do - that exciting political movement that no one outside of the Beltway ever asked for. The latest news from this media beast comes from Kathleen Parker, describing a meet-up of the elite media dimwits and earnest millionaire donors to hear from dynamic and beloved speakers like Joe Lieberman and Tony Blair. Truly, an organization that has its finger on the pulse of national sentiment.

As it turns out, No Labels has a new project dubbed the New Center, and I'm sure that all of you are eager to learn about this thrilling new think tank that you'll have completely forgotten about by this time next week.

Let's start by meeting the masterminds behind this decidedly not-bold new foundation:

Say, does that caricature on the left look familiar to you? Why, yes - it's our old friend Bill Kristol! Fresh off of his attempt to build a True Conservative third party run built around, for some reason, David French, he is now bringing his famously clear-eyed and accurate political acumen to the policy powerhouse that is No Labels.

The other guy running this thing is Bill Galston. I'm not familiar with him at all, but his New Center profile indicates that he was "Deputy Assistant to President Clinton for Domestic Policy." So the New Center conservative is a hardcore neocon, whereas the New Center "liberal" was one of the guys who gave us tough-on-crime bills and welfare reform. Much like Ms. Parker, I can't imagine why anyone would accuse No Labels of being a "front for right-leaning 1-percenters"; these guys run the gamut from right to center-right.

So let's take a look at the world-changing memo that these two co-authored - "No Labels Values: A New Center in American Politics." My instinct is to assume that it's going to be chock-full of Bothsiderist trash of the exact variety we've seen so many times, but maybe I'm being unfair. After all, this is a genuine bipartisan affair:

We’ve differed on major policy issues. One of us vigorously backed the war in Iraq; the other just as vigorously opposed it. We’ve publicly debated many times, usually focusing on our differences. These disagreements persist.

But we write now to stress what we have always agreed on, because the times demand it. The basic institutions and principles of liberal democracy are under assault.

Indeed they are. The mainstreaming of neo-Nazism is disturbing, of course. We have a President with numerous conflicts of interest that Congress is unwilling to address, not to mention the possibility that he is mentally unfit and none of you are falling for this, you all know what's coming next:

..we stand together against an alternative right disdainful of the traditions of American conservatism and a vocal left that blends socialist economics with identity politics.

There's so much to unpack in this one brief statement that I feel I must employ bullet points.
  • And here we are again with the "identity politics" crap, a pair of words that ensures that you don't need a picture to be sure of the speaker's race. As we'll see in the next two parts, the "Ideas to Re-Center America" do not address issues like police-public relations, women's health, public accommodations, or anything else that might be of interest to any of those people with identities. Too controversial, y'see.
  • Note that the problems on Both Sides are not symmetrical. The problem with the left is that it's too liberal; the problem with the right is that they're the wrong kind of conservative. Thus, to achieve the New Center, liberals must move to the right while conservatives must quit reading the quiet parts out loud. And if you think I'm being unfair and reading too much into this...well, give it a minute.
  • I also love that alt-right is matched with "vocal left." Remember, We Are A Center-Right Nation (and we have the polls from the mid-70s to prove it), so one should be proud to follow in the grand traditions of American conservatism but a little ashamed to be liberal.
Our form of government, in short, is fundamentally sound. Not so our parties and our politics. It is in this spirit that we make the case for a New Center, one that does not split the difference between Left and Right but offers a principled alternative to both. Its core tenets—Opportunity, Security, Accountability, and Ingenuity—can respond to the challenges of the present and chart a path to the future.
The core tenets sound less like "tenets" and more like an acronym dreamed up by a terrible motivational speaker (tell me that this set words wouldn't seem right resonating through a catering hall at some corporate retreat) but we'll get to that.

Americans see ourselves as problem-solvers, and we’ve solved a lot of them over the centuries. If machines aren’t working, we fix them, and similarly for our institutions and policies. In the depths of the Great Depression, FDR called for “bold, persistent experimentation.” Ronald Reagan, who voted for FDR four times, emphatically agreed.

