“By historical standards, liberal democracies have been extraordinarily stable. Poor countries have trouble sustaining democratic rule. Some rich countries, especially those with vast oil wealth, have always been controlled by autocrats. But once a wealthy country has successfully transitioned to democracy, its form of government is locked in. This is about as remarkable a fact as political science has on offer. Never in history has a wealthy, consolidated democracy collapsed. Not once.
That remarkable fact has made it easy to ascribe the stability of the West’s political institutions to its fundamental attributes: universal suffrage, rule of law, checks and balances, individual rights. Each country gives its own spin on the genealogy of its particular political settlement. Americans tend to thank the genius of their founders, the French the principled visionaries on the barricades, Brits the fortuitous rise of pluralistic institutions owed to the blood-soaked compromises struck between lord and liege. But for all of the specificities of national myth and memory, the triumphalist upshot is remarkably similar in every democratic country. The question of the best regime form, which had animated the writings of thinkers from Socrates to Rousseau, has supposedly been solved. The end of history has arrived.
This happy story overlooks a number of facts that have been so formative of our political world that it is easy to forget just how extraordinary they, too, are by historical standards. All through the history of democratic stability, the incomes of ordinary citizens grew rapidly. All through the history of democratic stability, a democracy has been the most powerful country in the world. And all through the history of democratic stability, democracies have been highly homogeneous.
Over the last decades, each of these factors stopped being the case. Living standards stagnated. The rise of China is threatening American hegemony. Democracies in North America and Western Europe are more diverse than they have ever been before.
History cannot tell us how liberal democracies perform under those circumstances, so we are only just starting to gather the first shreds of evidence for what the effects of those transformations might be. What little we know suggests that the answer is not going to be pretty.”
– Yascha Mounk, from “The Week Democracy Died” in Slate
I came across this essay about narcissism (see how I started the sentence with “I”—woops), and while most of it is strange and love-columny, I love the first paragraph:
THE NARCISSIST IS, according to the internet, empty. Normal, healthy people are full of self, a kind of substance like a soul or personhood that, if you have it, emanates warmly from inside of you toward the outside of you. No one knows what it is, but everyone agrees that narcissists do not have it. Disturbingly, however, they are often better than anyone else at seeming to have it. Because what they have inside is empty space, they have had to make a study of the selves of others in order to invent something that looks and sounds like one. Narcissists are imitators par excellence. And they do not copy the small, boring parts of selves. They take what they think are the biggest, most impressive parts of other selves, and devise a hologram of self that seems superpowered. Let’s call it “selfiness,” this simulacrum of a superpowered self. Sometimes they seem crazy or are really dull, but often, perhaps because they have had to try harder than most to make it, the selfiness they’ve come up with is qualitatively better, when you first encounter it, than the ordinary, naturally occurring selves of normal, healthy people. Narcissists are the most popular kids at school. They are rock stars. They are movie stars. They are not really rock stars or movie stars, but they seem like they are. They may tell you that you are the only one who really sees them for who they really are, which is probably a trick. If one of your parents is a narcissist, he or she will tell you that you are a rock star, too, which is definitely a trick.
Like I said, the rest of the piece veers off into what-it’s-like-to-date-a-narcissist territory, which is almost too personal to be taken seriously. But this quoted section hits on so many points I routinely think/write about: the age of facebook, searches for meaning, education/parenting, and social validation. I think it’s demonstrably true—because I’m guilty of it myself—that people seive the positive bits of their days or weekends or even years to project a “better” (i.e. “fitter, happier, more productive”) version of themselves to the world. And thus it’s almost certainly also true that people internalize their own projections. Who hasn’t scrolled through their own photos on facebook?
The question is why people feel the need to (and then become addicted to) creating meaning in this echo-chamber way. As a frequenter of bars, I am reminded of this description of facebook as a bar that never closes. The difference with a bar, though, is that you also see people at their not-so-best (and they see you). You see boredom. You see conflict. You see terrible first dates. And yes, you see people on their phones. But the point is that you see lives uncurated, and amidst the cacophony you can hear laughter.
