O'Connor on recognizing (and writing) good stories

Flannery O’Connor at home in Milledgeville, 1962

Flannery O’Connor at home in Milledgeville, 1962

This morning I made it a point to track down the exact wording of a line from Flannery O’Connor that has stuck with me for years. After some digging around I finally uncovered it. The line comes from “Writing Short Stories,” a lecture for writing students collected in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. For context, here’s the full paragraph in which the line appears:

A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you.
— Flannery O'Connor, "Writing Short Stories"

Now I am not so naive as to suppose that most people come to writers’ conferences in order to hear what kind of vision is necessary to write stories that will become a permanent part of our literature. Even if you do wish to hear this, your greatest concerns are immediately practical. You want to know how you can actually write a good story, and further, how you can tell when you’ve done it; and so you want to know what the form of a short story is, as if the form were something that existed outside of each story and could be applied or imposed on the material. Of course, the more you write, the more you will realize that the form is organic, that it is something that grows out of the material, that the form of each story is unique. A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.

All the books that have had lasting meaning for me, that have kept on teaching me things, and have only grown with the years rather than diminishing and falling away, have precisely this quality—of offering you more and more out of a well that is in no danger of running dry. There’s more where this came from, somewhere down below.

There is also a wonderfully anti-Platonic emphasis on the particular and organic in that paragraph—fitting for a woman who described herself as a “hillbilly Thomist” (a label I have been trying to appropriate for years). I have definitely seen form emerge from my own work more often than I have imposed form on it. Each story has a way it wants—needs—to be told. The writing of it will reveal it.

On that note, a final thought: Immediately after the above passage, O’Connor writes:

The only way, I think, to learn to write short stories is to write them, and then to try to discover what you have done. The time to think of technique is when you’ve actually got the story in front of you.

This is, in fact, some of the best advice she offers in the lecture. (A footnote at the beginning of the text in Mystery and Manners quotes her elsewhere saying that “Before I started writing stories, I suppose I could have given you a pretty good lecture on the subject, but nothing produces silence like experience, and at this point I have very little to say about how stories are written.”) Learn by doing. Tinker and figure it out. What stops us—what stops me—from simply writing a story is aiming at perfection the first time through.

While I was writing Dark Full of Enemies some years ago, friends in a writing group encouraged me to complete what they called a “get-words-on-paper draft.” That proved immensely helpful, and helped me better understand a line from Chesterton that has always nagged at and bothered the perfectionist that hunches in one tidy corner of my soul: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

Do, and you will eventually do well.

Chesterton on the spiritual benefit of heatwaves

Current staTus

Current staTus

I ran across the following Chesterton quotation today and found it apropos for two reasons. First, today is the anniversary of Chesterton’s death at the age of 62 in 1936. Second, while the weather here in upstate South Carolina has been mild—even occasionally pleasant—for about two weeks now, the three weeks or so before that were an increasingly miserable foretaste of late July or August heat. No cloud, no wind, just sizzling on the griddle of the piedmont.

From a June 11, 1910 column in The Illustrated London News:

The chief gift of hot weather to me is the somewhat unpopular benefit called a conviction of sin. All the rest of the year I am untidy, lazy, awkward, and futile. But in hot weather I feel untidy, lazy, awkward, and futile.
— GK Chesterton
IMG_2305.jpeg

I resemble that remark. You can read a longer chunk here.

Leave it to Chesterton to find some kind of spiritual benefit in what would otherwise just be inconveniently hot weather. Of course what he’s cheekily describing here is the self-knowledge and humility that should come through all hardship, something he is by no means the first to comment on.

A good reminder for the next time I’m doubling up on anti-perspirant.

Oh—my “Mount Writemore” t-shirt arrived in the mail yesterday. It depicts Chesterton, CS Lewis, George MacDonald, and JRR Tolkien on a much more interesting version of Mt. Rushmore. It’s available in a variety of sizes and colors (mine is “asphalt”) from the Babylon Bee. It’s also available as a poster. It’s deeply silly and I’m very excited about it—a very Chestertonian response I think.

