A bit of advice on writing pro-marriage articles

There’s a piece to be written about how pro-marriage articles use the same over-selling tactics used in pandemic public health initiatives, with the same predictable pushback. People want the truth, and truth is often complicated in the real world. It’s my contention that when you oversimplify the narrative because you fear what will happen if people know the whole truth, you are doing greater harm to your cause than you would have by simply admitting the messy reality.

The biggest example of this problem during the pandemic came from messaging around masks: government officials deliberately lied to the people because they wanted to manipulate the outcome, but the loss of trust occasioned by the overt lie meant that the public was less responsive to every other health message which came out afterward. You know, a totally predictable response to being manipulated by lies.

Back to pro-marriage articles. The short version of what I want to say is: please don’t use manipulative rhetoric to oversell your point. I am (contra quite a few of my friends) in general quite in favor of people marrying and starting families young. I think it lines up with biology and nature much better than late marriage (23 year olds are much better at dealing with sleep deprivation than 33 year olds, so it makes more sense to have babies when you’re 23 than 33, if you can help it). I’m also 35, unmarried with no prospects, so this is advice I cannot take myself.

Being pro-early-marriage, I am in general sympathetic to the aim of articles like this one, which was shared on twitter a couple weeks ago: https://ifstudies.org/blog/stop-hedging-start-marrying

I am in general agreement with passages like this:

[Delayed marriage] creates a hyper-individualistic, hyper-mobile, hyper-liquid workforce willing to spend 12 hours a day in the office and spend disposable income on individually tailored lifestyles. But it’s also contributing to less desirable phenomena, including our crashing birth rate, housing crisis, and epidemic loneliness.

The deferral of marriage also contributes to the soaring number of young people who will never have children—many with a profound sense of grief….rising numbers of women today will remain unwillingly childless.

It’s easy to blame this, as conservative tabloids often do, on “selfish career women”—but the reality is more complex and more endemic. Gestation is something like a state of symbiosis, and the way it concretises the limits to individual human freedom so radically contradicts the liberal narrative that motherhood as such has to be swept under the carpet, or treated at best as a punishment, or a problem to be solved. We can only be good mothers by failing as atomised subjects. So inasmuch as the wider culture encourages us to be atomised subjects, it can’t help but discourage us from being mothers.

I appreciate that this author points out how our our current economic culture has an interest in making each worker a replaceable individual, ready to move across the country at the drop of a hat; I love that she points out the long-term consequences, especially the unwilling childlessness of many women.

On the other hand, passages like this make me want to pull my hair out:

[F]or adult life, marriage isn’t an end state so much as an enabling condition…. Once I did make that commitment…all the things that were missing from my life suddenly became possible, as if by magic. A permanent home; more stable employment; children; even, imperceptibly, something I thought I was psychologically incapable of: a sense of belonging to a place.

Young people…see marriage as the icing on the cake, rather than its raw ingredients…

Why does the author imply that marriage is the only way to live a fulfilled adult life? The piece as a whole is written in a tenor which contrasts single life — necessarily, it seems, a lonely, sad, unfulfilled existence antagonistic to human flourishing — with the married state: fulfilled, warm, wholistic, an environment in which human beings can finally flourish.

The phrase “we have a tendency as a culture” is dangerously general, often unprovable and instinctive, more an indication of the speaker’s experience than anything else; I use it here knowing those dangers: I think we have, as a culture, failed to praise good things enough. We have overcompensated for an earlier generation’s idealization of marriage and family by speaking about the risks and dangers and difficulties too much. In that light, I absolutely support more articles talking about the good of marriage and children. I just want them not to lie. Marriage is not the only possible environment for human flourishing; implying otherwise is more likely to erode public confidence in those who promote marriage by such arguments.

If you want an alternative, may I suggest imitating Alastair Roberts, who wrote a casual answer on CuriousCat a few years ago which remains, to my mind, one of the most honest and sympathetic addresses to those who are unwillingly single I have ever read. I’ve quoted it before.

Phil Christman Appreciation Day

I hereby declare today to be Phil Christman Appreciation Day.

I am doing this mostly because I want to share this paragraph from his recent piece for The Hedgehog Review, “The Strange Underneath of Middlebrow“:

In the classroom, I take things I love and adapt them. I abridge them. I simplify. I commit the heresy of paraphrase. I make comparisons and explanatory analogies at which specialists would wince. I make reading lists, which always leave somebody important out—whether I cut Thoreau to make room for Harriet Jacobs (a stunningly vivid and economical writer) or the other way around. I find the right level of oversimplification for my audience, I go directly to it, and then, by degrees, I retreat from it, inviting students to follow me into greater complexity. I never stop worrying that I have replaced my subject with a slightly stupider changeling. It just goes with the territory.

