Gail Collins and Bret Stephens take on the Rabbit Hole problem

You ever read “The Conversation,” a weekly opinion feature in The New York Times? It’s very good.

It just consists of two Times opinion columnists — former NYT Editorial Page Editor Gail Collins and former Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens — kicking around a number of issues of the day, and having fun doing it. Even more than that, enjoying each other’s company. (I use “company” loosely — I think what they’re doing is writing back and forth to each other via email or instant messaging. If they’re just talking and saying these things, they’re both even smarter than I take them to be.)

Even though one represents the “left,” and the other the “right.” More than that, they represent different generations — she is 28 years older.

Gail Collins

It helps that she is known for her sense of humor (not always a thing in great supply among former EPEs) and he is a particularly thoughtful never-Trumper. In other words, neither is a representative of what you see today screaming at each other from either end of the spectrum. She’s more of an old-school liberal than “woke.” He’s more of a Buckley-style thinking conservative than a troglodyte.

They do disagree. It’s just that they show us how civilized people disagree. That’s something we used to see all the time, but now it’s rare, and worth seeking out.

Anyway, I recommend the feature. I particularly enjoyed this week’s, in part because they touched upon the whole Rabbit Hole thing that I’ve spent so much time worrying about. An excerpt, as they were speaking of the collapse of consensus in the country:

Bret: Largely agree. There’s a small academic field called neurohistory, which uses neuroscience to help us better understand the distant past.

Gail: I love it when you expand my vocabulary. OK, “neurohistory” is my word for the day.

Bret: The field deserves more attention, because maybe the most important event of the past 20 years wasn’t how we changed the world, for better or worse. It’s that we created algorithms and digital platforms that scrambled our brains. The new technologies have shortened our attention spans, heightened our anxieties, made us more prone to depression and more in need of outside validation and left us less capable of patient reflection and also less interested in seeking out different points of view. It’s no accident that Trump’s favorite outlet was Twitter: The medium is perfect for people who think in spasms, speak in grunts, emote with insults and salute with hashtags.

Gail: Probably the biggest transformation since America got national mail service and people suddenly learned what folks in other parts of the country were really thinking….

A lot of people worry about whether our republic — or other Western-style liberal democracies — will survive. Well, this is the biggest reason it’s endangered. (You can make a case, of course, that the problem is rampant stupidity, but what we’re talking about here is the cause of that cognitive dysfunction.) Stephens takes it to another level, and questions the ability of our whole species to survive the Rabbit Hole, although he doesn’t use the specific term.

Bret Stephens

I think he’s right. We’re in a cognitive crisis. Technology has gotten way out ahead of our brains’ ability to evolve to deal with it constructively.

Ms. Collins disagrees, as is her wont. She basically says, Hey, kid, you don’t remember when things were really bad. After all, she remembers (better than I, since she’s eight years older) living in a country in which, for instance, racism actually was systemic.

But I think on this one Stephens has the stronger point. In any case, it’s enjoyable to watch while they kick it around, as usual. In days such as these, it’s balm for the soul to witness this sort of disagreement.

57 thoughts on “Gail Collins and Bret Stephens take on the Rabbit Hole problem

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Note the way Stephens trashes what I earlier indicated was my favorite social medium: “It’s no accident that Trump’s favorite outlet was Twitter: The medium is perfect for people who think in spasms, speak in grunts, emote with insults and salute with hashtags.”

    Way harsh, but he’s completely right. All of that is true.

    Of course, people don’t have to use it that way, and I do my best not to. But he’s right in what he says.

    So why do I still enjoy it? I guess because addiction is like that…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        And even as I was falling under the spell of Twitter, I was hatin’ on Facebook. One of my first tweets:

        1. Bob Amundson

          Twitter is heurism at its worse; social media is toxic in the wrong hands. IMHO, we let that tiger (social media for EVERYONE!) out of the cage way too soon.

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          I think that’s before I learned that I could retweet. For instance, I assume I was referring to a headline that would probably have been available as a tweet, and I could just have retweeted it with the mock-headline comment, “Oppressive regimes not all bad.”

          Which brings me to one of the most frustrating things about being an active member of the Twitterati…

          I’ll see a headline in the app of one of the newspapers I subscribe to. I’ll immediately think of a fun response, but the response depends on the precise wording of the headline to work. So I call up the story in order to tweet it… and I discover the headline is different when you call it up, thereby making my response not work at all, since THAT is the headline the reader will see on Twitter.