Jack London predicts the internet

From his novel The Sea-Wolf, in which the narrator describes the crew of the Ghost in a heated argument:

 
Childish and immaterial as the topic was, the quality of their reasoning was still more childish and immaterial. In truth, there was very little reasoning or none at all. Their method was one of assertion, assumption, and denunciation. They proved [their point] by stating the proposition very bellicosely and then following it up with an attack on the opposing man’s judgment, common sense, nationality, or past history. Rebuttal was precisely similar. I have related this in order to show the mental caliber of the men with whom I was thrown in contact. Intellectually they were children, inhabiting the physical forms of men.
 

The topic of debate, by the way, is whether a seal pup can swim by instinct or has to be taught by its mother. Almost—but not quite—pointless enough for a comment section.

Leaving things out

Last year I wrote a short post about proportion in the arts, inspired by an offhand answer Jerry Seinfeld gave about turning down $5 million per episode for one more season of “Seinfeld.” There, I quoted the great poet, critic, and translator of Dante John Ciardi, who in the notes to his Inferno wrote that:

 
Poetry is, among other things, the art of knowing what to leave out.
— John Ciardi
 

A side note: Is there another phrase that evokes quite what “leaving things out” does? It suggests making things manageable—in all kinds of ambiguous ways. What I’m driving at in this post, of course, is leaving things out to get at the true shape of something, rather as I’m leaving things out of my diet right now to return to what I hope is a truer shape of me.

When I learned that the great historian of modern Europe and Churchill biographer John Lukacs had died a few weeks ago, I revisited a short book—a bound essay, really—he wrote for ISI’s Student Guide series, A Student’s Guide to the Study of History. There, in a passage describing the simple version of the historian’s process of preparing and gathering material, I read this footnote:

No matter how detailed and assiduous, your research will never be complete. The nineteenth-century monographic ideal was that certifiable historian who, having read every document and every writing related to his topic, is able to produce a complete and definitive history of it. This is no longer possible—because of the possibility that new documents, new treatments, and more publications about his topic, many in different places and languages of the world, may yet appear. (Of course some histories are more “definitive” than others. But never absolutely so.)

And then, on the next page, as Lukacs begins to explain the triage of sorting the material an historian has collected, he includes this wonderful parenthetical:

 
It is a great mistake to use everything.
— John Lukacs
 

Precisely because everything is not up to the same standard, is not relevant, is not part of the story you’re trying to tell. This is a succinct warning away from the kitchen sink approach, which every one of us has encountered at least once in some 800-page book, fiction or non-fiction.

Which brings me back to Ciardi: the art in poetry and history, as in so much of life, from cookery and dieting (see above) to marriage, is in choosing. This entails constraint (adherence to form), restraint (rejection of self-indulgence), and commitment (sticking with it even though you’ve just made it harder on yourself), and these in turn entail a certain amount of courage (say what you mean!) and discipline (mean what you say!).

Leaving things out—choosing—shapes both you and your art and will create order. And contrary to the modern suspicion that order only crushes creativity, it will in reality “give room for good things to run wild.”

Take a moment to read this detailed LA Times obit for Lukacs. He led a remarkable life, from surviving the Holocaust in Hungary to working as an historical adviser on Darkest Hour. And pick up one of his books sometime. I recommend The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler, which I’ve recommended here before along with a few of his other books.

Thomas Sowell on tragedy and blame

From economist Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society:

 
Without some sense of the tragedy of the human condition, it is all too easy to consider anything that goes wrong as being somebody’s fault.
— Thomas Sowell
 

This week I happened to teach the Bolshevik Revolution, the Red Scare, and Weimar Germany, so this line resonated powerfully with me when I ran across it again. Whether it be the kulaks, the anarchists, the Jews, or someone else, it is easy to search for and find someone to blame when complex things go wrong. The truth is hard: bad things happen. Sometimes the causes do not admit of definitive explanation. Who is responsible may never become clear, and may even be a meaningless question if the situation is complex and its origins murky enough. To cave into the desire to scapegoat—and to indulge in the conspiratorial thinking that usually goes along with justifying the blame you have assigned—is to escape into fantasy and, not coincidentally, attempt to play god.

