January 2022

Selected articles, including Kat Rosenfeld on the death of intimacy; Ilana Redfield on our crisis of moral legitimacy; and Chad Pecknold on the city as an inherently religious structure that forms the souls of its citizens, for better or worse.

When the Stagnation Goes Virtual

Ginevra Davis in Palladium recounts her experience with the strange "fraternity" of NFT enthusiasts. She learns that NFTs are not about art; that the entire enterprise hangs on an idealized vision for the "metaverse"; and that their vision of "innovation" and "transcendence" is alienated from the obvious necessity of being grounding in the world – or as her subjects might call it – the "physical" world.

I went to NFT.NYC because I wanted to learn about digital art. But I quickly learned that members of the burgeoning NFT community see themselves not as art collectors, but as the vanguard of a larger shift from physical to digital life.

The NFT boom is not about art or ownership. It is about escape.

The American writer Joan Didion devoted her seminal 1968 essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” to the 1960s phenomenon of young people who ran away from their comfortable, middle-class lives hoping to find something in California. ​​The runaways Didion described were part of the much larger youth counterculture movement that emerged in the late 1960s. Disillusioned with the rigid moral expectations of post-war America, they gave a proverbial middle finger to the conventions of their elders and embraced sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. They dropped acid. They went to Woodstock. Emboldened by the popularization of the pill, they had guilt-free, pre-marital sex.

It was wild, but the party has ended.

Our generation is notable for our lack of a youth-led counterculture, or any coherent rebellion, at least not on the scale of the late 1960s. But this lack of open rebellion does not mean that we are more satisfied than previous generations, or that we have nothing to rebel against. We are by many measures poorer, sicker (mentally and physically), and have fewer close relationships than our parents or grandparents. But instead of running away to some proverbial California, we have mostly chosen to express our frustration in private, on the internet, where you can laugh at memes about major depression or wanting to kermit sewer slide from the safety of your bedroom.

In the NFT community, we are witnessing the logical conclusion of a generation that is so alienated, so profoundly unfulfilled, that they are considering abandoning the physical world altogether. At least the metaverse is something new—maybe somewhere they can be rich, or important.

The death of intimacy

Kat Rosenfield in Unherd argues that anti-social norms, anti-human technologies, and market logic have transpired to replace intimacy with a transactional and depressing eros – and speculates about Gen Z's escape.

In the era of the algorithm, the personal brand, the Tinder marketplace, perhaps all sex carries a whiff of transaction, whether or not any money changes hands. And in a world where young, single people are increasingly taught to be frightened of any threat to their safety — emotional, not just physical — the prospect of true intimacy grows ever distant, ever more impossible.
Whether it’s settling for an imperfect match or turning to OnlyFans to fill your needs, human beings have always appreciated the security and promise of a sure thing. And when an entire progressive messaging apparatus insists that prostitution is the new empowerment, there’s little to dissuade young women from leveraging the minefield of sexuality into a remunerative side hustle — or young men from gravitating toward it as a safer form of sex.
All of this is happening against the backdrop of a radical shift in how we conceive of sex, sexuality, self. In the age of social media, sexual orientation is something you identify into, a public performance that requires no partner and no physical follow-through. (Consider also the odd proliferation of straight-married women who identify as “queer,” based on what seems mainly like a conviction that they’re just too interesting to be plain ol’ heterosexual.) It’s all identification, no action, a complete decoupling of sexual identity from the act itself. If this is a sexual revolution, it’s the chastest one we’ve ever had.

Men Are at War with God

Mary Ebertsadt in First Things argues that the dominant culture of the West today makes the mistake of teaching that creation is ours to control, which predictably results in crisis, dysfunction and suffering – and challenges people of faith to believe and act as if souls are on the line.