If you were looking for a generally liked Republican President, you could have gone with Eisenhower, but nope: Ronald Reagan. He's one of our calibrating points for this little project. It was at this point that I realized what "New Center" means - not a new centrists movement (even these guys can't believe that's going to happen), but a new center point that's well to the right of the current center point. Apparently, the new center is going to be somewhat to the left of Ronald fucking Reagan.

I get the impulse. Bill Kristol had an awesome time during the Dubya years - the Overton Window was shot way the hell to the right, meaning that conservatives could go on television and say whatever horrible, destructive things they wanted while anyone left-of-center kept his mouth shut lest he put his livelihood on the line. The right might run things now, but it's only in such a dysfunctional and ugly manner that conservatives are forced to constantly play defense. Make no mistake, that's what Bothsiderism is - conservatives defending the indefensible by forcing a fictitious indefensible position on the other side and then suing for peace. It can't be fun, although it's more than Kristol deserves after everything he's done to deliver us to this point.

Come on, though - even a dunce like Kristol can't think that this is a real movement. With a population that's growing more liberal and more diverse (i.e. possessing those identities that we must scrub out of politics), the notion that anyone's moving politics rightward now is preposterous. And with more and more people seeking more and more profound change, the odds on some great centrist movement (with marchers carrying placards reading "We have no strong opinions and we feel strongly about it") is similarly preposterous. These guys have no base. What they do have - and this is the important bit - is money and connections. They're never going to get their third way candidates, but they're already influencing politicians from both parties. That's why as ridiculous as these guys can be, it is essential to know what they're up to. Their ideas have weight well out of proportion to the numbers they can mobilize.

Starting next time, we'll look at their ideas - the good, the bad, and the aggravating.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Essay: What David Brooks Means When He Says "Modesty"

This post is a deviation from the usual content of this blog, but it's still somewhat on point because it involves David Brooks. As one of the few people who has read The Road to Character in full (as opposed to mining the first chapter for arguments to use against the Kids These Days and then skimming every fifth page thereafter, as most reviewers clearly did), I feel I have some small insight to add to the ever-growing field of Brooksology. I will explain something that is inexplicable to those not versed in the creole tongue of Both Siderism and will proceed to make a prediction as to what Brooks will do next.

Many of you have seen Brooks' latest discharge, a sad little attempt to rescue "Both Sides Do It" from the infant-like hands of the Cheeto Emperor. For those of you who have little tolerance for undiluted political cowardice, I recommend the analysis of fellow Brooksologists Driftglass and Yastreblyansky, who make their own efforts to dissect thoughts such as:
Over the next few months I’m hoping to write several columns on why modesty and moderation are superior to the spiraling purity movements we see today.
Apparently, the statement "Nazis Are Bad" is a hyperpartisan purity creed that is fundamentally no different than the statement "Nazis Are Great," and a President should never be expected to utter either aloud. This is even true after one of said deranged racists tries to kill a large group of people - indeed, is there any better time to reflect on how the killer and victims are fundamentally united in their irrationality and how both bear responsibility for the murder?

There's another statement I'd like to draw into focus, as it's caused a bit of confusion and I can probe deeper. It is thus:
In fact, the most powerful answer to fanaticism is modesty. Modesty is an epistemology directly opposed to the conspiracy mongering mind-set.
This column is rich in modesty, or at least calls for it. That's perplexing enough as is - what fool looks at the aftermath of that violent racist hootenanny and concludes that neo-Nazis and Klansmen are best dealt with by keeping our heads low and speaking softly? Brooks being Brooks, he then compounds it with "epistemology," a word that has traditionally signaled that the user is a serious conservative thinker, but what the hell does it mean?

