Monthly Archives: April 2015

Flouting Civilization

The basis for critiques of civilization (in general or in any particular incarnation) has always been “nature.” Conventions and culture, if not ritually prescribed, could be other than what they are, and are therefore time bound and contingent, but nature is what is always true, and what we discover through reason, rather than via tradition. If we can know what is natural, we can judge the civilized order, its customs and conventions, in terms of how closely they correspond to nature. Nature is simple, essential, enduring, intelligible, universal; civilization is given to artificiality, fashion, vanity, sophistication. Nature is a newly discovered post-ritual sign; civilization remains mired in rivalry and the compulsion to attain distinction.

Of course, “nature” is itself a category of civilization, a way of deferring the new conflicts the civilized order generates. It emerges because civilized citizens are more or less dimly aware of the radical transformation, the deferrals and disciplines, that made civilization possible and distinguished civilized orders so dramatically from barbaric and savage ones: it is this absolute distinction between civilization and everything that preceded it that produces the blanket category of “nature.” Due to the leisure afforded a class of thinkers, relatively freed from ritual imperatives and material need, and their capacity to survey a range of uncivilized orders (to record them, discuss them, interview them, collect “samples”), it becomes “natural” to inquire into the many similarities and differences observed, and to generalize regarding what they all might have in common. Precisely for this reason civilized orders are able to convince themselves that they are, or could be, arranged more in correspondence with nature than the more primitive and seemingly irrational and arbitrary social orders—while also being equally capable of convincing themselves that they might try to model themselves on the simplicity, courage, strength and other virtues of the uncivilized.

The role of “Nature” during the civilizing process is a regulatory one, rather than a foundational one. “Civility” didn’t need so much to be justified or explained as protected from the excesses inherent in this as yet untested mode of social life—satires of civility (marking its deviation from nature) are part of civility. With modernity, and the forgetting of the civilizing process, “Nature” is presented as the basis of social order, the source of rights and legitimation, including the principle of a revolutionary re-founding if the existing order were discovered to be opposed to nature, or usurping the natural rights upon which its legitimacy depends. The assertion of individual natural rights was first deployed against the monarchies of Europe, but, since they have no intrinsic limiting principle, the notion of natural rights is a way of generating and directing resentment toward any government seen to be tyrannical in any sense.

The modern notion of “Nature” implies equality before a sovereign center, which is posited as constituted by what it in fact constitutes: the assertion of natural rights only makes sense as a polemic against some central figure that has always already expropriated them. The many antinomies of this structural assumption have been exhaustively explored, in what has perhaps been the greatest service provided by “postmodern” social and political theory. The more natural rights are presumed to constrain the sovereign center, the more sovereignty constructs, shapes, redefines, analyzes and recomposes, those minimal rights (to property, self-protection, movement, speech, worship, etc.) into “components” of a policed social order. The ludicrous notions of a “compelling state interest,” or “rational test”—self-evidently arbitrary concepts established as standards the government must meet (and, through the courts, decides whether it is meeting) in limiting some natural right—make this fairly obvious. Even more, as the natural and social sciences develop and become increasingly central to social life, the “nature” founding society becomes one to be manipulated through those sciences—diagnosis and prescription easily replace persuasion as the constituents of political discourse, as we continue to install the therapeutic order Philip Rieff analyzed decades ago. Here’s a prediction, which exemplifies the inversion of natural rights that is simultaneously its culmination: we will see, perhaps within a decade, children removed from religious homes deemed “unhealthy” and “abusive” because children are being taught the “homophobic” lessons of their parents and tradition, and transferred to same sex “married” couples whose equal right to raise children will thereby be vindicated. The current legal and political strategy of many conservatives, to argue against “relativistic” leftist politics through recourse to “natural rights” is futile because the various components of natural rights can be pulverized and recombined at will—the grotesque notion of a “protected class” (making it, presumably, open season on everyone else) both contradicts and corresponds to “natural right.” At the extreme, if the citizen’s rights are defined in terms of a pre-social nature, their expression can be reduced to pre-social venues (you can believe and say what you like as long as no one is around to see or hear or be offended by you—it can even be generously granted that you probably can’t help yourself), with violations of such strictures resulting in one’s removal from society. (All that is coming from “above”—we have known for a long time that, from “below,” any assault on customs and conventions can be justified in the name restoring some natural right or freedom.)

