Pleasurable, Exalted Terror

Edmund Burke wrote that “whatever is qualified to cause terror is a foundation capable of the sublime.” But instead of a category of aesthetics, in contemporary English the word is mainly used by the pretentious to flatter one another. It has thus lost much of the nuance that originated in Burke’s treatise On the Sublime and the Beautiful, in favor of yet another superlative for “good”.

Strictly speaking, something is sublime if it uses the infinite or incalculable to create an experience of beauty incorporating fear or overwhelming. For example, I reserve sublime to describe my first visit to the Niagara Falls, whose dramatic horseshoe of roaring waters transfixed me in a torrent of terror and tranquility.

Yet sublime does not have to refer to natural wonders or artistry. Indeed, many social phenomena can be sublime. Slavoj Žižek once argued that ideology related to the sublime, due to an influence over social reality that defied perception. Specifically, he claims ideologies require a “sublime object” that carries an irreproachable greatness, be it God, the King or the proletariat.

The general idea comes from Kant, who wrote that the sublime is a “formless object” representing our intrinsic inability to perceive vastness or complexity, thus elevating “nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation of ideas.” In confronting such objects, we at once feel displeasure “arising from the inadequacy of imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude” and a “simultaneous awakened pleasure, arising from this very judgement of the inadequacy of the greatest faculty of sense…”.

In ideological space, this inadequacy of imagination parallels the subject’s inability to articulate the nature of their deepest political commitments, which in turn creates a similar “awakened pleasure” in the knowledge that their cause defies a complete description.

In this sense, there is something strangely sublime surrounding the recent brutal interfaces between state and citizen in New York,  Mexico, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. To appreciate the scope and complexity behind these patterns of violence and protest is literally impossible. So out of necessity, our inadequate media elevates that which is beyond our reach to a coherent presentation of ideas. Indeed, it seems as if the news and social media act as a magnifying glass, concentrating public attention onto stochastically occurring tragedies until a spark creates ignition, giving producers the cue for the “national conversation” graphic along the lower third.

There are those that decry the news for being guilty of exploiting “sensationalism,” but this is a mistake. What is being constantly exploited is precisely our craving for the sublime. Indeed, the grotesque scenes of protest that play across our screens, straining eyes that alternate from face to crowd to face, are genuine objects of beauty. And this in turn explains why as a society we have never been more at peace, but also never more in terror. Pleasurable, exalted terror.

hong kong


Among moral philosophers there is a certain anxiety about making sure that their morality is grounded. That is, that it rests on unshakable metaphysical—or scientific—or pragmatic—foundations. The type of foundations is less important than the fact that they are sturdy rather than flimsy. In a largely unreligious era, this anxiety is especially pronounced.

This holiday season I learned something new about my family. I learned that I am fourth generation unreligious—coming from a set of chains that are unbroken all the way up to my great-grandparents on every side of my family. This is truly strange, given the very different backgrounds involved—Russian Jewish on one side and Cuban on the other. Lack of proper religion is a well-worn way of life that I was born into.

And yet my morality is grounded entirely in faith.

Ten years ago I went through something, and I came out on the other side changed. My friend and fellow Sweet Talker Sam Hammond introduced me to the notion of construal, from social psychology. This notion matched my experience perfectly, though my awareness of the theory is very recent. I saw a situation one way—a way that conveniently absolved me of taking responsibility or doing anything uncomfortable. Then I was confronted by a clear contradiction to that way of construing the situation, one that I couldn’t avoid or explain away. And so I began very uncomfortably to reconstrue things, including my role in them.

The situation did not exist in isolation; it was deeply tied to a great deal of my life in a number of subtle ways that weren’t immediately obvious to me. So once the reconstruing began, suddenly huge swaths of my life that I had taken for granted were looked at in a new light.

I won’t bore you with the details of what seemed important and dramatic to a 19-year-old kid. What I will tell you is that I had what you might call an epiphany without religious revelation.

I knew I had been a coward, and a liar, and derelict in my duty to the people in my life. At best I had been loyal, but it had been a worthless loyalty; it didn’t help the people who needed it and it stuck me to people who didn’t deserve it.