Men are at war with God. Awakened from agnostic slumber by new forms of temptation, chiefly the sexual revolution, humanity is at war with God over a question that reaches back to the beginning of time: Who, exactly, should have power over creation?
[G]enerational reality for most people can be summarized in one word: fewer. Fewer brothers, sisters, cousins, children, grandchildren. Fewer people to play ball with, or talk to, or learn from. Fewer people to celebrate a birth; fewer people to visit one’s deathbed. In a way that is not generally acknowledged, the sexual revolution has produced a relationship deficit. And since we are social creatures and define ourselves relationally, this shortage means that we face an identity deficit. Who am I? This is a universal, inescapable question. Because of the revolution, many of us have lost the material with which to construct an answer.
Believers exhausted by the culture wars convince themselves that surrender is “loving.” It is not. What if embracing people as they are, and only as they are, ignores their pain and fails to address that pain—and the deeper reasons for it?

The Religious Nature of the City

Chad Pecknold in The Postliberal Order argues that cities are inherently religious, that the human soul conforms to its surroundings, and that the root of political conflicts is thus a theological problem — the problem of human souls worshiping false gods in corrupt regimes.

What binds together the soul is the same thing as that which binds together the family, the city, and the cosmos: religion, sacrifice, worship, the speculative gaze which orients all our exterior actions, and either gives the soul, the family, the city a real integrity, or it fragments, and distorts the common good. This is why Augustine argues that Rome’s fall is due to a civic-religious corruption of the Roman soul which has been mediated by the false gods of the city. Rome’s political problem is at root a religious problem.
Augustine rails against the way in which materialism and libertine hedonism in Rome are simply a human performance of the debauchery of the gods. Romans rooted their moral code only in “consent,” which becomes one great tyranny built upon Lust. He summarizes Rome’s radical libertinism thusly: “get as rich as you can, and let people do whatever they desire as long as there is consent.” (2.20) He argues that consent-based morality develops into a society curved-in on itself, and tends to punish anyone who speaks for a higher, more transcendent standard.
America is now in a position similar to Rome after it’s “torrential downhill rush into immorality.” While we may know many Americans who have lived better than the errant theories undergirding America’s own fancy picture of itself, over time, people become what they see, the soul conforms itself to the regime, and if the regime is disordered in its civic-religious order, so will disordered souls perpetuate the disorder the regime in an vicious downward spiral.

The Crisis of Moral Legitimacy

Ilana Redstone in Tablet argues that universities are committing malpractice by failing to cultivate in students the ability to see the moral legitimacy of diverse perspectives – contributing to febrile public discourse and, ultimately, risking the possibility of effective self-governance.

[W]hen we fail to recognize the moral legitimacy of a range of positions on controversial topics, disagreements about these issues inevitably become judgments about other people’s character. Viewing such problems as the downstream effects of a crisis of moral legitimacy helps illustrate the rationale behind them.
The status quo on campuses also has implications for our system of self-governance. Democratic norms, and democracy itself, cannot survive in a society where a substantial subset of the population sees it as impossible—and maybe even immoral—to see things from a different perspective... Moreover, some of the people with nondominant views who feel silenced will end up adopting more extremist positions than they otherwise would, even if only to join a group that doesn’t view them with disdain. And increases in extremism, of course, further erode democratic norms.

Honorable mentions

  • Progressives Must Reckon With the School Closing Catastrophe
    Jonathan Chaidt in Intelligencer lays out the case, clearly and concisely, that school closures in the U.S. have been a needless catastrophe for young children, largely perpetrated by a progressive hegemony of Democrats, and comparable to the pathology of needless COVID deaths exacerbated by Republican elites.
  • China looks to the Western classics
    Chang Che in Sup China tells the story of Western scholars teaching Latin and Greek classics to a Chinese audience hungry for ancient wisdom – and contrasts that with an increasingly and embarrasingly oikophobic attitude in Western universities.
  • Recency Bias: The Prejudice That Is Distorting Public Debate
    Tyler Cowen in Bloomberg argues that too many predictions give disproportionate weight to the events of the recent past.