I have been arguing in recent posts that the only possible anti-victimary politics today would involve setting aside all these modern concepts and debates and simply arguing for civilization against barbaric and savage recrudescence. Civilization does not require a notion of universal right, much less endless cynical and acrobatic reinterpretations of supposedly fundamental and self-evident rights. A politics of civilization can focus on the praxis of individuals constitutive of the institutions and practices to which all must habituate themselves. In a university you treat everyone as a scholar and teacher; in business you treat everyone as a competent practitioner of their specialty; in economic transactions you include your partners in a zone of trust constitutive of a voluntary exchange; in neighborhood you treat everyone as—a neighbor. In some cases, specific institutions or spaces will want to codify what such treatment entails, always keeping in mind that such codification indicates, not a heightened moral awareness, but an attempt to defer potential or actual conflict (and hence a weakening of the consensus upon which the shared practice depends). Such conflict might be necessary to make it possible to see others in unaccustomed ways (and might indeed lead to higher moral awareness), but the point is always to expand and improve the civilized order that the excluded are, after all, demanding entrance to—the inclusion of new participants should be an occasion to re-fortify civilized institutions, to subordinate grievances to norm-governed work. Civilization depends upon deferral to the judgment of the “third person” I have discussed in recent posts, and it depends upon every individual inculcating the attitudes, dispositions and mentalities of the “third person,” and the desire to be take as such a person by others.

To talk about rights, and distribution, wealth and markets, participation in universal exchange, etc., outside of the defense of the fundaments of civilized order, tends to undermine that order. There can be no universal reciprocity because there is no global scene—even if there can be global spectacles. Exchange can only take place among participants on a scene, established and governed by a shared sign—to grant full membership on a scene without accession to that sign is to make the scene hostage to the marginal grievance, or the grievance that needs to be appeased to make whole the fantasy of a scene that could map the territory controlled by the sovereign. The originary scene bequeaths to us not an ever more inclusive scene, but infinite scenes, overlapping and articulated in infinite and always provisional ways—moral advances, always fragile, come through new ways of mediating between scenes that were previously incommensurable. Even the free market presupposes a civilized order, and then becomes a marker of that order insofar as it represents a mode of exchange no Big Man could usurp. But defenses, in principle, of the free market that would undermine the basics of civilized order (like the demand for a free market in labor that would allow unlimited immigrants from less civilized countries, unvetted by the civilized order, to enter the country) must themselves be resisted, if not through centralized state power than by communities organized through schools, neighborhoods, businesses, main streets, hospitals, social services, etc.—i.e., by the bulwarks of a civilized order.

So, what is a politics of civilization? It is, I think a politics of flouting civilization. I take the notion of “flouting” from the philosopher of language Paul Grice, who developed the notion of “maxims of conversation”—what originary thinkers could really consider an ethics of the declarative sentence. Insofar as we speak to each other, we presuppose certain shared obligations (the “cooperative principle”): what you say will be true, it will be relevant, it will be sufficient (you will give no more and no less information than is necessary). These are more constitutive than descriptive—much, perhaps most, actual conversation proceeds in violation of these maxims. But that’s the point—it is precisely through meaningful violations, or flouting, of the maxims, that meaning is generated (through what Grice calls “implicatures”). So, if you ask me how Jim’s new job at Wall Street is going, and I say, “terrific—he should be able to stay out of jail for at least another few years,” I am flouting the cooperative principle in several ways: I have given no reason to believe Jim has committed a crime, or is planning to do so, so the information I am giving is irrelevant and perhaps false, nor am I providing you with the information you requested which, according to convention, would concern itself with whether Jim is satisfied with his salary and working conditions, has been promoted in a timely manner, is respected by his co-workers, etc. But, I am giving you all that information and more if we share some empirical and ethical assumptions about what it means to “work on Wall Street”—that it involves activity that has lately involved well publicized criminal (or presumed criminal) activity, or that others, or the interlocutors themselves, believe much of that activity should be criminalized—and some shared assumptions about Jim (that he himself seems primed for such activity, or, perhaps, is an exception, an honest man, and that is why he should avoid jail in the hypothetical scene we must jointly construct, in order to remove Jim from it, in which Wall Street employment is a fast track to a prison cell). The more such assumptions we share, the more my flippant statement is telling you about not only whether Jim is fitting in at his Wall Street firm, but what such “fitting in” entails and, by implication, what we should think about Jim.