The phrase "epistemological modesty" is straight out of The Road to Character, specifically the "Humility Code" at the end. The words didn't make any more sense then, but with the benefit of context it was at least possible to discern what Brooks was saying - no one can really know anything, so don't be rash. It's a curiously po-mo line of thought for a paleocon, but it makes a sort of sense in light of Brooks' call for a return to a vague form of tradition. He doesn't want anyone making big changes.

There's another entry in that "Code" that's also on point. This one was so odd that, after copying part of it for the post, I ended up running back to the library to read the rest in hopes that I could make sense of it. For those of who you didn't read the comments, here it is:
The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it...he prefers arrangements that are low and steady to those that are lofty and heroic. As long as the foundations of an institution are sound, he prefers change that is constant, gradual, and incremental to change that is radical and sudden. He understands that public life is a contest between partial truths and legitimate contesting interests. The goal of leadership is to find a just balance between competing values and competing goals. He seeks to be a trimmer, to shift weight one way or another as circumstances change, in order to keep the boat moving steadily forward on an even keel. He understand that in politics and business the lows are lower than the highs are high. The downside risk caused by bad decisions is larger than the upside benefits that accrue from good ones. Therefore the wise leader is a steward for his organization and tries to pass it along in slightly better condition than he found it.
A couple things:
  1. David Brooks is considered by many to be a brilliant writer;
  2. This book was professionally edited;
  3. Neither 1 nor 2 are jokes;
  4. The TL;DR takeaway is: Don't be bold, it's not worth the risk.
The core of this argument was in Chapter 3, in which Brooks argued for Dwight Eisenhower as an icon of "moderation" and concluded that his own brand of squishy centrist equivocation was the best way to lead. Given the figures he claimed to have studied for this book, this is a bizarre conclusion: I don't see how you can read about people like Frances Perkins and Bayard Rustin and conclude from their lives and work that bold action is a mistake. To quote my own joke: "Look Frances, we know things are bad for the workers, but there are competing interests at play, and the lows will be very low if we change things too quickly. How about we get the factory owners to promise to think about safety issues, and then we can revisit this whole 'weekend' thing in another decade or two. Fair?"

This seems like proof that, as suggested in one of the book's very few negative professional reviews, Brooks is mistaking his own fundamentally conservative beliefs for objective values. He never tried to learn anything himself so much as he was looking for object lessons - parables, if you will - to explain why his paleoconservative brethren were right all along.

Gather 'round and be enlightened. (Image shamelessly lifted from Driftglass)

Opposition to dramatic change and skepticism of utopian thought are classically conservative traits, but they're also a key part of Brooks' (still fairly conservative) cowardly centrist philosophy. The main difference is that this used to be tied up in unease around liberals and lefty types whereas now, naturally, Both Sides Do It. It's not a fundamentally bad idea - utopianism generally leads to heartbreak whenever it's tried because the true believers are just so damn sure that they don't question themselves. But Brooks has taken it to an odd extreme, arguing that any policy change entailing risk is unacceptable no matter how big or immanent the problem to be addressed. The economy may be on the verge of collapse, the weather may be growing catastrophically hazardous, we may be facing a surge in nakedly violent racism, but doing anything more than a few tweaks in the status quo is too dangerous.

I do have to love the analogy in the above piece of the mushy centrist leader as a "trimmer" who keeps an "even keel." I know fuck-all about sailing on the high seas, but I'm fairly certain if a storm or a pirate flotilla was bearing down on me, I'd want the captain to do something other than stay the course and hope the problem resolved itself.

Even given that this is so central to the Brooks persona, I have a hard time believing that this was Brooks' first thought after hearing about the events in Charlottesville, especially given that he boldly announced a mere week ago that he wasn't going to write about politics for an indefinite period. He probably meant it initially, and I'm sure that the thought of bailing on that promise must have been a tough call. But then...then those sacred words of the High Holy Church of Both Siderism emerged from the lips of that Error of the Electoral College, and those words were praised by the likes of Robert Spencer and David Duke.

