Pineapple Juice 3: Neither video nor bacterium
Selfishness, Orkney, liberal Catholicism, the Thing, food delivery apps
Although the author of The Pineapple has recently been away, for the best of reasons –
– he has not forgotten his obligations to those readers who, as Samuel Johnson put it, “awake in the morning, vacant of thought, with minds gaping for the intellectual food, which some kind essayist has been accustomed to supply.” For the Times, I reviewed a biography of Johnson’s near-contemporary William Hogarth; and for the same paper, a new book which represents a wider cultural shift:
Almost half a century ago a rising star of the zoology world published a book that became a sensation. As well as its vivid, forceful prose style, Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene offered a darkly thrilling message. “Altruism,” Dawkins wrote, “has no place in nature.” Instead: “We are born selfish.”
Dawkins insisted that with a mighty collective effort we could overcome our innate ruthlessness. But this was 1976, with the battalions of Thatcherite individualism about to conquer all before them. At least some readers, surely, found a certain illicit excitement in discovering that on the most basic biological level, it was every man — or gene — for himself.
We’ve come a long way since then, from “There’s no such thing as society” to “Every washed hand is making a difference”; from “competition” to “community” as the buzzword on the lips of politicians. Right on cue here comes a book by a rising star of the zoology world, arguing that what really shapes human nature is co-operation. “Togetherness is wired into us,” writes Nichola Raihani, a professor of evolution and behaviour at University College London. We are “a hyper-cooperative species” [...]
Also in the Times, I wrote about prehistoric Britain, well evoked by Alice Roberts’ Ancestors. Inevitably, Roberts alights on Orkney, with its mysterious standing stones and Iron Age ruins. The antiquity of the islands seems to vivify the artistic imagination: take Peter Maxwell Davies’ piano composition Farewell to Stromness, which over the last few months has been regularly played over the sound system here at The Pineapple’s offices. As recounted in this lovely Radio 4 programme, the piece has such a timeless feel to it that the composer was once mistakenly listed as “trad.”—which Maxwell Davies thought the highest possible compliment.
A different sort of artist, George Mackay Brown, would have been 100 this year; his Orkney Tapestry has just been republished for the anniversary. Brown’s poems can resonate like folk-songs or ancient inscriptions. John Burnside observes:
It could be argued that Brown took his regional sensibility one step further by creating a land-based metaphysic that seems even more urgent now than it did in 1969, when An Orkney Tapestry first appeared. Increasingly troubled by what he called the “new religion” of progress – “concerned only with material things … a rootless utilitarian faith, without beauty or mystery” – he offered in An Orkney Tapestry (originally commissioned by Gollancz as a tourist guide) a lyrical investigation of all the ways that our connection with the land (or lack of it) determines our sense of belonging.
Speaking of poetry, I doubt the pandemic has inspired a better poem than Amit Majmudar’s spiky, sinister “Virus”, which begins like this:
Borne mysterium [...]
But it’s the last pair of couplets that you really can’t get out of your head.
Dana Gioia’s students are a fortunate bunch. As he recalls, in a kind response to my own First Things article on learning poems by heart:
For ten years, I taught an introductory course at the University of Southern California and required students to memorize and recite poems from the beginning to the end of the semester. At first, they were shocked and intimidated. Most of them had never memorized a poem at any point in their education. But once they mastered the first short poems, their attitude and appetite for poetry changed remarkably. Each year I was astonished by the speed of the change. They learned the art from the inside.
A significant number of students memorized more poems than I required. One student memorized a twenty-page poem voluntarily; another learned an entire book of Paradise Lost. I also observed that students who weren’t necessarily good at analysis thrived in having another avenue into the art. My class clowns were often my best performers.
More recently for First Things, I went on at some length about the rise and apparent fall of liberal Catholicism, from the Newman era to the Francis pontificate:
The radicalism of the sixties … had the virtues of a youthful revolutionary movement: boldness, ambition, a sense of adventure, a place for heroes (dashing theologians like the late Hans Küng) and martyrs (poor Sister Gloria). Today’s version is, by comparison, a pretty staid affair. The post–Vatican II generation of liberal Catholics wanted to make all things new. Their successors just want to make all things sufficiently vague that nobody gets scared off.
The essay was provoked partly by Joe Biden’s ascent to the presidency: it is striking – and, to some, intoxicating – that the most powerful man in the world turns up for Sunday Mass and casually namedrops Jacques Maritain. But how does Catholicism actually shape Biden’s politics? At UnHerd, I drew some distinctions.