          Sometimes I go to extremes to preserve my original idea — I screenshot the page with the headline I first saw, and tweet with that instead of the link to the story. But it’s more work, and not satisfactory, because all tweets should link to something that tells the reader more than the 280 characters. As a word man, that’s an important principle to me, to be abandoned only when necessary.

          When this happens, I don’t hate Twitter. I’m pretty irritated at the copy editor who wrote two different headlines, though…

            1. Randle

              Brad, I’m a little surprised and concerned that you are using the words “copyeditor” and “copyediting” when the AP Stylebook says (as of 2016) that they are separate words. I realize this follows a common English language habit of merging word phrases, but it’s a bad business in this case. If we’re going to continue willy-nilly down this path, soon we’ll be speaking German.

              I also see this is a major controversy among language people, with Webster’s and a professional copy editor’s society standing firm along with the AP. I hope you will reconsider.

              I didn’t have you pegged as a neologist.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                What?!? Don’t call me dirty names!

                And anyway, look and see! I did it right! (This is one of the wonderful advantages of online over the dead-tree version of writing. Mistakes can get fixed…)

                But seriously… yeah, you’re probably seeing that 1 percent of me that is Germanic asserting itself. You know how the Germans are. Be glad that I’m down to 1 percent. I used to be 9 percent! But I calmed down. I haven’t been tempted to invade Belgium for several months now.

                Somewhat more seriously.

                You’d think that, having started my career as a copyeditor copy editor, I’d get it right. But all these years, I’ve had this urge to make it one word, and I do it all the time.

                Here’s another example of something from the “Brad doesn’t know much, but at least he ought to know THIS” category. I cannot for the life of me remember whether The State’s style on the S.C. capitol is “State House” or “Statehouse.” I just can’t. Even though I started at the paper as Governmental Affairs Editor, and ended up running an editorial page that concentrated largely on what happened there. I know it’s capitalized (unless we’re referring to some other state’s capitol), and I know it’s definitely, emphatically one of the other, but I can’t remember which with any certainty. If I were writing it for the paper, I’d look it up (or just look at something Cindi wrote, since she’s such a stickler for such things). Now, I don’t worry about it. Either way, I figure y’all know what I mean…

                Anyway, everybody needs an editor…

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Maybe having started my career as a copy editor, I think it’s an important enough thing to be that it should have its own word.

                  I don’t know.

                  Towards the end of my newspaper career, running an editorial department with its own style that varied from the newsroom’s (italics, courtesy titles), I got more casual about that stuff.

                  But those two years when I was on the — is it copy desk or copydesk? — I was pretty strict. We were very, very serious about style. During that time, AP came out with a new, much-expanded stylebook (note that it’s “stylebook” rather than “style book,” because the AP says so). This was the first time they had updated the tiny pamphlet in years, and they had expanded it into a real book, about an inch thick, with spiral binding.

                  We were so excited, when they arrived, we actually had a party to celebrate it. I am not making this up. We were word geeks, and we were really pumped about it…

                  1. Randle

                    Thank you for holding down the fort!
                    Copyedit isn’t wrong if you follow the Chicago Manual
                    of Style, but I like the AP’s reasoning for keeping it two words.
                    Their rationale is consistency within the newsroom. Papers have business editors, book editors, managing editors — so copy editors. Gives it equal importance with other jobs. Copy editors also deserve two words!

                    The French have the Acadamie Francaise to police assaults on their language from within and without, and I have always liked that. Otherwise, franglais would be eroding one of the world’s most beautiful and precise languages. Anglicisms still sneak in, but only after years of debate over each and every incursion.
                    When people declare that such and such a word now means something else or that rules of grammar and usage are silly and should be ignored, I think how nice it would be if we had an academy devoted to keeping these destroyers of our common understanding in line.

                    I think State House was also two separate words at The State, even though AP says statehouse.

                    Nobody’s perfect.

                    1. Brad Warthen Post author

                      Maybe the Chicago style is where I got it. I don’t remember. I do remember, back in my copy editing days, making comparisons to rival styles, Strunk & White and so forth…

                      Anyway, I’m unpersuaded by AP’s reasoning. Business editors, book editors, managing editors are simply editors who deal with those different job responsibilities. Copyeditor is much more of a specific thing to be, separate from those managers around the newsroom just as much as it is separate from the concept of “reporter.”

