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Vanity and Improvement: An Ethical Evaluation of the Gym-Selfie

Pride may be a sin, but its true nature isn’t how we’re used to thinking about it:

She says ‘I’ve come of age as a writer in a time when it’s no longer possible just to write. A writer must also promote her work and in the process promote her herself as a person of interest. I learned the snarky, casually intellectual voice of feminists and pop-culture bloggers; the easy outrage, the clubby comraderie.’ So that was the age she came of age in and where she learned how to write to an audience, and always aware of herself as a kind of media personality, right? Now, what happened to her?

What happened to her was she became a mother. She had this viscerally real experience of becoming a mother, and she said one day, she was with her infant child on the front porch of her house and it suddenly dawned on her that she had no interest in snark. She had not interest in an audience that might want to comment on her experience. She wanted to get utterly into her experience, and let it simply wash over her. It’s as though the dense reality of this baby blew away her preoccupation with with an audience, and with being a personality.

Here’s  something else I want to just read directly from the article. Listen: “Before I had a child, I took it for granted that no intellectual writer type could ever be taken seriously, were she to cave in to conventional sentiment. As a mother, I was swept away by these huge, ancient, universal emotions I’d previously dismissed as uncomplicated.” It’s very interesting, isn’t it? It’s as though her baby just kind of broke through this carapace of self-regard, this sort of knowing, snarky distanciation from reality. This always playing to an audience. And she found herself immersed in the reality of the experience.

Now here’s what I find interesting. It’s a cool commentary on the generation today coming of age with social media, but it also points to a very ancient spiritual distinction between what is classically called humility and pride.

Pride is not simple self-aggrandizement, or self-affirmation. It is a kind of superiority derived from a perceived separation from reality, or at least from other mortals. The moral opprobrium derived from the sin of hubris doesn’t come from the quality achieved by the individual, or even their awareness of it, but from the separation — the distanciation — from other people and from the world.

It isn’t a coincidence that the self-proclaimed nihilists you know think that they are better than everyone else. It’s a short walk from distanciation from reality and distanciation from distinctions, from value, and from the ability to derive enjoyment from value.

In my opinion, the greatest application of the distinction between pride, as theologically understood, and pride as contemporarily, culturally understood, is the much-maligned gym-selfie.

Fundamentally what is wrong with taking pictures of yourself while working out?

A possible criticism is the distanciation that the camera itself tends to create (what Davis Aurini calls “the electric eye“). Such a phenomenon can be easily seen in the horrendous case of Fitbit, where the emphasis on metrics has in some cases so dramatically separated its users from the end goal — fitness — that they believe themselves to be “succeeding” if their numbers look good, even if their health and fitness are observably flat-lining or deteriorating.

If a gym-rat is simply taking photos every time they go to the gym, that’s obviously a concern. The photos, and not the work-out, become the goal, and their health can actually suffer from this shift in focus.

But to listen to the mocking and satirizing of photographer gym-goers, usually by people who rarely or never work out themselves, you’d think that the fitness aficionado had committed some sort of felony against common decency. The degree of contempt and caustic snark behind the criticism of the “vanity” of gym-bros ‘n hoes speaks to a different motive than generous concern.

Which side smacks more of “pride?” The people trying to improve themselves, taking pictures of themselves for encouragement, documentation, and personal enjoyment? Or the people who, from a cultural high ground, distance themselves from the reality of physical pain and struggle, pointing and mocking those arrogant pricks who go to the gym and aren’t ashamed to show it?

The watch you see above belongs to one Jocko Willinck. Willinck is a former Navy SEAL, an author, an expert on business leadership, and an avid athlete. He is regularly mocked on Instagram for regularly posting pictures of his watch, which shows what time in the God-forsaken morning he begins his workout. His response, of course, is to tell them to unsubscribe. Joe Rogan, for one, likes seeing what time Willinck is up and killing it in the gym. It motivates him, and it also motivates me. I want to be more like Willinck, and those watch-pictures remind me both of the distance between me and Willinck and of what I have to do to close that distance.

And I do close that distance.

What’s especially ironic about this issue is that any drive towards self-improvement is fundamentally motivated by an awareness of distance between your self and your idealized Self. “Humility,” in the colloquial sense, is the tacit motivation behind any attempt at improving a skill or working out.

What people normally call “pride” is simply a joy in yourself and your accomplishments. This is a good thing, especially when that pride overflows and inspires others to emulate or even surpass you in accomplishment. Vanity in the theological form — the distanciation and separation from this joy, perhaps for viewing it as naive, immature, or “uncomplicated” — is a bad thing. People looking to get in better shape should not let a confusion of these two meanings get in the way of working out, or in participating in the encouraging culture of fitness.

The Violent Artwork of Cleon Peterson

“I’m just trying to communicate strength and aggression through the least amount of strokes as possible.”

– Cleon Peterson, July 2016

When Andrew Breitbart asserted that politics is downstream from culture, he wasn’t saying anything particularly new. Plato’s Republic, in fact, took the political implications of art so seriously that it proposed a ban on all music and poetry. Yet Breitbart’s simple and pleasantly visual restatement of an old truth made it discernible and accessible to a large audience, one which Plato’s beautiful if somewhat inaccessible Greek was not. And with this opinion has come a predictable and distinctly Platonic interest, not merely in what art is being made, but in what art ought to be allowed.

With this kind of public sentiment building, it isn’t a pedantic digression to point out that such control wielded by the political opposite of a “philosopher king” is about as un-Platonic as one could imagine. It’s important because the control which the strangely democratic cultural authoritarians wish to exert requires a circumspective judgment that is generally a lot slower than we can emote.