Sowell again:

The risks of making decisions with incomplete knowledge (there being no other kind) are part of the tragedy of the human condition. However, that has not stopped intellectuals [the subject of Sowell’s book] from criticizing the inherent risks that turn out badly in everything from pharmaceutical drugs to military operations—nor does it stop them from helping create a general atmosphere of unfulfillable expectations in which “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” become a thousand bases for lawsuits.

Compare this line from Isaiah Berlin, which I discovered via Alan Jacobs’s blog: “The sense of infallibility provided by fantasies is more exciting, but generates madness in societies as well as individuals.”

We’ve all seen control freaks lose it when something apparently minor and random upsets their applecart. (Or, if you haven’t seen it, perhaps we’ve been that control freak. I have.) It’s not hard to imagine the effects of that kind of tantrum on a society-sized scale.

Think of technocratic modernity’s general assumption that with enough knowledge and power you can control virtually anything, if not everything. Now consider the ferocity with which the Nazis persecuted the Jews or the Communists royalists, kulaks, or other “traitors.” The threat to their expected order proved so great that persecution was not enough—they sought to destroy them. And it’s worth noting that while both systems—both of which presumed an impossible degree of control over naturally chaotic things, race and the economy—had carefully calculated plans for destroying their enemies, some of the worst outbursts of violence came in the wake of disappointments. Look at the Holodomor, or the final months of the Third Reich.

To conclude with Sowell again, “a general atmosphere of unfulfillable expectations” would be a pretty good title for a history of the present age.

What's wrong, Chesterton?

February, a whole month of recurrent sickness—for me and my kids—heavy work projects, and terrible weather, has also accidentally turned into GK Chesterton month on my blog. I’ve posted on his attitude toward argument and controversy and the lack of any real controversy in his world—and ours—and I also looked at his enviable ability to laugh at himself. I’ll end the month with a tiny bit of Chesterton detective work.

G.K. Chesterton c. 1909

G.K. Chesterton c. 1909

Yesterday, a colleague pointed me toward this post on the most frequently misquoted Christian writers. Chesterton was on there for a number of quotes, misquotes, and apocryphal sayings, perhaps the most famous of which was this:

In answer to a newspaper’s question, “What is Wrong With the World?”  G. K. Chesterton wrote in with a simple answer: “Dear Sirs, I am.”

I’ve seen a couple different versions of this story with slight variations—sometimes Chesterton’s answer comes in response to a survey of journalists or something similar, sometimes it’s slightly wordier—but the gist is always the same, and it’s easy to see why it sticks around. It’s been quoted by present day evangelical writers as prominent as Tim Keller. It’s cheeky and succinct, worthy of a man who enjoyed his bon mots as much as his beer. But also not quite true.

If you want to confirm a quotation’s authenticity—and you should—it’s relatively easy, and this was easy to disprove, as there are plenty of places logging it as doubtful or inauthentic. Wikiquote includes it in its “misattributed” section on Chesterton’s page. The American Chesterton Society had a rather noncommittal post on the quotation a few years ago, as did a Chesterton enthusiast’s blog.

But as it happens, the latter blog post included a couple of important tidbits. First, it clarified the actual, correct wording of Chesterton’s reply:

In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question, “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby.

This, helpfully, provides a lot more context and explanation about what exactly Chesterton meant. It’s also a handy passage to plug into Google. But alas, nothing.

Second, the blogger’s post indicated that Chesterton’s letter came in response to another letter not from the Times, but from the Daily News—a newspaper founded by Charles Dickens, one of Chesterton’s literary heroes—and from a specific issue: August 16, 1905. I don’t know where the blogger dug this info up, but it was enough to go on. It turned out to be correct.

