Posts Tagged ‘Andrew Sullivan’

Andrew Sullivan on living-in-the-web: “It broke me. It might break you, too.”

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016
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Getting off the grid. (Photo: Trey Ratcliff)

Author, journalist, blogger Andrew Sullivan has been a kind friend to the Book Haven over the years, picking up our posts in The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, and in his blog “The Daily Dish” – we’ve written about it here and here and here. Then last year he discontinued his blog – burned out, needed to get off the grid, he said.

I understood. Being online, all the time, had affected my own ability to read, think, and focus. Nowadays, I find it requires discipline to read a few pages without compulsively leaping up to google an unfamiliar word or doublecheck a random fact. But I’d never escalated to the hepped-up scale he did.

He tells his story in New York Magazineand it’s a riveting read, and a black warning. Here’s an excerpt:

For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.

I was, in other words, a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years wentby, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had long been — and even more prolific. Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.

If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”

But the rewards were many: an audience of up to 100,000 people a day; a new-media business that was actually profitable; a constant stream of things to annoy, enlighten, or infuriate me; a niche in the nerve center of the exploding global conversation; and a way to measure success — in big and beautiful data — that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego. If you had to reinvent yourself as a writer in the internet age, I reassured myself, then I was ahead of the curve. The problem was that I hadn’t been able to reinvent myself as a human being.

invisibleAnd that, of course, is the point, isn’t it? As I wrote in the introduction to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz

Few can deny the dizzying rate of social and technological upheaval in the information age, where we communicate in real time with Peru and tweet back what we hear, yet human greed, cowardice, and power-lust remains essentially the same. That acceleration, juxtaposed with man’s fallibility, is very much to the point.

One metric for measuring the chasm pertains to what Miłosz called être and devenir. (Or, to put a Thomist slant on it, heuses the Latin esse elsewhere.) When I interviewed him at his legendary Grizzly Peak home a decade ago, I asked him about être and devenir. He dodged the question: “My goodness. A big problem,” he said.

Saint_Thomas_Aquinas

Esse.

After some hesitation, however, he elaborated. “We are in a flux, of change. We live in the world of devenir. We look at the world of être with nostalgia. The world of essences is the world of the Middle Ages, of Thomas Aquinas. In my opinion, it is deadly to be completely dissolved in movement, in becoming. You have to have some basis in being.

In general, the whole philosophy of the present moment is post-Nietzsche, the complete undoing of essences, of eternal truths. Postmodernism consists in denying any attempt at truth.

Read Andrew Sullivan’s piece here. As he writes: “An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too.”

Philip Larkin on WWI: “Never such innocence again.”

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014
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Larkin at Oxford in 1943, before “the failures and remorse of age.”

W.H. Auden‘s “September 1, 1939” was a World War II poem, without a single gun in it, and then had a powerful revival on 9/11. The New York Times recounted its newfound fame:

”Auden’s words are everywhere,” wrote the author of a ”Letter From New York” in The Times Literary Supplement of London. At least a half-dozen major newspapers reprinted ”September 1, 1939” in its entirety. It was read on National Public Radio. It was introduced into hundreds of chat rooms on the Internet. In the Chicago area, the Great Books Foundation and The Chicago Tribune sponsored discussions of it. Students at Stuyvesant High School, four blocks from ground zero in Manhattan, produced a special issue of their school newspaper (which The New York Times distributed to its readers in the metropolitan area) prominently featuring one of the poem’s most familiar lines, ”We must love one another or die.”

Surely, however, it shared the somber honors with Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” which appeared on the back cover of the New Yorker after 9/11.

zagajewski

Praising the mutilated world…

Could the poem for World War I be Philip Larkin‘s MCMXIV? It’s getting a lot of play this month, during the centenary of the beginning of the Great War.  The poem was first published in 1964, fifty years after the events it describes, in the collection Whitsun Weddings. 

A few words from critics about Larkin that I found along the way: Andrew Sullivan feels that Larkin “has spoken to the English in a language they can readily understand of the profound self-doubt that this century has given them.” X.J. Kennedy wrote that Larkin’s oeuvre is  “a poetry from which even people who distrust poetry, most people, can take comfort and delight.” J. D. McClatchy said that Larkin wrote “in clipped, lucid stanzas, about the failures and remorse of age, about stunted lives and spoiled desires.”

XCMXIV is only one remarkable sentence long  (mind the punctuation), and describes the enlistment of naïve young men at the war’s outset. Read it, and hear it, in the video below.

