The Fate Of Intellectuals

“Two images have been with me throughout the writing of this essay. Between them they seem to show the alternative paths for the intellectual. The one is of John Maynard Keynes, the other of Leon Trotsky. Both were obviously men of attractive personality and great natural gifts. The one the intellectual guardian of the established order, providing new policies and theories of manipulation to keep our society in what he took to be economic trim, and making a personal fortune in the process. The other, outcast as a revolutionary from Russia both under the Tsar and under Stalin, providing throughout his life a defense of human activity, of the powers of conscious and rational human effort. I think of them at the end, Keynes with his peerage, Trotsky with an icepick in his skull. They are the twin lives between which intellectual choice in our society lies.”

— Alasdair MacIntyre, “Breaking The Chains Of Reason” in Out Of Apathy (1960)

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Candace Owens In Minneapolis

It seems that Kanye West is not the only one who loves the way Candace Owens thinks. I and more than 500 other people attended a lecture today put on by the Center Of The American Experiment, a Minneapolis-based think tank. This was a major event, a luncheon that drew a large and energetic crowd at a downtown hotel. The last such event I attended was for a similar topic, also arranged by the Center, when Jason Riley came to discuss his book Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed. Discussing conservatism from the perspective of black Americans and how it offers a superior alternative to liberal thought and policy has long been an interest of mine, but now it seems like it’s becoming somewhat of a mainstream interest just in the last few weeks, thanks mainly to Kanye for bringing it to light, and to Candace for bringing the issue to his attention.

I only became aware of Candace about six weeks ago, when I saw a profile on her from John Stossel shared on Facebook. I was intrigued, I thought that this is a smart, brave young woman, and she seems like a great voice for black people, for youth, and for conservatives in general. I thought “I bet she has a great future,” and immediately put her existence into the back burner of my political thoughts.

Then April happened.

In case you haven’t been on the internet in the last month, Kanye West broke it a couple weeks ago by tweeting a bit of qualified support for Donald Trump. He even dared to follow it up with a criticism of Saint Obama. Worse yet, another famous black rapper made an equally heretical statement that blacks don’t have to vote for Democrats. The left has spent the last two weeks melting down and trying to discredit both Kanye and Candace. To, how shall we say, put them in their place and teach them when to shut up and what they’re allowed to say and believe. Thankfully, neither is the type to do any such thing, and together they seem to be bringing us to what may be a watershed moment in black American politics.

It was with this backdrop that Candace arrived in Minneapolis. Her arrival would have been an “event” in any instance, but considering the absolute perfect timing, it was even more of a sell-out than I believe the Center originally anticipated. I just checked the date of the first invite I received from them about this event, and it was three days before Kanye burned the internet down in April.

Candace started her talk by discussing some of the things that have been said about her recently as she has come into her share of fame and notoriety. Insults about her personality, vile racial slurs, lies about how she grew up etc. She’s been called a white supremacist, a white supremacy apologist, an Uncle Tom, and Alt-Lite, among others. She said that she started to read these stories so that she could learn more about herself, and even made an alert on her phone so she could learn something she didn’t know about herself every day. From the beginning, it was clear that a large part of her charm is that she has a great sense of humor, even about herself. One very salient fact she mentioned is that not a one of these published reporters who smeared her has ever reached out to ask her about her story, and why she believes what she believes.

After starting with the lies people have been telling about her, she dug a bit into the truth of her story and her life. She said that, for example, some people have criticized her as an out of touch rich girl from Connecticut who doesn’t really know the black community. She made it very clear that she came from humble beginnings: “Some people ask me if it’s really true that most of my family was on welfare. It’s not that they were on welfare or have been on welfare, most of my family is on welfare right now.” She estimated that about 80% of her family is on welfare, and said that part of her experience growing up was going to see uncles in prison. She made a point to re-emphasize this, to make it clear that she’s looking at this from the street-level view, and not as an academic or talking head from an ivory tower.