Likewise, very little civilized behavior is actually comprised of individuals directly presenting themselves as the disinterested “third person”—we are all much more likely to refer to pretensions to objectivity, broadmindedness, and altruism ironically and disparagingly even, or especially, when we ourselves could be seen as entertaining such pretensions, or if we are acting in a way that would earn us such a description. A respected judge will, if adequately self-aware, gesture towards the feebleness of his attempts to meet what are also admittedly inadequately understood norms. Indeed, there wouldn’t be that much for us to talk about otherwise—if we didn’t question one another’s and our own credentials as civilized beings in innumerable ways. Civilized beings very often mean what they say, but in very indirect ways, intelligible only to those schooled in such indirection, which is to say, other civilized beings. Modesty, almost by definition, flouts the cooperative principle, but no trait is more attractive in a conversationalist; similarly, the most civilized beings are those who gesture to all the ways in which they are not.

In other words, most of civilized behavior consists in flouting civilization. Civilization is the continuous work of distancing our interactions from the possibility of violent combustion, and that means concealing all kinds of impulses, reactions, and desires that present a visible pathway to the feared violence. All the things that we hide, and would be utterly humiliated to have uncovered, and that pre-civilized orders are untroubled by—to take a most obvious example, what we do in the bathroom—aim at maintaining the needed degree of distance and compartmentalization. And we don’t talk about these things, other than with people we are very close to (even then…) or doctors. The simplest way of flouting civilization is to stage the collapsing of these distances, which is what most of our jokes, entertainment and art are about. Most of the radical, avant-garde art of the past century has been a sustained flouting of civilized conventions of private and public life. (Even the modest judge of the previous paragraph lets his defenses down, makes himself vulnerable, invites attack—thereby testing the civility of others on the scene.) All this is healthy—as with Grice’s implicatures, such flouting makes visible the norms we are flouting, tests them, stretches them, gives them a workout, provides them with new applications, abstracts from them, reminds us of what we have forgotten, teaches us to navigate them, and reinforces the deeply embedded assumptions underlying the principles of cooperation we adhere to.

But civilization has its enemies as well. The jihadis at war with us are not flouting. The Left, for some time, perhaps to some extent since there has been a Left, is doing something other and more than flouting (and this is true of some of the avant-garde as well, which overlaps significantly with the left—but the more an individual’s concerns are artistic, even if the goal to abolish art, the less he or she is an enemy of civilization). The whole business of a politics of civilization, then, is to distinguish flouting from enmity—or, more precisely, to treat all transgressions of civilized principles of cooperation, to the extent possible, as flouting one could participate in. Where it becomes impossible—where we can’t imagine a joke that would follow up on the one just made, or an artistic innovation that would deepen the implications of a previous one, or a style of personal appearance that could signal reciprocity with some new one that seems offensive—then we have intuited the boundary between flouting and enmity. On the other side of the boundary we find either the utopian/totalitarian desire to engineer the center of a global scene or, more prosaically, the vendetta—indeed, the former usually “presents” as the latter. It is worth considering the extent to which the Left is one long vendetta against civilization, nursing a grudge against each and every injury inflicted by the civilizing process. In a vendetta, one doesn’t really want to destroy the other side—one just wants to even the score. But since there are no scoreboards or referees, the compulsion to even the score can easily lead to mutual destruction. Vendettas can be deflected and thereby treated as mere “flouting,” but only if one is familiar with and ready to deploy all the means of civilization, which comes down, as my previous post argued, to delaying and reconfiguring the paths back and forth between declarative and ostensive.

De-naturizing discourse on civilization can make it possible for “nature” to subside as a political category, retreating, perhaps, to one of its more innocuous meanings (which can nevertheless do some heavy duty ethical work): “natural” as unstrained, in sync with one’s setting, familiar enough with conventions and trusting enough in one’s fellows to play around a bit with both, in accord with what one’s habits and history have prepared one for, without pretense or self-coercion, happy to share whatever attention one receives or one has cultivated. A thoroughly civilized nature, in other words. Of course, appreciation of the awkwardness of the learner, and admiration for that of the innovator are intrinsic to a civilized disposition, but a sense of naturalness is what enables us to tell when something has actually been learned, or an innovation has actually “took” (or is that “taken”?).