 

Weekend roundup: John Lennon, W.H. Auden, Geoffrey Hill, Danilo Kiš, and Dana Gioia

Sunday, December 8th, 2013
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Yoko Ono: Passages for Light

Yoko and me in 2009 (Photo: Toni Gauthier)

Today is the somber anniversary of John Lennon‘s assassination in 1980. In tribute, my sister, an indefatigable Beatles fan, posted my photo with his widow Yoko Ono on my Facebook page. I’ll do the same for the Book Haven – at left.

Meanwhile, a few articles culled from the weekend:

In The Telegraph today here, Alexander McCall Smith, author of What W.H. Auden Can Do for You (I know, I know…a utilitarian approach to the poet) picks out his five favorite W.H. Auden poems.  He has excellent taste. In fact, it coincides largely with my own.

mccall-smith-auden“In Praise of Limestone” and “Lullaby,” two personal favorites, are on his list. He calls the latter “one of the finest love poems in the English language.” I couldn’t agree more. As for the latter, “Who would have thought that there was so much to say about limestone and its merits?” Actually, I find his endorsement of limestone somewhat ambiguous. See what you think in the video below. In any case, I love the lines “The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,/Having nothing to hide.”  Joseph Brodsky shuffled over this line with one of his odd smiles, where the ends of his mouth went up while the center stayed down in a sort of suppressed chuckle.  “Tautological,” as I recall he said.

geoffrey-hillGeoffrey Hill isn’t a difficult poet, he is “one nut to crack among many,” according to Jeremy Noel-Tod, reviewing the poet’s latest volume, Broken Hierarchies, over here at The Sunday Times, if you can crack the paywall.  I can’t.

kisThis isn’t a new article, but one I finally got ’round to reading, to my profit: Adam Thirlwell considers the staggering neglect of Danilo Kiš, one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, which is “morally and aesthetically, a scandal. It’s also, I think, some kind of literary koan or mystery. The optimist might try to analyse the possible pragmatic reasons for his obscurity – such as that comical bird perching on the final letter of his name; or his reckless savagery towards every ideology, menacing both the Right and the Left; or his political bad luck, to die shortly before the wars in Yugoslavia made the lands of his birth briefly famous, albeit for the wrong reasons. But none of these seems adequate. Or this optimist might then urbanely lament Kiš’s own lack of urbanity, his legendary irritable boredom with the world of social appearances.” One redress is Mark Thompson‘s inventive and erudite new biography-of-sorts, Birth Certificate.  Read about it at the Times Literary Supplement here.

DanaGioiaDana Gioia has always been upfront about his roots: “I think that being proud of your religion, your culture, and your ethnicity is the beginning of revival for Catholic artistic culture. As an individual, I refuse to be ashamed of my faith, my culture, or my family background.” Even more so now:  he’s written about the decline of Catholic culture in an essay entitled “The Catholic Writer Today.”  The article (here) was trapped behind a paywall several weeks ago, but has been officially liberated, and so was picked up this weekend by Andrew Sullivan today here, and has also been picked up here and here and here and here.  Dana has never shied away from controversy – his essay “Can Poetry Matter?” is still a gold standard for controversy, generating a record avalanche of mail after it was published in The Atlantic Monthly.  Looks like he’s about to do it again.

 

Two Gioias for the price of one: on family, religion, the arts … and Stanford, too

Saturday, November 16th, 2013
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Tireless advocate of the arts, Dana Gioia (Photo L.A. Cicero)

Dana and Ted Gioia are two of my favorite people – but I haven’t had the opportunity to see the jazz scholar (Ted) and the poet (Dana) together.

So journalist Andrew Sullivan brought them together for me, or rather brought my attention to those who have brought them together.  Sullivan, who has been a friend of the Book Haven in the past, mentioned this quote from Ted in his recent post “Finding Sustenance for the Soul”:

“Those committed to a spiritual life understand what popular culture hasn’t yet learned (or is afraid to admit)—namely that the hunger of the soul cannot be satiated with sugary sweets and shallow entertainments.  Somewhere along the way, many people got the idea that the religious sphere and artistic sphere are at odds with each other.  I believe the opposite is true.  Both the arts and spiritual discernment broaden our perspectives and enrich our lives, and in very similar ways.