But more importantly, I knew that courage, and honesty, and justice, and loyalty of the right sort, were right. I knew they were real. I knew in my bones that I should be the sort of person who could be said to have those things. I knew, and I know, that we all ought to strive to be such a person.

I know that this faith of mine is grounded, in the sense that it is sturdy and won’t be blown over by sophistry or comfortable lies. I know, too, that it is sturdy, because when I connect with someone one on one and speak from the heart about it, I almost always see it resonate.

I also know that simply arguing from what I take as given isn’t persuasive beyond very contingent, very circumstance-specific conversations.

The reason that virtue ethics, as Deirdre McCloskey introduced it to me, is so appealing is that it seems to capture what it is I know better than anything else. Moreover, it is part of an enormous tradition, that has stood the test of time and been examined by a large body of brilliant thinkers. Some, like MacIntyre, ground it in tradition, as I am inclined to. Others, like Russell or Annas, are more cagey about what it is that grounds it, preferring to leave that work for others or possibly for later works. But all seem to capture something of what it is that I’ve found connects with other people, when I’m able to get them in a situation where I can really talk to them about this.

I am in a strange position. I am a moral realist, by faith. Yet I have no faith in the divine. I peruse the writings of, and writings on, Catholic church fathers in the virtue tradition, yet I am not Catholic, Christian, or a theist of any sort. I read Aristotle and read up on the Greek and Roman eudaimonic philosophers, rationalists to a man, yet I am not a rationalist. But I see wisdom in all of them, and from my strange little corner still feel they have a lot to teach me.

If anything stands in the place of a deity for me, it is Heraclitus’ river. At the time of my epiphany I, like most 19-year-olds and especially most 19-year-old boys, thought myself capable of greatness. That this was hilariously at odds with my boring, typical life is besides the point—after my epiphany, I came to see that there is great meaning in participating and contributing to the much greater whole of humanity and human history. When my grandfather had died earlier that same year, my father said that families are like an ongoing story; every new generation ensures that the story will continue for now. I see our lives as being that way in general—we’re all part of the ongoing story of our family, our communities, our nations; of human history itself. This is not only good enough, it is good; participating and contributing to this ongoing story just is what makes our lives meaningful.

Explaining this part of my beliefs, which I have no less faith in, is what I am the worst at. When I took my first ever stab at writing about it back in February, the general reaction could be summarized as: “what the hell are you talking about?”

And that’s fine. The big picture part, the process behind and in front of us, is in many ways the least important part. What matters most is striving to be a good person, and that is the part that I know I can get to resonate with people from when I have talked with them. People with a rather diverse set of metaphysical commitments seem to converge, or grasp towards, a very similar idea of what being a good person is like. MacIntyre thinks it’s because of an old way of thinking that is still alive in our minds. I’m not so sure it’s as contingent as that.

April of next year will mark ten years since my epiphany occurred. I was only a kid when it happened. In many ways, I am still too unread, too ignorant in the huge traditions of thought that have explored these questions, too inexperienced at life to be going around making grand pronouncements.

So I seek conversation, and beg your patience when I slip up and say something foolish, and try to stay humble, and appreciate every bit of feedback that I can get from people willing to give it in good faith.

But I do not doubt the core of my beliefs. And I have faith in the ground on which I stand.

On Unity of Order

Socities have a Unity of Order, constrasted with the Unity of Substance, a useful example is a human person, and mere aggregation, people in a line, say.

This Unity of Order is a real Unity. At the end of the six days of creation, creation is crowned not with a new natural kind, or an aggregation of parts but the first society, the marriage of Adam and Eve.

This proper ordering of Adam and Eve in society, in specifically marriage, is the last act God performs before declaring creation “very good.” What made creation very good, is not yet another kind, but the proper ordering of creation. The typology of Adam and Eve’s proper ordering in marriage is of keen interest to both Jewish and Catholic exegesis. It is considered a type of Israel and the Church, respectively.