Then again, is Joe Biden the world’s most powerful man? You could also make a case for Jeff Bezos, until he steps down as Amazon CEO later this year. For The American Conservative, I told the story of Bezos’s destructive career and what shaped it.
Speaking of tech companies, Antonio García Martinez (recently defenestrated from Apple) sketches an arresting portrait of the internal politics of Silicon Valley firms, divided over their responses to the Thing:
In those confessionals of Silicon Valley life – private Signal groups where everyone is sworn to a secrecy enforced by the mutually-assured destruction of impolitic candor – venture capitalists and CEOs confide that every company is now agonizing over which way to break ... defiance and voluntary severance? Or Google-like caving to a small but burning-hot swarm of employees? They’re also debating strategies to avoid the woke trap altogether: How do we hire employees who won’t start internal woke crusades and waste everyone’s time? ... The pandemic-era Zoom-ified workplace is now simply an extension of the online mud-wrestling rings of Twitter and Facebook. The same polarized politics, interminable wrangling, performative moralizing, and gleeful dog-piling are all there: it’s called Slack and masquerades as work.
Of course, not everywhere is doomed to become California; in institutions of all shapes and sizes, there are victories to be won against the new political orthodoxies. For The Critic I spoke to some people who have won those battles – Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union; Cambridge philosopher Arif Ahmed; Harry Miller of the pressure group Fair Cop; and Emma Stopford from the trade union Affinity, which takes seriously its members’ right to free expression. Their stories are instructive: as more than one interviewee observed, you don’t know how weak the Thing is until you push back against it.
Nevertheless, the challenges are steep, as shown by an unusually granular official report on two free speech cases at Essex University. I discussed the report’s findings at the Telegraph.
Before leaving the subject of the Thing: The Pineapple recommends Michael Brendan Dougherty’s perceptive remarks on wokeness and spiritual aspiration –
Identity politics the way we have them are the result of men and women who have been baptized into Christian longings, but who have been given only the intellectual and political tools of Whigs and Marxists for dealing with them.
– and Freddie de Boer’s angry-but-subtle polemic on micro-injustices.
If you only read one think-tank publication this summer – and I recognise that even this modest aspiration may not be shared by every reader – make it the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s study of restaurant delivery apps. It turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that they are crushing small businesses while overcharging customers – and that local, smaller-scale apps consistently provide a better service for everyone. (On that point, see also this encouraging piece on delivery collectives.) “It’s a standard monopolistic strategy,” the report’s authors suggest: “By using Wall Street’s backing to expand rapidly and lock in market share, the big apps are trying to become permanent tollbooths between restaurants and their customers. Their goal is not to create value, but to extract it.” Call it the Bezos Model.
For those who enjoy a good yarn with a moral at the end of it: look no further than Ted (brother of Dana, it turns out) Gioia’s “How I Became the Honest Broker”. For cartoon fans: the New Yorker’s Will McPhail has reshared this fine collection. And for Londoners: why not celebrate the reopening of museums by visiting the British Museum’s Becket exhibition (my Spectator review is here)?
Finally, two profiles. In the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal I interviewed Joseph Cheng, a veteran political activist who fled Hong Kong last year; and for Premier Christianity I wrote about Douglas Murray’s thoughtful engagement with Christian belief.
“It’s true that a continuing thing for me is the suspicion – amounting to hostility, mounting to repudiation – of theory. The idea that Dr Johnson, not being a ‘theorist’, cannot have thought to much purpose – absurd. He thought very hard, and it did not issue in ‘theory’ or in a theory. Johnson matters so much to me not only because of his humanity and his generous goodness, but because he is large, living evidence that somebody can be an extremely powerful critic while finding philosophy – in specifiable, particular ways – inimical to criticism.
“It’s not just an anecdote and Bishop Berkeley and kicking the stone. The lexicographical dedication or habit of mind says that if you think about words and concepts, you’ll quite soon reach the point where thinking further in an abstracting way won’t work, won’t help. The distinction between ‘courage’ and ‘foolhardiness’ is extremely important, but you will not arrive at it by philosophically cogitating – you’ll make your way to it only by thinking with well-informed imagination about the dictionary citations and the instances which catch the difference.”
(Christopher Ricks, interviewed in the New Statesman)
Photo: Stromness, Orkney (Geoff Wong/Creative Commons)