Digital Civilization, Slouching from Silicon Valley to be Born

A semiotic history of the world would trace the gradual process of distancing from the ostensive and imperative via the declarative, along with the efforts, within new forms of declarative culture, to re-embed ostensives and imperatives. Insofar as we are humans, all signs must point the way to an eventual ostensive, but the pathways are continually elongated and intersected. If the first declarative was a negative ostensive, both interlocutors would presumably be a turn or a glance away from the demanded object. The “statement” that one hasn’t the object could hardly be sustained or remembered unless an alternate route to its procurement (and hence the completion of the imperative that initiated the sequence) was readily accessible. The development of the declarative through discourse would involve a gradual shift from conceptual scenes anchored in a setting of familiar material objects to conceptual scenes strung through other possible conceptual scenes to conditional ostensives of varying degrees of probability of realization. To understand a sentence is to understand the probability of one possible world amongst a range of other possible worlds, and to be capable of identifying sufficient distinctive features of that world. In other words, a space within other spaces where we could imagine pointing at something along with others, whether these spaces are fictional worlds or carefully constructed laboratory settings. Even if all we are dealing with are numbers generated by instruments registering the slightest movements of the tiniest particles, that data is something we can point to so as to distinguish between more and less expected outcomes of the experiment. Even the densest, most allusive poetry presupposes a reader who once spent time in front of the same page of obscure poetry as the writer, and can be startled into a shared recognition (or illusion thereof) of the experience of immersion in that page and the way that experience might be displaced if set next to another, equally distant page that we some sense might look at together.

We could see digital civilization as a qualitative shift in our relations to ostensivity. Vast swathes of social interaction that, within living memory, required sustained manipulation of objects or interpersonal (F2F) interactions, have been brought online. This is not just an advance in automation, although it is that as well. We will soon have driverless cars, and in a generation people will be astonished that fallible people (who drink, get distracted by music and conversation, suffer erosion of their eyesight and reflexes—and are vain about such things) were once allowed to operate these primitive, dangerous machines. The government doesn’t need wiretaps on specific people’s phones, and grizzled detectives sitting in a room across the street with headphones on eating pastrami sandwiches and drinking coffee all night—all you need is universal phone records and an algorithm to search for relevant patterns. The implications, to take one of many examples, for traditional notions of justice, are clear: if we once moved from barbaric means of determining guilt by “trial by ordeal” to the method we have now, the flaws of which are becoming increasing evident and intolerable, of collecting and weighing “evidence,” presenting that evidence before an ‘impartial” jury, with both “sides” represented by an attorney, we are now likely to move to the use of algorithms to search and analyze the official records of anyone you are considering hiring, selling a home to, letting into your place of business, etc.—who cares about such arcana as guilt and innocence if we can know, within “reasonable” limits, that the gentleman looking around the store is 8x more likely than average to commit some violent act? But such developments coincide with our increasing ability to decide on questions of fact, through DNA testing, omnipresent cameras, etc.—but if the basic facts will be so readily available, wouldn’t the whole rigmarole of arguments, legitimizing evidence, cross-examining witnesses, etc., along with philosophical considerations regarding just punishments just get replaced by the attempt to figure out either the best medical and therapeutic way of “curing” the criminals or the least repugnant ways of removing them from our sight? Just as the development of exotic new digital currencies might bring to the fore our continuing ultimate dependence on the precious metals. The ostensive can’t just be deferred and distanced—it must be resituated, bracketed, distributed.

