New Year Musings

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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2021 was dominated by Covid. But, competing for our attention has been the deepening and hardening of our political divisions, with Trumpers on one fringe, Social Justice lunatics on the other, and the bewildered, seemingly impotent majority of the country in between, wondering what the hell is going on and whether things ever will return to normal.

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[1] You cannot tell people “Get vaccinated!” and then when they do, say, “Sorry, you’re locking down anyway!” This may fly in NYC and LA and a few tony New England enclaves, where people’s conception of acceptable risk is warped by an outsized sense of self-importance, but it won’t anywhere else. Nationwide vaccine mandates and proof-of-vaccination requirements for public indoor spaces are what we must do (and the best we can do), and once we have, we should all get back to normal life, even if it involves some elevated risk.

[2] That the Democrats have become associated with this “Covid Forever War” posture is part of the reason why the Republican party has not collapsed, as it should have, given its complicity with the degenerate Trump. Worse, this ill-conceived pose may very well get Trump re-elected, an irony given that Covid cost Trump the last election.

[3] Like our politics more generally, our pandemic politics have taken on a geography with crazies on the fringes and a bewildered, helpless majority in between. For as bad an idea as the Covid Forever War is, the “What, me worry?” posture adopted by Trumpers and other assorted rightist know nothings in response to Covid has been even worse. The only thing that has saved these regions from utter devastation is their significantly lower population density than places like New York City or Chicago.

[4] In January 2021, I hoped aloud that it would be my last semester teaching online. Well, I did it again this Fall, and I am doing it again in the Spring of 2022, due to my University’s refusal to implement a vaccination mandate on campus. At this point, it is likely I will retire before ever setting foot in a classroom again. This makes me sad, though I was already souring on the job, prior to Covid-19. I am just not the right person to teach the students arriving on college campuses today.

[5] This was the year that my Sophia program, now almost eight years old, was unceremoniously thrown off of MeaningofLife.TV which it had inaugurated. At this point in my life, I already had become so accustomed to betrayal and unprofessional behavior that it didn’t affect me much, and as I wrote at the time, warning signs that the platform was in significant decline were plentiful. One real upside to being independent has been that we no longer need to limit EA’s podcast output, so as to fit in with MOLTV’s schedule.

[6] 2021 saw Kathleen Stock finally driven from Sussex University, by trans activists and their fellow-travelers. It’s all very well to fight the good fight, but when police are advising you to avoid your own place of work and to install CCTV cameras around your house, any sensible person knows it’s time to go. The main price will be paid by the young people whose educations are only going to get worse as sensible types eschew academic careers altogether. I certainly wouldn’t go into academia, if I was starting out today.

[7] Having spent the last several years navigating the senior health care system in the US, I now understand truly just how broken it is. Want to figure out whether a 90-plus year old, dying man is still competent to manage his own affairs? Ask him what year it is and who is President, and that’s it. Want to guarantee that skyrocketing hospital costs continue skyrocketing? Keep releasing and re-admitting the man over and over again, despite knowing he’ll be back in a few weeks. Want to destroy his wife’s capacity to enjoy any part of the remaining bits and morsels of life she might have left? Keep releasing him home, even though you’ve been told a hundred times that the care there is inadequate, and that his refusal to accept adequate home care is the primary cause of her misery.

As with the other of our society’s biggest problems today, the fault lies mainly with a calamitous abdication of responsibility and authority on the part of institutions (in this case, medical ones), fueled by a craven and cynical zeitgeist of “cover your ass at all costs,” which takes on a special significance when the costs are people’s lives.

[8] I wrote last year about the juvenility and stupidity involved in removing historical landmarks, and unsurprisingly, the practice continues apace, as this year will see the removal of the statue of Teddy Roosevelt from the front of the Museum of Natural History in New York City. After all, why would anyone want a monument to the President who doubled the number of America’s National Parks and who is the chief executive most associated with environmental conservation in the country’s history to stand in front of our most famous natural history museum?

Fortunately, the Italians aren’t as stupid or infantile as we are, and as far as I know, there are no plans to remove the Colosseum, Arch of Titus, or Trajan’s Column from their prominent locations in Rome (at least for now).