                      Making it one word emphasizes its specialness…

                    2. randle

                      So you are a neologist.

                      Not sure I understand what you’re saying about job specificity being different for different jobs. But OK.

                      It should be Academie Francaise.

  2. bud

    Organized religion, large cults really are far more dangerous than social media. Just not buying this rabbit hole nonsense at all.

  3. bud

    This obsession with this so called rabbit hole “problem” has all the earmarks of a national movement that could easily culminate in a solution much worse that the alleged problem. That kind of misplaced fear mongering led to real problems like prohibition, blue laws and the Joseph McCarthy red scare era. I suggest we chill out on this anti social media bologna before we end up with draconian restrictions that serve only to ruin the medium.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Sorry, Bud.

      It took me a long time to see the problem. When I did, I was shocked how long it took me.

      So I’m going to do everything I can to explain it to other people until they get it as well. Because it is really and truly messing up brains around the planet, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see how any sort of civilization survives it.

      If you find it too unpleasant, you can just skip those posts…

      1. bud

        Joseph McCarthy said the same thing about Communists. This is just a bunch of Pseudo science nonsense. And it’s scary that people who should know better are pushing this. Brains are complicated. People who are usually reasonable but into this stuff. Just look at the billions of people who readily accept the literal truth that the earth is just 6000 years old. The most frightening thing is that policies will be pushed to curb social media in some nefarious way. So it is incumbent upon everyone to be very wary. Remember the disaster of government restructuring? That’s where this can lead.

  4. Ken

    “The new technologies have shortened our attention spans, heightened our anxieties, made us more prone to depression and more in need of outside validation and left us less capable of patient reflection and also less interested in seeking out different points of view.”

    Much of that was said about television — back when it was new.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, but you see, I lived through that era. And I’m living through this one, and I can see the difference.

      Stephens isn’t making predictions about what these technologies WILL do. He’s observing what they HAVE done….

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        And let me tell you, if someone like Trump had gotten elected president in 1956 or 1960, and people had made a convincing case that the thing that had caused the electorate to go stark, raving mad was television, I would at least have given their arguments a careful listen.

        Of course, come to think of it, television DID make a difference in the 1960 election. (I refer to the stories about how people who listened to the debates on the radio thought Nixon won, and TV watchers gave the edge to Kennedy.) But so what? That was a matter of making a difference in a close race between two highly qualified people. Something like rain on Election Day could probably have made a more significant difference than that. It wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t a threat to our ability to live together in a civilization.

        But let me refer you back to what I said when I first started writing about this problem….

        For four years, I had looked for, and listened to, every sort of theory about why the U.S. electorate went stark, raving mad in 2016. And everything I read and heard was unconvincing. None of the explanations accounted for such mass insanity. Nothing explained why something that could NOT have happened earlier in our history had happened. Nothing else explained what was suddenly wrong with so many people’s ability to perceive reality.

        The social media problem at least opened a window. And it showed something with the scope, and with the cognitive effect, to possibly be the explanation. And it was easily the first thing I’d seen that did that. So ever since I realized that, I’ve had my ears open to see what further light others might be able to shed on it. Because this really needs to be explored…

        1. bud

          The US electorate voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. So why not argue for a system that allows the people to pick the president rather than pursuing this idiotic rabbit hole nonsense? I’m not going to let this go because you’re headed down a dangerous path. That’s how we ended up in Iraq.

      2. bud

        Come on Brad. Of course its like television. This is one of the most ridiculous rat holes you’ve gone down in many years. The very idea that civilization won’t survive Facebook is just preposterous. Of course in a way that may sort of prove your point. If charlatans like Brett Stephen push this stuff and enough people believe it then I suppose that is evidence of a rabbit hole effect. 🙂

      3. Ken

        Yeah, and the difference is:
        You were young then and TV was the window on the world.
        It was older folks who tended to distrust its effects.
        Now YOU’re the old one fretting about the latest new fangled things.

        This is nothing new. I refer you to the following:
        “Worrying about the internet is just the latest in a long line of fears society has had about the changes technologies might bring. People worried about books when they first became popularly available. In Ancient Greece, Socrates worried about the effect of writing, saying it would erode young people’s ability to remember. The same thing happened with television and telephones. These technologies did change us, and the way we live our lives, but nothing like the doom-mongers predicted would stem from them.”