She also discussed her political “awakening,” explaining that when she was younger and less political, she just sort of assumed she was a Democrat, because it was basically the default for her friends, family, and community. Similar to the experience of other black conservatives I’ve listened to and know, and as happened to me personally, when she started to learn more about economics and some of the failed social policies that have contributed to the difficult and impoverished state of much of the black community, she started to lean towards conservatism. She said she’s not even sure if she quite considers herself a Republican, which indicates to me that she’s a deep and serious political thinker, but she at least knows that the principles that appeal to her are conservative. She actually did not spend too much time relating the details of what led her to become conservative, but the general outline was clear.

She continued to relate the story of how she came to be a political commentator. She said that she felt this burning desire to get out there and be part of the conversation when she had her “awakening,” and to, and I love this phrase, “Start a civil war in the black community” in order to empower people individually, to take back black political autonomy so that one party can’t take them for granted, and to generally fight the war of ideas that she so passionately believes must be waged for the sake of black folks. So she quit her job, and decided to start making YouTube videos. Hilarious as always, she prefaced it by saying “I don’t recommend anyone do this, but I quit my job in order to do this full-time.” She said, predictably, that her friends and family thought she was crazy, and even the black Republicans she knew thought she was crazy. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She discussed her rise in popularity in wonderfully vivid and personal terms. She wanted to make short, digestible videos that would capture and hold people’s attention, and learned how to for example make jump cuts to keep the videos interesting. Her first video has become a bit of a modern classic among conservatives (I confess to having heard much about it, but not have watched it until now), but it was one of her posts that soon followed that put her on the map. She said that she posted the video, then took a nap (“I highly recommend taking naps”), and when she woke up it had 20,000 hits. The next day it had 80,000 hits. People were starting to notice her.

Soon thereafter, she was hired by the think tank Turning Point USA, and started to expand her audience and the scope of her videos. She thought it would be a fun idea to got to college campuses and challenge people to change her mind on topics like race and socialism, a la Steven Crowder. As we have seen so much of lately, she encountered a lot of venom and hatred, with white women unironically screaming in her face that she’s a white supremacist, and when she asks why, saying it’s because she supports capitalism. Her group encounters student protests against “white supremacy” when they appear on campus, and generally speaking what she calls “blue-haired white women” try to shame her for being black and conservative. “I don’t know why, but they always have blue hair.”

About half of the talk was about her personal story, and the other half was sort of conservative red meat on race, politics, and economics, discussing her encounters with the left and a lot of the data and history that most of the room was probably pretty familiar with. She discussed the role of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” welfare state in financially incentivizing black mothers not to stay with the fathers of their children, the stark jump in fatherless black families in the sixties from just over 20% to over 70% now, the fact that blacks have been voting over 90% Democrat for decades, so that the party no longer has to actually do anything for black people to compete for their votes, and how they can basically show up every four years to fire up black communities over marginal if not imaginary racial issues to bring out the vote, then go home and forget about them until the next election, etc.

Candace Owns is a major voice for our time that is on her way up. She spoke knowledgeably, forcefully, and with great verve and humor. You can’t help but be disarmed by someone who is highly intelligent, funny, and self-deprecating. One thing that I really like about her is that sense of humor, and the way it helps her interact with her critics, both directly and when talking about their criticism of her. This is a major weakness in both mainstream conservative and wonky libertarian personalities and commentary. Typically, commentators on the right come across as stiff, robotic, or needlessly aggressive when dealing with critics in person or discussing criticism in general. Candace has the brains of the best of them, but has the warmth, humor, and personality of an actual human being, something that has been lacking on the right for some time. She is someone who can discuss ideas with a political “opponent,” and still remain friendly and charming to that person, and to the viewer as well. I think she may be the best talent conservatives have in media at the moment, and her freshness and her background only add to her considerable raw talent. I’m looking forward to learning from her for years to come.

I leave you with a photo that brings together the present and the past of poweful black conservative women. Vive la révolution!

