Idle Moments

This week from The Signal

No More Vacations From History
How did things get so tough for democracy around the world?

Should You Stay or Should You Go?
The evolution of urban life in the pandemic

The Island of Lost Republicans
Was Trump an extinction event for American conservatism?

They Don’t Have to Be Monsters
How to stop Google and Facebook from wrecking the digital environment


The Cult of Now

What’s wrong with judging everything from the standards of the moment?

The Signal

The concept of datedness contains within it a judgment, namely that the thing in question is aesthetically as well as morally passé. Datedness isnt a new concept. But its meaning appears to be shifted significantly in recent years, coalescing around the idea that the past was racist, sexist, transphobic, etc., to the point that any longing for earlier eras, or any appreciation of art from those times, is suspect. Schools and parents look to shield children from classic books that might offend or upset. Even for adults, declaring a lack of interest in old movies can be an assertion of heightened sensitivity to the sea of offensiveness that is the past. The cultural climate is such that the standards of 2019 can be, in some areas, meaningfully distinguished from those of 2021.

Is the idea of linear progress, culminating in the present moment, distinctive to our time? Jacob T. Levy, the author of The Multiculturalism of Fear and Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom and Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory at McGill University in Montreal, thinks not. In his view, the notion has a long and fraught history. In a 2019 article for Vox, “The idea of a ’wrong side of history’ will be considered unthinkable 50 years from now,” Levy questioned whether the world is in fact a progressively freer and more just place. His a forthcoming book, Justice in Babylon, also addresses these themes, applying the thought of the early-Medieval philosopher St. Augustine to more recent political theory. Despite well known modern atrocities, and contemporary threats to liberal democracy worldwide, the conviction that humanity just keeps morally improving remains central to Western thought, Levy explains. A “vanity” leads people, from Enlightenment thinkers to contemporary observers, to interpret their own time and place as the moment of relelation for the standards everything in history should be evaluated against.

Valorizing the present in this way raises a few problems: On a cultural level, audiences shortchange themselves if they decide all old novels, films, and sitcoms amount to a pile of bigotry, not worth a glance. It’s impossible to appreciate the works of earlier times, or even to learn from them, if you think they’re too fraught and triggering to experience. And as a practical matter, no one can possibly have met a particular moment’s standards at all times. You may never have said or done anything overtly bigoted in the past, but if you were alive and sharing your opinions even a year ago, you’ve probably left a trail of distinctly pre-2021 attitudes and terminology choices. The bigger question here, though, is more philosophical: Is it really clear that this moment’s dominant moral frameworks are superior to everything that’s come before them?

Read the article here.


The Green Light

Robert George, Cornel West, and friendship across political lines in an age of fear and hatred

The Signal

Cornel West and Robert George both believe that dialogue across political and ideological differences are essential in the face of today’s extreme political polarization in the United States—which they see as a grave threat to its democratic life. But as they’ve traveled across the United States, West and George have encountered skepticism, criticism, and even outright hostility, with critics raising questions about the messengers and their message. What are the limits of friendship across political divides? Can you really be expected to “revel in someone’s humanity,” as West puts it, if you believe they’re hostile to your own humanity?

Read the article here.


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