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All that jazz from Ted Gioia

“This was the single greatest lesson I learned from my years studying philosophy at Oxford—namely that the pervasive empiricism of modern life, which only accepts what it sees and quantifies, is ultimately a brutish philosophy.  The most important things in life cannot be seen with the eyes or measured with charts and numbers.  They are love, trust, faith, friendship, forgiveness, charity, hope, the soul, and the creative impulse.  You cannot live as a human without these, although you can’t even prove scientifically that any one of them actually exists.  They are metaphysical (a word used as an insult by my philosophy teachers, but their scorn was mistaken, in my opinion). To embrace these crucial aspects of our life, we must turn to art and religion. This hasn’t changed in the last two thousand years.  Nor will it change in the next two thousand years.”

Now I will bring them together, too, in this post.  You can read the rest of their interview on faith, family, the arts, the humanities, and, yes, Stanford (including its jazz), “The Arts—Agents of Change and Source of Enchantment,” here.

Shocking! Auden on Austen. (And why is Darcy such a jerk, anyway?)

Sunday, January 20th, 2013
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“…everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together…”

You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
Beside her, Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

 

Shocked, shocked I tell you.

That’s W.H. Auden writing about Jane Austen, the poet one small consonant away from sharing her surname.  The poem is his 1937 “Letter to Lord Byron.”

In this weekend’s Independent, John Walsh explores the eternal question:  “Why is Mr. Darcy such an asshole?”  Actually, I’d never thought of it quite that way before, but Walsh points out that the character who is seen as noble and heroic acts like a complete jerk for the most of the novel:

“Has a supposedly romantic hero ever seemed less agreeable, less attractive or less charming? At a dance, he tells Bingley, in everyone’s hearing, that it would be a punishment for him to dance with any of the ladies present. What, Bingham asks, about Lizzie Bennet? Darcy regards our lively, clever, witty heroine and says, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”

This is not ‘pride’. It’s rudeness, bad manners, the words of (let us not mince words here) a stuck-up fool. We know he is ‘well-bred’ – can breeding make one so socially maladroit? He is hopeless at conversation. He is rude to Miss Bingley. He is awkwardly icy with Lizzie. Even when he finally proposes to her, he’s unforgiveably rude about her mother’s vulgarity, her own ‘inferiority’ and how degrading it would be for him to marry her. He admits, without apology, trying to derail the romance between Lizzie’s sister Jane and Bingley. The reader may be forgiven for wondering when any recognisably heroic virtues will appear.”

On the shelf…

Yet, in the second half of the book: “He’s discovered at his mansion, Pemberley, being charming, attentive and kind. We hear about his man-of-action heroics in persuading Wickham to marry Lydia. What has brought about this transformation?”  May I suggest that Lizzie is a mere 20 years old, and Darcy 28?  Who is not a jerk at such ages?  Who does not have scores of memories of behaving poorly at such an age?

Walsh theorizes instead that Darcy reconsiders Lizzie after he three-mile walk through the mud to visit her sister who has taken ill at Bingley’s home.  According to Andrew Davies, who adapted the book for the BBC, “She happens to bump into Mr Darcy just as he’s coming out of the house, and he finds that he responds very well to her looks. So I wrote in a stage direction: ‘Darcy is surprised to find that he has an instant erection’. I felt obliged to add, ‘I don’t mean we need to focus on his trousers, just that it’s what should be going through the actor’s mind’. Darcy’s obviously turned on by this heart-throbbing, muddy, warm girl.”

Well, that’s one interpretation. May I suggest a less obvious one in our modern times?  Lizzie, up to that point in the novel, has appeared to Mr. Darcy as little more than a smart-ass who excels at pertness.  In this incident, she displays loyalty, tenacity, and character – and it evokes the same in response.  Not as sexy, admittedly, but a more enduring reaction.

Worthy.

Walsh explores Jane Austen’s brief Christmas romance with the charming Tom Lefroy in 1795.  “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together,” she teased her sister in a letter.  The gentleman’s family was alarmed, and whisked him back to the bar (no, not that kind of a bar – the legal profession).  He was expected to become a barrister and pull the family’s economic sled, otherwise others might have to get off their duffs and work.

Austen did not rebound from the Christmas romance quickly.

But Walsh doesn’t say what happens next.  Austen’s romantic hero was worthy of her: he became as MP for the constituency of Dublin University, Privy Councillor of Ireland, and eventually Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.  When Austen died in 1817, he traveled from Ireland to England to pay his respects.  A “Tom Lefroy” even bought at auction one of the early rejection letters she received for her novel, already a valuable record of poor literary judgment.