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Well, I’ve tried explaining the rather stark, qualitative difference several times. As we go forward, I’ll probably do so many times.

          I’m sorry that each time I do, you are convinced that I’m saying something different from what I’m saying.

          Anyway, changing the subject slightly, allow me to address one specific of what you just said:

          You were young then and TV was the window on the world.
          It was older folks who tended to distrust its effects.
          Now YOU’re the old one fretting about the latest new fangled things.

          Yeah… I’ve obviously failed to make myself well known these past 16 years on the blog. I’ve tried pretty hard to explain the limitations I see in television as a source of information. I find it appalling that people — even reasonably intelligent people — say things like, “I was watching the news last night, and…” It’s become acceptable to say “news” when one means “TV news.” Another small indication of the decline of society. To me, “news” isn’t something you watch; it’s something you read. Although of course, video can supplement the reading. That doesn’t make video “the news.”

          But did I love TV as a kid? You betcha. As a source of entertainment. But that wasn’t a generational thing. My parents enjoyed it (and still do) every bit as much, if not more. If I remember correctly, my grandparents did, too…

          1. Ken

            No, it’s not a matter of difficulty understanding the proposition or your explanation of it. It’s that the proposition itself is unpersuasive.
            Does the internet / social media and like play a role in our current state-of-affairs? Sure. But not to the extent the “rabbit hole” idea suggests it does.

            As for “news” and how it’s presented on TV, your blanket take on that, too, is not entirely persuasive. Because it depends on which TV news outlet is referred to. What’s more, TV news is free. Good print news (generally) is not. I believe strongly that reputable news outlets that supply information about local, state, national and international public affairs should be available free of charge. The internet has made this possible to a degree. But it requires a discriminating reader willing to work diligently to find those sources.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              So… how do you propose to pay the professionals who actually go out and get that news, and present it to you with fairness and, more importantly, accuracy?

              Not that it matters to me anymore; I’m just asking. I’m curious as to whether you’re thinking they should be paid by the government or something…

              Sort of reminds me of a blog post I was thinking about the other day — not about journalism, but about people doing things for free in other areas. Maybe I’ll get to that one of these days…

              1. Ken

                I wouldn’t have a problem with paying professional journalists through taxpayer funding. In other words: provide for a genuine public news service. Some countries do — not print media, no, but radio and television (along with their respective online presences). As I say, I believe that news about governmental/public affairs should be free in order to provide access to important information so that the citizenry can be adequately informed. In many parts of the country, the lack of adequate coverage is becoming an increasing problem at the local and state levels.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  You’re absolutely right about that — the increasing problem.

                  But I don’t think I’d feel too good about our Legislature handing out the paychecks…

                  1. Ken

                    The BBC — with around 20,000 staff in public-sector broadcasting — provides the model of professionalism and integrity. Don’t see why it couldn’t work for print media as well — albeit on a significantly smaller scale.

          2. bud

            You really can’t understand current events without seeing them. I unapologetically get most of my current events information by watching TV. Reading text is just not as informative. Brad you say this often and it is clear that your vocation biases your views in this regard.

          3. Ken

            One of the themes of the film “Avalon” (1990) has to do with the corrosive effect this new thing called television had on family life and society more broadly. That, at least, is the view of the oldest member of the family clan in the movie — which is based on Barry Levinson’s family’s own experiences.

            So, again, the critiques of the internet aren’t really all that new.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Actually, yes, they are. Entirely. Not quantitatively, but qualitatively.

              Did television follow people around and show them shows based on the last things the individuals watched — one after another, hour after hour saying, “Hey, if you like that nutball extremist, you’ll love THIS one,” until people’s abilities to imagine a reality, or even a fact, that existed outside that world view?

              Oh, it might have loved to be able to do that (Neilsen ratings were about trying to achieve something like that, to some extent), but it couldn’t.

              Netflix tries to do that, of course, but I’ve been experimenting with its algorithms ever since before its main business became stringing, and I remain unimpressed by its ability to predict what will interest me.

              But of course, that form of “television” didn’t exist back when people were alarmed about the medium…

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                If you want to compare social media to previous disruptive innovations, you might have to go to back to Gutenberg.