Consider, by way of example, headlines like Paris Mural Artist Depicts Whites Getting Murdered, Raped, And Enslaved, a blog post with over 2,000 Facebook shares.

It may seem like picking low-hanging fruit, to bash on a blog that has passages like this:

This mural depicts a completion or near completion of the Hebrew-Masonic goal of European dissolution. The pure brazenness of this only exposes their complete arrogance and certainty of success. It is also worrying that this went completely unquestioned by the French and wider white European population, only indicating further that the population is asleep.

Or this:

Predictably, Cleon Peterson’s art also comes with a heavily anti-Christian theme. One picture shows a lone white figure on his knees praying, while multiple black figures prepare to murder him. Another shows a figure getting crucified upside down. This is a pure expression of the mind of the Hebrew-Masonic conspirators (the latter being the lackeys of the former) pushing the evil agendas that plague Western nations today.

But that is really the whole point. If you want to control the culture of society through restraints enforced by the state, these are inevitably the sort of people who will have the strongest opinions about what should and should not be allowed. Those without the circumspection required for good judgment on such matters aren’t inhibited by the doubts that other perspectives bring (a familiar phenomenon in cognitive psychology), and so their opinions will tend to be more influential and effective.

This author has clearly never considered that this minimalist and highly symbolic artwork (by the commenter’s own admission) might not be depicting the different colors of people literally. The black men and the white men may or may not be negroids and caucasoids; they could very well be the darker halves and lighter halves of a shared human nature, designed to convey the feeling of the darker half victorious over our better halves.

In either case — literal or metaphorical — artwork that depicts a phenomenon is not necessarily an endorsement of what it depicts. Picasso’s famous Guernica comes to mind, as do Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. Who is going to say that Orwell supported totalitarianism because he wrote about it? And given the apparent racial overtones of the art, who’s to say that Peterson isn’t a rather extreme member of the Alt-Right, rather than a progressive leftist, and is trying to depict blacks as vicious barbarians that must either be evicted or destroyed? The fact that all of the interviews with the artist himself portray a rather apolitical, California skater-kid who just lets his anti-authoritarian, violent feelings out on canvas, is apparently beside the point.

So too, apparently, is the fact that some of his other artwork portrays black figures committing violence against other black figures, or white figures committing violence against whites. More interesting still, there appears to be more black-on-black depictions than white-on-white. In fact, the whites in the white-on-white violence don’t even appear “white” as they do elsewhere, as pure victims. If the interpreter insists on having some kind of coherent narrative lens to understand the motivation and thoughts of the artist, the metaphorical one is by far the more parsimonious.

A case could be made for a far-left interpretation of the painting, in which weak whites are inferior to the superior, African man. Or a case could be made for a far-right interpretation of the artwork, in which the African is an unrepentant savage and a beast. In terms of propaganda, the latter is far more effective, and even if the intent was the former, it will slip into the territory of the racial puritan’s favor. But neither of these interpretations are satisfying. They do not capture the whole of Peterson’s work, or the artist himself. They are both projections from frenzied, conspiratorial interpreters, painting their own black-and-white picture onto an artist simply conveying, in primoridal, Hellenic forms, an anti-authoritarian streak and an appreciation for the power of violence and aggression.

What this means for the cultural Platonists is that even if we are not libertarians (as I am not), we still ought to act as if we are civic libertarians on most matters that fall outside our realm of expertise, and even some matters that we do know a fair deal about. Criticizing artwork is, of course, just fine, but as every Platonist knows, criticism — like song and poetry — can have a powerful effect similar to that of the law.

Perhaps it is fittingly poetic that the solution to this Platonic paradox may be an Aristotelian one. Virtue ethics, and turning our gaze inward, rather than outward, to identify the problems in the world, is not only more effective, but may even eventually provide us with the requisite orientation and wisdom to become the philosopher kings of Plato’s dreams.

In short, Peterson’s art is not the problem.

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange was happening to you.

– 1 Peter 4:12

Philosophy v. Theology

I was attending a New Year’s dinner with some old friends a few years ago, when the subject of philosophy came up. My friend had a master’s degree in computer science, with a minor in philosophy, and was exceptionally well-read on the subject. At the word “philosophy,” a friend of my friend’s dad came over. It turned out he happened to have a PhD in the field, and had a thought or two to contribute to our discussion.

My initial challenge to my friend was the purpose of philosophy. My contention was that it was essentially about wisdom, “philo-sophia” literally meaning a love of wisdom. My friend, and the PhD acquaintance, held that philosophy was fundamentally about “truth,” and not wisdom. They were willing to grant that perhaps it had once been about wisdom, but had evolved and matured to the point of being about understanding the nature of things.

“Well, okay, I’ll grant your definition. Philosophy is about truth, which I think is important, but as a servant of wisdom, not as a thing in and of itself. I’m interested in wisdom: what do we call the study of that?”

“Um… pop-philosophy?”

I didn’t bother pointing out the (probably unintentional) condescension latent in the label, being offhand and casual. But the answer didn’t exactly sit right with any of us, and the struggle to distinguish the pursuit of knowledge — what is true — from the pursuit of wisdom — what is good — was challenging. It was distinction that eluded me for a long time after that meeting.

Sometime in the last year and half, however, the answer to the question revealed itself to me. The pursuit of wisdom has a name, and that name is theology.