“I never stop worrying that I have replaced my subject with a slightly stupider changeling.” What an amazing sentence; only a teacher could have written it, I think, and only one as adept as Christman at sketching the interior life could have done the job so incisively.

His Patreon is, right now, where he is chronicling his trek through the entire works of Willam AND Henry James. His most recent installment included a description of “college English teachers . . . unduly given to shocking the mom in their heads”. I loved that installment, which was about one of the novels that Christman didn’t even think was particularly good (The Tragic Muse), because he used it to point out how James’s novels don’t ignore sex: they just don’t pay it all that much attention because it’s not what James regards as the most interesting part of human life. I’m not saying it as well as he did—go subscribe and read it for yourself.

“I find the right level of oversimplification for my audience, I go directly to it, and then, by degrees, I retreat from it, inviting students to follow me into greater complexity.” This has been stuck in my head ever since I read it; I’ve reminded myself of it before every class. It comforts me when I confront my imposter syndrome, when I worry that doing a comedy french accent while talking about Tocqueville degrades him somehow, when I compare how I talk in class to how I write and worry that I’ve become double-minded.

*The header image for this post is from the cover of Christman’s first book , which I am working my way through as a treat between spurts of dissertation writing.

A note of thanks

Thank you to all the small Youtube channels that upload very detailed descriptions of how to do repairs on specific car models. Thank you especially to the man who made a video about how to jump start your 2nd generation Prius, which I had to do on a Friday afternoon a couple months ago. And thank you to the other man who made a video about how to replace the license plate bulb, because there’s no way I would ever have figured that out on my own and because he pointed out solutions to a few very specific problem areas that I ran into.

Modern dentistry is one reason we don’t want to go back to prior ages. Car repair Youtube is another, I’d say. I remember my dad squinting at xeroxed copies of manuals from the public library as he tried to figure out how to replace door handles or window mechanisms, whereas I just have to run a quick search on my pocket mini-computer and I can find an entire database of helpful information.

Tales of academic horror: Papyrus Edition

If you haven’t followed the Obbink papyrus scandal, you’ll want to read this article from the Atlantic that details just about everything you would want to know. I became aware of it in 2018, when rumors about the “First Century Mark” fragment started to swirl, and I’ve checked in a couple times a year since to see what the update is.

I just discovered that last summer, the Atlantic published a comprehensive account of the whole situation.

As Carroll and Pattengale stood to leave, Obbink called to them, as if stopped by a stray thought. “Well, wait a minute,” he said. “I have something here you might be interested in.” He padded behind the pool table and opened a manila folder.

Inside, in plastic sleeves, were ancient pieces from each of the four New Testament Gospels. Obbink tweezed out a fragment of Mark—a small, hatchet-shaped papyrus with verses from the gospel’s first chapter—for his visitors to see. The shape and strokes of certain letters, he explained, were hallmarks of first-century handwriting. Obbink described the fragment as part of a “family collection” and, according to Carroll, “offered it for consideration” for Hobby Lobby to buy.

Pattengale felt momentarily paralyzed, while Carroll paced the room, delirious. Everything they’d worked on up to that point seemed to suddenly pale.

When Pattengale flew home to Indiana the next day, “I told my wife, Cindy, ‘If this proves to be first-century, I may be involved in researching one of the most important pieces of the Bible ever discovered.’ ”

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/museum-of-the-bible-obbink-gospel-of-mark/610576/

Of course, it was too good to be true. From what I understand, the allegation is that Prof. Obbink stole fragments from the collection he was publishing at Oxford. It’s the sort of thing that you imagine happening in a book by Donna Tartt, not in real life.

If you want a couple older sources, here is the fullest account I had in hand a year ago and here is a statement by the Egypt Exploration Society, which actually owns the papyri in question.

Ok, fine, just one hot take

Notwithstanding my strong dislike of hot takes, I do want to share an excerpt from my “outbox” (except it’s not from email, it’s from chats with my friend in Idaho) about the TX power outage situation:

There’s one thing I think really needs to happen: existing regulations about winterizing need to be enforced with stiff penalties. Apparently in 2011 there was a big outage on Super Bowl weekend, and as a consequence there were a lot of regulations passed about how different plants were supposed to have winterizing plans in place. But it sounds like enforcement of those regulations has been very lax. “Oh you filed a plan, yay, that’s all we need, we won’t follow up and see if you actually FOLLOWED the plan”

So basically, what I think we need is anybody who didn’t actually follow the plan they already were supposed to file should be hit with a pretty stiff penalty. And ideally (although this will never happen) those penalties should go into a fund that will pay out to people who were harmed by the blackouts.