The cognitive dissonance must have been agonizing. I can picture Brooks sitting on the floor of his office, digging through those piles of notes he allegedly uses to compose his columns, stopping from time to time to rock back and forth and mutter the words "both sides...both sides..." through sobs. Once upon a time he could have talked his way out of this, tossed in a joke about the suburbs or a mangled factoid from some ev-psych text or name dropped a historical figure, and moved on to the next topic...but he'd done it so many times that it was losing its zing, and with more and more people on One Side echoing those sacred words, it simply wouldn't fly. Failing at last to come up with some brilliant maneuver, he hauled himself to the laptop, took a few slugs straight out of a bottle of Absolut, set his fingers on the keys...and doubled the fuck down.

That's just my headcanon, though.

So what should we expect in this coming flurry of commentaries on sacred modesty? That depends on just how lazy Brooks has become. My bet is that he'd already planned a series of posts on the subject, and we'll be seeing what he'd planned to publish all along with just a few tweaks here and there - staying the course, per his own advice. You're certainly not going to see anything specifically on point, as that hasn't been Brooks' bailiwick in quite a few years. If he's feeling really lazy, he might just revive some material from The Road to Character and remix it. That would be hilarious, as Chapters 2-9 of that wretched book were merely recycled content from his own columns and borderline plagiarized material from popular biographies. In effect, he would be making a hash out of several casseroles that were themselves cobbled together from a series of culinary mistakes.

Either way, the content is easily predicted: All big ideas are bad, quit trying to fix problems, trust authorities, let's all just fold our hands and quietly wait for the centrist messiah to come. The key points will be trying to find ways to suggest that whatever fresh hell may come, it will be no one's fault because it is everyone's fault, that the Nazis Are Bad crowd and the Nazis Are Great crowd are exactly equidistant from the true and proper center, that both are equally misguided in that they no longer trust their betters to advise them on the proper way to live.

In short: It'll be the same goddamn thing as always, only much more defensive. It should be interesting (for certain definitions of "interesting").

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Benedict Option: Master Post


In which the critic introduces the author, a scold among scolds

In which all of you are barbarians trying to destroy the author's morally perfect society

In which things have been going downhill since the 14th century

In which the author sets down a set of moral rules that won't interfere with wine and cheese time

In which the author isn't persecuted quite as badly as Soviet dissidents

In which the author rambles on about liturgical worship for a remarkable number of pages

In which the author "discovers" a way of life that evangelicals have been living for decades

In which the author relays some entirely plausible anecdotes about Schools These Days

In which the author is still angry over gay wedding cakes and the critic calls the author a wuss

In which the author bemoans our rising acceptance of queers and sluts

In which those Kids These Days With Their Darn Smartphones are ruining the world

In which the critic asks - Does anyone really want to live in the author's world?

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Benedict Option: Conclusion

Oh David Brooks, I just can't get away from you, can I?

Brooks has been something of a fan of Rod Dreher for a while. Five years ago, Brooks put the then-fortysomething Dreher on his list of young rising stars of the conservative movement, but it was The Benedict Option that really got him excited. Brooks has been doing his level best to promote this thing, and I can see why. Sure, there are critical differences between Brooks' The Road to Character and Dreher's The Benedict Option, as well as differences between Brooks and Dreher in general - Dreher's religious philosophy is much more specific than the vague mush we saw in The Road to Character, and Dreher is mortally terrified of gay people whereas Brooks is famously one of the first cons to reject homophobia.

Broaden your view a little bit, though, and you'll see a common thread of logic running through both works. Both books divide history into a lost golden age and a modern age of decline. Both books attribute that decline to self-absorption and dissolution among the youth and the degeneration of hierarchies and traditions. Both books argue that fixing these problems through political or social change is impractical and possible even undesirable. Both books argue, however, that we can reclaim this golden age through a combination of spirituality and study of a select cadre of cultural Great Men. In short, both books are very fundamentally conservative.

But none of you needed me to tell you that Rod Dreher is conservative.

