In my previous post on the political theology of our world-historical plague, I wrote about the way the novel coronavirus of 2019 had called into question the legitimacy of our political order and our entire social bond. In this post, I’d like to talk more about the theological side of the issue, which I think has been crowded out by the political perspective — most exaggeratedly among those who see a grim eugenic conspiracy in our leaders’ alternately inept and malicious handling of this terrible situation.
There is obviously a lot of blame to go around in the pandemic response. The Trump administration’s actions were irresponsible and often simply incomprehensible. Other “smarter” Republicans stoked vile conspiracies in ways that made an effective response impossible, above all in the inconceivable decision to turn vaccination into a polarized political issue. The Biden administration has cleared the low bar set by Trump and the Republicans, but they have clearly been too beholden to big business and too eager to declare victory and move on. No political leader has come out of the pandemic looking good, at least in the US (which is the limit of my detailed knowledge). All of them could have done better. More people died than had to die, and our leaders bear that responsibility.
But it’s not anyone’s fault that the novel coronavirus jumped species in late 2019 — not Trump’s, not Biden’s, not Lori Lightfoot’s, not Chairman Xi’s. It simply happened. Continue reading “The Political Theology of COVID-19, Part 2: The Pandemic as an Existential Crisis”
For a long time now, I have been periodically losing Twitter followers for lashing out at what we might call “covid doomer” online content. Often times when I do this, it “sounds like” I am adopting a right-wing or libertarian position, denying the reality of the pandemic, etc., because people either do not know about the kinds of extreme views I am talking about or — what seems more common — they think we should tolerate such views because they are pointing in the right direction and at the very least can do no harm. The former response makes sense, though I wish my comrades would trust that I have actually seen content like I describe. The latter is both frustrating and insidious, because tolerating misinformation just because it’s on our side is a recipe for becoming a mirror image of the right. We have a duty to tell the truth as we understand it, and we also have a duty not to share inflammatory or terrifying content without good reason to believe it’s true.
Continue reading “Covid Doomerism as Conspiracy Theory”
During my self-sabbatical, I have been using my commute time to read books that I have been vaguely meaning to read for a while. One of those was Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. I enjoyed it — and may even blog about it some day — and decided to continue on the track of “obsolete social criticism” by reading Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. I somehow expected it to be a, well, one-dimensional diatribe against postwar conformism, but I have found it very energizing — even moving. Perhaps it’s just landing differently because my brain is finally starting to heal from burnout, but I think it has a lot to say to our neoliberal moment and to the perpetual “crisis of the humanities.” For this post, though, rather than doing a book report or review, I want to focus on one of his simplest yet most powerful points — namely, what exactly he means by “one-dimensional” — and how this pushed me to rethink some things.
Continue reading “One-Dimensionality and the Uses of Transcendence”
It’s a common refrain on social media. Someone will link to a story of a Republican lawmaker proposing or doing something evil, harmful, or otherwise malicious, and they will declare: “The cruelty is the point.” It’s admittedly difficult to argue otherwise. We are past the point where we can dismiss Republican policy as cynical machinations to motivate their base. The politicians themselves are clearly outrunning public opinion, devising new and ever more cruel punishments for their various enemies. I see no other explanation: the cruelty is indeed the point.
If cruelty is the point, then these people are beyond shaming. Calling attention to their actions will have no effect, because they proudly boast of them. So the function of “cruelty is the point” must be as some kind of warning. We are living in a country where one half of the political class — or essentially the entire political class, on the state or local level in some parts of the country — openly declares their intent to use public authority in order to do harm. For them, the state machinery exists to punish their enemies, or sometimes (as in the Republican governors who have shipped asylum seekers to Democratic states) to torment third parties in order to burden or even simply embarrass their enemies. Every time they gain power, they will act this way. They are not receptive to rational argument, empirical evidence, or appeals to duty or the public good. In fact, to the extent that they have any idea of duty or the public good, it is precisely to abuse state power in the way they are constantly doing even as we speak.
My question is: what now? Continue reading “The cruelty is the point”
One of the most puzzling passages in Plato’s Timaeus describes the formation of the elements out of triangles. Without illustrations, it is nearly impossible to follow, but he is claiming that each of the four classical elements is made up of particles shaped like one of the Platonic solids — i.e., solid shapes with all equilateral faces. They will be familiar to fans of D&D, and I often provide my students with paper templates that they can cut out and fold into the requisite shapes. Every time I teach the Timaeus, at least one student actually does take the time and brings sample Platonic solids to class to show everyone. Extra credit is duly awarded.
