New Year Musings

by Daniel A. Kaufman

The New Year has always struck me as a time not for resolutions, but for musings.  Here are some from this New Year, in the order in which they occurred to me.


  1. The future is not very futuristic. One can drive down significant stretches of road – even in densely populated urban and suburban areas – and see no indication of whether it’s 2018 or 1980.  This would not have been true had one driven down such a street in 1980 and thought about what it would have looked like in 1942.
  2. American politics is no longer even marginally about ideas, but about the hatred that the different portions of the country feel towards one another. Trump didn’t cause this.  He is a manifestation of it.
  3. For the first time – at least since the beginning of the industrial era – we have generations of young people who care less about freedom than their elders do. This is unnatural and bodes ill for us.
  4. The ubiquity of smart phones and the almost complete absence of a space program suggests that we are shallow, unimaginative, and self-absorbed.
  5. That people in wealthy, modern, industrial nations no longer have the desire to reproduce is evidence of very deep social and cultural rot; a bizarre combination of narcissism and self-hatred.
  6. It now seems imaginable that (in the developed world) we could reach the point that men and women no longer will want to live together, as part of a single society.
  7. Doublethink is now necessary to navigate virtually every part of our lives.
  8. We are simultaneously the most depressed we’ve ever been and the most obsessed with healthy living. This indicates a deep confusion.
  9. Professional, academic philosophy will either be captured by its social justice wing or descend even further than it already has into scientistic irrelevance. Or it may continue as it is, with each of these elements simply becoming more pronounced and extreme.  Regardless, it will not survive.
  10. It seems quite clear that within a generation or two, the humanities and liberal arts will play only the slightest of roles in primary and secondary education and no longer will be a significant part of higher education, other than (perhaps) at the most elite margins. This will do much more to usher in our “post-human” future than anything the transhumanists can dream up.
  11. On rare occasions, fantasy literature imagines that a world of elves and dwarves and magic lies in the distant future, rather than the past; in the wake of some sort of collapse of modern, technological society. Given what seems to be a widespread penchant for magical thinking, in spite of our complete technological immersion, this seems more plausible than the futures imagined by Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.
  12. With the exception of a handful of old-fashioned diners, one can no longer simply walk into an establishment and order a cup of coffee. Watching my elderly parents’ bewilderment as they try to operate their new television makes me realize that one also can no longer simply watch TV.  Our commitment to customization seems to have reached the point of diminishing returns.
  13. How else to describe contemporary social justice activism but as a kind of racket? Progress, no matter how great, never results in a reduction of attention, energy, or resources.  Indeed, all three are increasing rapidly, even at a time when the social and economic condition of minorities and women is the best it’s been, since concern with such matters began.
  14. The enthusiasm and ease with which we have embraced the simulacra of human relationships that social media provides shows that we effectively remain Cartesians, in spite of our professed naturalism.
  15. Generation X was the last generation to have anything that reasonably could be called “childhood and adolescence,” as these concepts have been understood since the Second World War.  One result has been that the next generation, the Millennials, have no idea what it means to be an adult.  It may take several generations for these concepts to be redefined in ways that are socially, culturally, economically, and politically viable.  Our institutions, however – at least as they are currently configured – will not be able to wait that long.
  16. A time of disunity and mutual antipathy, such as we live in today, is one in which the liberal consensus is needed more than ever, and yet, the likelihood of our accepting it becomes smaller every day.

Categories: Essay, Essays

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  1. In re: our seemingly unstoppable descent into tribalism: I think Bruckner gets part of the picture here, but only part. He’s right to point out the importance of social comparison, but the connection to victimhood needs more unpacking. He makes the adoption of a victim identity appear to be a coolly calculated attempt at virtue signaling. I think that, in most cases, at least, it’s a lot more reactive than that.

    To claim to be oppressed is, among other things, to claim that the perceived low social status one occupies is undeserved, unfair, the result of a rigged or biased system. A claim of oppression is a claim against the legitimacy of the hierarchy within which one is ranked. This isn’t just the province of SJWs; witness the incessant bleating of the alt-right about “white genocide” and Jewish conspiracies and the women/feminazis they blame for everything wrong with their romantic lives. Most of the noise (especially online) being generated at these extreme political poles is being generated by young people of low perceived status who are desperate for a social reorganization that would see their relative position raised.