If the history of your actions cannot bear algorithmic scrutiny you will be excluded from digital civilization—not necessarily convicted, but exiled. We couldn’t predict how sharp this dividing line will turn out to be—we don’t have the algorithms to do so yet. What roles will forgiveness and the notion of second chances have in digital civilization? Perhaps there will be algorithms for them. So far, we can see some perhaps minor paradoxes. For example, there is an increase in rigor within the more disciplined digital arenas (real R & D), along with an informality of dress and speech—as if, once we all know what we’re doing, and it’s not stuff that any literate person could do with a little training and supervision, the various proxies of “professionalism” (suit and tie, titles) can be dispensed with. Digital civilization will be far more enveloping than the industrial one preceding it—individuals within digital culture will be carefully shepherded from institution to institution, and the enhanced means and protocols for reducing dangers along the way will be vigorously implemented. Freedom and privacy, we could assume, will take on very different meanings (much less physical, which is to say, ostensive, and much more “semiotic”—or, perhaps, not so much there, either—the days where anything can be done anonymously may be over, except for those willing to break radically with the grid, and can survive that break, but that doesn’t exhaust the meaning of freedom), and personal responsibility will be enforced much more comprehensively (we won’t need debt collectors and repo men chasing deadbeats around if their appliances and cars can simply be disabled and located remotely, or bank accounts accessed when they swipe a debit or credit card). The need for all kinds of direct human contact will be minimized considerably, which in turn makes all kinds of human contact newly uncertain and risky, inspiring new protective counter-measures—this is already well under way. All this distancing and compartmentalizing and concealment of what disgusts and frightens us is well within the broad mainstream of civilization; indeed, it’s almost constitutive of it. But will there also be, drawn to those exiled to the margins of civilization (earthy, sensuous “primitives” like in Huxley’s Brave New World, and in some many sci-fi dystopias? Nomads, scavengers, raiders, more or less violent? Intrepid hackers? Sanctuary cities? Vast masses or manageable few?), some from among the civilized who will take up slumming with them, so as to distinguish themselves from their straightjacketed peers? Perhaps flouting civilization by disrupting its boundaries is equally constitutive of civilization.

How much freedom digital civilization allows and provides for and, indeed, how functional and enduring it will be, will depend heavily upon whether the victimary vendetta makes the transition and manages to install itself within the digital, or is kept out. So, far, the victimocracy is very much at home in the digital—the most cutting edge companies are the most insistently pro-gay (which, of course, helps to explain how gay rights, of direct concern to maybe 3% of the population, has shot to the top of the victimary agenda), victimary activists (I’ll use “SJW,” now that I know what it stands for) are extremely skilled in organizing online lynch mobs and manipulating the new media and, most importantly, much of the victimary agenda depends upon the continual distancing of the declarative from the ostensive that characterizes each new gradation in civilization. The struggle against oppression used to be richly ostensive, as the exclusion of and violence against blacks, the backbreaking conditions of workers, the seclusion and limitation of women, were all obvious for all to see. One could rationalize them, or counsel patience, or compare existing conditions to less plausible alternatives, but one couldn’t deny them. Today, claims that these groups are oppressed require sophisticated legal theories and the manipulation of data—of course, the victimocrats can’t resist the occasional (or more than occasional) hoax, but the real strength of the victimocracy is the ability to argue that barely detectable attitudes and actions and unseen biases within complex institutions generate devastating, widely dispersed and somehow measurable effects. But this strength is balanced by the fact that, ultimately, the ostensive can be delayed but not denied: the left still relies upon standard and fairly crude notions of “justice” that really only make sense in pre-digital terms where specific actions by people in authority could be observed having direct effects upon the victimized (a lynching, a strike crushed, etc.). If blacks, on average, earn 75% of what whites earn and have 35% of the property whites own, but also commit more violent crimes and engage in more behaviors that can be statistically correlated with lower earnings and savings, then one might accept responsibility and see a problem worth addressing but hardly an obvious injustice calling for outrage and immediate action. Which is why, perhaps, the hoaxes are necessary after all.

There is an extremely intense mode of ostensivity constitutive of the victimocracy, but it is also a very fragile one. It is commonly noted how uninterested in, and even hostile to, debate, the contemporary left is. The left of the 60s and even through the 80s loved to argue—they felt they had the facts, i.e., the ostensives, on their side. Today’s left sees ostensive truths that are made available, vivid and undeniable by the participants in their own self-created “disciplinary” spaces where they teach each other how to “see” what remains invisible to the naked eyes of the oppressor majority (the brief flourishing of a more traditional anti-war movement in reaction to the post-9/11 wars was an exception). They can only bring over converts through the perpetual generation of events made of simulated outrage and involving intoxicating feelings of generational solidarity and individual moral courage—this is basis of both the “Occupy” movement and the recent race rioting over police killings. They are able to present those ostensives to those, like, journalists, Democrat politicians and university faculty and administrators, who already define themselves in opposition to the presumably less civilized pragmatic majority and delight in having ready made voter blocs and rabble rousers delivered to them. But while those outside of these circles can be caught off guard and made defensive, or have their desire for peace exploited, they can’t really believe. The Austrian economists (intellectual descendants of von Mises) speak of how the introduction of fiat money into circulation benefits those who receive the money first, because they can spend it at its previous, unadulterated value; the same is true here: those who identify a new form of injustice modeled on and seemingly supporting more familiar ones have a form of moral currency that passes for valid. But like the bad money, the bad morality goes through a boom and bust period.