Indeed Augustine tells us that “Creation is for the sake of the church.”

A brief meditation on Catholic Social Doctrine

Within the Social Doctrine we can discern different ways of being social in the world.

We can be in a situation of spontaneous agreement, like traffic, or the aggregation of a marketplace, or a queues in a bank. There is intersubjectivity of a sort, but no pretext of striving for unity as a good held in common.

We can exist in partnership where the goal is what is stressed and the good of the partnership can be divided up. A mutual fund is an example. I contribute to the fund and expect a private good in return. The difference between a partnership and a society is that when a partnership is dissolved it can be entirely cashed out and divided. Another difference between partnerships and societies is that societies survive the failure to achieve their external end. A failure to provide the goods contained in a contract will tend to end buisness relations. The failure to produce children will not end a marriage. The failure to win a game will not end the team. The church choir doesn’t dissolve after a bad performance

We can exist in society, a communion of multiple rational agents working in united action toward a goal where unity is among the common goods sought. In society the group constitutes in itself a moral person, something distinct in dignity. The common good is indivisble. I can divide the items of a marriage. But I can’t divide a “marriage” as such. I cannot give you 50% of a marriage, though I can give you 50% of the shared mutual fund that was held in the marriage.

from this we can discern two errors:

The Error of what John Paul II calls “Real Socialism” asserts that partnerships are ipso facto unjust, and that cordination of goods can only take place in a situation of justice under the society of the nation state.

There are no partnerships, only societies with conditions of injustice, partnerships are covers for exploitation, to recify the injustice of partnerships we must transfer these cordination of resources into society, into the nation state.

On the other side there is the error of liberal individualism which takes there to be no societies as such. There are only aggregations of individual interests.

The line of thought goes that there is no society as such, no good common to all, and positing such a good thwarts at times the aggregated good of individuals, as such the state should take pains to eliminate the good of society as society wherever it contradicts and supersedes the good of aggregated individual interest.

Political Kayfabe: St. Nick Edition.

Link to a bloggingheads video on Santa Claus

PEG: Santa is a lie with no upside. Ban Santa
AG: Santa is a lie with no downside. Leave him alone.

SW: Santa is early childhood prep for the inevitable panopticon that will harry and vex citizens their entire lives. Get used to the surveillance state today to save yourself severe discomfort tomorrow. Conform.

Of all the secular Christmas songs in regular rotations, one stands head and shoulders above all others for its celebration of submission to the popular will. John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie first released “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in November of 1934, which you should recall was in FDR’s first term. NIRA, along with all of its price controls and suchlike came complete with propaganda like this hot on its heels:

Consider the possibility that “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and its themes of supernatural surveillance might have been part of the NIRA & al propaganda push. This version of an all-powerful, omniscient Santa is merely an artifact of a greater socialization movement. Monitor your own behavior, conform, obey, and enjoy the rewards (bestowed by benevolent government).

The modern Santa Claus is a sandbox metaphor for progressive era political kayfabe: a great shared lie in which a supernatural elite sprinkles magically-created wealth o’er the land. The fault isn’t in the story; it’s in folks’ unwillingness to take the greater lesson to heart. Both Gobry and Gurri, each brilliant in their own right, failed to acknowledge the obvious and elementary parable that modern Santa represents. Why?

I think Gobry got snagged on the edge of it when he made the nude emperor allegory. Santa is far too crass, too obvious, too ubiquitous to be a good candidate for hermeneutics. Right? Well, that’s why it’s so vital we preserve the myth.

In the future, parents will turn to their disillusioned children and say “remember when you found out that Santa Claus was a lie? Hold on to that feeling, because politicians will do that to every four years or so.”

Santa is the perfect parable for electoral politics. Why would you want to either discard that or reduce it to mere frippery and fun around the garland-decked evergreen?


Dead Ritual

Final Advent Musings

In my introductory post on ritual, I drew some DIY distinctions, teasing out some components of ritual in order to talk about them with a little more clarity, namely: Rite (change of status); from Superstition (invocation of luck); from Ritual (communal edification). These are fairly arbitrary, but upon hearing no objections, I shall proceed.