    Now, the Marxist will be quick to lay the malaise from which such reactionary movements spring squarely at the foot of Late Capitalism, and increasing economic inequality probably does contribute a good deal of broader status anxiety. But I think there’s more going on. There’s a weird phenomenon studied by psychologists in which comparing ourselves with an individual better off than us has a greater (negative) effect on our self-conception and self-esteem than comparing ourselves with an individual worse off. And there’s a nasty feedback effect here, whereby low self-esteem makes people weight upward comparisons even more, which in turn lowers self-esteem further, and so on.

    This skewed focus on upward comparison targets means that people tend to feel worse about themselves as their group size increases, even if their relative position remains unchanged. Now, think about how the Internet, and social media in particular, has changed the size of our social comparison groups. Think about how many more opportunities for upward comparison it provides compared to when most social groups were highly spatially localized. Consider what additional effects the selective image curation social media allows are likely to have on our perceptions of social rank.

    Actually, the Internet probably isn’t perceived as just one big social group. Rather, it’s innumerably many smaller groups from which we may emigrate on the fly. In the much more local social settings of the past, if we wanted to raise our status we had to either compete within the group’s established value paradigm or invest a lot of time, effort, and resources into physically relocating. No more; if we’re unsatisfied with our position in one group, we can simply pledge ourselves to another more appreciative of our talents. Little wonder millennials seem to lack grit and resiliency. But all these virtual groups now draw from a genuinely global talent pool, with the result being that one is apt to face a large number of upward comparison targets wherever one goes. Whatever your skills and interests, there’s always someone out there better, someone more devoted, and that someone is now easier than ever to find. Little wonder, then, that we’re seeing these passionate calls to either abolish social hierarchy altogether or ossify it into a (personally favorable) race- and gender-based aristocracy.

    This is probably only going to get worse, and the problem would likely persist in either of the post-neoliberal futures the youth seem to be clamoring for. See, the kind of social information that drives this anticompetitive desperation is also the kind of social information we can’t seem to get enough of. It’s worryingly easier to imagine us breaking up with democracy than breaking up with Facebook.


  2. On thinking about this post, I’m reminded of a time perhaps 40 years ago when I remarked to a colleague that things were getting worse than they used to be. His reply: that it is one of the great paradoxes, that things have always been getting worse than they used to be. And yet things are better than they ever were.

    And when I thought about that, I realized that my colleague was right.

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  3. Generally, the people in question are victims, are oppressed or discriminated against, but, as Dan K., says above, they turn it into a racket, a way to blackmail others emotionally, to get special treatment, etc.

    In every family there’s someone who’s is chronically ill and they’re not faking it, but with time they begin to use their illness to blackmail others emotionally, to get special treatment, to become the center of attention. It becomes a racket, so to speak,
    and if another family member has a heart attack in their presence, their only reaction will be to complain about how that inconveniences their sciatica (I have chronic sciatica myself and it can be very painful, but others suffer more).


  4. Neil, I would have said things were getting better up through, roughly, the second Bill Clinton administration. This attitude began to change, with the first Bush administration and the re-emergence of the religious Right as a prominent force on the scene. In a sense, they were the first of the current round of identity politics.

    And certainly *some* things continue to get better. The things in the piece were just what came to mind. Perhaps next year’s musings will have more positive things on them.

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  5. Contra Robin’s continued “Nothing to see here!” posture, victimhood is *certainly* being promoted as a form of empowerment. Indeed, it’s not just I who am saying this. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU points to an important paper by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning that carefully describes the sense in which we’ve become a victim culture. Haidt gives a thorough summary of it (as well as a link) here:

    Now, of course, being a victim isn’t *really* being strong or empowered. The sort of acculturation that is resulting from this victim culture is one that is severely hobbling the younger generations, as well as doing tremendous damage to the society as a whole. So not only is it an example of societal doublethink, it is a particularly insidious one. It is infantilization, and subversion, and incapacitation posing as kindness and support.

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  6. ainsophistry: You are absolutely right about identity politics being an equal opportunity racket. This current round of it was — in my view — started by the re-emergence of the religious right at the time of the first Bush presidency. It’s only in its most current manifestation that it has become a largely left wing phenomenon. And sadly, it is trans activism that currently seems one of the worst incarnations of it.