But where are the constituencies of the SJWs and the body of the victimocracy in relation to the digital? And where are the “normals,” or those satisfied with small, gradual and widely shared gradations in civilization, but repelled by attempts at great leaps? The major media and the universities (very much in that order) are in real danger of being swept away in the digital flood. Even now, who reads newspapers or watches the evening news? Efficient on-line educational “delivery systems” can’t be too far away either (anyone at a small, private university can smell the desperation). We are the repealing of a few licensing laws and noxious regulatory obstacles away (and in some cases not even that) from opening up whole new mini-industries in the fields of health, computer technology, beer brewing, education, home design, etc. All people who won’t want to pay high taxes or be forced to provide their employees with expensive health insurance or exorbitant minimum wages. None of whom need to be particularly skilled in the use of computers—the digital in fact lowers the threshold of knowledge needed to use the latest technology. You don’t need to be a computer genius to set up a functioning, attractive, interactive website. But, also, none of whom have the slightest political representation, or immediate chance of getting it. The real political scandal is the union of the victimocracy and the corporate oligarchy, of the bio-politics of immigration (in the broadest sense of bringing to bear the needs and resentments of the Third World upon the politics of the First) with the digital politics of cool (the ever more granulated set of possible self-distinctions from the awkward, the stupid, the brute, the literalistic, the outdated, etc.). The Democratic Party relies upon this (very much transnational) union, and the Republicans, with very few exceptions, just want a piece of the action.

Any enthusiasm for the emergent entrepreneurs enabled by the digital should be tempered, of course. Part of the reason for their political impotence is the fact that they are a tiny minority who generate resentment when they achieve a certain level of success, join the victimocracy/oligarchy axis when they achieve yet more success and, anyway, are resented simply for receiving political attention when that actually happens. There are the other victims of the victimocracy/oligarchy: the privately employed, Church-going, married-with-children “middle class.” They have nominal political representation, since the Republicans depend on their votes, but no real representation. They are not obvious allies of the entrepreneurs, so the two groups can be kept marginalized. They rely on inherited pathways back and forth between the ostensive and declarative, and are alienated by the enveloping algorithms of the digital world, which are hard to process through traditional notions of Constitutional order and liberty, much less Christian notions of goodness. But they are certainly online, and informed, and despite their being caricatured as bumpkins, the Tea Partiers have generated and inspired some savvy political and media entrepreneurs—which explains the Republican takeover of local politics throughout the country. We will find out soon enough how civil warfare is waged with digital weapons. But bio-politics, the battle of demographics, the nomos of the earth, will also have its say—the digital brings this huge arena of ostensivity (masses of bodies, swarms of nanobots, universes of DNA) into micro and macro view for the first time. A decentered, de-escalated, horizontally and vertically differentiated digital civilization with some margin for error, fences but also doors and a secure place for the pleasures of ostensive discovery will be the stake.

Sea Change

Let’s stipulate that the kind of thinking representing in the letter below (in response to an article critical of “safe spaces” on college campuses), which I found on Mark Steyn’s website, is an “emergent” mode of thinking—that is, growing and capable of finding institutional and conceptual support in the broader culture. How many young people today think in terms of this treacly mixture of therapeutic and victimary categories? 10%? 50%? It’s always hard to answer such questions, and it depends upon your standards of measurement. What we can see is how seamlessly it intersects with a wide range of contemporary assumptions and postures. And we can also see how radically unlike any way that any people has ever thought or spoken before it is—a veritable sea change in language, morality, manners and psychology. Let’s take a look.