I was an ardent atheist at the time of the philosophy discussion, and I suppose by the lights of certain fundamentalists, I might still be today. As with philosophy, it’s a label I’m willing to grant if “God” is defined narrowly enough, and “belief in God” confined exactingly enough. But even within Christian theology, there is more than one “God,” as tacitly acknowledged among the first commandments from the decalogue:

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

– Exodus 20:3

The precision of opting for “have no other gods before me,” rather than “have no other gods,” is telling. The commandment could just as well have told the Jews to believe there to be no other Gods, and yet it did not. This is not just telling about the spirituality of supposedly monotheistic faiths, but informative about the nature of what a God — and by extension, what theology — is.

Augustus Invictus and I had a lengthy discussion last month about the nature of religion, and of Gods. I brought up Wim Hof of a man who had, quite organically and independently, come upon the word “God” to describe his relationship to the cold, which drew him out of his depression and into a realm of superhuman ability, and into life. Augustus, in turn, referenced Frank Herbert’s masterpiece of science-fiction Dune, saying that religion is that which reminds me that I am not the man I want to be.

There is something odd about these examples, relative to the majority of religious tradition that most people are familiar with. Rather than being a pedagogical system maintained by a hierarchical institution, Wim Hof and Herbert seem to be describing something different, something more visceral, and getting there by a different route.

In my opinion, the most illuminating light that spans this understanding gap is, perhaps ironically, pop music. Consider the words of Leonard Cohen:

At our best, we inhabit a biblical landscape, and this is where we should situate ourselves without apology….That biblical landscape is our urgent invitation…Otherwise, it’s really not worth saving or manifesting or redeeming or anything, unless we really take up that invitation to walk into that biblical landscape.

From a traditionalist’s perspective, this may seem like a strange way of framing the situation. But the writer and performer of the famous song Hallelujah knows what he’s talking about. Aside from being a lifelong Jew, Cohen was an ordained Buddhist monk. He understood that religious talk was not so much a metaphysical theory, but a grammar for describing emotions and questions that cannot be described adequately in the language of ordinary life.

Lady Gaga isn’t the only one who understands this without having such a background in faith. Audioslave, System of a Down, and many other artists use Christian (or other religious) language to talk about emotionally complex, mysterious, or downright traumatic subjects. As a rule, artists that take the subject less seriously use the language less seriously; those who care more, as a function of age, inclination, or introspection, tend to use the grammar of religion more carefully and with greater reverence.

I was reading N.T. Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God today, and was pleased to hear him make the exact same reference I have been making use of in describing the “truth” of much of the bible. If someone asks “is the parable of the boy who cried wolf true?,” no one in their right mind takes that question as a historical one. The question is clearly about the message; do people stop listening to you if you deceive them? The truth of the parable is, when you think about it, greater than the truth of a historical event. We understand the timelessness of the relationships between archetypes, and no historical evidence is necessary. The parable, in other words, is a language for talking about relationships.

In this way, religion is the language for discussing values, wisdom, and how to live. This makes theology the study of wisdom, in much the same way that philosophy is the study of truth. Words like “epistemology,” “a priori,” phenomenology,” and “existentialism” are all words we use to talk about the truths of our experience of the world, and in exactly the same way, the stories of religious traditions (and here, one can’t help but notice that Christianity and Buddhism seem to rise to the top of these kinds of discussions) are the language for discussing wisdom, values, and the good.

It is for this reason that I’ve gradually shifted my focus from philosophy to theology… assuming, of course, that philosophy is, as my friend suggested, first and foremost about truth. This does not mean that philosophy is of no use, of course; truth is indispensable in pursuit of virtually any endeavor. But is it valuable in and of itself? Living well, and not being right, strikes me intuitively as the superior long-term aim. In this regard, I’m happy to side with Cicero, who’s opening in his Defense of the Republic was making fun of philosophers who sat on the sidelines and accomplished nothing. I share Cicero’s appreciation of theology more now than I did as an atheist, and am glad to be in such esteemed company.

Mostly, I’m just glad to have found a name for what I love studying.

Why Christianity?

Today’s right wing is rehashing an age-old debate, and one that I myself have grappled with for nearly a decade in some form or another: what faith should the West follow? Paganism, Christianity, or Atheism?

The debate begins, to my mind, first with a root separation, of those of faith from those without.  Let me begin by going over my own reasons for choosing religion over atheism.

Between the end of high school (2008) all the way through to about two years ago, I had been a very strong and vocal atheist. I was raised Christian, but saw through the illusion that was literal Christian dogma. I remember quite clearly a video I saw, which logically demonstrated that prayer which was answered by God in the form of “yes,” “no,” or “wait” was equivalent to a Geicko commercial promising to save “up to 15% or more:” it covered every base, and was indistinguishable from nonexistence.

From there I read Dan Barker’s Godless. Soon after that, I read Richard Dawkins, and eventually, the man that was to become my greatest intellectual hero: Christopher Hitchens. The arguments were flawless. God is not dead. He simply is not.

The beginnings of my unconversion (or reconversion, if you prefer) began by sheer chance. I remember stalking the aisles of a Barnes and Nobles, armed with a gift card to dispose of, and the title The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell stuck out to me. Without knowing anything else about the author or the theory contained within it, the title alone seemed to say to me “this is a book with a very big idea.” It was not the first nor the last time I judged a book by its cover, but it may have been the most fortuitous.

I found it to be one of the most difficult books I’ve ever had to read, more difficult even than the Thomas Kuhn I read back in high school. I understood enough, however, to see a deeper layer behind the literature being analyzed. I could not yet discern what it meant, but I could see that it was there.