                And even then, the comparison falls short. It was enormously disruptive, but the main thing it did was take something that had been available to elites for thousands of years and made it available to everybody.

                Which was HUGE, with enormous effects in the realms of religion and politics. But in terms of introducing a mechanism that did something to human brains that those brains were absolutely unprepared for, it just doesn’t compare to these algorithms.

                As big as books were after Gutenberg, people DID put their books down now and then…

                1. Ken

                  You continue to be obsessed with and, as a result, exaggerate the effectiveness and effect of algorithms on politics. Our politics is not the victim of algorithms. It is the victim of people – and their foolishness. People have been radicalized many times and in many places before now without having algorithms to blame it on. To the extent people are living in information silos, they are choosing to do so because one or the other viewpoint appeals to them more. Algorithms may allow them to more easily find views that comport with their preferences, but it doesn’t create those preferences.

  5. Bob Amundson

    We are in the midst of change, at a rate that is phenomenally fast. We philosophers (Brad, your Dad will confirm that Naval Officers perform many different roles) are talking about the transition from the age of the Industrial Revolution to what many are calling the Anthropogenic Era. Anthropogenic changes “are alterations that result from human action or presence.”

    My spirit has become very “Native” – I am concerned that “Mother” is becoming fed up with humans. I believe Revelations talks about choice. BUT the anti-Christ seems to be losing credibility. Hope Springs Eternal!

  6. Barry

    Conservatives aren’t discussing this at all but here is a good article from University of Texas Law Professor Steve Vladeck about Trump’s legal team trying to overturn the election.

    “ First was the release of a pair of memos penned by former law professor John Eastman, articulating a six-point plan then-Vice President Mike Pence could have followed after Jan. 6 to swing the election to then-President Donald Trump. The actual legal analysis in the memos is embarrassingly thin and self-contradictory, never mind that they completely ignore the relevant procedural rules. Second was The New York Times report that, as early as mid-November, the Trump campaign knew most of its claims of widespread election fraud were completely bogus — meaning there was no good-faith basis for contesting the results in any state, let alone in enough states to actually have a chance at changing the ultimate result.

    What these stories have in common is their complete and utter bad faith. Bad faith on the part of John Eastman, who not only wrote the memos in question, but who also gave a fiery speech at the rally preceding the violence at the Capitol in which, among other things, he contradicted his own logic. And bad faith on the part of the president and his senior campaign team.”

    More of the article at

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Actually, I’m guessing conservatives are as likely as anyone to be discussing it.

      But not Trump supporters. That, you see, is a wildly different category. They may call themselves “conservative,” but they are far, far away from being that. And I don’t believe we should humor them in their delusions…

      1. Barry

        I don’t think they are discussing it at all.

        Some folks have already done some research on it and found that conservative news sites have ignored the revelation.

        Trump apologist lawyer, Jonathan Turley, who lied in the impeachMent hearings and said he didn’t support Donald Trump ( legal guy at GW Law), has totally ignored the revelation. Quite revealing for a guy that covers every conceivable legal quirk, issue, word, snippet – when it involves Joe Biden or Democrats.

      2. Ken

        “Trump supporters … a wildly different category.”

        Not at all. I’ve seen it in my neighbors. All were self-described conservatives well before Trump came onto on the scene. Their views were either by-and-large or wholly conservative. They weren’t Democrats. They weren’t independents, though some were turned off by “conventional” politicians. But mainly because they felt those politicians had betrayed conservative causes. Then Trump came along and they fell in line — with great enthusiasm — because he represented their views, concerns and wishes.

        Trumpism is what conservatism has morphed into. There is no pristine version of conservatism to look to.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          “There is no pristine version of conservatism to look to.”

          Of course there are real conservatives still. Serious ones. The fact that they can’t get elected — because neither the Trumpists nor Democrats will vote for them — doesn’t erase them from existence. It makes it more important than ever that we make the effort to hear them, because like real liberals, they are rational human beings.

