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Worthy Reads for 2021 July 28: Resisting Temptation
Retweets are not endorsements! I found these articles thought-provoking. There’s a good chance I agreed with something important in each, but maybe not, and, in any case, I absolutely do not endorse each and every claim made in each and every article.
"Giving the Sickness A Name," by Jeff Reimer:
A wily demon, acedia is difficult to pin down. It’s a trickster, a shapeshifter, a boggart. It goes out of focus when you try to look directly at it. The term itself defies translation: despondency, sloth, lassitude, ennui, melancholy—each displays an aspect, none the full image.
The desert monks who first wrestled the demon acedia to the ground did so by grinding through their prayers in the pitiless heat of the Egyptian wilderness. In doing so they became superbly intimate with their failures. Evagrius had a theoretical bent and began cataloging the modes and patterns of failure he and his fellow monks encountered. [...]
Percy’s gaze turned outward in his subsequent work. In 1971, he said that Love in the Ruins “deals, not with the takeover of a society by tyrants or computers or whatever, but rather with the increasing malaise and finally the falling apart of a society which remains, on the surface at least, democratic and pluralistic.” By 1986, in fact, when asked by an interviewer, “Is there any concrete issue that engages your attention most in connection with what is going on in America at the moment?” he could answer, “Probably the fear of seeing America, with all its great strength and beauty and freedom...gradually subside into decay through default and be defeated, not by the Communist movement, demonstrably a bankrupt system, but from within by weariness, boredom, cynicism, greed, and in the end helplessness before its great problems.” The interviewer follows up: “In connection with what is going on in the world?” Percy’s response: “Ditto: the West losing by spiritual acedia.”
This is my sly way of recommending Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins. When I first read it, 15-odd years ago, I found it entertaining, but in some ways thought its parody-prediction of America had barked up the wrong tree; things Percy had predicted had not panned out. Unsurprising for a book written in 1968!
However, when I re-read the book last month, I was dumbfounded. Love in the Ruins is become more prescient over time... and proved itself, in 1968, a better interpreter of the American situation than I was in 2005.
"Was Ebola a Near-Miss?" by Lessons from the Crisis:
From 2021’s perspective, the advice given by UK public health authorities early in the covid outbreak reads like an attempt to sound confident and reassuring, full of what we now know to have been a lot of false assumptions built on almost very unreliable information.
We heard about the need to maintain open borders, that masks wouldn’t work, that the ‘world class’ NHS was well prepared to cope with plenty of PPE, that you couldn’t pass on the virus unless you had symptoms and above all that the most important thing to do was to wash your hands, all of which turned out to be disastrously misguided.
But imagine if covid had been contained in China and never took hold in the UK- would we have ever found out how wrong this all was? Or would we have been falsely reassured that everything was in order, and our health system stood ready to cope with disaster? Because I think this is what might have happened with Ebola. Almost every wrong ‘official’ belief of the early covid era was deployed with equal confidence against ebola six years previously.
"We say what? Answers to your questions about Catholic prayers," by The Pillar:
Another interesting thing about the Our Father is that there's a word that nobody knows what it means. ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ - that's not really what the Greek says. The Greek word is “ἐπιούσιον” (epiousion) which doesn't mean ‘daily’ at all, but the problem is that it's a totally unique and untranslatable Greek term. It's not used in any pagan Greek literature, it's only used twice in Luke and Matthew. It's used nowhere else. Even the Greek Fathers couldn't agree on how to translate it. Literally, it means, ‘super-substantial.’
‘Give us this day our super-substantial bread.’
Now for some reason, everyone just kind of settled down with the term, ‘daily,’ but honestly, that's not what the Greek says.
"The Central Bank Trap," by Andrew Stuttaford (but really Nouriel Roubini):
Central banks have effectively lost their independence, because they have been given little choice but to monetize massive fiscal deficits to forestall a debt crisis. With both public and private debts having soared, they are in a debt trap. As inflation rises over the next few years, central banks will face a dilemma. If they start phasing out unconventional policies and raising policy rates to fight inflation, they will risk triggering a massive debt crisis and severe recession; but if they maintain a loose monetary policy, they will risk double-digit inflation – and deep stagflation when the next negative supply shocks emerge.
One of these days I'm going to write the blog post explaining, in layman's terms, exactly how and why the national debt will destroy us. No one cares, of course, because we live in a democracy, and democracy is famously bad at long-term thinking. Democrats say, "We don't need to worry about debt; sovereign nations aren't the same as average families making a budget." (The second half of that is true, but the first half absolutely does not follow.)
Republicans pretend to care about the debt to hurt the Democrats, then get in and vote for enormous, debt-financed tax cuts. This, in turn, really puts the lie to their claim that their problem with expanding Medicare/Medicaid is that we just can't afford it. (I mean, it's true, we absolutely can't afford it, but if Republicans believed that, they wouldn't have voted for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.)
But the debt doesn't care. The debt will get us in the end, whether we admit it or not. It may take a first gouge out of our skin in the near future, if Stuttaford/Roubini is right about this.
"The Kids Were Safe the Whole Time," by David Wallace-Wells:
It may sound strange, given a year of panic over school closures and reopenings, a year of masking toddlers and closing playgrounds and huddling in pandemic pods, that, according to the CDC, among children the mortality risk from COVID-19 is actually lower than from the flu. The risk of severe disease or hospitalization is about the same.
This is true for the much-worried-over Delta variant. It is also true for all the other variants, and for the original strain. Most remarkably, it has been known to be true since the very earliest days of the pandemic — indeed it was among the very first things we did know about the disease.
