Reflections on 2018

I’ll remember 2018 for what felt like an impossible task: restarting, from scratch, my doctoral studies. I haven’t shared much publicly about why I left Brown or why I’m returning to grad school, but maybe the last day of a long year is right for stories of renewal.

I left Brown in 2014. For three years I’d labored through a depressive fog, my first and only encounter with mental illness. I almost didn't make it. When the depression lifted I found that I'd gained weight, amassed a shocking amount of debt, and accomplished hardly research. My project on the common good was more conviction than argument. I returned home to Missouri in 2014 to reorient, and since Brown didn’t have a leave policy that fit my situation, I had to quit the program.

I was adrift. I buried my theory books in the basement. Having failed, I hoped to forget.

Then came Brexit and Trump. I went for a long walk the morning after the 2016 election, and by the time I got home my account of the common good—which had been just out of intellectual reach at Brown—was clear. I spent the next nine days typing out a 20,000-word fever dream. The result was a new model of politics... and it was entirely unconvincing.

Few things are more humbling than facing, all at once, the bulk of your ignorance, and I saw that if this new project were ever to be any good, I’d need to finish my training. So I got to work reading and writing and discovering—for the first time—how to actually do scholarship. I applied for readmission to Brown in 2017, and though my committee supported me (bless them), the department declined on grounds of limited slots and my prospective sixth-year student.

That rejection would have brought 2011 Jason back to despondency, but I was stronger now, and I had purpose. I’d start from the beginning if I had to.

And here, dear reader, began the real trial, for the shame of the intervening years—quitting and moving in with family and working a string of menial rural jobs—was nothing compared to the obstacle ahead: I’d have to retake the GRE, and that meant learning math.

Not relearning. Learning. I’d left my little country high school functionally innumerate—not uncommon in the Ozarks—which meant sitting down 15 years later, pulling up Khan Academy, and fumbling through the addition of two-digit numbers. Long division made as much sense as divination. But after a lifetime of excusing myself as a words guy, it turns out that is amazing. I can’t learn enough now.

And here we are at year’s end. The applications are (mostly) in, I’ve got an article on Rousseau that shows potential, and after a couple months of study I did just fine on the GRE. The closing months of 2018 have been among the hardest I’ve known, but they’re over now, and in a few weeks I can rest.

Why mention all this? Partly because I’m celebrating today, and thought you might like to join me. But mainly because I want to share my failures here before I share any success. Social media gives lives an unnatural shine. In 2011 I needed to know I wasn’t flailing alone, but I was too inward to talk about the struggle. In case some friends feel the same today, I offer my story.

So here’s to 2018, a very human year. Let’s see what 2019 has in store.

The Good Stuff: 2018 Edition

I’m a sucker for retrospectives. In case you are too, here’s the best of what changed me in 2018. (I’m excluding published academic work because, well, where to start?)

Bryan Caplan’s “Ideological Turing Test” changed how I think about disagreement. Here’s a good introduction:

Studies like this one led me to leave my phone elsewhere while I’m working.

Apple’s new Screen Time feature forced me to confront my phone overuse. I’ve since deleted most fun apps, and it’s been liberating.

Michael Huemer’s succinct argument for vegetarianism convinced me to commit fully in 2019.

That’ll be easier after discovering that vegan food can be just as good as the animal stuff. Of everything I cooked in 2018, this was the most revelatory dish:

More revelatory still was devising a process to freeze coffee beans.

Tyler Cowen reminded me to reflect back others' potential (and be grateful for those who've done so for me).

I began to worry that some liberty-minded folks confuse prosperity with fairness.

This lecture by Jacob Levy changed my views on American liberty (and taught me how to deal with bad audience questions).

Nancy Duarte helped me see a rhetorical strategy common to great speeches.

I found that Stephen Fry had summarized (in that sonorous voice) my views on theism.

(If the Lord does exist, His work looks like Rebecca Traister helping men make sense of #metoo.)

The Aubrey/Maturin audiobooks have been a constant delight this year. Smart, beautifully written, and surprisingly philosophical. Get the Patrick Tull readings.

And finally, I was deeply moved by this documentary about Fred Rogers, perhaps the most virtuous man of our time.

The Social Problem with Evangelicalism

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Evangelicalism. What’s been troubling me is this: Evangelicals cannot accept that there’s more than one way to live well. (That may be true of most fundamentalisms, but I’ll treat the case closest to home. And obviously I’m considering only popular doctrine; this won’t hold true for everyone who claims the mantle.) Socially, this means on principle that they cannot treat non-adherents as equals. Personally, it means they cannot show them love.

Evangelicals talk a lot about being “sanctified,” set apart from “the world.” That may seem innocuous—communities are by definition set apart in some sense—but in practice it means feeling set apart from this person and that person. And not just set apart, but superior. Spiritually better, of another kind altogether. Evangelicals view neighbors with a kind of pity, and are rather uninterested in understanding the depths of others' beliefs. Indeed, these are often threatening. (To choose one example among many: I couldn't listen to secular music until I left for college.) They cannot countenance that there are many different ways to be good and live a good life.

I’m mostly interested in the personal problem: Evangelicals think this distancing is compatible with loving their neighbor, when in fact it cuts them off from genuine love. They can show loving acts but not agape. That’s because their love always attaches to some imaginary version of the person rather than the person themselves, accepted for who they are.

Suppose someone says “I love you, and I can’t wait for you to look like a young Brad Pitt.” We’d think this a strange sort of love! Now it’s perfectly possible to love someone and wish they’d change at the margins: lose a little weight, stop smoking, drive better, etc. (Ask any married couple.) But at some point, asking someone to change too much feels akin to asking that they become someone else, and that no longer feels like love.

Love, we think, requires deep acceptance.

It also requires a desire that the other person should flourish, and—here’s the crucial part—flourish on their own terms. Again, we’d think it a curious kind of love to say “I want you to flourish in exactly the way I prescribe.” That’s not love, it’s dominion. And yet that’s exactly the sentiment Evangelicals repeat to friends and loved ones; there’s only one right way to live—how lucky that believers stumbled upon it out of infinite possibilities!—and anyone who chooses otherwise is defective, is lacking in a real sense.

I don’t see any way for Evangelicals to stick to their literal interpretation of scripture—which says that everyone must believe exactly as they do (even other believers!)—while also showing genuine love to others.