          Of course, actual liberals are a shrinking group as well. After Joe Biden has left the scene, I’m not sure there are will be any left who can get elected. This could be their last hurrah. It’s remarkable that he managed to push through that crowd that stood between him and the nomination last year. Thank God for the South Carolina Democratic primary voters…

          Increasingly, the “leftward” end of the spectrum has been filling up with people who don’t values liberal qualities. Mostly, they’ve become like the people who have stolen the word “conservative.” All of them see their main aim in politics as being this: Get 50 percent plus one, then cram whatever you want down other people’s throats

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Yes, he is. So am I, I suppose, to the extent that one can be one, outside of a European context. (I would at this point write some lament for the loss this week of Angela Merkel’s party, but I really am not competent to so so — I’m too far removed from the ins and outs of German party politics.)

              It’s easier to think of Joe the way he sees himself — as representing the heart of the Democratic Party, as a true son of FDR.

              I loved the speech that he gave the night he essentially won the Democratic nomination — Feb. 29, 2020, right here in Columbia. He essentially said he was winning because unlike his chief adversaries, he was actually a Democrat. It was very true…

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Joe awakens that spirit of contradiction in me.

                I hate parties. I think party identification is one of the things destroying our political system — it was the MAIN thing before the even more destructive Trumpism came along.

                But that’s because in this century, and the latter part of 20th, the parties became corrupted caricatures of themselves.

                Joe is the embodiment of what was best in the Democratic Party, and the things that make him that way are the things I love about the guy.

                So while most people would leave me cold if they said, “I’m a real Democrat” or “I’m a real Republican” — particularly as a way of lifting themselves above their rivals — Joe does not. I cheer him on…

          1. Ken

            Sorry, but you don’t get to drum Trumpists out of conservatism for the sake of convenience. The fact is, there are pro-Trump conservatives and anti-Trump conservatives. All are “real conservatives.” And Trumpism does represent some long-standing trends in conservatism.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              “Sorry, but you don’t get to drum Trumpists out of conservatism for the sake of convenience.”

              Fortunately, that’s not necessary, since no Trumpist has ever been “conservative.” Supporting Trump is about not only disrupting the established order, but pouring sewage over it. Therefore it is the opposite of conservatism.

              In case it’s not plain, what I’m trying to do here — what I’m always trying to do, in some way — is insist that we use words correctly and clearly, so that we can discuss what is going on with precision and discernment.

              That’s important because we are surrounded by people who subvert and pervert the meanings of words in order to accomplish their political goals. And no one does that with more insulting mendacity than that great mass of people who go around absurdly calling themselves “conservatives”…

              1. Ken

                Using words “correctly and clearly” ALSO involves taking into account how the things they are meant to describe evolve over time. As in the case of American conservatism. By your definition, conservatism in America has been disappearing since the the late 1950s or early 60s. You fail, in other words, to take into account the history of conservatism in this country.

                You seem to eager to delimit political conservatism to mere social trappings, as if it were nothing other than some sort of tweedy, clubby sense of decorum.

              2. randle

                On Monday’s Jeopardy, this answer:
                “This word for a new word actually goes back to the 18th century.”
                Question: What is a neologism?
                Proof positive that I am always slightly ahead of the curve. (See recent post above.)

                I brought up Brad’s own neologism (although it’s really just a compound word) because it was new to me, it wasn’t AP style or Webster’s and reminded me of the increasing and objectionable tendency to redefine or appropriate words to suit the speaker’s purpose. Brad mentioned this yesterday when you all were discussing what conservative means.