At the time, I received most of my news, information, and entertainment from YouTube, and so one day, I decided to search for “Joseph Campbell,” and came across The Power of Myth, an interview by Bill Moyers with the famous literary theorist. This interview has since been taken off of YouTube, but for me, it was a light bulb moment.

All my life, I had been raised to think of religion as an assertion of scientific truth. If “God” exists, than he is essentially a man in the sky, who must be falsifiable or else presumed false. With this scientific world-view, the idea of a mythological religious attitude was perfectly understandable, but completely uninteresting. It was like Santa Clause, or The Boy Who Cried Wolf. It was not unique, and felt a little puerile. It was lame.

What Campbell began to illuminate for me was a phenomenological understanding of the world, wherein relationships between things, and between types of things, are the substance of our experience and the orienting forces in our life, rather than discreet “facts.”

From a scientific standpoint, a mythological story is inherently uninteresting because it is scientifically false. But mythological stories are not false. They stay with us for thousands of years, and we keep retelling them to each other because they say something essentially true about ourselves and our relationship to other people and to the world. In fact, they are in some sense more true than empirical facts. This, of course, depends on how one measures truth, but if the standard of truth is “what works based on collective experience,” rather than “what is most corroborated by scientific scrutiny,” than the experience conveyed in folklore transcends our contemporary knowledge of physics and mathematics by orders of magnitude, measured both in combined human experience and in relevance to living well. It isn’t much use to most people, knowing how to make an airplane wing in the correct shape. How to make a marriage work, and how to orient oneself in relationship to boredom and to suffering, are relevant to everyone, no matter your job.

I felt like an elite intellectual, like I had discovered the very top of the pyramid called “religion.” But this soon gave way to the feeling that G.K. Chesterton described in his book Orthodoxy, of one who has set sail from England to discover far-off South Sea islands, but somehow miscalculates and discovers England. As I reread old scripture–scripture that I had so casually dismissed once upon a time–a new layer of understanding shone through like a ham-fisted moral in a children’s fairy tale… and yet I had never seen it before.

The deeper understanding hadn’t just been there the whole time: it had been the underlying purpose the whole time.

But this was not my point of re-connection with Christianity specifically. Mythopoetic narratives, establishing, retaining, and building who we are, layered beneath a narrative that survives through literalism, are the foundations of most religions. I found myself facing a new challenge, not between faith and atheism, but between two faiths: Nordic paganism, on the one hand, and Christianity on the other.

Plumbing the depths of moral philosophy had brought me to face the hard-edged suspicion of Nietzsche. In the exploration of master-moralities and slave-moralities, and their resulting effects on the character of the human condition, what once seemed like the harshest criticisms of religion now seemed like weak and insufficient compliments: the problem is not that Christianity is violent and intolerant, but is in fact not violent and intolerant enough.

The national character of pagan faiths make them particularly amenable as psychological homes for particular groups of people, rather than as universal, one-size-fits-all spiritual systems designed for the particular nature of nobody in particular.

The more I thought on the topic, however, the more transparent it became that universal truths do exist, and that universal truths are not exclusive to more particular and contextual truths, of the sort that distinguish tribal faiths from the great monotheisms. The problem was not with Christianity, but with human nature… a problem which Christianity tackled head-on better than any other faith.

By illustration, anyone involved in Nordic paganism knows about and resents the politically progressive, hug-the-world incursions into their religious traditions. Indeed, it seems that most Asatru organizations that aren’t the equivalent of Unitarians are converging in a separate, but equally blasphemous direction: towards a business model, where the religious aesthetic is used as a marketing tool to ply “brutal” and “deadly” merchandise, from knives to t-shirts to necklaces. All in the name of Odin, ostensibly…

I don’t say this to condemn paganism generally. Christianity is not only as bad, in this regard, but arguably worse. What this use of paganism shows, however, is that the weakness in Christianity is not a genuine expression of the faith, but an expression of the weakness of mankind. Christianity is only more commercialized and politicized because it’s larger, at the moment.

I’m reminded of the story of a young woman, a main character in the story Reading Lolita in Tehran. She was a devout Muslim woman, who wore the hijab openly to school, prior to the 1979 revolution. The other women, who were Westernized and broadly secular, made fun of her for her peculiar religious habits. But for her, that made the garment meaningful. It made her special.

We often use the word “special” ironically and as a pejorative today. But this is only because of the way that people who were profoundly unspecial abused the word, and declared that everyone was special, in their own way. This amusing paradox did devastating damage to the previously unchallenged understanding that some things really are special. Indeed, the word “sacred” essentially just means “special,” or “set apart.” We should no more reject the meaning of “special” or “sacred” than we should the difference between our significant other and a stranger, or between our children and another child.

Anyway, the revolution of 1979 saw the return of theocracy to Iran, and now all the women had to wear head coverings. Suddenly, the sacrifice of the one devout woman had been rendered boring and “normal.” When everyone is forced, or perhaps even mildly coerced, into adapting a faith and its trappings, the faith becomes a victim of the character of its new converts. This is something evangelical Christians should bear in mind when proselytizing the faith.

So the choice between paganism and Christianity could not be one between the cultures each had adapted, but between the principles underlying them. The problem here, however, is that the religious traditions have been built slowly, by many errors and corrections, and by trial and error, over thousands of years, by people far more intelligent than myself. There is no way a mortal, even in a whole lifetime, can begin to comprehend the intersecting values, ideas, experiences, and principles that created the value-hierarchy, the beliefs, and the practices that form the core of a religious tradition. It takes what Kierkegaard called “a leap of faith.”