[9] Though I’ve been working towards this conclusion for some time, it really solidified for me this year: People should get what they ask for. You want to live in some wretched virtual space? Reduce your friend-circles to a bunch of Yes-Man avatars? Try to force everyone to genuflect before your bizarre self-conceptions? Turn the country into a gold-plated, Trumpian nightmare? Dress up in jungle fatigues, arm yourself to the teeth, and walk around like a reject from Soldier of Fortune magazine? Go for it. I’ll tell you that you’re stupid, reckless, etc. I’ll make fun of you (lightheartedly of course). I’ll remind everyone what sane people and life look like. And I’ll vote against you. But I’m not going to argue with you forever in cyberspace or anywhere else or spend much time engaging with you at all.

[10] In the 1960’s, “The Personal is Political” was a common radical slogan and indicated that personal matters like marriage, divorce, abortion, sex roles, etc., have a political dimension. Today, a more apt slogan for radicals and reactionaries alike is that “The Political is Personal,” the idea being that one’s personal life should be governed by one’s political affiliations and commitments. The first was a good idea that was sometimes misapplied, while the latter is a terrible idea with no useful application. 

[11] If I were to have a slogan, it would be something like: “The personal is personal, and the rest can fuck off for the most part.” As I discussed in my recent conversation with Kevin Currie Knight, I find myself less inclined to argue with or interrogate my political and “cultural” opponents and more interested in reflecting on what life and culture and politics looked like when the prevailing zeitgeist was healthier and more vibrant. This is for a number of reasons. For one thing, I have softened substantially as I have settled into middle age and no longer relish in fighting, as I used to. For another, experience has taught me that argument rarely works, regardless of what philosophers might like to think. And finally, as I just said, people should get what they ask for.

[12] This doesn’t mean that I won’t take positions or participate in political battles here and there (my most recent one involved organizing the Open Letter, where I and a number of signatories made the case for academic freedom and defended Kathleen Stock against those who sought to defame and destroy her), but rather that in my writing, I have come to prefer showing over telling.

[13] Wittgenstein famously told us not to say that something must be such-and-such, but rather, to look and see whether in fact it is. In a related spirit, rather than trying to explain why our worse cultural and political derangements are derangements or find some argument that will convince the deranged to cease deranging, I prefer to point and show and compare and remind so that others can “look and see” the derangements for the things they are and decide whether they wish to tolerate them or not.

[14] A lot of my writing recently has been concerned with the demarcation of the obligatory and the supererogatory and what we owe to strangers as opposed to our intimates. But my main interest in this subject goes back to the question of the personal and the political. Consider the incessant, bizarre demands that people think it appropriate (and even normative) to make of people whom they don’t know and the harsh punishments they mete out to those who won’t accede. Only the thought that a total stranger owes you a hell of a lot could make sense of behavior like this, and to think this is to mistake what it would be nice if people did (the supererogatory) with what people owe you (the obligatory). (I wrote about this not too long ago in “Caring and Catering.”)

[15] I just found out that Joan Didion has died. She was one of the finest stylists, essayists, and social critics of the last century and an enormous influence on my writing and thinking. Her brand of essentially non-ideological, clear, unsentimental, and unflinching criticism is exactly what our country needs right now but is least likely to get. I wrote about Didion and her influence on me here.

[16] I’ve quoted this before, but it is among my favorite passages by Didion (from “On the Morning after the Sixties,” which is in The White Album (1979)):

We were that generation called “silent,” but we were silent neither, as some thought, because we shared the period’s official optimism nor, as others thought, because we feared its official repression. We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man’s fate. 

I wrote about personal emptiness and the way in which it produces a deformed politics here. The most relevant passage is the penultimate one, in which I said:

With that precondition [of a gratifying personal life] no longer met, our need to feel that our lives are significant in some meaningful sense remains unsatisfied, so we seek fulfillment publicly, politically and by way of the law. The person who has no real friends enlists the power of the state to compel others to act as if they were his friends. The person who finds himself unfulfilled by the identities he has embraced appeals to the law to force everyone to genuflect before them. The person who is frustrated by the impotency and ineffectualness that follows from a lack of investment in real people or causes will bolster himself by joining in professional ruination, public ostracizing, and all the other mobbish behaviors that currently fall under the banner of “canceling.”

40 comments

  1. They don’t ask seniors to carry out simple mental operations as proof of their competence?

    They asked me (in Chilean public health service) to subtract 7 in my head from a number they gave me, say, 93, and then keep subtracting 7 from the result, 86 and then from the result of that operation, 79, until reaching negative numbers, etc. That seemed like a better test. They also asked me to spell my name and last name, my age, my ID number, what month it is, what date it is, what day of the week it is, etc.