Perhaps the best summary question to ask about The Benedict Option is...are "Benedict Communities" desirable for anyone? My answer: I don't know. Obviously they're not desirable for me - I've developed a taste for being able to make my own decisions. But even having read this thing (as well as Dreher's other insights), I have no idea what these communities are supposed to look like. Dreher was writing for an audience with differing backgrounds so he had to be more a set of guidelines than a plan for living, but even by that standard of guidelines The Benedict Option is vague. These rules could describe anything from a pair of yuppies who cut back to five bottles of wine a week and quit shelling out for cell phone upgrades for their kids to a couple taking their kids into a lost house in some impenetrable woods so their children aren't ruined by popular culture and any arrangement in between.

There are a few things we can use to narrow that range a bit. First off, most of this advice was not written with Protestants in mind - so much of this book, especially the stuff about traditions, is definitely geared more toward the highly ritualistic Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches rather than those low church heretics. And while some of the advice could potentially be followed by anyone, the bigger ideas are targeted to a more affluent audience - not a lot of poor folk have the financial means to relocate on a whim or start a business or start their own fucking school. In short, Dreher is writing this for folks like himself, advising them to do the things he did. He wants them to move back home, worship in preapproved ways, shelter their children from the corrupting influence of queers and science, and exclude all the tainted people (but only in a "hospitable" way, of course).

All of this is in service of order, which is Dreher's paramount value. He seeks to create a little bubble world in which nothing ever changes unless the authorities desire it (and they never do). It might explain his idealization of the early medieval period. It was an age of corruption, injustice, brutality, criminality and stagnation. It was an age in which, for some peasant living in an isolated village, every day of his life was the same - and the same as every day of his father's life, and his grandfather's, eventually repeated in the lives of his sons and grandsons. To me, that sounds like hell; to Dreher, it's heaven. Again, he's not writing this for me.

But there are two problems. First, I'm not sure it's actually obtainable. Change comes slowly in a bubble, but it arrives eventually, and I wonder how Dreher's hierarchy would react to it. Put it this way - the impetus for this whole thing was LGBT rights. Dreher might be able to shut out a gay-friendly popular culture, but some fraction of the people born in his paradise will be gay, and some fraction of them will let that slip out. What happens then? Expulsion? That's a pretty grim punishment in a community like this because community is all they have. Read accounts of ex-evangelicals who were rejected by their communities for "rebelliousness" - for many of them, it's like being condemned to walking death.

Maybe that's a plus, though - the modern version of excommunication, a strike so dire that none would risk opposing those with the means of delivering it. You'd like to believe that the people who possess this power would feel honor-bound to never abuse it, but of course that's impossible. While I was going through The Benedict Option, I was also reading a book of medieval history called A World Lit Only By Fire that deals with the awe-inspiring, almost cartoonish corruption within the medieval church. While there was bad behavior all the way through the RCC, the worst of it was centered within the Holy See, gifted as it was with the power to condemn and immunity from all rules, even their own. Perhaps my favorite tale of corruption involves the notorious Alexander VI who, in an effort to dispose of one of his critics, threatened to excommunicate an entire city unless the denizens executed the critic...which, of course, they did.

Here's the thing, though - you don't need to be a massive, empire-defining body with authority over the souls of your followers to exhibit these abuses of power. It can also happen in tiny insular communities, not unlike those which Dreher so admires. The decentralized world of evangelical Protestantism has been experiencing a mini-epidemic of sex abuse scandals as of late. The most disturbing part of this is a truly profane ritual in which the victim (often well under the age of consent) is forced to stand up in her church, confess to adultery and forgive her rapist (who rarely suffers punishment) or else risk expulsion. It's despicable, but there's a certain brutal logic to it for people who value order above all else. The removal of an authority figure will, in the short-term, destabilize the community and, in the long-term, inculcate doubts as to the righteousness of their beliefs. Isn't it better to keep the family together, even if someone has to suffer?