Having turned up nothing via Google, and beginning to suspect that this was either elaborately fabricated or a previously totally unavailable Chesterton essay, I searched for the Daily News itself. The paper merged with another in the 1910s and no longer exists, but a free trial of the British Newspaper Archive allowed me to look at digital scans of its entire archives and the specific issue of the paper noted in the blogger’s post.

And behold:

The  Daily News , August 16, 1905

The Daily News, August 16, 1905

Chesterton’s complete letter to the editor in response to “A Heretic,” and the germ of the oft-repeated misquotation, right there.

As I mentioned, I was flummoxed that this bit of Chesterton lore was unavailable anywhere online, especially since the misquoted version has proved so persistent and vexing. So I’ve transcribed the entire text of the letter and included it below so that the whole thing is available somewhere. I hope having the full text available will prove a good resource for anyone, like me, hunting for the source of that famous story. I’ve included a handful of hyperlinks to things that might clarify some of Chesterton’s allusions or asides.

Like all of Chesterton’s work, it’s amusing and thought-provoking. And despite coming early in his career—three years before his novel The Man Who Was Thursday, five before the book What’s Wrong with the World—and from a lost world—nine years before the First World War!—in many ways as alien to us now as the antebellum South, medieval Britain, or republican Rome, much of his concern is eerily prescient, particularly in an age of religious flabbiness, unease with the status quo, political strife, the squandering of inherited blessings, and increasingly insistent reliance on the State.

This was by no means a difficult bit of detective work—I’m no Father Brown—but I enjoyed the hunt, and I enjoyed reading a new bit of recovered GKC. I hope y’all enjoy and benefit from it as well.

* * * * *

From the Daily News, August 16, 1905

Sir,—I must warmly protest against people mistaking the uneasiness of “A Heretic” for a sort of pessimism. If he were a pessimist he would be sitting in an armchair with a cigar. It is only we optimists who can be angry.

Political or economic reform will not make us good and happy, but until this odd period nobody ever expected that they would.

One thing, of course, must be said to clear the ground. Political or economic reform will not make us good and happy, but until this odd period nobody ever expected that they would. Now, I know there is a feeling that Government can do anything. But if Government could do anything, nothing would exist except Government. Men have found the need of other forces. Religion, for instance, existed in order to do what law cannot do—to track crime to its primary sin, and the man to his back bedroom. The Church endeavoured to institute a machinery of pardon; the State has only a machinery of punishment. The State can only free society from the criminal; the Church sought to free the criminal from the crime. Abolish religion if you like. Throw everything on secular government if you like. But do not be surprised if a machinery that was never meant to do anything but secure external decency and order fails to secure internal honesty and peace. If you have some philosophic objection to brooms and brushes, throw them away. But do not be surprised if the use of the County Council water-cart is an awkward way of dusting the drawing-room.

In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby. But this original sin belongs to all ages, and is the business of religion. Is there something, as “Heretic” suggests, which belongs to this age specially, and is the business of reform? It is a dark matter, but I will make a suggestion.

Every religion, every philosophy as fierce and popular as a religion, can be regarded either as a thing that binds or a thing that loosens. A convert to Islam (say) can regard himself as one who must no longer drink wine; or he can regard himself as one who need no longer sacrifice to expensive idols. A man passing from the early Hebrew atmosphere to the Christian would find himself suddenly free to marry a foreign wife, but also suddenly and startlingly restricted in the number of foreign wives. It is self-evident, that is, that there is no deliverance which does not bring new duties. It is, I suppose, also pretty evident that a religion which boasted only of its liberties would go to pieces. Christianity, for instance, would hardly have eclipsed Judaism if Christians had only sat in the middle of the road ostentatiously eating pork.

Yet this is exactly what we are all doing now. The last great challenge and inspiration of our Europe was the great democratic movement, the Revolution. Everything popular and modern, from the American President to the gymnasium in Battersea Park, comes out of that. And this Democratic creed, like all others, had its two sides, the emancipation and the new bonds. Men were freed from the dogma of the divine right of Kings, but tied to the new dogma of the divine right of the community. The citizen was not bound to give titles to others, but was bound to refuse titles for himself. The new creed had its saints, like Washington and Hoche; it had its martyrs, it had even its asceticism.