      1. Sometimes even when there is no severe cognitive decline, there are certain personality changes.

        My mother lived to 101, read the NY Times every day, played cards with my sister and cheated.

        She at some point realized that she could buy whatever she pleased in internet and began to buy luxury goods which she didn’t need. She arbitarily fired very nice people which the family hired to care for her and insisted on retaining a woman who was obviously stealing from her.

        I guess patience is the key. You can’t institutionalize a person against their will for spending a fortune on luxury handbags and shoes.

        1. I’m not sure I understand the relevance of this to what I wrote. Surely, you don’t think whether a 90 year old woman with dementia is able to spend her last years comfortably or not is a matter of being “patient” with the person who is making it impossible for her?

          1. My point, which maybe I should have made more explicit above, is that often in very old people who are not technically senile in the cognitive sense, there are certain personalities changes, which make them hard to live with or to be around. That was the case with my mother, although not with my father who died at 97, more or less the same person as he was at 45, although more mellow, less aggressive.

            However, I don’t know what can be done about that if they do not voluntarily want to enter a care home or institution.

            I don’t know the details of the case of your father and it was probably a mistake on my part to offer an analogy, but then again if you post publicly about your parents’ situation, you have to expect that there will be well-intentioned, but “irrelevant” comments about it. I will not make the same mistake again.

          2. Not at all, I just didn’t understand. No problem at all with your comment!

            In this case, there is undoubtable serious mental decline. The trouble is, they have no real interest in finding it, as it then puts them in a position of responsibility, when they’d rather just dump the case back onto the family.

  2. Always good to read your thinking Dan.
    On #1, #2 and #3 with COVID issues I doubt we will get to vaccination mandates and proof-of-vaccination for public indoor spaces which is clearly needed IMHO. I live in Florida. Governor DeSantis and his type will never allow it. Why we have laws against that here in Florida enacted this year at the request of DeSantis. As for Trump…let’s see if he lives to run in 2024 first since he does not lead a healthy lifestyle. DeSantis would be a much smarter and skillful Trump then see what happens in the USA is my concern.
    On #4: I sure understand why you would retire from teaching.
    On #5: I am glad you still comment on BHTV at times. Why the comments section is often much better than the videos which you help create with your comments. Bob does admit he is not perfect in his latest show with the priest at the very end.
    On #6: and Kathleen Stock. Sad situation and a good call on her part. I am sure she will be in a great place at the new University of Austin.
    On #7: Been there and done that with my parent about 10 years ago. Bad enough to watch it happening to a parent and the family. I could not get the doctor to pull her driver’s license. Finally, it stopped after she had a major traffic crash she caused that injured two other people and totaled their car. I am now at the age that I am next to enter the belly of that beast at a time when it is least prepared to deal with all us early Baby Boomers.
    On #8: I don’t have a problem with how Teddy’s removal happened with all the parties agreeing with shall I say due process and a relocation to what they considered a more appropriate location. See this article for example: https://abcnews.go.com/US/problematic-roosevelt-statue-american-museum-natural-history-finds/story?id=81300006 I would prefer in some other situations for the statue to remain with some method of presenting the “rest of the story” or the “other side of the coin” way. Here in Orlando (a Democratic stronghold in FL) our huge Jim Crow era statue of a Confederate Soldier very prominently displayed in our downtown park with a lake was removed and will be placed in the section of the city owned cemetery in the Confederate soldiers burial section. All was done with due process if you will.
    On #9: ditto
    On # 10, 11, 12 and 13: ditto I might add: “Your personality predicts how happy your marriage is, how much professional success you have, and when you will die. These predictions aren’t based on one or two small studies of a few people or a few outcomes. Hundreds of studies across multiple countries involving hundreds of thousands of people find that personality reliably predicts important life experiences and outcomes ranging from religious beliefs to depression to political affiliation.”
    See the whole article here: https://bigthink.com/neuropsych/big-five-personality-change/?utm_source=mailchimp&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=weeklynewsletter
    No comment on the rest really. After all I have said too much already probably ;-).

    1. These weren’t predictions, so I’m not sure I understand the first point. I was simply saying what *needs* to happen, not what will happen.

      As for the statue, my dislike for this trend has nothing to do with people’s “agreement” or lack thereof, but rather with how mature, serious, emotionally sound people deal with their national and historical monuments. No amount of “agreement” would make removing the Arch of Titus because of “offense” any better of an idea.