Here’s an essay arguing for the need to return to Dewey’s pedagogy:
For those who think that democracy ought to be a way of life rather than merely a means to select leaders, and that schools serve a vital civic function of teaching children to become autonomous adults, now is the time to recover the vision Dewey outlined in Democracy and Education.
The essay touches on many of my critiques of the American education system, but even I don’t think schools were ever set up to teach people much of anything, let alone how to become autonomous; autonomy is about the last thing a “high-performing” workforce needs. If a school does succeed in teaching someone how to be something other than a good worker—in the narrowist sense—than it has done so despite of, and not according to, its real goal.
Yes, all schools are different, and teachers are doing their best, and there are good examples everywhere. But it’s still true—and can be easily and clearly shown—that schools were never created to be engines of education, and that, indeed, they have more in common with prisons than they do with any idealized, overintellectualized visions of scholasticism dancing in people’s heads.
Here’s an essay about the benefits of silence: “Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, unites the quiet without and within, allowing our conscious workspace to do its thing, to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where we fit in. That’s the power of silence.”
Finland is apparently marketing silence to boost tourism, and according to the author of said essay, the strategy is working. It’s no wonder; in a world oversaturated with combustion engines, cell phones, and talking heads, silence is an ever more precious commodity. When’s the last time, while awake, that you’ve enjoyed even five minutes of absolute quietness?
And speaking of which, here is an essay on “What five minutes of silence can do for your brain“. According to the author: “We are in an age where there is no solitude at all and if there were any we’d grab for our phones to make sure there wasn’t any. Whether you’re in the camp who believes it our not, the pace at which we live our lives and the amount of things we try to pay attention to at once are major recipes for stress, anxiety, depression, and addictive behaviors.”
While I don’t think meditation is going to save the rainforest, I think some quiet reflection certainly couldn’t hurt, individual-happiness-wise—especially considering that our culture is so disorienting and loud and cluttered with the insignificant. I myself meditate once a week, and mostly it’s a restful hour spent reminding myself that things are okay, relatively speaking.
After a solid two or so months of growth, the garden has stalled—which is normal for the Texas Summer; now the game is simply trying to keep everyone alive until the weather turns. Recent storms have ameliorated the struggle, but it’s still going to be a long, hot August. If I can keep half the peppers alive, that will be a triumph. The aloe and other succulents will surely make it.
While the sunflowers have come and gone, and even much of the ground cover is brown, this next month is a good time to invest in building the soil, so I’m adding spent coffee grounds and other organic material, while continuing to water like normal. I will add fish skins, once I finally get around to cooking fish (when it’s this overwhelmingly hot I just feel like eating bread and fruit, mostly).
“Beware of those in whom the will to punish is strong.”
I thought this week was as good a time as any to pick up Nietzsche again; the rise of Trump’s “law and order campaign” reminded me of Nietzsche’s warnings about just such a danger, i.e. a messianic cult with an insular ideology of restoring some vague past glory while punishing some out-group(s) for soiling it—especially with “Make America great again” sounding so eerily similar (albeit not identical) to the messaging of the National Socialists in the ’30s.
It’s worth noting that there is apparently a correlation between belief in free will and the desire to punish, which I’ve written about here. Of course Nietzsche was critical of both. But what would he say about the RNC? Well let’s see, there’s already been a show trial, complete with a call-and-response “guilty!” chant reminiscent of the Inquisition, a plagiarized speech (about the virtue of hard work, ironically), and the invocation of Lucifer as one of many—and some even more demonized—political enemies (I guess Ben Carson has not read his Voltaire). I think it’s safe to say that Nietzsche would be fairly appalled, although he may have chuckled at the billboard for the movie “God’s Not Dead 2” (I haven’t seen the first one), if it had been posted as planned.
That the fundamentalist Right needs to insist that God is not dead (no show trial for his murderers either, shucks) is, however, an indication that doubt continues to creep in among the ranks of the Crusaders. Nietzsche, were he able to address them, might remind them that most do not have the courage to face what they really know, deep down. And so the circus continues.