One’s first temptation, of course, is simply to skip that section as a bizarre indulgence. Over the years, though, I’ve come to see it as absolutely essential for understanding Plato’s project in the Timaeus. Continue reading “It all comes down to the triangles”
In the last book of the Odyssey, Homer has written himself into a bit of a corner. Odysseus has slaughtered an entire generation of high-class young men — the hated suitors. While the moment is doubtless cathartic, it creates political problems, as the young men’s families obviously object to their sons being mass-murdered. Civil war threatens Ithaca, until Athena intervenes, imposing a peace settlement upon the combatants. Her words are accompanied by a divine sign — lightning from her father Zeus — and yet, as the last line abruptly states, Athena brokers the treaty while “still in her guise as Mentor” (in Wilson’s translation — others are similar).
As a Great Books instructor, I have taught the Odyssey more than perhaps any book other than the Bible, and that last line never fails to land with a thud. Continue reading “On the Last Line of the Odyssey“
I’ve been fascinated with the Soviet Union for most of my adult life. It started with my reading of Zizek, but eventually took on a life of its own. Contrary to the stereotypes of the USSR as a grey and static country, it is a really sui generis social experiment that lurched through a lot of very significant changes — especially at the very end. The occasion for this post is that I just finished reading Vladislav M. Zubok’s Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, which is a detailed and engaging account of the USSR’s last days. I learned a huge amount from reading this book, but as a more theoretically-oriented reader, I was a little frustrated by its “just the facts ma’am” mode. Hence I’m going to let off some steam by reflecting — very much in the mode of an enthusiastic amateur, not an expert — on the biggest can of worms of late 20th-century history: whether the USSR had to fall.
Continue reading “Scattered Speculations on Gorbachev and the Fall of the USSR”
I just learned that Real Life, an excellent web publication reflecting on social media and online culture, is shutting down. Hence I have taken this opportunity to save the one article I wrote for them, “Jury Duty,” on social media as an engine for passing judgment on one another, as a PDF for posterity.
There’s a case to be made that the pandemic broke everyone’s brains. I very much include myself here. Compared to my pre-pandemic self, I feel more irritable, less resilient, more on a hair trigger generally. Everyday social activities feel intimidating and even scary. I feel more disconnected from people, more continually worried that I’ve inexplicably given offense or alienated someone. We’ve been told repeatedly that we would finally be getting our lives back again, and it never panned out and now feels like it never will. And I am one of the lucky ones! I had no childcare obligations, I didn’t lose anyone close to me due to COVID, My Esteemed Partner and I were able to keep our jobs — we even used pandemic relief and savings from no student loan payments to put together a down payment for an apartment. On paper, everything is good and fine, even better than before. But it doesn’t feel that way. The world is broken.
Obviously I’m not the only person who feels this way. The pandemic has produced a pervasive crisis of meaning and authority. The latter has been much discussed, particularly in the context of distrust and even outright rejection of public health authorities around essentially every pandemic mitigation measure. But the crisis of meaning seems to me to be potentially more serious and more foundational. Everyone is asking themselves: why am I even doing any of this? Why do I want a job? Why do we want school? Why are we so eager to get back to “normal”? What is even happening? What is any of this for?
And that is happening, it seems to me, because every aspect of our shared life is charged with a new hostility. Continue reading “The Political Theology of COVID-19”
[This is a lecture I delivered to the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College in November 2017, reporting my thoughts on a summer faculty seminar focused on Plato. While going through some old files, I realized that I had never published the text anywhere else, so I present it here.]
This summer , I attended a summer faculty seminar at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., on “The Verbal Art of Plato.” Hosted by Gregory Nagy of Harvard University and Kenny Morrell of Rhodes College, this event brought together a truly interdisciplinary group of teacher-scholars—representing fields ranging from philosophy and classics to psychology and even physics—to discuss the works of Plato, along with other ancient Greek works and some of Dr. Nagy’s scholarship, in a week filled with intensive seminars. Every day for five days, we had four 90-minute sessions a day. While a few were designated as “overflow” sessions to catch up on topics and themes that had built up over time, almost all required new reading—normally a full dialogue of Plato or full book of the Republic, paired with other works by Plato’s intellectual rivals. And in what our hosts initially claimed was a pedagogical advice aimed at helping us to sympathize with the burdens we place on our own students, the readings were only distributed about two weeks before the beginning of the seminar.
In short, it was a lot to digest, and I am sure I will continue to mull over the readings and discussions for many years to come. In this talk, I would like to give an initial report of what I learned from the seminar, concluding with some notes about how it has challenged my approach to teaching classic texts and influenced my thinking more generally.
Continue reading “Learning to Love Plato”