Useful not just for the obvious point it makes about kids, but the broader point it makes about risk assessment, intuitions, and how badly skewed they can become in the midst of a plague (especially once that plague becomes politicized).
There is, for example, no good reason to have K-12 kids mask this fall unless our new rule is that kids should always be masked and should always have been masked. Everyone who looks at this question and isn't in politics, right or left, draws this conclusion soon enough. But it will probably be another eighteen months before this will be accepted as conventional wisdom, even though we already know it today. (Indeed, one of the most disappointing aspects of this pandemic is our discovery that the Centers for Disease Control, which we all once esteemed very highly, actually just follows conventional wisdom, not scientific data and cost-benefit analysis, in setting policy. Sadly true under both the Trump and the Biden Administrations.)
"Lockdown Bait and Switch," by Matt Shapiro:
I am tired of people who are even now treating all things COVID as some kind of game or political football that needs to be moved 5 yards down the field. This whole “Actually, Lockdowns Not Only Save Lives, But They Have No Downsides” is transparent nonsense. It’s not that it is stupid, it is that it is a talking point from “smart” people that is meant to convince other “smart” people that all the “smart” people made the right decisions and are not only justified in their past decisions but fully vindicated in every possibly way by The Data, which is the great oracle that grants us the grace of life and the fullness of knowledge, praise be to The Data.
I watch as pundits still treat this like a game or, at best, a science experiment. The reality is that the efficacy of lockdowns is the single most important issue to human beings who operate and exist in the real world. People are making enormous life decisions about what to do next, where to live, how to educate their kids, and who to trust and much of it depends on how a state is going to approach this topic.
As Shapiro goes on to write, he is not anti-lockdown, when circumstances call for it. But he is anti-rewriting-history-in-ways-that-will-make-our-next-pandemic-response-worse, and there is an awful lot of that going around right now among the Noah Smiths of the world.
"Culture Wars are Long Wars," by Taneer Greer:
American conservatives never waged a culture war. Conservatives certainly fought, there is no denying that. They fought with every bit of obstruction and scandal their operatives could muster. But this was not a culture war. Rather, America’s conservatives fought a political war over culture. Republicans used cultural issues to gain—or to try to gain—political power. Their brightest minds and greatest efforts went into securing control of judiciary, developing a judicial philosophy for their appointees, securing control of the Capitol, and developing laws that could be implemented in multiple state houses across the nation. No actual attempt to change the culture was attempted.
This was not thought necessary. Conservatives had the people. One decade they were called a “silent” majority; as the culture war heated up, that majority transitioned from “silent” to “moral,” but a majority they remained.
Yeah, I know, you already read this, just like everyone else, and it's been a few weeks, so the conversation has moved on... but it was still a worthy read, especially if these ideas weren't already familiar to you.
Incidentally, I think there is one and perhaps only one exception to this on the Right: the pro-life movement has genuinely waged a culture war, battling not just in the judiciary and the legislatures, but on the ground, in the streets, in front of abortion clinics, and in some of the largest charitable-aid networks in the country. Perhaps not coincidentally, abortion is one of the only issues where the "Moral Majority" of old has not lost the youth. The rising generation of secular, heteroflexible youth are roughly as supportive of abortion restrictions as their grandparents, and reflect a stable age gap that's lasted several generations. That's stalemate, but stalemate looks a heck of a lot like a win when all your other causes have gone the way the same-sex marriage debate has.
"I'm (kind of) changing my mind about CRT," by Isaac Saul:
There are two things I want to dig my heels in on, even after reading all your feedback and continuing to look into these bills for the last week.
One, I do not think critical race theory is particularly dangerous on its own. On the contrary, it’s a really valuable and important piece of academia. Like any critical theory, it has its flaws, but in simple terms, it really is just an academic theory that explores the way race (and racism) are embedded in our society’s laws and structures. [...]
Two, on the whole, I still believe these bills banning CRT are more dangerous than helpful. I haven’t seen one yet that I’d personally vote for. If K-12 students are being taught that they are inherently inferior, superior, or racist, based on their race — or otherwise being compelled to espouse those ideas — they are already protected by our country’s laws.
I liked this piece a great deal because, even though I think both those conclusions are completely wrong, even naive and shortsighted, Mr. Saul arrives at them through a process of very visible, reasoned thoughtfulness. Even though I disagreed with his conclusions, reading his piece softened my own attitudes toward Critical Race Theory* somewhat.
*I know we're not supposed to call it that anymore, but, y'know, c'mon.
I am really proud of myself, because I resisted the temptation to anchor this week's Worthy Reads around the little-noticed but pretty popcorn-worthy debate between Micah Meadowcroft and Curtis Yarvin. Their debate wasn't really insightful enough (IMO) to earn a place here, but Meadowcroft scored some wonderful ripostes that I hope Yarvin himself appreciated.
(Yarvin then proceeded to miss Meadowcroft's entire point... but he did so in a way that was so entirely at right angles to Meadowcroft that it was, itself, characteristically interesting. And look at me, I'm afraid to directly say a clearly nice thing about Yarvin in public! I'd much rather you think I was cheering uncomplicatedly for Meadowcroft, which itself provides evidence for a lot of Yarvin's claims -- claims I don't think Meadowcroft would even dispute. Anyway.)
Briefly, without excerpts or commentary, here is that debate:
"We Are Going To Win," by Meadowcroft
"You Are Going to Lose," by Yarvin [was paywalled; isn't now? huh]
"Roman Rhetoric and Florentine Politics," by Meadowcroft
"The Real Great Reset," by Yarvin
And that's it for this week! See you later.