I avoided religious practices in developing my definitions because so much freight comes with the topic, not least of which is the phenomenon of the mass exodus of Europe and North America from its cathedrals and religious identity. Why? the question is asked. Why the mass exodus? Oftentimes the answer is “dead ritual,” in an effort to draw a distinction from “dead god.” Why should I submit to practices and institutions that are basically dead? If God is alive, he is not bound by an institution of bricks, mortar, and incantation.

To be sure, the response cuts both ways. I’m about to attend a handful of masses to commemorate the Nativity of Christ Jesus, along with a majority of attendees who are there because Grandma wants them to be there, and if they do not attend, they risk precluding themselves from Grandma’s love and affection. Why should you submit to practices and institutions that are basically dead, even for one night, as a token for your close kin? Why not be an honest Puck and forgo the ritual of attending so that the rest of us can benefit from the change of status the mass effects without the constant awkward rubrical flubs?

The rituals are dead because the rites are dead, no? If the invocation does not bring the name of God upon you, if the eucharistic prayer does not bring the body of Christ to you, and if the benediction does not confer the blessing of God upon you, then, naturally, everything else attendant is dead.

Christmas Mass

If the religious artifacts are dead, then, as attendant rituals to your own familial Christmas rituals–holiday rituals, whatever–if the religious artifacts are dead, then also your familial Christmas rituals.

But you can’t do that to Grandma, can you?

One Grandma I know absolutely clobbers the Sanctus, every mass, every time, just blows it out of the water. And the attendant ritual of singing the Song of Simeon as a dismissal: she hits the line, “A light to lighten the Gentiles” with such a sublime force, it brings forth a moistening to my eye, as though she has seen the little Christ child, as promised, and now she can die in peace. It’s a ritualistic requiem, if you will, repeated, given life by her attending to the change of status.

I suppose this little post started out as a screed to encourage those ignorant of the rites to steer clear of my rituals, to come to peace with Grandma, you see, and finally tell her that it’s impossible to be an honest Puck and attend to dead rituals because the rites are dead, but it wouldn’t be right, somehow. Let the light of Grandma’s attending lighten every familial Christmas ritual.

They Are But Men Like Us

Sam reminds us that lies and violence are the system, and suggests that the worst get on top.

I had the pleasure of dining with Richard Wagner, Gerald O’Driscoll, and Dan Hammond two summers ago at the illustrious, but now-on-hiatus Adam Smith Summer Institute that David Levy and Sandra Peart organize at the University of Richmond. The other gentlemen were gracious enough to not split the check evenly amongst us that evening.

In conversation I discussed my work on William Wilburforce for abolition in Great Britain. My model argues that reform came at a great cost, and that the same results could have been achieved if the abolitionists had directed their resources toward purchasing manumission directly, in order to generate sympathy between slaveowner and slave. My general premise is that reform that does not redeem the oppressor in situations of systematic injustice will inevitably give rise to new injustices.

I was leaning hard on Wilburforce, suggesting that ambitions in Parliament drove his efforts toward abolition. Creation of a dedicated set of Baptists (evangelicals) makes it easier to identify Bootleggers from whom to collect tidy rents.

But O’Driscoll urged me to give Wilberforce the benefit of the doubt, in order to make my case more robust. T’was not the ambition nor the latent self-interest that drove Wilberforce’s efforts toward a second-best solution. Rather, the nature of the beast that is representative democracy is the root source of the emergence of special interest groups. Evangelicals became an internally cycling loose coalition that effectively captured the median voter for most of the 19th and 20th centuries in Great Britain and the United States.

The lesson is that we can assume the very best of intentions by the agents within our models of government, but where there is occasion for faction, it will emerge, with negative consequences for the whole.