My decision did not feel particularly sudden, but if there was a decisive moment, it must have been listening to Greg Johnson’s interview with Paul Waggener:

GJ: […]And obviously you have diverged from Christianity as a path to Nordic neo-paganism.

PW: I wouldn’t call it Nordic neo-paganism, though that was certainly one step on the road. That’s not how I would express my spirituality now. I think that would be far too limiting a category to put it in. But yes, I certainly diverged from Christianity, and that was certainly one step along the way.

GJ: OK. So, how do you describe your outlook now and can you describe the Wolves? Tell us a little bit about them.

PW: As far as spiritual outlook, I would say that my spiritual outlook is tribal, in that my expression of spirituality now is organic, and it’s grown as the tribal organization of the Wolves, which I am a member of, has grown. And I think that it’s become a tribally-serving expression now rather than taking something from without and modeling a tribe after that. So, after the tribe took wings and has become more of a self-developed entity, the spirituality developed along with it. It serves the tribe rather than the other way around.

It occurred to me, while listening to their conversation, that religion is not something you choose. Certainly Paul and the Wolves are doing something like creating a faith of their own, but I already have a tribe. I have a wife. I have a brother, a sister, and a brother in law. I have parents, in-laws, and two extraordinarily close friends I’ve known for more than a decade. All of these people are either Christian or come from a Christian background; if they are not Christian, they reject the faith for reasons similar to those I once rejected it on. None of them are remotely familiar with, or interested in, Nordic paganism.

If I were to choose paganism over Christianity, I might experience some novelty, and the joy of exploring for myself a religion I was previously unfamiliar with. But because I was not born into it, I will never truly master the religion as one who was born into it could. And because my family and tribe were not born into it, my choice would be an abandonment of them and the culture they knew.

I have actually half-compromised, based on another passage from that interview, and opted to learn about and practice traditions of Orthodox Christianity, rather than the Catholicism of my mother’s side, the Episcopalianism of my father’s side, or the Methodism of my own upbringing.

Certainly I was raised with a very conservative Christian upbringing, but when I was young my father was actually an Anglican priest and he moved to Orthodoxy later on as a reaction to some of the . . . I think he would probably consider it to be creeping liberalism finding its way into the Anglican Church. He believes that Orthodoxy is a sort of last bastion of true Christianity left in the world.

I confess that I am not a particularly orthodox practioner of any spiritual tradition, and there are blendings of traditions, as much from arrogance in my own understanding as by accident. The necklace I have, for example, is actually an unconnected pair of strings with 100 knots tied in them. In this way, it resembles an Orthodox prayer rope. I also use it as the Orthodox do: to recite the Jesus prayer a minimum of 100 times a day. The knots themselves, however, more closely resemble a Catholic rosary, and moreover, they are separated into numerically inaccurate “decades” (of 25) by beads, as a traditional rosary is. The knots make it easy to casually loop the string into a kind of necklace, which closely resembles a rosary.

To make matters even worse, I will often bring it with me to the gym, and hold the cross in my mouth before attempting particularly heavy lifts. In this way, I hope to associate power and effort with the necklace, and imbue it with associative power that can be drawn from when I need it. While not incompatible with Christianity, this practice seems pagan in spirit.

Yet perhaps this pagan association reflects something that the Christian church has lost, and has a right — perhaps a duty — to reclaim for itself. Every religious tradition, in every generation, must be saved from the corruption of time and humanity. If I am successful in finding new life in Christianity, and showing that to others of my generation, it will make the work of my children no easier for the same task that they will have to perform. Yet it must be done regardless. Or, put another way, I get the privilege of pursuing this noble and rewarding task, despite the previous efforts of minds more brilliant than my own to do the same. Their work was not fruitless, but there is no final solution to the problem of human nature. And thank God for that.

Golden Let-Downs

There’s something ironically reminiscent of the Obama years, in the expressions of outrage and betrayal by formerly loyal supporters.

We should not be too hard on them — or on yourself, if you happen to be in their number. The ability to criticize our representatives is a precious one. The disappointment and sadness expressed by his supporters prove how cheap and false the Left’s allegations were about the mindless loyalty of the right to their golden-haired God Emperor.

With the simultaneous attack on Julian Assange and the apparent softening on immigration on the heels of his bombing of Syria, how can anyone right of center (let alone a member of the Alternative Right) be optimistic about the remainder of the Trump presidency?

When I voted for Donald J. Trump in November, I was unconvinced by the actual policies he was promising… or at least not persuaded by them. It’s not that I thought he was a liar (by the standards of his office of aspiration), though any honest person listening to the man is forced to admit that he is less than honest. He’s from New York, for one thing. Even the “truthful hyperbole” strategy he employs — while essentially honest in nature — is dishonest in its mechanics. But there are more important things than a president’s truthiness.

A nation is not so much “led” by its leader as it is reflected by him. There are over 330 million of us and only one president: which one really holds more sway? Certainly the president is a powerful cultural figure, but no one could possibly be more powerful than the collective actions of an entire country. How else could we get a reality TV star as our leader?

Let’s be serious: Donald Trump was never going to make America great again. You can point 330 million people to water, but you cannot even move them, let alone make them drink.

I don’t say this to condemn Trump, of course. I voted for him, and stand by my vote, because I only voted for him for one reason: protecting freedom of speech.

