trusting the science, not the plan

At Commonweal, I have a brief cover essay on the January 6 Capitol insurrection and QAnon, the far-right theory that—among other beliefs—claims cultural and political elites from the Clintons to Bill Gates are covert pedosatanists intent on destroying America. Recent writing from the New Yorker and the Atlantic has painted QAnon as a “new religion” that has abandoned “reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values,” but I think this religious framing misses the mark. In light of the overwhelming complexity of our overlapping crises and QAnon’s stubborn “pretension of omniscience,” I revisit the writings of Walter Lippmann to argue that Q’s followers should be seen not so much as “a sect of believers with scriptures and sacraments” but instead as a mob of “self-deluded know-it-alls.” And acting out of epistemic hubris, of course, never ends well:

But these clips of the Capitol riots underscore the perils of confident prediction. After the so-called QAnon Shaman scribbled “It’s only a matter of time, justice is coming!” on a Senate desk, he led his fellow insurrectionists in triumphant prayer, their hands aloft: “Thank you, divine, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent creator God, for blessing each and every one of us.” They assumed that Providence had led them there and would grant them “the divine and omnipresent white light of love and protection.” But the Storm passed, Trump surrendered. QAnon’s prideful omniscience collapsed at the moment of Joe Biden’s pious request—“So help me God”—and prophecy turned out to be fantasy. Our present is the one End of Days they had never predicted, every arrest a rapture, every mugshot a revelation.

Read the rest in the June issue of Commonweal.

laudamus veteres, sed nostris utimur annis

North Higgins Lake State Park

At last, 2020 disappears in our rear-view mirror. In the rush to January and in the quiet of the woods, I forgot to post a couple new reviews for the Latinists, one in Gnomon and another in Commonweal.

At Commonweal, I praise Nicola Gardini’s Long Live Latin, an “unapologetic paean to Latin literary craft,” for its “undiluted accounts of linguistic novelty in Propertius and branching syntax in Livy” and its rich treatments of a dozen other Latin authors. I’m especially interested in Gardini’s intended readership of “young students,” who would seem under-prepared for his wrought and learned prose—but I interpret this orientation as a feature, not a bug:

The positioning of Latin among other emblems of high culture is likely to resurrect the charge of snobbery or even classism—the charge that for Gardini, Latin is a subject championed by, and reserved for, the well-to-do. But the explicit targeting of a young readership might be the best defense against such accusations. Where I grew up, for instance, there are no Latin teachers and no literature professors, and Gardini’s overtly intellectual chapters often made me think what a revelation this book would have been to me if I had read it as a teenager. In that sense, Long Live Latin may be suited less for the young person at the posh prep school in New York or New England. Classics and other humanistic disciplines continue to grapple with their inaccessibility to those outside these topmost echelons of privilege, and in the spirit of the book’s intended readership, I wish it were vigorously marketed to a broader, younger audience.

Read more on Julius Caesar’s theory of analogy and Tertullian’s penchant for “paradox and oxymoron” at Commonweal.

At Gnomon, I recommend Eleanor Dickey’s Stories of Daily Life as a potent and accessible entry point for understanding non-literary dimensions of the ancient world. Dickey “packs into one slim volume quotidian but illustrative stories that show modern students many aspects of life in antiquity—banking, dining, schooling—aspects which can be difficult to excavate from some of the more literary sources students might encounter in secondary school or early university-level courses.” The review text is behind a paywall, but you can read the rest at Gnomon through your institutional library.

the year all music was house music

Víkingur Ólafsson, Debussy — Rameau: A couple years ago Ólafsson recorded a clear, warm Bach album (which in turn spawned a bizarrely Nordic music video). I think I like his new album of Debussy and Rameau solo piano works even more: it’s a rewarding across-the-centuries tour of French harmonics. And of course, it comes with its own quirky music video, this one for a sublime, suspended-in-air piano transcription from a Rameau opera.

Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud: Reviews of Waxahatchee’s new album have often compared it to Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, an all-time favorite album from my early adulthood spent driving across the Mississippi River. Those comparisons draw not just on the Southern-ness of the two albums, but on the foregrounding of “placeness” in both. Instead of Lake Charles, here we get West Memphis; instead of imagistic lyrics for a Delta juke joint, here we get “folding chairs, American flags, selling tomatoes at five bucks a bag.” Saint Cloud is the road trip you didn’t take in 2020.

Jeff Parker, Suite for Max Brown: I wrote about Parker’s album earlier this year and its opening admonitions to “Build a Nest.” We’re still nesting, almost a year on, but this album hasn’t grown stale one bit. My old roommate summed up its ten-minute closing track as “underworld music for some impossibly hip” Super Mario game, and Parker saturates almost every track with harmonically rich guitar work. One track (“Metamorphoses”) could have come straight off an old Tortoise album, too.

Artemis, Artemis: It was an especially good year for Cécile McLorin Salvant, but this all-female jazz super-group (whose seven members include her) shares joint responsibility and joint praise for this debut album. On some tracks, you can hear how one of these world-class musicians takes the lead—Allison Miller’s drumming on “Goddess of the Hunt,” for example, and Anat Cohen’s clarinet on “Nocturno.” But even if each member of Artemis could headline a concert herself, we get an album that miraculously balances seven heavyweights in equipoise.

Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters: Fiona Apple launched her career from the piano bench, but her latest albums have shown her knack for the percussive tap and clang. This last album’s title song, which layers noise upon noise upon upright bass, came at the just the moment when the whole country had already learned to mumble her lyrics, “I’ve been in here too long.” And the final track, too, captures our appetite for bursting out of collective restlessness. In 2021, we will all “move to move.”