To the Editor:

Judith Shulevitz’s article about safe spaces on college campuses is a direct assault on my generation and what we find important. My generation has embraced the ideas of safe spaces and safe language. Without these, many victims of trauma or discrimination would be excluded from campus discussions that seek to cultivate and strengthen campus intellectual life. Truly open-minded intellectual growth desperately needs the participation of these groups.

Not all ideas are created equal. Some ought to be unreservedly condemned; consideration of such ideas is not at all helpful in bolstering campus intellectual life. The current generation of college students has denied validity to the failed ideas of the past. We have embraced the knowledge and empathy of the present. We are shaping the wisdom of the future.

ANDREW MEERWARTH
Stony Brook, N.Y.

The writer is a senior at Stony Brook University.

Let’s first note that someone capable of writing this letter would be incapable of using words like “truth,” “justice” and “freedom” competently. You can’t make sense of the notion of truth if you divide the world into ideas that have been “embraced” and those that have been “denied validity,” much less if you think it is a “generation” that has done these things. Instead of “truth,” we have “open-minded intellectual growth,” which is here virtually defined by the extent to which “victims” (the most unstable among us) are protected from any ideas that would re-traumatize them. This “open-minded intellectual growth,” therefore, would also be impossible without those ideas it “unreservedly condemn[s]”—it is the refusal to consider such ideas, which is to say their constant ritual denunciation, that protects the victims. Instead of “freedom” we have “safety,” with an extremely low (and constantly lowered) threshold for what counts as a threat. Instead of “justice,” which requires a kind of abstraction from the concrete features of contending parties to focus on their deserts under a shared standard, we have “empathy” and, even though the word is not used here, the ubiquitous “inclusion.” There is the same kind of double talk here, insofar as including some implies excluding others—in this case, at the very least, those who “assault” the new “generation” with the “failed ideas of the past.”

The gnostic, self-righteous deification of the new generation and complementary demonization of the old is familiar to us from the 1960s, but it’s interesting that Meerwarth refers so vaguely and blandly to those “failed ideas of the past.” Presumably he could name some of those ideas, but which ones? Racism, sexism, homophobia? But are those really “ideas”? For the victimary thinker, they are more inbred, ontological features of the inherited social landscape—the possibility that there were ever ideas there, that there were ever arguments in favor of the social arrangements now described in these terms, cannot even be imagined. The 60s radical would do much better here: he would mention capitalism, militarism, imperialism and even liberalism, and would at least be able to lampoon the defenders of these views. And the 60s radical, while certainly capable of complacent paeans to “my generation,” also knew that there were conflicts within the generation, that the emergence of the generation was marked by events (the Beatles, Vietnam, Selma, etc.), and didn’t just embrace things spontaneously experienced to be revelatory break from everything humans had previously believed. What are the events to which this new generation could refer? Who are the thinkers who created and disseminated these salvific new ideas of “safe spaces and safe language”? There’s no Marx, or C. Wright Mills, or Herbert Marcuse here—these ideas seems have been secreted out of the very institutions now incapable of thinking outside of their miasmic fog.

All of which means it’s very difficult to imagine initiating a conversation with Mr. Meerwarth and his cohorts. There are no canonical texts to argue about. The “events” one might refer to are marginal, mass-produced, hysterical hoaxes, designed precisely so as to make conversation impossible: Ferguson, Eric Garner, the girl with the bed strapped to her back, now Indiana, in the misty past the legend of Matthew Sheppard (reenacted on campuses throughout the country in “The Laramie Project”). Aside from being frauds, these are all stories of pure villains and victims (degraded, unsalvageable past, untainted future), without the kind of rational, if rejected, motivations of, and differentiations within, both that the opponent of segregation and the Vietnam War could still acknowledge. We seem to be witnessing a thoroughly self-contained, self-referential, self-inoculating, self-healing mode of being. Maybe we are headed toward a future in which the civilized world is comprised of competing cults, like Scientology. Certainly the current generation of 20-somethings has a lot more than the Meerwarths, despite his imperial claims, but there are a lot of Meerwarths as well, they will be moving into a lot of influential positions (the State Department comedy team of Jen Psaki and Melanie Harf are a couple of Meerwarths), and when war, depression or serious civil unrest comes their crack up will produce devastating secondary tremors throughout the culture.