The press, and even supporters, tend to softball the issue by couching all assaults against free speech as mere “political correctness.” Since the First Amendment only protects free speech from abridgment by Congress, it is easy to conflate the right with the law that ostensibly protects it. In doing so, we completely miss the constrictions on expression at the hands of corporations, schools, Hollywood, and the culture at large. They are every bit as dangerous to the civic health of a Republic as constrictions that come from the government itself.

To provide just one example, any criticism of Islam can be caricatured as “Islamophobia,” which takes any intellectual justifications out of a criticism and pathologizes a sincere, and perhaps even true, concern. This is not done at the Federal level, nor even the state level, but by television news programs, by parent-teacher associations, by church congregations, and by dinner party guests.

This means that government isn’t the problem. Government reflects the problem. The problem is with us. Perhaps, like Solzhenitsyn, we do not love freedom enough. Perhaps we love reality TV too much. But I repeat myself.

In my book, In Defense of Hatred, I wrote that the inability to defend what you love can lead us to an inability, or an unwillingness, to love in the first place:

If we cannot hate, then we will retroactively convince ourselves that we didn’t really love it. And the danger of unrequited loss by establishing a meaningful preference, might not be worth it. It might be better to never love.  To wish that what you loved had never existed, so you could be spared your pain.

If we cannot say what we think without fear of reprisal, then what’s the point in getting involved and learning enough to have an opinion at all? And if no one has, or is willing to articulate, a civic opinion, how can a Republic survive? It does not matter whether these restrictions come from the government or from other people. If we cannot use words to resolve our differences, than we will eventually have to use violence.

In 2015, Trump stepped onto the stage and said all the wrong things. It was exactly what we needed. Suddenly, everyone who was afraid to say what they really thought about immigration, about Islam, even about race and gender, saw a Golden example of a man breaking all the rules and winning.

No amount of backsliding on promises can undo this psychic victory. Now everyone knows that everyone else knows the problems with immigration, and we can talk about it. When everyone laughs out loud at the emperor’s nakedness, it is impossible to pretend that the robes are beautiful again. Trump happens to play both the part of the boy and the God Emperor simultaneously, a feat few others could so masterfully perform.

Let’s not pretend that the task of making America great was a burden for the president’s shoulders alone. Frankly, I’m glad he finally let the true believers down. There is something weak in the hope that a single leader will make all your problems go away. It’s a weakness of spirit that Jack Donovan touched on in his piece on Trump:

Men in America can’t keep waiting for someone to come and stand up to feminists and race-baiters and social justice warriors for them, and then stand behind them, saying, “yeah, what he said.” They can’t keep waiting for some elected leader to put big businesses and banks and all of the scheming, swindling, greedy sellouts that run this country in their place. These people hate you, and they don’t care what you think or what you want. No matter what happens to you, they believe you have it coming, and if you don’t do anything about it and take control of your own life and destiny — you will deserve it.

Whatever happens to white American men — and all of the men who are unable or unwilling to benefit from rent-seeking identity politics — will be up to us.

Enjoy the liberal and progressive butthurt, but don’t get too angry with Trump for letting you down. He had one job, and he did it. Make use of the cultural space restored by the God-Emperor, and exercise those rights which he has shielded from the culture at large.

That’s the heart of civic life in a Republic: the speech of the citizen, not of the dear leader.

The Autodidact’s Apology

In the course of my research into the origins of the problems of higher education, and of education itself, I have discovered people far older, wiser, more experienced, and more intelligent than I, already making the arguments I had intended to make in a book, with a wider audience than I will ever have, and more eloquently than I will probably be able to manage any time soon.

The three that come to mind include Stefan Molyneux, Duke Pesta, and John Taylor Gatto. In reverse order, Gatto is an award-winning New York teacher of 30 years who retired because he couldn’t stand working for a system that hurt children (a revelation that grew on him over his years under the employ of the state). Duke Pesta is a professor of English with a Ph.D from Purdue, and an avid critic of Common Core, and the intentions and methods behind it. Stefan Molyneux holds a Master in the history of Philosophy from the University of Toronto, and hosts Freedomain Radio, his philosophy podcast and call-in show.

Most of the current conversation about whether or not someone should attend University — or even public schools — centers around economics. Is it worth it? It’s a complicated question with no clear answer, and certainly no definitive one that will apply to everyone. My own estimation is that the value of education is declining, making college a poor investment for my generation and the foreseeable future, generally speaking. As the number of people with degrees has increased, the quality of those  with degrees has necessarily decreased.

What I like about the arguments made by Molyneux, Pesta, and Gatto, however, is that they generally avoid the money question, and focus more on the experience and its effect on the character of the student. The effects are not beneficial, not by my estimation, and not by the lights of these more educated instructors.

With sophisticated intellectuals like these, any attempt at adding to the literature on my part would be more distracting and diluting than it would be beneficial. Anyone looking for my book, I will refer to Gatto’s excellent work, The Underground History of American Education.

I do have one argument, however, that was either assumed or simply missed by the aforementioned Trinity. It does not need a full book, so I’ll lay it out here, as I think it is a point worth being made more explicitly.

§

Aristotle’s famous assertion that “we are what we repeatedly do” is more than a truism and corner-post of folk-wisdom. It is a neurological fact. Behaviors we repeat reinforce neural pathways that establish “default” actions and reactions, which require effort, energy, and motivation to overcome. It is why people train their “muscle memory” in martial arts, and is also why visualization works as an athletic and performance aid, prior to events.