  3. I think everyone should get vaccinated, but I haven’t seen any good science on how vaccination relates to transmission with the newer variants. My sense is there may be some reduction of transmission related to vaccination for the Delta variant, but vaccination seems to have little impact on transmission of omicron.

    No doubt vaccination lessens severe illness and that’s reason enough for all those expect the small sample who have real immune reasons not to do so. I’m not sure thats enough reason for a mandate at this stage (I go back & forth on this one).

    What I think is really missing at this stage is massive scale capacity for rapid testing, and that is another true failure of our response.

    1. The fact that you don’t know the answer to what any reasonable person would consider a necessary, logical and basic question about vaccine efficacy and viral transmissibility, tells you the deplorable and unforgivable failure and state of affairs in communicating to the public at large pertinent information needed to combat this pandemic.

      At a minimum, there should be a nationwide update once a week, bringing the public the latest known comprehensive information and status about Covid with recommendations and encouragement to combat the disease.

      Poor communications will truly be one of the hallmarks of stupidity of this crisis. The current piecemeal, scattergun approach only sows miss information and confusion.

  4. The “deepening and hardening of political divisions” in our time is astonishing, at least to me. I find myself obsessed with the question: What caused this? What brought us to this point? Do you find yourself wondering that? Do you have thoughts about it? It’s obviously an empirical question, and the answer is probably very complicated. But with that said, I find some of Peter Turchin’s hypotheses somewhat plausible, especially his emphasis on the overproduction of elite professions, which has certainly happened in our own discipline.

  5. Dan, great recapitulation and retrospective on the past year and your considered thoughts about it. Pretty much in agreement, with some quibbles similar to henryharlow’s.

    Short of a de facto civil war or a killer asteroid it’s hard to imagine that the coming year will not be an improvement over the last. A hopeful and Happy New Year.

  6. “We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man’s fate. ”

    Absolutely! The idea that we should find personal ‘happiness’ in a political philosophy is absurd.In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. A recent Axios poll found that young Democrats are far more likely to reject others based on their political views. For example, 71% of Dems wouldn’t go on a date with someone with opposing views versus 31% of Republicans. This indicates to me that many people rely heavily on what is perceived to be socially acceptable and that they in fact order their lives based on this perception. Interestingly, Republicans are less inclined towards this error.

    I would question Didion’s suggestion that meaninglessness is man’s collective fate. Existentialist and postmodernist thinking has contributed mightily to that empty view. However, taking this materialist point of view to its logical conclusion opens the gates of personal transcendence: the universe exists within each of us. To me this means that it is up to the individual to make sense of it all. The efforts of everyone in this regards should be respected. There should be encouragement of diversity. (Someone please alert the woke mob.)

    Happy New Year!

  7. “I am just not the right person to teach the students arriving on college campuses today.”

    That evoked a wave of sad recognition. My third son is entering college next year. I would want him to have teachers like you, but that seems hopelessly unlikely.

    1. I’m certainly not happy about it, as I am still relatively young.

      I started feeling this way, around the time I published the OK Boomer! piece. I realized, then, that I was beginning to feel contempt for my students. One cannot properly and rightly teach young people in that mindset, so it is best I go. I think you can even feel that energy in the essay, even if I didn’t quite realize it at the time.

      https://theelectricagora.com/2019/11/08/ok-boomer/

    2. Also, my daughter is college aged, so I entirely understand your sentiment.

      I would have been much better off, had my career started 20 years earlier. Indeed, there are many times, when I wish my *life* itself had started 20 years earlier. That’s how much I dislike the current zeitgeist. I’d rather not be here for it.

      1. Those twenty years would have made a great difference. Universities were still governed by their faculties. Philosophy courses and humanities classes of all kinds were packed. Among a corps of students, political struggles supplemented rather than supplanted the personal struggle for knowledge and understanding.

        The losses have left the cultural environment unrecognizable. It’s hard to see how it recovers.

        1. It will not recover. Look at the wasteland that is popular culture, and think about how fast it happened.

          I think we are in for an extended “dark ages.” A kind of mini/cultural Harry Seldon moment. Once our young people decided to submit to the tech companies and allow them to manipulate their naturally revolutionary instincts [directing them against virtual enemies on matters of little to no importance, so as to keep them distracted from real, material concerns], it assured that we would not get the generational renewal that we rely upon to keep our culture healthy and vibrant.

          I don’t expect, in my lifetime, that culture will return to anywhere near where it once was.