Now to me, the devastating weakness of our time, the sin of the 19th century, was primarily this: That we chose to interpret the Revolution as a mere emancipation. Instead of taking the Revolution as meaning that democracy is the true doctrine, we have taken it as meaning that any doctrine is the true doctrine. Instead of the right-mindedness of the Republican stoics, we have the “broad-mindedness” of Liberal Imperialists. We have taken Liberty, because it is fun; we have left Equality and Fraternity, because they are duties and a nuisance. We have Liberty to be unequal. We have Liberty to be unfraternal. At the last we have Liberty to admire slavery. For this was the just and natural end of our mere “free-thinking”—the Tory Revival. Liberalism was supposed to mean liberty to believe in anything; it soon meant liberty to believe in Toryism. Democracy in losing the austerity of youth and its dogmas has lost all; it tends to be a mere debauch of mental self-indulgence, since by a corrupt and loathsome change, Liberalism has become liberality.—Yours, etc.,

G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton's enormous chivalry

I ran across this anecdote, headlined “A ‘Bus Story,” some years ago and unfortunately don’t have the original source written down. It sounds enough like Chesterton to count as what one of my college professors defined as an apocryphal story—“A story that probably isn’t true… but should be.”

GKC vanity fair.jpg

It is always said that no one enjoys a joke more than Chesterton, and, even when the jokes tells against himself, he never fails to be heard laughing above the whole company. It is related that a certain man told of an act of politeness he had witnessed. He had seen a man give up his seat in a tram-car to a lady. “That’s nothing,” said one of the company. “What about old Chesterton here? I saw him get up and give his seat to three ladies.” The company roared, but louder than the others was heard the jovial laughter of Chesterton. It is in more respects than one that Chesterton lays claims to “greatness.”

As evidenced by the many, many stories of Chesterton poking fun at his own size, he had an enviable ability to laugh at himself and see his own absurdity. Indeed, not thinking too much of oneself, being able to see one’s own absurdity, and to enjoy it, is a recurring theme through all of his work. From Orthodoxy:

Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one's self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.

And, from the same passage: “a characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

It’s telling that the theme of the joke in the above anecdote was chivalry; I don’t think, given Chesterton’s emphasis on not minding a joke at one’s own expense, that that is accidental. Chivalry, after all, is a code of deference, which means thinking of oneself less, cultivating an instinct to think of others first. Which is something I think all of us could stand a little more of. Because, as he noted in 1907, “there is no limit to the lunacy of men when they think themselves superior both to humility and laughter.” Which I think has been abundantly illustrated by now.

Food for thought. I know I struggle not to take myself so seriously and to put others ahead of myself. Both would be good habits to cultivate, and if it means I get to enjoy a good laugh—even at myself—more often, all the better.

Chesterton on controversy

…or the lack thereof. Alan Jacobs, in a post called “insincere controversialists” at his blog Snakes and Ladders, brought this passage from What’s Wrong With the World back to my attention this morning:

GKC 1904.jpg

Genuine controversy, fair cut and thrust before a common audience, has become in our special epoch very rare. For the sincere controversialist is above all things a good listener. The really burning enthusiast never interrupts; he listens to the enemy’s arguments as eagerly as a spy would listen to the enemy’s arrangements. But if you attempt an actual argument with a modern paper of opposite politics, you will find that no medium is admitted between violence and evasion. You will have no answer except slanging or silence. A modern editor must not have that eager ear that goes with the honest tongue. He may be deaf and silent; and that is called dignity. Or he may be deaf and noisy; and that is called slashing journalism. In neither case is there any controversy; for the whole object of modern party combatants is to charge out of earshot.

I’ve quoted a selection from this passage here before, in “Chesterton on arguing,” about his more charitable approach to arguing, back last summer. Chesterton published What’s Wrong With the World in 1910—four years before the First World War, in a different world entirely—but the situation has only deteriorated in the eleven intervening decades.

