Digest, 8/21/2021: Goines Tale
the seventeenth weekly digest post
It begins with a painful realization about the United States: We can't be the country those Iraqis wanted us to be. We lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war. That's why a liberal international order, like a liberal domestic one, restrains the use of force — because it assumes that no nation is governed by angels, including our own. And it's why liberals must be anti-utopian, because the United States cannot be a benign power and a messianic one at the same time. - Peter Beinart
I zero in there, and some people always say, “Oh, now you are attacking the wrong people.” But they are also holders of power! What is popular has power and can be oppressive, even if it is determined by people who do not perceive themselves as powerful. If you can spur a crowd, if there are people whom you can hurt, if there are communities that can be harmed by your activity, if there are systems you can help demolish, then no, whoever you are, you are not just the good guy. - Elnathan John to Conor Friedersdorf, in The Atlantic
Missed this excellent rundown of the innumerable ed tech boondoggles, swindles, and disasters from the past several decades when it was published a couple years ago. Highly recommended.
I did a podcast about movies called Subject to Change, had a good time. I made the case for SFW as an all-time overlooked movie, so now that cat’s out of the bag. (I assure you that it is much, much better than that trailer.) Could have been a post! RIP to that potential post. Maybe I’ll write it anyway.
This Week’s Posts
Monday, August 16th - Who Tells Them Things They Don’t Want to Hear?
The New York Times is launching its newsletter section, and though they’ve got a lot of talented and perceptive people, it’s all still subject to the intense ideological capture that has afflicted the paper in recent years - capture by the affluent white liberal subscriber base and leadership’s unwillingness to stand up to its own employees.
Tuesday, August 17th - Review: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I review the celebrated, overlong and overstuffed-with-lectures but well-crafted novel Americanah, by the newly controversial Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Wednesday, August 18th - There’s No Alternative to Cultural Appropriation
The production of new cultural products always, without exception, entails the combination of influences and ideas from different cultural backgrounds. And thank god for that, given the teeming and wonderful cosmopolitanism we enjoy today.
Friday, August 20th - When Nothing is Worked Through, Nothing is Explained, Nothing is Understood
The problem with politics-as-fashion is that fashion is adopted without intellectual justification, but rather to belong, and our political decisions must be made consciously, with forethought and deliberation.
And we got Chapter Six in The Red, the Brown, the Green. The illustrations continue to make me very happy.
From the Archives
I’ve really been feeling this lately. From a few months prior to starting this Substack.
Song of the Week
Substack of the Week
This one comes via a reader recommendation in the comments (which I can’t be fussed to fish out from among the throngs right now, sorry). I don’t know much about Jeff Maurer, other than that he’s a former TV writer for Last Week Tonight with Some Smug Limey Shithead. Now he writes for Substack and reflects a lot on culture and politics. And he’s funny! I find myself in particular agreement with this piece about the ruinous and absurd modern dictate that writers only write 100% from within their own cultural and demographic vantage point:
“We don’t want this because you’re a non-white male who wrote a white female protagonist, but if you want to write something about your own race and gender, we’d be interested.” This attitude is incredibly reductionist, which I’d argue also makes it racist. Plus, it’s bad for creativity; it treats the writer as just a transcriber of their own experiences. It disallows the possibility that a writer might have something to say that’s not about race or identity (could you imagine?). Ironically, it makes the same mistake that led to the racial caricatures of the past: It assumes that you can know something about a person based on their ascriptive traits.
Let me add that
An essential function of the creation and consumption of art is to enable people to experience things from outside of their own limited particularity, that’s sort of the point
One of the things great writing reveals to us is just how little those demographic factors actually do to define us
Herman Melville was not a one-legged man on a self-destructive quest to kill a white whale, and yet….
In any event, I dig what Maurer is doing with the platform, check it out.
The Age of Entanglement, Louisa Gilder, 2008
When I was in grad school I met a PhD student in Math at some event. I was chatting about how often I try and fail to learn about physics from watching YouTube and reading explainers in the popular press. He said that I was only failing because what I was trying wasn’t achievable - that any explanation of serious physics that is not described in math is so inherently distorted that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Which was a bummer! But I also appreciated his candor. I don’t know if he was right. But I still read a lot about physics, despite really fundamental holes in my understanding, and approach it as much from the standpoint of history as science. One book that I really enjoyed that at least made me more knowledgeable about the history of physics is Louisa Gilder’s The Age of Entanglement.
The book chronicles the somewhat chaotic period in 20th century physics where the field, still grappling with the immense consequences of relativity, was also coming to accept the reality of quantum physics. This led to a fractious period in the field, with Einstein famously struggling to come to terms with the next wave that followed his great discoveries. Gilder lays out this period of tumult and discovery, particularly as it concerns entanglement, Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance.” To do so, she imagines a series of letters between key participants where they stake out their positions and argue their causes. I personally like this format, although someone else I know found the epistolary form annoying. More importantly though Gilder has a knack for approaching topics with the right level of detail. Science writing about sufficiently complex material always walks a fine line. There’s the risk of losing your audience on one hand and of dumbing it down on the other. I thought she walked this line unusually well. She hasn’t publishing anything since, which is a shame, as I find her a talented and charming science writer.
Comment of the Week
The bottom line problem in my estimation is A) treating cultural productions (food, art, clothes, etc) like a form of intellectual property and then B) imagining that racial or ethnic groups could be coherently defined enough to exercise ownership over these intellectual properties. Once that framework for looking at these matters is established no amount of defining exchange versus appropriation will ever be able to stop appropriation from subsuming the entire discourse. - David Hayes
That’s it folks! Fall will be here soon.