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Against Empathy

Today I attended a very interesting lecture on the topic of empathy. It may seem strange at first blush: what’s to discuss? What’s to even think about? Empathy is good right? Like being kind, generous, forgiving, and generally a good person who treats others well, empathy seems like something we can and should take for granted as a sort of core tenet of life and human interactions, something that we can just accept as a foundation for how we’re supposed to act in the world, without any sort of examination. In fact, to even examine it might not only seem strange, but a bit grotesque and off-putting when brought up as a topic of inquiry.

But in fact, this seemingly innocuous subject and impulse may actually be at the root of many, if not most, of our most intractable social and political problems, and I am only now starting to appreciate this fact.

The topic was first brought to my attention, as many topics are, by author and intellectual Sam Harris. In this episode of his podcast from 2015, Sam interviews Yale psychologist Paul Bloom about the research that led to his 2016 book Against Empathy. Bloom argues that rather than enhance our moral understanding and decision-making, empathy may actually interfere with it, distort it, and even steer it towards unforeseen if not immoral actions and consequences. I will say more about this podcast in a later essay, but for now, let us return to today’s fascinating lecture by Deborah Nelson.

Professor Nelson is a professor of English and chair of the English department at the University of Chicago, where she studies late 20th-century US culture and politics. The local University of Chicago Alumni Association in Minneapolis brought her in to speak about her latest bookTough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil, which “focuses on six women whose work coheres in a style and philosophical viewpoint that challenges the preeminence of empathy as the ethical posture from which to examine pain.” The lecture was advertised as such:

TWIN CITIES HARPER LECTURE: AN UNSENTIMENTAL EDUCATION

Empathy has been receiving a lot of attention recently, its importance urged not only in national politics but also in the workplace, schools, between friends, and among strangers.
But what if we are wrong? What if empathy isn’t what we need, but unsentimentality? This talk by Deborah Nelson describes the ethics and aesthetics of unsentimentality as practiced by some of the late 20th century’s most notable women artists and intellectuals: Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus, Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, and Simone Weil. Drawing upon her recent book, Tough Enough, Nelson will consider what it would mean to have an ethics without empathy even in the face of extreme suffering.

Needless to say, I would find this topic fascinating even if I had not previously discovered it in a podcast. It has a wonderful sense of counter-intuitiveness that seems ripe to make one examine previously unquestioned premises.

Professor Nelson began her lecture with a discussion of the recent popularity of empathy in our news, business, and politics. She showed us a few recent headlines, including an article from the Harvard Business Review entitled Empathy: The Most Valuable Thing They Teach at HBS. A quick search of the HBR turns up a plethora of articles on empathy. Next, she showed a headline from the New York Times addressing president Trump’s first attack on Syria in retaliation for the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians entitled On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came First. [Searching for this, you find that, perhaps a topic worthy of its own discussion, that the New York Times has changed the title of that article, although you can still find the original title here, and a scathing critique of that article here, which I guess indicates some blowback from left wing political circles. Thank you, Internet.] Finally, she showed a headline discussing what is starting to be understood as “empathy fatigue,” a term and analysis I am unfamiliar with, but which makes intuitive sense when you take a few moments to think about the sorts of issues that have dominated our news in the last few years, including but not limited to the refugee crisis, police shootings and Black Lives Matter, and the MeToo movement. Upon reflection, it is apparent how empathy as an analytical tool has taken off as a means to understand our world, and, for better or worse, to reach policy decisions.

Professor Nelson then discussed the genesis of her book, which was to analyze 20th century historical and intellectual figures in the context of an ethic of unsentimentality and their own public controversies with the subject of empathy. She did not set out to write a book solely about women, but she found that it was almost impossible to find a male public intellectual who had been through such a controversy, yet another topic worthy of its own discussion. She weaves the various writings and analyses of these intellectuals with their own personal stories, perhaps ironically drawing our interest in these figures through our own empathy with them.