At the end of his life, he admitted to having loved Austen. His nephew wrote: ” My late venerable uncle … said in so many words that he was in love with her, although he qualified his confession by saying it was a boyish love. As this occurred in a friendly & private conversation, I feel some doubt whether I ought to make it public.” Probably a wise move.  Lafroy’s eldest daughter, born June 24, 1802, was named  Jane Christmas Lefroy.

About the time of Lefroy’s visit, Jane was penning the novel that would become Pride and Prejudice.  Some speculate that Lefroy is the model for Darcy.  Others claim that the author herself is the reserved Mr. Darcy, and that Lefroy is the teasing, lively Lizzie.  I’ll make a third suggestion.  Lefroy is the model for the lively, amiable Bingley, who appears casual in his affections even when he is deeply engaged.  And perhaps Jane saw herself in Lizzie’s sister, also named Jane, whose quiet love persisted long after the romance was over.

Postscript: Jane Austen’s best marriage proposals are the ones that end up in a fistfight. In fact, the successful proposals happen offstage or through paraphrase, anyway. This one is much better on the page than onscreen, but still…

Postscript on 1/28:  And we got some nice pick-up on this from our old friend Andrew Sullivan over at the Daily Beast.  His piece, “The Cost of Love,”  is here. What fun!

Kind of cool: Andrew Sullivan, Czesław Miłosz, the Book Haven and moi

Saturday, February 18th, 2012
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"That's me."

Andrew Sullivan‘s “The Dish”  picked up one of our posts over at the Daily Beast.  Not that we noticed.  We were in Paris at the time – but a friend tipped us off today.

It’s not the first time we’ve rubbed elbows.  He kindly picked up our “Orwell Watch” gripe on the much-abused phrase, “I take responsibility for…”  And we wrote about one of his posts about the ideas of René Girard over here.

In the February 5 post, he quotes Czesław Miłosz‘s poem, “At a Certain Age.”  Here’s the unfortunate part, though:  He left off the punchline(s).

Oh well.  As he pointed out, you can read the whole poem here.

And read the post he mentions, “The Final Dwarf of You,” where (as he puts it), I “examine” old age.  As well as Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot.  It’s here.

(Doesn’t really need to be “examined” … rather it something to be endured.  If one is lucky.)

 

More on “taking responsibility” and other hackneyed phrases

Monday, June 13th, 2011
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(Image adapted from the Tumblr this isn't happiness, via ffffound)

(Image adapted from the Tumblr this isn't happiness, via ffffound)

My call to arms a few days ago (“Orwell watch #9:  ‘I take full responsibility for...'”) was picked up by Andrew Sullivan in The Daily Beasthere.  The passage he highlights:

I suspect the phrase “take responsibility for” is actually a journalists’ invention, and people like Weiner picked it up from the media, rather than his heartfelt intentions. As George Orwell said in “Politics and the English Language,” this one could be “killed by the jeers of a few journalists.” I call out to journalists everywhere to jeer this phrase out of existence – unless it really means taking responsibility, the way I “took responsibility” for, say, raising a child, by paying for her upbringing, nursing her through illness,  attending back-to-school days, and preparing dinner every night.

Sure would be nice if we could we could drive this phrase into late-night comedy, wouldn’t it?  This expression has been due for the slaughterhouse since the IRA mayhem in the 1960s, and has made its small contribution to dulling our sense that words have meaning, and are meant to convey our feelings, thoughts, and intentions – not conceal them.

Language fails

Meanwhile, the post generated some interesting conversation over at Frank Wilson‘s Books Inq. I was singled out, rightly, for a little criticism from Art Durkee:  “Calling [Osama] bin Laden‘s death ‘liquidation’ is also pretty Orwellian, it seems to me. Let’s call a spade a spade: it was a retaliatory political assassination.  But then, a great deal of political euphemism is and always has been Orwellian.”

Liquidation is indeed a strange term – did he dissolve into water? “Liquidation” sounds like the final sale at a failing bookstore, anyway. A colleague corrected me when I said “murder,” arguing that murder was a legal term, calling for the prosecution of the murderer.  One is at a loss – what neutral term can one say nowadays? Osama bin Laden’s “offing”?

Art’s p.o.v.:

“I don’t think there is a neutral term. I think you have to call an assassination what it is.