Without being too topical, and trying not to pick on any one person or group (for there is none righteous), I intentionally ignored the State of the Union Address last night. I had more important and meaningful things to do—children to feed and take care of, an old friend to meet up with, a wife to talk to, books to read. But I couldn’t help noticing that, all afternoon, the News app on my phone desperately wanted me to read some selections from Stacey Abrams’s forthcoming rebuttal to the forthcoming State of the Union. With assertions and responses already thus prearranged, with the “party combatants” thus arrayed for battle, would anyone actually be listening to the speech? Or to the other side at all?

I don’t think I have to provide an answer. Don’t bother listening to your opponents—which would actually be engaging with them—but valiantly attack into the safe space of your ideological bubble and give bold speeches about your side’s bravery and the enemy’s duplicity. I can’t improve on Chesterton’s wonderful phrase above:

 
there [is no] controversy; for the whole object of modern party combatants is to charge out of earshot.
 

Despite everything you see on the news—and, God help us, social media—we don’t actually have much controversy any more, but it’s not for lack of noise and strife. Our politics and combat are noisy because we’ve lost the ability to listen.

A sick man's appetite

Epic entrance: Ralph Fiennes as Gaius Marcius confronts the plebs in Fiennes’s film adaptation of  Coriolanus

Epic entrance: Ralph Fiennes as Gaius Marcius confronts the plebs in Fiennes’s film adaptation of Coriolanus

Kevin Williamson wrote an interesting piece recently on the acquiescence of major news organizations to the realities of Twitter mobs. He begins with a meditation on one of Shakespeare’s less well known plays, Coriolanus, and the amazing entrance of its title character, the Roman general Gaius Marcius Coriolanus.

In Scene I, Act I, Coriolanus confronts an angry mob of plebeians— “mutinous Citizens” armed “with staves, clubs, and other weapons,” according to Shakespeare’s stage directions—who threaten to riot over the price of bread. Though hostile to Coriolanus—no more than five lines into the play they call him the “chief enemy to the people”—upon his appearance they hail him as “noble Marcius.” Already having the measure of the mob, he responds with a putdown, and when their leaders say “We have ever your good word,” trying to initiate an exchange of flattery, Coriolanus launches into the first of his several short but savage speeches:

He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese: You are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,
Or hailstone in the sun. Your virtue is
To make him worthy whose offence subdues him
And curse that justice did it. Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate; and your affections are
A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favors swims with fins of lead
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust Ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. What's the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another? What's their seeking?

Williamson’s interest in his piece, prompted by this New York Times article and especially journalist Masha Gessen’s comments in it, is the capitulation of news organizations to social media mobs. The “morality clauses” discussed there seem to be—by the most charitable interpretation I’m capable of—legal mechanisms for covering a news organization’s butt, at the expense of its writers, in the event of a Twitter outrage mob. While I agree this is a risible, even craven trend which will only encourage online rabblerousers and Williamson argues his point eloquently, something else in Coriolanus’s introductory speech, something related but tangential to Williamson’s angle, stuck with me.

Near the middle of his harangue, Coriolanus tells the mob of angry citizens that “your affections are / A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that / Which would increase his evil.”

Can there be any better metaphor for our social media addiction?

Barring the word addiction itself—which is more literal than metaphorical now anyway—I don’t think so. We have a lot of electronic opiates available to us—games, memes, videos, gossip, pornography, and more, all of it soaked in one form of satisfied self-affirmation or another and a retreat from the world. But the most dangerous electronic drug has to be outrage, because unlike any of those others it imparts to the addict a sense of purpose and moral uprightness and, worst, an illusion of caring about the real world. And the more we indulge, the worse it gets.

I’ve been mulling over two examples for some time: one recent, one ancient history (by internet standards).

The first is last weekend’s Covington Catholic incident at the March for Life in Washington, DC, a story everyone, whether they like it or not, should be familiar with. I can’t add much to the discussion there—the misinformation, the superheated Twitter mob, the public pillorying, the death threats were all despicable, the more so for being a kneejerk reaction—but keep this example in mind.