          1. History plays tricks on us.

            If you just hang in there long enough, you’ll most probably come back into fashion with the next generation of young people.

          2. At last a glimmer of hope. When does the old generation not bemoan the inadequacies of the new?

  8. (6) is completely false and you know it. Kathleen Stock wasn’t “driven” from Sussex University at all, she voluntarily resigned, despite the administration wanting her to stay. The police did an investigation and found no reason to charge anyone for anything. The suggestion of CCTV cameras is standard UK police advice to anyone who is paranoid.
    I really wish you would stop peddling this lunatic anti-trans conspiracy theory about Kathleen Stock. The facts of the matter are available to anyone with an internet connection.

    1. “Driven” into resignation. Hardly an ambiguity. In fact I took your advice and did a search and that was the overwhelming consensus.

      Who is to judge another’s threshold and forbearance in a hostile work environment even with the benefit of institutional support?

      And please don’t conflate being anti hate mob of some trans activists with being anti trans. It smells just as bad as Israeli political detractors being called antiSemitic.

      1. The overwhelming consensus among whom? Stock supporters obviously. I suggest you avail yourself of the actual facts, some of which I’ve already mentioned.

        If Stock is so fragile that she can’t handle any criticism, then perhaps she’s in the wrong profession. Whatever “hostile’ environment that may have existed was of her own making, given the fact she threatened to launch lawsuits against the Sussex student newspaper, along with some students, and also suppressed an essay by Katie Tobin in the newspaper, while the University threatened to reveal personal information about Tobin if she talked about it. Just the first (2018) in a long line of examples I could cite spanning three years.

        And Kaufman has a long history of siding against any and all trans activists whenever there’s a conflict. So absence any evidence to the contrary, the conflation seems warranted.

          1. What trans rights am I against?

            Before you answer, remember that just because someone says something is a right doesn’t make it one.

            It’s depressing that of all the things I wrote about in my New Year musings, this is the one that people have decided to fixate on. Not that it’s surprising in the slightest. Just depressing as hell and reinforces many of the other things I said in the Musings.

          2. I wrote that very fast and in your defense, as is obvious.

            How do we define what is “really” a right?

            I have no idea. I could say community standards, but you could put out that community standards change and that what was the community standard in 1956 is no longer the community standard.

            I’d say that you are not in favor of certain trans rights, as defined by many philosophers. There is no way of ascertaining whether they are “really” trans rights or if the phrase “really trans rights” makes any sense at all.

            You might do a post on what constitutes a right.

          3. I would say trans rights are indistinguishable from human rights. But only a fool doesn’t understand that whenever there is a conflict within the hierarchy of competing rights there has to be deliberative compromise. And therein lies the rub.

        1. First, let me clarify by what I meant by consensus. I merely meant to convey the simple fact that all reportage on the matter distinctly confirmed that there was no question that Stock willingly resigned and wasn’t fired. So, Dan nor anyone else was implying the opposite.

          As to the rest of your well intentioned ,if emotionally influenced, reservations on the entirety of the unfortunate sage of who’s to blame and who was the culpable instigator, let’s lay the cards on the table. You know that this trans issue is fraught with many problems stemming from a large social shift in perception and acceptance which has unfortunately been severely aggravated by unreasonableness on both extremes. One, including Stock, Dan and even myself, can hardly mutter an opinion without being lambasted for crossing some arbitrary line of acceptable dogma and purity. Every damn thing the extreme trans activists propose, want. expect and willing to accept without reservation or question are by any objective standard, not the only gospel out there.

          I’ve gone head to head with Dan on our varying considerations and degree of how best to integrate trans people into a sensitive and welcoming society. Dan has stated clearly, albeit with some reasonable reservations about public spaces and sports that, to put it bluntly, he could care less if someone wants to sit in a corner and call themselves a potted plant; they should be treated kindly and offered all the social amenities and rights under the law, free of discrimination and harassment.

          To be succinct and to get to the heart of the matter, the trans community doesn’t have the corner on the truth. Those that think they do are only alienating potential allies and doing a disservice to their own cause. I don’t mean to end this reply on a sour note but, let me once again iterate, that you have absolutely no right to judge or suggest how someone should feel or react to a lynch mob figuratively banging on their office door. If Stock is evidentially wrong on some of her pronouncements (that obviously represent a plurality of wider opinion) then tear them down with facts, reason and civil debate and not by rote persecution. Viva individual human expression of self and, of free inquiry and speech. They should not be mutually exclusive.

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