I think we have to be honest when murder is murder, and not whitewash it. (The best argument, for example, that I’ve heard against the death penalty is that it means that murder is criminalized for anyone to commit except the state.) Similarly, assassination needs to be called what it is, and acknowledged as the political tool it has always been, sanctioned or otherwise.

History may show if this particular sanctioned assassination (sometimes called a ‘sanction,’ or ‘termination with extreme prejudice’) was the right and good thing to do. Lots of people are claiming that already, but they’re also ignoring what making someone into a martyr can do. It’s a tricky call, and those who set policy ought to lose sleep over it.

But that’s the whole pattern that Orwell pointed out, isn’t it: the neutralization of language into mechanical, denatured, unemotional, technical terminology that allows one to deal with humans as dehumanized. Turn people into inhuman statistics, and you can sleep at night when you talk about ‘collateral damage,’ or ‘friendly fire,’ for example. Do that kind of neutralization of language enough, and you dehumanize yourself as well, Orwell warned.”

And so did Mark Twain, in ‘The Way Prayer.'”

Thoughts?

René Girard, meet Terry Jones, Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, and the gang

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010
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Avoiding crowds (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A brief conversation with Martha and René Girard brought forth the startling fact that René had made an unaccustomed appearance in Andrew Sullivan’s Dish blog over the weekend.  The subject was, of all things, would-be Koran-burner Terry Jones.

Quietly nestled among his posts on the sex lives and habits of other people is  “What Qu’ran Burning and Crucifixion Have in Common.” Sullivan cites an article by Eric Reitan:

[A]t least one theologian—S. Mark Heim—has taken up Girardian themes to argue that the crucifixion is best understood as a potent repudiation of sacrificial scapegoating… If Heim is right about this, then Jones and Phelps and their respective congregations are symbolically enacting the very thing that the passion stories central to Christianity were intended to repudiate. Where they are called to see the crucified Christ in those who are being symbolically burned at the stake, they instead see a righteous sacrifice to God. Where they are called to identify with the victim of sacrificial scapegoating, they become the practitioners.

Reitan’s article adds:

Some, such as Christopher Hitchens, would see such sacrificial scapegoating as a natural extension of Christian theology—which, after all, has at its heart the doctrine of the vicarious atonement, which Hitchens finds an appalling extension of the idea that wrongs can be righted by sacrificing an innocent scapegoat to God.  But the crucifixion, like book burning, is a complex symbol.

Of course, what Reitan calls Heim’s idea is not Heim’s idea at all.  René Girard himself has written  — for example, in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning — that  “the Gospels are aware of what they are doing. They not only tell the truth about victims unjustly condemned, but they know they are telling it, and they know that in speaking the truth they are taking again the path of the Hebrew Bible.”

But more and more I find myself coming back to the René’s writings about the role of the mob, which seems very apropos  to the discussion at hand:

In a society that has fallen prey to anarchy, the voracious appetite for persecution feeds on victims indiscriminately, as long as they are weak and vulnerable.  The least pretext is enough.  No one really cares about the guilt or innocence of the victim.  These two words, without cause, marvelously describe the behavior of human packs.

W.H. Auden wrote put it this way:

… the crowd rejects no one, joining the crowd is the only thing all men can do.Only because of that can we sayall men are our brothers …

Auden understood

With the inevitable consequences:

All if challenged would reply– ‘It was a monster with one red eye,
A crowd that saw him die, not I. —

Reitan seems to be haunted by the same theme.  He writes that “the nation has, through extensive media attention, conferred on this tiny congregation an enormous power it otherwise wouldn’t have—a power to make their symbolic violence do more actual harm than it otherwise might have done, to make their vicarious scapegoating less vicarious, and so to more effectively reach their intended targets.”

He concludes:

The media rushes to the next dramatic spectacle because to do so will attract ratings. And why does it attract ratings? A congregation of 50 can hardly be blamed for that. All of us in our own ways play the roles of betrayer, deserter, and denier. And while we should not condone the Dove Center’s desire to burn Muslims in effigy—nor should we fail to repudiate it when it becomes a public spectacle—it is important that our response not re-enact on another symbolic level the very pattern of sacrificial scapegoating that we repudiate.

In others words, societies of hundreds of millions of people have many subsets, niches, and off-the-beaten-track pockets.  The scapegoat-maker in one subset becomes the scapegoat of another.  As Girard writes, “Persecutors think they are doing good, the right thing; they believe they are working for justice and truth; they believe they are saving their community.”

On both sides of a discussion, too.