Don't think for a moment that Dreher disagrees with this notion of stability over justice, either. Remember his comments on the Reformation - Church corruption was bad, but by calling attention to the corruption and disrupting the Church community, Martin Luther did something worse.

You know what, though? Let's set all of this aside. Everything I've just said about "Benedict Communities" having the potential to become simmering cauldrons of injustice assumes that a significant number of people reading this book actually follow the advice in some significant fashion. It ignores the people who make a few negligible changes to their lives and use it as an excuse to look down on other Christians. It ignores the people who don't changes their lives at all, but merely shake their heads at those secular liberal barbarians. In short, it ignores all those people who are like Rod Dreher in the most fundamental way - terminally smug.

And that's another one down. The Benedict Option was my most difficult dissection yet - The Road to Character was more boring to read, but it was a struggle to come up with interesting things to say about Dreher, much to my surprise.

As with previous non-fiction works, I have a review on Amazon and I would appreciate upvotes. It's not my best review, but it's the best I could do within my limitations as a barbarian.

Beyond that...well, I have the usual assortment of projects. If you haven't checked out my photoblog yet (or recently), now would be a good time. And if you have 99 cents burning a hole in your pocket, I have books and appreciate kiss-ass reviews. Thank you, and have a nice day.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Benedict Option: Chapter 10 (Man and the Machine)

It's always sad when a series comes to an end. Well...maybe "sad" isn't quite the right word for it. "Disappointing" doesn't really work, either. Maybe..."relief"? That's the one - "relief" really does describe the feeling I get when one of these things is out of my house for good. Doubly so in this case - there's still a waiting list and I damn near had to pay a fine.

But let's not get distracted, as Chapter 10 is significant. It's here that we will delve into a truer form of chaos and face the menace of our times. Within these pages we will confront the awful totem, that sinister artifact bound in the sorcery of wrack and ruin. It is the great curse of the 21st century, a machine of devil's make with the power to lead wanton youth into a metaphysical void from which neither light not joy can escape. Hearken, even now the malevolent wheel of fate turns against this God-forsaken domain...


...Which is to say that we're into the obligatory "Those Kids These Days and Their Dang Smartphones" section. Someday, when all the fires have been put out and the madness of this age has been pushed back into the wilderness, I would like to write the definitive account of the smartphone as the central object of Boomer scorn. Truly, I have never seen so many rancorous assholes direct so much fury at something they all own and use every day. Of course, that scorn is usually just displaced derision for the Kids These Days, or KTDs as I called them during my exploration of the inner life of David Brooks. This even showed up in the saga of The Road to Character, making a cameo in David Zweig's fact-check:
On “Morning Joe,” as one of the hosts recited the erroneous passage, another host waved a cellphone, signaling, “See? This is the problem with today’s youth!”
When commentators whine about smartphones, they're really bitching about the internet in general - employing the time-tested "It didn't exist until I heard about it" thought process, they trace their first serious internet use back to Apple's insipid "There's an app for that" campaign and simply blend the two in their minds. The same goes for Dreher, who finds the diabolical device only slightly more worrisome (in that it's hard for a parent to monitor) than the networks that power it.The difference is that most of these whiners are using smartphones as a focus of contempt only because the KTDs were inconsiderate enough to avoid violence, criminality, promiscuity, substance abuse, and other traditional markers of immorality, forcing Boomers to scramble for a reason to look down on them. Dreher, on the other hand, has a specific reason for hating the 'net. Care to take a guess?
When parents hand their children small portable computers with virtually unlimited access to the Internet, that should not be surprised when their kids - especially their sons - dive into pornography.
No points for guessing that one.

I've been eliding over this because it doesn't come up often, but Dreher has mentioned porn before this, and it's clear that he considers the Tsunami of Smut to be a close second to the Rainbow Hordes in terms of its destructive impact on sacred tradition.