                To me, it’s all part of our current disinformation crisis, the source of which you guys have also been debating. I agree within Stephens’ assessment of social media’s effects, but I’ve never thought it was the sole source of our current epistemological crisis, or that it just suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
                In a WSJ article I read this weekend, “Hope for the Lost Souls of Liberalism,” Barton Swain talks about a married couple, Benjamin and Jenna Silber Storey, both professors at Furman, who are interested in the roots of our current social discontent and dysfunctional ways of thinking.
                “Liberalism is in trouble…. I mean liberalism in the wider, classical sense—a view of government and society embracing free markets, representative democracy, individual freedom, strict limits on state power, and religious neutrality,” Swain writes.
                “ ‘The problems we’re facing right now are not fundamentally economic problems,’ ” Benjamin Storey says. ‘They’re fundamentally educational and philosophical problems. The way forward is a multigenerational project, and it’s going to begin in schools.’ ”
                Swain writes, “Another way to explain the plight of 21-st century liberalism, the Storeys argue, is that it has become bereft of ‘forms.’ Tocqueville used that term in ‘Democracy in America’ but didn’t define it. He meant traditions, social conventions, taboos. Aristocratic societies rely heavily on forms; each person, high or low, understands the expectations his role places on him and responds accordingly. Democratic societies tend to spurn forms. Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, preferred democracy but worried that democratic citizens might forget forms altogether.”
                “The loss of forms in modern democratic societies, the Storeys contend, cultivates a kind of chronic restlessness and anxiety. Without forms—without conventions and attendant expectations, without institutional connections defining our relationships—’every decision becomes an existential crisis,’ Mrs. Storey says. ‘You’re a free-floating atom. You have to guess what the proper response is to any circumstance.’”
                “The task for today, in their view, isn’t to dynamite liberalism, on the one hand, or to encourage its pathologies, on the other. It is, as Mrs. Storey says, ‘to recover the preconditions of liberalism’s success.’ To do that ‘is going to require returning to preliberal sources—the resources of classical thought, Christian thought and Jewish thought, and the communal practices that turn those traditions into ways of life. These ways of thinking aim to cultivate order in the soul in a way that liberal thought does not.’
                “All this talk of order and souls puts me in mind of Plato’s ‘Republic.’ I haven’t read it in 30 years but I remember that Plato wanted to draw a connection between order in the soul and order in the city, or polis. On a shelf in Mrs. Storey’s office I spy a copy of the University of Chicago intellectual Allan Bloom’s famous translation of the ‘Republic,’ so perhaps I’m on to something. Perhaps the Storeys’ point can be put as simply as this: You can’t fix the city as long as the souls are a mess.”


                And this from Chris Haye’s in his recent article in the “New Yorker,” “On the Internet, We’re All Famous”

                “Understanding the centrality of the desire for recognition is quite helpful in understanding the power and ubiquity of social media. We have developed a technology that can create a synthetic version of our most fundamental desire. Why did the Russian couple post those wedding photos? Why do any of us post anything? Because we want other humans to see us, to recognize us.
                But We Who Post are trapped in the same paradox that Kojève identifies in Hegel’s treatment of the Master and Slave. The Master desires recognition from the Slave, but because he does not recognize the Slave’s humanity, he cannot actually have it. “And this is what is insufficient—what is tragic—in his situation,” Kojève writes. “For he can be satisfied only by recognition from one whom he recognizes as worthy of recognizing him.”


                I think they’re all on to something. I especially like the Storeys’ emphasis on great books, or old wise books, as they call them, as useful instruments in the formation of modern minds. And they are definitely conservatives, So that may be helpful in your debate about what constitutes conservative thought.

                1. Ken

                  “definitely conservative”
                  Really? Are you sure of that? Seems to me that Jewish and Christian thought have been the basis for some revolutionary notions, too.

                  Anyway, the only point I was trying to make about the meaning of “conservatism” was that meanings change. After all, conservatism no longer means deference to a hereditary nobility and preference for a hierarchical society in which the business class is subordinate to the aristocracy and the king holds sway above all — as it did in the late 18th century. So, things change.

                  And yet.
                  Some things change — and then change back again.
                  As Robert Kagan wrote in a recently referenced op-ed:
                  “Perhaps American conservatism was never comfortable with the American experiment in liberal democracy … [and] many conservatives have revealed a hostility to core American beliefs.”

                  In any case, conservatism isn’t as neatly — or, for that matter, as flatteringly — defined as Brad would have it.

  7. Barry

    An unprecedented constitutional crisis is already unfolding, writes Bob Kagan: “Most Americans — and all but a handful of politicians — have refused to take this possibility seriously enough to try to prevent it.”


    Conservative Republican Rep. Paul Gosar, a darling of right wing Conservatives, is working in Arizona to get another election approved to re-run the November 2020 election in the state.

    This “do-over” would just be between Biden and Trump. Don’t ask me why it would just involve those two when dozens of candidates were on the ballot in November.

    Yes, really. A sitting member of Congress is working to do this and he is not making it a secret that he is trying hard. In fact, Gosar was meeting with GOP Reps and state senators this week on his proposal. The state GOP Chairperson is in factor of it.