One extremely interesting foundation of this discussion is the origin of the concept of empathy as an analytical tool and part of our lexicon. Surprisingly, the origins of the word have nothing at all to do with feeling the perspective of another human being. Contrary to intuition, empathy has not always existed as a concept for how to interact charitably with other human beings. Historically, moral philosophers tended to use the words “sympathy” and “compassion” for how to approach treating others with kindness. The term empathy itself came into existence in the 19th century as a scientific term, intended to express literal mirroring of physical states in the natural sciences. As the 20th century emerged, it evolved into yet another meaning with which most of us are probably not familiar, as an aesthetic term used to analyze the quality of art. I’m not quite sure that I understand the exact nature of this use of the word, but from what I gather it was meant to express not a subject-object sensation where the observer feels the perspective of say another person represented artistically, but rather that the art expressed a reality of the object. My understanding is that the word was used as a measure of the quality and truthful representation of the art. In any case, the modern sense of the word “empathy” did not evolve until well after the second world war, taking hold sometime in the 1960s. This historical understanding alone is somewhat revelatory if not revolutionary for our modern understanding, as it demonstrates that empathy is not a fixed and eternal element of our moral understanding and landscape. In fact, not even a very long-existing one. I expect to chew on that alone for some hours in the coming weeks.

In the meat of her discussion, Professor Nelson examined the historical trajectory of our modern concept of empathy, partly by analyzing that modern concept, and partly through exploring some of the details of the lives and work of the women in her book. The overall theme was that these women, each in their own way, took what was probably an unconventional view about moral analysis, in the sense that this sort of work should be done with an ethic of unsentimentality, rather than empathy, for several reasons.

One reason is that empathy, rather than guiding us to proper moral actions and conclusions, can do just the opposite, because the reality of human hard wiring is that we are designed to be empathetic to people who look like us, who are near us, who we find more physically or personally attractive, etc., so that rather than decrease tribalism, it can, and perhaps most often does, increase it. An example would be that one might feel great empathy for the dead and wounded soldiers of one’s own army or country, but little to none for the injured and suffering of one’s enemy, and in fact one’s empathetic intuitions may lead in the opposite direction to antipathy or contempt.

Another reason is simply the fixed limits of our understanding and ability to process the information required to understand the world in an empathetic way. Professor Nelson spoke for some time about the attempt for the world to process the events of World War II, to even find language and concepts for it, let alone to actually understand what had happened. I was not aware, but even going into the 1960s, there was not a robust published body of analysis of the Holocaust, and in fact it was not until the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 that such work began on any scale. Hannah Arendt was not even able to find a publisher for her groundbreaking  work Eichmann In Jerusalem for some time because of a perceived lack of interest. Looking back, it seems almost appalling that the world could go more than a decade without seriously examining the Holocaust, but perhaps this expectation that we would have now of an immediate dissection of this issue reflects how hard it is for us to understand the enormity of this catastrophe for those living in that time. How do you process the scale of the deaths of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands dying in a single day or in one attack, let alone tens of millions dying in the totality of the war? Which brings us back to the limits of empathy, even in its best case, its best use, its best outcomes, and its best intentions. We simply do not have the mental machinery to process empathy on a scale of more than a handful of people, let alone for any truly important and tragic event. Or, as someone once said: “One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic.”

In light of the problems with and limits of empathy, it’s a compelling point that perhaps our moral philosophy should be guided by unsentimentality rather than empathy. Professor Nelson examined how her subjects strove to understand the world and morality through an understanding of facts that we can know with our senses and analyze abstractly, rather than with emotional connections to the people we wish to help or wish we could have helped. In doing so, these women received their share of criticism, which I suspect would very likely happen to anyone making such an argument today, whatever their gender or identity.

This was an excellent lecture, and I can’t wait to buy the book. One quote that I found interesting at the end of the lecture was from one of Professor Nelson’s subjects saying something along the lines that “Pain shows us the limits of ourselves.” In other words, pain tells us that we are not the world, that reality and other people exist beyond us, and that there are limits to not only our selves, but our impact on the world. I can’t imagine a more unsentimental note to end on, and I encourage you to find a copy of her book and see what it can teach you for your own understanding of morality.