While Dreher does briefly touch on bioscience (though we're cheated of any hyperbolic screeching over pig-men), this chapter is mostly dedicated to the evils of the internet. It's not just smut, though - Dreher has a lot of problems with the internet, few of which will come as a real surprise. Pornography was an obvious one, but Dreher is also writing to a slightly more high-brow audience and thus is obliged to write a bit on the corrosive impact of Technology:
But the Internet, like all new technologies, also takes away. What it takes from us is our sense of agency...
...The result of this is a gradual inability to pay attention, to focus, and to think deeply.
He backs this up with a number of people, including his dear old friend Andrew Sullivan (you know, the one whose great epiphany about the dehumanizing effect of technology led him to quit blogging and move on to writing short sequential articles for the internet, which is totally different) and media critic Neil Postman. I've read some Postman, and I understand why Dreher likes him so much. Postman can be insightful, but I've also seen him take his McLuhan pitch well into Luddite territory. The man once argued that the rot of American civic culture started with telegraphy, for fuck's sake - how seriously can I take him?

All of this covers up Dreher's real problem with the internet. It's not pornography, it's not distractibility, it's not because it made Andrew Sullivan bitterly wistful - it is, in fact, something we first encountered many, many pages ago:
If we can use technology any way we like as long as the outcome results in our own happiness, then all reality is "virtual reality," open to construal in any way we like. There are no natural limits, only those that we do not yet have the technological capability to overcome...
...To go through the screen of your computer or smartphone is to enter a world where you don't often have to deal with anything not chosen.
There it is - choice. That's the problem we've been grappling with since the very start of this exercise.

I was really surprised when Dreher left the development of the internet off of his timeline of civilizational decline. He mentioned it, but only in a very brief aside that described it solely as a contributing factor. The truth is that he probably left it off because he didn't know enough about the history of digital communications. Granted, most people don't - we are, for the most part, content to tie the invention of the internet to the same period in which we started using it. It's only weirdos in the open source movement that actually remember the progenitors, those other weirdos who never became famous because they lent their genius to the world rather than using it to become wealthy.

If Dreher was unfamiliar with this, he should have looked it up because communications technology, in all of its form and splendor, was clearly as harmful to his precious traditional hierarchies as the social changes he decried. There's a certain school of thought that suggests that the Gutenberg Bible actually led to the Reformation, but even if you don't buy that particular argument, it should be clear that social upheaval and the spread of information go hand in hand. If you are ill-suited to your born community and there's another that would accept you, but you never learn of that community, then it may as well not exist.

"Community" is the key word, because for all of Dreher's talk about corrosive individualism, many if not most of his complaints are about communities, not individuals. Protestants, humanists, urbanites, gays, lesbians, artists, science aficionados, civil libertarians - whether formally or in a very loose sense, they all constitute communities if for no other reason than people were or are more comfortable embracing them if they know that they have friends. That's where information and communications technology really helps, by enabling the free-flow of information (or "liquid modernity" as Dreher puts it because he's apparently dedicated to making absolutely everything sound like it came from a discarded Lovecraft story).

The novel aspect of the internet among media is its dual nature - participatory mass communication. Most communications technologies enable just one of those aspects - either one-way communication with a lot of people (as with radio, television and print) or participatory communication with a very small group (as with the telephone and telegraph). That the internet features both makes it uniquely well suited to the discovery, or even development, of communities. The misfit who takes to the internet is likely to discover - for good or ill - that he's not alone. Once he's figured that out, he gains some elevated degree of control over his own destiny. He gains the ability to choose.

To Dreher, that's the biggest problem of them all. His ideal world is a homogenous one, a place of ritual and hierarchy and order. Choice threatens all of that. Present a group of people with a choice they've never had and some of them, inevitably, will reject the status quo. They'll reject the rituals they see as superstition, or the hierarchy that they view as tyranny, or the order that they see as stagnation. They'll choose to seek fulfillment in their own way. Dreher can't tolerate that.

Next time, I take this piece of shit back to the library and we wrap this bastard up.