    Now, this proposal is being totally ignored by the typical group of conservative attorneys that you see and hear whining about every legal issue, regardless of how obscure, Democrats pursue.

    conservative legal “guru” and Trump defender Jonathan Turley, a man who chimes in on every possible legal issue down to school board and municipality issues across the country has 100% ignored this effort by a sitting member of congress.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, that was a good piece by Kagan. But most pieces by Kagan are good. Of course, we neocons have to stick together. 🙂

      By the way, this is a good example of what we were talking about earlier, about the difference between conservatives and Trumpistas — they are so widely different that you could say they are opposites. Note that, as Wikipedia reminds us, “During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, Kagan left the Republican Party due to the party’s nomination of Donald Trump and endorsed the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, for president.”

      Of course, here we could get involved in a huge digression about whether neoconservatives are proper conservatives. After all, they are liberals who became disillusioned by the Left after Vietnam. But during the Bush 43 administration, neocons got mixed up in many people’s minds with conservatism, period. Which is not good, just as it is not good for anyone with respect for the language to call Trump supporters “conservatives.”

      And I’ll grant you that. In many ways, a neocon is far more like a post-1945 liberal than he is a paleoconservative. In fact, a neocon sort of IS a post-1945 liberal.

      All of which points to how difficult both terms are — liberal and conservative. And they’ve been this way for centuries. I mean, we’re told Edmund Burke was like the Father of Conservatism, but the man was a Whig! And it hasn’t gotten better since then. The political extremes, in particular, get so out there that they loop around and join up. (Why did we abandon Afghanistan? Because people out on the left and the right wanted us to.)

      Trying to clearly define these supposed movements is like trying to nail down Jello.

      Consequently, I don’t do that. I don’t see them as groups or movements. I see them as words that express certain qualities. “Liberal” means something having to do with embrace of human rights, with pluralism, toward an openness to new things, and with a certain generosity. “Conservative” means the quality of being oriented toward tradition, and toward the established order — whether you’re talking religion, culture or politics.

      And of course, a person can easily be both. I certainly am.

      Unfortunately, and I would say tragically, far too many people have embraced the terms as designating tribes — each tribe utterly excluding, and hating, members of the other.

      And this is tearing civilization apart…

      1. Barry

        There are 2 political parties in the United states that are running things. One is liberal. One is conservative.

        Conservatives can’t win a primary running against Donald Trump. In fact, some of the few anti trump conservatives in office are quitting instead of running for re-election.

        So yes, Conservatives and Trumpers are one and the same.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          OK, let’s try again. Let’s look at two things you said:

          1. “Conservatives can’t win a primary running against Donald Trump.”

          2. “So yes, Conservatives and Trumpers are one and the same.”

          The first statement is true. The second is untrue, because they can’t BOTH be true.

          The problem lies in this other untrue statement: “There are 2 political parties in the United states that are running things. One is liberal. One is conservative.”

          If it makes you feel better, millions upon millions of people across the political spectrum also think that’s true.

          Anyway, one of the reasons I bother to write blog posts is to point that they all those millions of people are wrong. Such statements as that last one I quoted — which so many believe is completely true — confuse things.

          I mean, forget the Republicans for a moment. There is no single term than can be used to describe the worldviews of all Democrats, either. Sure, there are some liberals left, like Joe Biden. But there are now a lot of people who embrace very different terms, that are very inconsistent with liberalism, such as “socialist” and “woke”…

          The people who falsely call themselves “conservatives” — the Trump people — LOVE it when you, or anyone, promote the idea that all Democrats — are “liberals,” because that helps them in their propaganda to label all liberals, woke types, socialists and even moderate as one thing, and trying to get everyone to hate that one thing…

      2. Barry

        “ Unfortunately, and I would say tragically, far too many people have embraced the terms as designating tribes — each tribe utterly excluding, and hating, members of the other.”

        I plead Guilty.

      3. Barry

        And another example from this weekend

        Michigan Attorney General candidate, Conservative Republican Matt DePerno, who lost every election court case, says he “heard” that there were “threats made to people writing the report” in Arizona to change it.

        He then makes the preposterous claim that states can use the 9th and 10th Amendments to decertify the 2020 election.

        DePerno is running to be the Chief elections official in Michigan. Let that sink in for a minute.


        Just this month, DePerno represented Tea Party Republican, Todd Courser (who was ousted from the Michigan House of Representatives in 2015 after he used public funds to cover up an affair with a colleague) and argued before the Sixth Circuit to revive Courser’s conspiracy claims against the state government and numerous lawmakers.

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