  7. Dan, thanks for your kind words. The fact of the matter is that I and your other readers are deeply indebted to you for this wonderful tour-bus excursion through the highways and byways of philosophical thought. As the tour guide you have pointed out features of interest; you have patiently explained them; you have guided us to a deeper understanding; you have tolerated our ignorance; and you have ignited our curiosity. When the tour-bus stops at night it feels as if we have only just started and the next morning we are there bright and early, just waiting to get back on the tour-bus. You are the tour guide that never needs to use a megaphone because the clarity of your thought has us leaning forward to catch every word. I am loathe to admit this but you have finally convinced me that all roads lead to Wittgenstein and not Rome, as is commonly thought. You are the best kind of friend, the one who enriches his friends.


  8. Dan

    “Contra Robin’s continued “Nothing to see here!” posture.

    It is hardly a “nothing to see” ,posture.

    I am critiquing your continued “nothing we can do about it” posture.


  9. When Germaine Greer said that transexual males are not women people protested and she initially pulled out of a lecture she was giving at Cardiff University.
    But the university convinced her to change her mind and the lecture went ahead.

    There should be more of that. It is the “acquiesce and complain” attitude that empowers them.


  10. I am still trying to make sense of the ‘victimhood’/’microaggressions’ issue so I forwarded those articles to an insightful young friend studying at the University of Cape Town. This is what she said:-

    I think in my circle of friends we’ve become more thoughtful and considerate since protests started at UCT. The general attitude is “I’m struggling to understand what’s making you unhappy, but clearly something is, and I care about that”

    I think that defines the motivation and the response quite nicely.

    What her response does not capture is the desire to control and the resulting doublethink that is required to reconcile victimhood with the urge to control.


  11. Again I am puzzled about what you disagree with in what I said.

    Do you think that we should simply sit back and let people get away with using claims of victimhood as a political weapon?

    Do you disagree with me that we should take a stand against this, as Germaine Greer did?


  12. Robin: Then you will have to remain puzzled. I’ve been as clear as I can on the subject in the numerous comments I’ve made and have no intention of discussing it anymore. If you continue to push, I will simply deposit the comments in the trash.

    Give it a rest. There are 15 other points to discuss. Or not.


  13. What really is the significance of the new year?

    Answer – we are feedback control loops. Feedback control loops are foundational to all purposive activity. Set a goal, observe performance, detect deviation and send a corrective signal. Without a feedback control loop we quickly drift off course. The more frequent the feedback(the sampling frequency), the closer the control we can exert.

    How frequently should we sample performance? In my company we did performance reviews yearly. In my experience that was hopelessly too long and I shortened that to monthly, with good results. My staff wanted to know how they were doing and how they could improve, long before that all important yearly performance review that set their salaries for the next year.

    When we do new year’s resolutions we are performing a kind of feedback control loop(performance review), and, just as with my staff, the sampling interval is hopelessly too long.

    How often then, should we sample? Too frequently and it is onerous, too seldom and it is ineffective. St. Ignatius de Loyola understood the importance of this and he prescribed that all Jesuit priests should perform a Daily Examen once a day:

    I can tell you from my own experience that this is a hard discipline, that perhaps only Jesuit priests can maintain. For many people once a week, or even perhaps once a month is a good compromise.

    In the next comment is the secular version of the Daily Examen that I practise, somewhat intermittently. I try to do it every day(Massimo, with his Stoic journal, would understand) but I don’t beat myself if I miss some days. After all, I am not a Jesuit!


  14. The secular Daily Examen

    1) Preparation.
    Find a quiet place at the same time every day, open your journal, get your pen ready and light a candle.

    2) Presence of awe and wonder.
    Search your memories of the day for experiences of awe, of a sense of wonder, beauty, significance and meaning. This sets the stage. Write down one memory that is striking.

    3) Review the day.
    Review the events of the day and note them in bullet form. This is the bulk of the exercise.

    4) More of.
    Now ask, in the light of these events, what you should do more of. Note them in bullet form

    5) Less of.
    Think about what you should do less of and note them as well.

    6) Carry on.
    Then note what you should carry on doing.

    7) Gratitude for.
    You have put your day in perspective. You complete this by looking for and noting reasons why you should be grateful.


  15. If I may make one last comment about point 13….

    There is nothing wrong with using victimhood as a political weapon. Martin Luther King did it and Gandhi did it, among others. However, at some point (I’m not clear when) using victimhood as a political weapon becomes a racket, as Dan K. points out: you
    profit more, psychologically, academically, in terms of political power, even financially, from being a victim than from solving the problem. Some of the mechanisms of ressentiment, of the slave revolt in morals, described by Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morality, are certainly apropos here too.

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