The second example I observed by accident on Facebook a few months ago. A post from a Florida sheriff’s department popped up in my newsfeed because a friend from college—a Florida native serving in the Marines—commented on it. The headline was certainly attention grabbing: a Florida man (“Har har,” says the entire Internet instantaneously) had been reported to and arrested by this heroic sheriff’s department after he was observed having sex with a miniature horse. He immediately confessed. The post included details, a mugshot of the offender (a pretty ordinary looking 21-year old man), and—of course—a picture of the horse.

Fortunately, before simply clicking away in disgust, I decided to see what my friend had written in the comments. There were hundreds, and the story had been shared and “liked” nearly a thousand times. He asked, pretty simply, why the sheriff’s department was bothering to publicize this story. As replies stacked up under his comment, I realized there was more to the story than the sensationalism provided by the sheriff’s department: the suspect had severe mental handicaps requiring medication and had lived alone since his mother’s suicide.

In response to my friend’s honest and justifiably pointed “Why?” one commenter wrote: “To let us know what is going on I’d assume.” His reply: “What does this news do for you?”

What I realized in observing this exchange was that a sick man, having already lived through 21 years of difficulty and pain, was being paraded to the public by the authorities for clicks. What’s worse, as the responses to my friend made clear, the prurient Facebookers could justify their leering and hooting by invoking a vague “right to know.” The Victorians had their freak shows, something that should turn the stomachs of all of us; but we have Facebook, and we’re ready with the “likes.” Our response to a real life tragedy converted to electronic stimulus is mere consumption. The tiny number of commenters who were actually familiar with the situation expressed only sympathy, not outrage, disgust, or Bojack Horseman memes.

To return to Covington Catholic and the incident at the Lincoln Memorial, the best piece I’ve read so far on that debacle is this short essay by Julie Irwin Zimmerman at The Atlantic. Zimmerman was among the outraged as the story developed last weekend. She even began castigating her own kids—tellingly, via text message—about the story as it developed. Within two days, as a fuller picture emerged, her view changed and to her credit she repented. She writes:

Take away the video and tell me why millions of people care so much about an obnoxious group of high-school students protesting legalized abortion and a small circle of American Indians protesting centuries of mistreatment who were briefly locked in a tense standoff. Take away Twitter and Facebook and explain why total strangers care so much about people they don’t know in a confrontation they didn’t witness. Why are we all so primed for outrage, and what if the thousands of words and countless hours spent on this had been directed toward something consequential?

The same sentiment my friend had expressed, two months later and in entirely different circumstances. If there’s an upside to this shameful display, it’s that it's very publicity could make it a widely understood example, something we can learn from. But I doubt it.

Williamson, for his part, published a complementary piece this week that unpacks a little bit of what keeps the outrage snowball rolling: self-radicalization, self-selection (creating bubbles or echo chambers), extremism, and, perhaps most crucially, the absence of a hierarchy of credibility. “[T]he only hierarchy that remains,” he writes, “is the crude hierarchy of popularity.” Think of the likes, shares, and jocular comments on that pitiful personal tragedy in Florida trumpeted to the masses on a sheriff’s Facebook page. “Rage and extremism build audiences, especially on social media.” Think of Covington Catholic—or any one of hundreds of similar examples in the last few years. Anyone remember Justine Sacco?

And while it would be tempting, especially for those of us inclined to Luddism, to blame Twitter or smartphones, the truth is that we can’t just blame our technology “The news is there for people who want it,” Williamson writes. “The problem is: Most don’t.” We have to want the right things, and we don’t.

We are, as we try very hard to forget, the real problem. Shakespeare, through Coriolanus, anticipated this. “What’s the matter,” he asks in that first speech,

That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another?

The urge to outrage and mob violence and scapegoating is always there, but the beliefs, institutions, and practices that keep those urges at bay—religion, family, honor, government, law enforcement, established and credible news sources, personal virtue—are not, as we’ve learned. We are no longer awed by anything. How could we be? We have spent decades tearing them down and enjoying it. Now we live for our fix, to give in to our appetites. We’re sick. And absent a recovery of the qualities that keep our will to gawk, to leer, and to participate in others’ public calamities, we will only increase our evil.