If you train repeatedly to block and strike back when someone punches at you, then when someone suddenly tries to punch you on the street, you will do what you were trained to do, without thinking. Automatically. If you visualize the perfect golf-swing on the 8th hole, picturing the light breeze from the north and the weight of the driver descending, and then swinging through, you will have good form when you actually head to the course. You will swing correctly: automatically. We are what we repeatedly do.

If you go to school, for four years, and do what you have been advised by your friends and family — “keep your head down” when political subjects come up, so that you can just get your degree and get out — what effect will that have on you?

Does anyone not think that Millennials, as a generation, are more entitled than their parents and grandparents? Can anyone not see the depression and anxiety in my generation? All the pills and medications everyone has been put on to cope with the stress of their lives? Is there any doubt that the practicalities of income and social approval have driven both courage and independent thinking from our generation, more than any other in recent memory?

I don’t say this to condemn all Millennials, certainly. We are the next heroic generation, and I believe we will fulfill our role, if only because it doesn’t take all or even most of us to do so. I also don’t believe that school is solely responsible for the particular pathologies of our age. Social media, unprecedented mobility, and living in a multicultural society have all had their impacts as well. But the instilling of conformity in students through a mixture of separation from the family and a fear of social ostracism, rejection, and punishment from your new family (the school), have imparted all sorts of negative character qualities into large swathes of students. The scale of this reprogramming is something that previous decades of social engineers could only dream of.

What sorts of character qualities? The sorts that come from keeping quiet out of fear, of speaking out of fear, even condemning others to make oneself socially safer. Cowardice, dishonesty, fear, a lack of curiosity, a lack of ambition or creativity, all stem from the feeling of social insecurity that keeps everyone in line.

To believe that you are above this, that you would be somehow immune, is tantamount to believing that you are not really human. That the laws of neuroscience and habits essentially do not apply to you. Certainly, many people go through school with their integrity intact, but not because they were uniquely strong. If anything, it will have been because they maintained strong family ties through the duration of their education, which rendered them less susceptible to the social pressures designed to change them. This is why attending to “change the system from within” is delusional. A chicken cannot change a meat-grinder from within.

Virtues are not mere abstractions. They are the qualities by which we are successful in our lives, throughout their duration, and the call to abandon virtues for momentary gain is a siren’s song. Friends and romantic partners of quality look to our courage, our strength, our will. Our children will grow to love us based on our virtue, not on our personal success. So will our grandchildren.

As my good friend Augustus Invictus once said, “I wonder which is more terrifying: to lose a child to a cause – or to lose the respect of that child when she discovers that her parents were cowards who made a virtue of submission?”

At the behest of Dr. Jordan Peterson, I have been reading through Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelego, wherein he documents and contemplates his 10 years of imprisonment in the labor camps of the Soviet Union. The aggregation of suffering, endured by tens of millions for days without end, is absolutely stupefying in grandiosity. The stories of the tortures, the creative genius of some of the cruelty inflicted on fellow humans, is difficult to convey in mere sentences. For myself, the one that stood out the most was the interrogation threat of throwing a victim’s daughter in a room full of syphilitic old men, if the interviewee did not confess to crimes and turn in others. I think I would have taken the brand on the inside of the rectum over even the threat of that kind of fate towards a daughter of mine, let alone the threat carried out.

Where did such cruelty come from? Why did it happen? These were questions that Solzhenitsyn spent a lot of time thinking about, and his speculative answer was that perhaps they didn’t love freedom enough. Perhaps they had brought it on themselves through indifference to submission and slavery, and also that they had failed to see the monster in themselves, capable of the very cruelty being inflicted upon them.

The point is twofold: first, virtues and their effects are real. They have real-world consequences, as real as pain, and as real as death. Second, believing you are somehow immune, that you are above the corruption inherent to human nature, may very well be the biggest source of our susceptibility to corruption, and the torments that await the rejection of virtue.

It is for this reason that schools should be avoided: not merely to avoid gulags, but to preserve the integrity of your character, which is the most precious thing you have.

The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts. Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny. It is the light that guides your way.

— Heraclitus

 

The Weakness of Purity

Ethnonationalism is on the return. Classical liberals are rediscovering who they really are. Progressives are progressing… towards what? Conservatives know; as a rule, progressives do not. But they are progressing nonetheless, and that’s progress.

In short, the complaints about apathy are fading, and the concern shifts ever more forcefully to the state of “polarization” that haunts America.

Personally, I believe polarization is an improvement upon apathy. Yet there is a downside in the factionalism which has arisen in the sudden awakening of the American civic consciousness, one that is not just a symptom of the factionalism, but one which infects every faction: purity-spiraling.

Purity-spiraling, for those unaware of the term, is generally understood to be a kind of competitive virtue-signaling, in which one attacks a fellow member of the ostensible group, rather than an outsider or an enemy. This is the pejorative connotation of the phrase, and accurately describes the generally less successful, but more literate members of a group, trying to demonstrate either superior knowledge or loyalty, in lieu of accomplishments and creative action.

There is a broader, less pejorative way of understanding purity-spiraling, however. Perhaps we can just call it “purity” — at least purity taken to excess — in which people will reject members from the group for any deviance from the implicit or explicit standards of the group. In other words, you must check off all 10 of the minimal requirement boxes; 9 won’t cut it, and 8 certainly won’t do, no matter how much extra value you may otherwise bring to the group.

When I was growing up, I used to listen to a CD with my father called Sons of Somerled, by Steve MacDonald, which musically told the story of his Scottish ancestry. The namesake character, Somerled (pictured), was a Scottish warlord of the 12th century who conquered the Western Isles from the Vikings, who had terrorized the territory for 350 years prior.