Gentle Death

Those few of you who follow me elsewhere, or have known me long enough in person may be familiar with the part of my professional history spent in the deep dark, beneath the unforgiving winedark Pacific, of those sunless weeks lazily circling the crushing depths as we listened attentively for Command: Submarine Group 9 to order us to warm up the gyroscopes tucked neatly away inside the 20+ multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles that may or may not have been loaded inside the densely-packed silo that acted as de facto bulkheads separating crew quarters. You may have read the occasional post or two or heard me yammer on about the wide gulf between the boring, routine everyday reality of life underway and the civilization-destroying potential locked away in the fissile material at the heart of each warhead. You may have even listened as I rambled on about how every 18 hours or so, I would bravely attempt slumber in a bunk (aboard ship, they’re called “racks”, and I’m still not sure if the allusion to medieval torture devices is intentional or not) with the soles of my feet pressed up against a device, that if used for its intended purposes, is the most gentle, most kind, most humane method of killing millions of people ever devised.

Nuclear combat isn’t a one-size-fits-all affair, as depicted in late Cold War-era cinema (Dr. Strangelove, War Games, eg). Most folks know about low-yield warheads, and about the difference between a fusion device (H-bomb) and the garden-variety thermonuclear fission bomb, like the ones Truman directed dropped on two Japanese cities in 1945. Some folks will even already know what a high-altitude detonation will do (disrupt electronics, particularly communications, rather than kill enemy civilians). Most folks, especially those old enough to recall the 50s-era classroom filmstrips featuring the ever-so-helpful duck-and-cover advice, will know the difference between being in the blast radius and being in the fallout zone. What folks may not know is that for practical purposes, unless you actually live in the wilds of South Dakota, the probability of being in the blast zone of a detonation in a total nuclear war situation, the kind where my old boat would be instructed to launch its inarguable payload, is pretty dang high. If every capable nation on earth would empty the clip, so to speak, and you lived in, say, Gramercy Park, the chances that you’d turn to ash faster than the speed with which the pain signal can travel from the surface of your skin to the pain centers of your brain are better than, oh, I dunno, getting your hat blown off in a hurricane.

Adam misapprehends my sentiments.

If by Sam’s statement, he means that we cannot speak meaningfully of “good government” or that “good government” intrinsically involves fraud and injustice, then we disagree.

Violence is not injustice. Lies are not fraud. Not necessarily anyway. When I say that the lies and the violence ARE the system, I mean simply that as long as there are rewards to being cunning or wicked, there will be cunning, wicked men on earth. Peaceful, cooperative people require defense against the cunning and the wicked. Such defense is necessarily violent, and by the logic of coalition politics, it is often necessarily deceitful. Without measured, controlled, well-directed violence, there is chaos and social disorder. Sometimes this means stuffing a couple dozen or so ICBMs inside a big steel tube and sending it out on the most dread of all possible missions. Most of the time, it means issuing select members of the community a badge and instructing them to enforce the law as she is written.

The lies and the violence ARE the system. When the system is working as advertised, this is greatly to the advantage of the peaceful and the cooperative. In very broad terms, two things can end you up on the wrong end of the truncheon: (1) the system stops working as advertised, or (2) you turn to wickedness and cunning. The counter-protests that have arisen since I wrote the post that Adam excoriated seem to suggest that the civilian protesters believe in (1) and the police counter-protesters believe in (2). I’ve written elsewhere on what I believe to be the source of the discontent, and I stand by my remarks. If legislation makes criminals of us all, we must expect that the police, who are indeed the enforcement arm of the legislature, shall with some probability and when sufficiently provoked, exercise physical force against us. This is the very essence of their jobs. We specifically hire police to be violent on our behalf. Similarly, we commission ballistic missile submarines to mutually assure the annihilation of civilization, if not all human life everywhere. It’s right there, black ink on white paper, front and center in the description.

I’m asking my GMU comrade Sam Wilson, and anyone else who might happen to read this lengthy bit of Internet rambling, to take the task of specifying a model of good government seriously. Or at minimum, take seriously the idea that such a specifically is possible, and abandon the tempting but corrosive rhetoric of negation.

