September 2021

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl on the power of viewpoint diversity; Paul Kingsnorth on his religious journey; and Theodore Dalrymple from Autumn 2001 on the civilization we inherit, and our responsibility to steward it, especially in the darkest times.

The Third Opinion: Why Jews Value Dissent

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl's Yom Kippur sermon on the power of viewpoint diversity.

Let's remember what our tradition teaches: not what to believe, but how to get to beliefs worth holding. Questioning is sacred. Dissent is productive.

The Cross and the Machine

Paul Kingsnorth in First Things on his religious journey—simply a must-read.

I didn’t know back then that the Christian story is the story of our rebellion against God. I didn’t know that by taking part in that rebellion I had become part of the story, whether I liked it or not. I didn’t know, either, why Christians see pride as the greatest sin. I only knew that I could argue a good case for the injustice of the world made by this “God,” and the silliness of miracles, resurrections, and virgin births. I knew I was cleverer than all the people who believed this sort of rubbish, and I was happy to tell them so.

I kept visiting empty churches. I just didn’t tell anyone.

Can Progressives Be Convinced That Genetics Matters

Gideon Lewis-Kraus in The New Yorker on Prof. Kathryn Paige Harden's precarious efforts to share her scientific research—which demonstrates the immense influence that genetics have on individual outcomes—while emphasizing that genetics aren't everything, and that we should still strive for social justice.

As she writes, “Yes, the genetic differences between any two people are tiny when compared to the long stretches of DNA coiled in every human cell. But these differences loom large when trying to understand why, for example, one child has autism and another doesn’t; why one is deaf and another hearing; and—as I will describe in this book—why one child will struggle with school and another will not. Genetic differences between us matter for our lives. They cause differences in things we care about. Building a commitment to egalitarianism on our genetic uniformity is building a house on sand.”
Harden understands herself to be waging a two-front campaign. On her left are those inclined to insist that genes don’t really matter; on her right are those who suspect that genes are, in fact, the only things that matter. The history of behavior genetics is the story of each generation’s attempt to chart a middle course.

Related: Sam Harris in conversation with Kathryn Paige Harden, as referenced in the piece.

Politics is Conspicuous Consumption

Kevin D. Williamson in National Review on how politics has increasingly become just another way to signal one's tribe—on the right and the left, as a rebuttal to Paul Krugman.

A snob, properly understood, is not an aristocrat who looks down his nose at the plebs — it is a commoner who, after getting a little money or some social connections, affects the manners and tastes that he imagines to be aristocratic, and then looks down on his equals. There is a tremendous amount of that kind of snobbery in American life, among people who sneer at others who follow some sport or entertainment they judge to be lowly, who listen to unfashionable music or live in an unfashionable place. (You know: Plano.) And there is an inversion of that, too, among the right-wing talk-radio hosts who pretend to be honky-tonk-lovin’ good-ol’-boys while traveling by private jet, who sneer at Upper West Side culture snobs from their penthouses on the other side of Central Park, etc. Ted Cruz of Princeton and Harvard was the grand champion of the form until J. D. Vance of Yale, the New York Times best-seller list, and Peter Thiel’s venture-capital outfit launched his Senate campaign. Though surely Tucker Carlson himself is the most notable champion of blue-collar populism ever to be expelled from a Swiss boarding school.

Consumption is a form of communication. And, in our tawdry little age of carefully constructed social-media identities, all of our signaling must be tailored to say the same thing: That is why we increasingly have only right-wing and left-wing news sources, to say nothing of right-wing coffee companies and right-wing cell-phone companies, left-wing insurance companies and left-wing software companies, etc.

Culture as counterculture

Adam Kirsch in The New Criterion on the transition from culture to kitsch—and how high culture has, itself, become counterculture.

[I]t turned out that the problem with culture had more to do with demand than supply. The same forces that made high culture accessible also created a mass culture that was a thousand times more popular, profitable, and influential... Kindle and Spotify give us a degree of access to “the best which has been thought and said” that a Medici or a Rockefeller couldn’t have bought at any price, while simultaneously reminding us that almost no one cares.
The idea that high culture could challenge the values of democratic society and come out the victor was wishful from the beginning. Shelley implicitly acknowledged as much two hundred years ago in “A Defense of Poetry,” when he called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.” The Victorian sages hoped to turn the poets—and the novelists, philosophers, painters, and composers—into acknowledged legislators, and for a time parts of society paid lip service to the idea. But the reality of overwhelming public indifference to high culture was always plain to see, and in time the partisans of culture lost their appetite for fighting it.
[H]igh culture now functions like a counterculture, entailing a conscious act of dissent from the mainstream. Popular culture—television shows, pop songs, memes—is every American’s first language, the one we acquire whether we want to or not. Learning to understand and appreciate high culture is like learning a second language, which requires deliberate effort.

What We Have to Lose

Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal, Autumn 2001, just after the September 11th attacks; a deep meditation on the civilization we inherit, and how acutely we should feel called to steward it, especially in the darkest times.

If any good comes of the terrible events in New York, let it be this: that our intellectuals should realize that civilization is worth defending, and that the adversarial stance to tradition is not the beginning and end of wisdom and virtue. We have more to lose than they know.