As more and more examples make clear, the mutinous citizens, armed with their phones and Twitter and Facebook accounts, are more than willing to feed on one another.

Chesterton on bigotry as failure of imagination

Bigot has become one of our culture’s favorite devil terms—a “potent but vague” word that carries overwhelmingly negative baggage. The power of the devil term is such that if you can throw it at someone and make it stick even a little bit, they can be ruined. Often, the mere accusation is enough. I shouldn’t need to supply recent examples.

Unfortunately, the very vagueness of devil terms and the inevitable process of escalation in political rhetoric almost always lead to their promiscuous use and abuse. While bigot may be a rhetorical sidearm—second choice after the blunt-edged claymore of racist—these two and the even vaguer prejudice are frequently used as if they mean the same thing. They don’t.

Prejudice is a bit of a bugaboo, of course—we all have prejudices, our reason’s experience-based shorthand, so they need not be negative—and I don’t intend to peer into the dumpster fire that is the definition of racism. But bigot bridges the latter two in being, like racist, definitively bad and undesirable, and, like prejudice, so vague that it is often used to mean something else.

Here’s GK Chesterton, in a 1910 essay called “The Bigot,” on what bigotry actually means:

 
Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition.
 

And, from later in the same essay:

It is admitted, even in dictionaries, that an example assists a definition. I take an instance of the error of bigotry out of my own biography, so to speak. Nothing is more marked in this strange epoch of ours than the combination of an exquisite tact and sympathy in things of taste and artistic style, with an almost brutal stupidity in the things of abstract thought. A principal critic on the "New Age" made a remark about me a little while ago which amused me very much. After saying many things much too complimentary but marvelously sympathetic, and offering many criticisms which were really delicate and exact, he ended up (as far as I can remember) with these astounding words: "But I can never really feel a man to be my intellectual equal who believes in any dogma." It was like seeing a fine Alpine climber fall five hundred feet into the mud.

Bigotry [is] the failure of the mind to imagine any other mind.

For this last sentence is the old, innocent, and stale thing called Bigotry; it is the failure of the mind to imagine any other mind. My unhappy critic is among the poorest of the children of men; he has only one universe. Everyone, of course, must see one cosmos as the true cosmos; but "he" cannot see any other cosmos, even as a hypothesis.

Chesterton—who, as I’ve noted here before, didn’t mind a good argument—elaborates on this theme quite a lot in his work. There’s his famous line about open minds: “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” There’s this passage from “The Bigotry of the Rationalists,” published the same year as “The Bigot”: “There is no person so narrow as the person who is sure that he is broad; indeed, being quite sure that one is broad is itself a form of narrowness.”

From “The Bigot” again:

 
True liberality, in short, consists of being able to imagine the enemy.
 

Bigotry, in Chesterton’s view, is first and foremost self-deceit through pride. The bigot cheats himself out of the whole picture, out of the truth. Forget empathy—a favorite god term nowadays—bigotry is a failure of imagination. But mere “openmindedness,” tolerance’s lazy schoolmaster, is not the solution:

The free man is not he who thinks all opinions equally true or false; that is not freedom, but feeble-mindedness. The free man is he who sees the errors as clearly as he sees the truth.

A self-regarding insistence on one’s own broadmindedness is in fact as exclusive and narrow as an insistence that all members of X group behave in Y way, or that all adherents of X religion will themselves think Y about Z. The bigoted exist in Edwin A. Abbott’s Pointland: alone, dimensionless, with “no cognizance even of the number Two,” and content “to be vile and ignorant.”

But perhaps the most pervasive form of bigotry today is even worse for its dim awareness of other points of view: imagining the vast bigotry of our opponents and congratulating ourselves on our empathy and perspicacity, unaware, in our self-satisfaction, that we’re locked in an intellectual prison—one whose doors lock from the inside.