This is the challenge, isn’t it? James Buchanan won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work on specifying models of good government. He was a relentless champion of the power of constitutions to constrain the ambitions of the sovereign. I would desperately like to agree with him, but I have a difficult time accepting the proposition that the US Constitution acts as a hard behavioral constraint at all. What would I substitute in its place? What tools do we have to ensure good governance? Well, when I come up with a slam-dunk plan, I’ll post it here first so that we can get all that sweet Web traffic in advance of my own Nobel Committee recognition. In lieu of that, I’ll continue to ask my readers to take seriously the import of petitioning the sovereign for redress of grievances. Each statute is, in the limit, a death sentence for truculent offenders. It can be worth killing to preserve good law and order, as it can be worth risking scouring the earth of every trace of human life to avoid, what, Communism I guess? Unfortunately, my experience parsing survey data suggests that typical respondents routinely fail to acknowledge the explicit consequences of legislation: that it must ultimately be backed by lethal force to have any meaning at all.

The lies and the violence ARE the system. The trick is for citizens of good conscience, of peaceful mien, of gentle disposition to use lies and violence to quell the cruel disorder that would be wrought by the intemperate, the deranged, the wicked. Part of this trick is to kindly ask of my fellow citizens to think deeply, think carefully on the nature of violence in society, much as I once did snuggled comfortably between the orange tubes that contained the most gentle death the imagination of mankind has ever brought forth upon this earth.

Aspirational Politics

I’m going to step out of character for a moment here—at least out of my anti-telescopic morality character. To an extent.

Recently our very own Sam Wilson wrote the following:

The violence and the lies are not part of the system. The violence and the lies ARE the system.

The context does not matter. Sam could have uttered these words on nearly any subject where the actor is some agent of the state. And, in fact, he has, numerous times recently and in the time that I have come to know him.

I agree with Sam on a lot. We share the background intellectual framework imparted by the economics department at GMU—though to compare the extent of my education in this matter with his would be rather like comparing the literacy of a grade-schooler with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nevertheless, we approach economics from a similar angle, and we both love Deirdre McCloskey’s work, among other thinkers beyond the walls of Carow Hall.

But I’m not sure I entirely agree with his statement, and I certainly don’t share his cynical attitude.

To be sure, I will not deny that violence, deception, and other evils can and do become institutionalized. I will not even deny that that goes on in America at the federal, state, and local levels.

“What then,” you might ask, “do you actually disagree with him on? You tedious ass.”

Answering that question will require me to step back for a moment, and sketch out the frame I’m approaching this from.

Continue reading “Aspirational Politics”

Anarchism is Near, Statism is Far

Adam asks me,

…what is the ideal here, and when is enough enough? This directly parallels “all-things-considered” rationality; when is a citizen’s policy position “all-things-considered” enough to make one a good citizen tout court?

I fear I may not have been as clear in my original post as I could have been, because I believe Adam’s taken a different point than I’d intended to make.

Admonishing those who don’t acknowledge the full costs of XYZ public policy preference is admonishing those who’ve adopted a telescopic morality. The state is the terminus of legitimate power. There are very few recourses to an unjust state action. So, if you outsource to the state, I’d ask that one fully understands the nitty-gritty necessary to have your plate of pork chops, and that, just because one chooses to act through a mostly-unimpeachable third party, it is not an excuse to outsource one’s ethics. I’d argue, instead, it becomes more important to “get right” your politics.

If you outsource your law enforcement, you are, at least by some greater-than-0 amount, complicit in its methods. If you outsource your children’s education and their safety, you are, at least by some greater-than-0 amount, complicit in its methods. We all work on the margin, and, through marginal reforms, hope to make police abuses less prevalent and school administrators less insane. However, these trade-offs are ever-present, just the relative magnitudes may change.

Now, this is not to say that government cannot be a potential answer to a given problem. Maybe whatever cost-benefit analysis a person chooses to employ shows a clear advantage. Government is the gun in the middle of the room, and just because someone really, super-duper likes a given policy goal’s implementation, that doesn’t absolve him of the ethical duty to understand the costs of their super groovy, state-violence-backed public policy preference. Don’t blink at the implications.

Anyways, to answer Adam’s actual question: #phronesis