The catch is, Somerled himself was only half Scottish.

Gaelic Viking in his veins, testify his battle fame,

12th century warlords aside, battles are regularly won by those who are, to some degree, of the enemy:

  • Arminius, arguably the most successful combatant of the ancient Romans, grew up as a Roman slave and eventually equestrian, despite being a Cherusci German tribesman by birth.
  • Vlad III of Wallachia, a Romanian Prince, likewise grew up as a slave of the foes he would one day defeat. In his case, the Turks.
  • And although he was not raised as a German, who can think of Patton’s victory in Germany without recalling his famous line “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!”

These are all more literal combat cases, but abstract battles are often won through some likeness with the enemy as well. For literary reference, Harry Potter would not have been able to defeat Voldemort without sharing some quality with the dark lord. Lt. Col Grossman’s sheepdogs are able to protect the sheep from the wolves, to no small degree, because they are relatives of the wolves. “He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence.”

Consider some of these relatively more recent examples:

  • Friederich Nietzsche, one of the greatest philosophical critics of Christianity, grew up the son of a Lutheran minister.
  • Ayn Rand, a powerful critic of communism, and defender of capitalism in the West, was a Russian Jew who lived under Soviet communism.
  • Thomas Sowell, a more contemporary defender of conservative economics, retained his Marxist socialism even while studying under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago.
  • Dr. Warren Farrell, one of the first “Men’s Rights Activists,” and public critics of feminism, was a prominent feminist theorist, writer, and public figure before his research convinced him to reverse course
  • Two of the most influential defenders of more traditional gender roles, and critics of “LGBTQ” culture, are gay (Milo Yiannopoulos, Jack Donovan)

The list goes on and on. To some degree, particularly in the more abstract cultural struggles, the advantage may be tactical. It is not as easy to criticize a gay man for being “homophobic,” or a Russian woman who grew up in Russia of “not understanding Communism.” But that doesn’t explain everything. The arguments themselves are stronger than those less personally experienced in the matter. It was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, not the variety of criticisms by more Western writers, that condemned Communism. Ten years in a labor camp gives you plenty of time to talk with others, and to reflect on the events leading up to one’s incarceration.

Perhaps only George Orwell was able to foresee the loneliness and horror of Communism before the revelations of Solzhenitsyn became public in the West. How did he know? He knew because he fought alongside the communists in the Spanish Civil War, and got a taste for the sort of future that it would bring. Soviets who got hold of illicit copies of 1984 didn’t believe that it could have been written by someone outside the USSR. How could a Westerner understand the nature of this without having lived it? He knew because he had lived it. He had even once supported it.

It is very often forgotten that Orwell was a socialist, even after his participation in the Spanish Civil War. It is very popular these days to conflate socialism and communism under the banner of Marxism, as though these were the same things, and that anyone who is a socialist is essentially a communist lite. How inconvenient that some of the greatest defenders of freedom, and classical liberal values, are actually socialists themselves!

I am not saying this to defend socialism. On the contrary, I believe it to be economically stupid, and impossible even in principle. No amount of futurist technology, bringing on the vaunted “post-scarcity society” can actually get around the way that human minds work. Our competitive spirit is relative, not absolute, meaning we can eliminate poverty, make everyone live in the style of modern-day billionaires, and you wouldn’t have begun to address the problems of inequality, happiness, and social justice. Everything we know about economics suggests that the means required to attain these sorts of ends would undermine the very mechanisms of economic sustainability anyways. Why throw everything away to run another mile on a psychological treadmill?

What I am saying is that rejecting everyone who is a socialist means rejecting the very powerful arguments of George Orwell. If you reject everyone who was a little too close to Nazism, you reject David Bowie and Henry Ford. If you reject everyone who was once a communist, or a feminist, or religious, you lose Thomas Sowell, Warren Farrell, and Friederich Nietzsche.

There are many members of the Alt-Right who don’t want to associate with homosexuals, people of mixed race, or Jews. This would mean rejecting, among others, Jack Donovan, Vox Day, Martin Van Creveld.

Is that really what they want? Jack Donovan, more than any other author, introduced me to the Alt Right. Were it not for him, I very likely would not be a member. Vox Day, despite being of mixed race himself, introduced me to the legitimate arguments for white nationalism, and defended it by analogy to American Indian reservations, which are essentially ethnic sub-nations (Vox is approximately 1/4 Native American).

The Israeli military historian and theorist Martin Van Creveld is not just a priceless mind for humanity in general, but the author of such powerful books as Equality: The Impossible Quest, and an essay in There Will Be War: Volume X which demonstrates, in a fashion more scholarly than anything I’ve seen at the Occidental Observer, Radix, TakiMag, or Counter Currents, (no low bar), that immigration is war.

Obviously, this is not to say that the identity-borders are open, and everyone, of any faith, race, culture, background, language, or creed, gets a place in any group. Extreme vetting is required, at the minimum. However, when we consider the benefits lost by rejecting otherwise excellent potential members of a group because they fail to check one or two boxes, we should question our hunger for purity, whether we want it to cover our own lack of accomplishments or because we sincerely believe it. And when notice the pattern of “amphibians” — walkers of two worlds — doing the best job of defeating an adversary because they understand them in ways that we cannot, we should absolutely reject the obsession with purity.

Refusing to do so is to simply adopt the battle-squawk of conservatives we have been mocking for the last few years: “noble defeat!”