What will really happen, of course, is that the electricity companies will say that they have no money to pay the fines, because they spent so much on repairs etc. and lost revenue and high wholesale prices during the blackout, and legislators will say “Oh, dear, you’re right, poor things, well, just make sure you follow those plans in future, mmmkay?” or even “Well, in FUTURE you’ll have to file extra-special-detailed plans!”

(If you want a couple good articles, this one from the Texas Tribune explaining how close we were to a much bigger disaster was very helpful. Knowing how quickly decisions had to be made helps soften the anger behind questions like the ones raised in this article, which I think can still be asked without ire).

Leon Kass on the book of Exodus

I know we’re all weary of Zoom events and participating “virtually” (which usually conforms more to the OED II.4.a entry, “supposed, imagined,” than to anything approaching reality). But I signed up for an event a couple weeks ago that was actually really worth it, and I’ve been meaning to share it with you: Leon Kass being interviewed by Yuval Levin about his recent book on Exodus. It’s worth an hour of your time.

Slowing down

I am intensely averse to providing hot takes; this is hard for me, a person whose chosen field is politics, because it feels so often like I’m missing any chance to be relevant if I don’t hop on board the train as it whizzes past the station. But I can’t bring myself to do it.

Which is why I was glad to see this piece, whose author backs me up:

[E]ven when I squint and see how [truth and justice] enter at least proximately into the incident, it is not clear to me what my being outraged would accomplish. If anything, one suspects that by expressing my own anger, I would be giving tacit assent to the modish outrage that seems to be the only means by which we have public conversations in this country.

Matthew Walther, “On Sitting out the New Culture Wars

Some predictions

I’ve been reading Unbinding Prometheus by Donald Cowan in preparation for the seminars being hosted by one of my employers on campus. It’s amazing how prescient Cowan was on some things, and how far off he was on others.

I can’t remember where I read this, but somebody once observed that the pace of technological change has slowed d r a m a t i c a l l y in the last 50 years, compared to the two or three 50 year periods before that. Cowan notes the same trend, but interestingly draws his anecdotes from sports:

What I am proposing then is not an increasing tempo of technological innovation, but a decreasing one—a substantially zero growth in new devices. . . . the urge for innovation in material things will be over before the turn of the century. . .

In seeking an example for the cessation of innovations, one could point to sports. The great games as we know them were invented in a relatively short period; no new games have since appeared. Our imaginations do not turn to new games. In my idle reflective moments, whenever I decide to invent a new game, putting in all the desirable traits, the game I come up with is football. . . .

Why the decline in innovation? Fundamental changes have stopped because the games are adequate to our desires. We might maintain that a certain level of satisfaction has been reached — a fullness of form, as Aristotle said in describing the development of tragedy. . . . What I am saying is that by analogy the presently conceivable technological innovations are likely to take the same path of brilliant innovation and then solidification: to bring us to a level of satisfaction that will remove the urge for inventiveness.

Unbinding Prometheus, 29

Cowan similarly says earlier in the essay that we are entering a “leveling-off” period, especially with regard to population. I’m not sure if this is true, but it feels close to right.

We are leveling off toward a stable population in this country. . . . we could accommodate a much larger population. But the style, the mood, the sense of destiny has changed. Actually, it changed quite a few years back, before the present enthusiasm for population control and ecological constraints were underway. With the change of style a leveling off has been inevitable. And the consequent stability will bring new problems of instability, for which we are manifestly unprepared. For the problems of operating a growing society are as different from those of managing a static population as riding a bicycle is from balancing on one standing still.

Unbinding Prometheus, 27

Sometimes, Cowan is almost right:

The communications-handling tools will be well-developed—all the optical and electromagnetic devises, which will diminish material transport will be well in hand, and the mini-computer will be as common, even in the home, as a telephone. These devices will simplify rather than complicate life and when perfected will become essentially invisible. They will be used but not noticed in the ordinary course of events, serving the operation of society but not dictating its choices.

Unbinding Prometheus, 28

I wonder if he means by “these devices will simplify life” and “they will not dictate society’s choices” something other than the plain meaning I (and you, probably) ascribe to them. It seems risible to imagine our ubiquitous mini-computers as simplifying life, but I imagine that possibly he had a much more material understanding of “simple” or “complex”. Life certainly feels like I have more distractions available to me now than I would have if I were living 100 years ago, and the omni-crisis with its concomitant expansion of possible futures certainly makes life feel more complex, but I wonder if that was the sort of complexity Cowan really meant.

It seems like a sort of naïve optimism to say that these new devices will serve the operation of society without dictating its choices, but if we separate the content that is delivered through our phones from the devices themselves, it does seem like (maybe) the device has become invisible and only does what society wants rather than shaping it. I feel unqualified to analyze this question, but it reminds me to go read Alan Jacobs’s essay in The New Atlantis when I get a chance.