An Englishman in Poland
Arc Conversation 2: Ben Sixsmith
In this Arc Conversation, I talk to writer Ben Sixsmith about the dawn of a new online blogosphere, religion’s influence on society, his writing habits, his favorite work of literature, and more.
What’s one design feature on Twitter that you would change to make the site better?
I would make it impossible to post GIFs. They suck.
Do you have a writing routine? A preferred time of day to write? A favorite place to write? How long are your writing sessions?
I have a day job with irregular hours, so my writing schedule is pretty uneven.
Actually, let me just stop myself there. I was going to complain about that and then I realized that a lot of writers have kids. Kids! How do you guys pull that off?
Still, I will write anytime and anywhere. If you want to be at all prolific when you are not doing this full-time, you cannot be too precious about your working conditions. I write when I wake up, and before I go to sleep, and in 10-minute breaks, and on the bus, and in the supermarket.
A lot of my articles are written on my battered old mobile phone that I dropped in the bath more than a year ago. It died for a few days and then miraculously sprang back into life. I love this phone. But squinting at the tiny letters on the screen is going to ruin my eyesight sooner or later. I should stop.
You write about politics, arts and culture, social issues, books, internet trends, you name it. What is your favorite type of piece to write, and why?
My favorite pieces explore some neglected aspect of culture and history and find its broader relevance. Sometimes there is no broader relevance, and nothing can be wrung out a subject that is of interest to anyone but me—but I hope sometimes I hit upon something worth exploring. This applies to articles on everything from long-forgotten anti-communist dissidents to deathmatch wrestling.
I also like to write a scathing book review—but that might not reflect well on me.
Do you think that, with the advent of Substack and with other newsletter and blog-ish products on the way from social platforms like Twitter and Facebook, we’ve entered a second era of blogging? What’s your experience been like starting up The Zone?
I do think we’ve entered another era of blogging. And the newsletter element makes it even better. The nice thing about Substack is that, because posts are emailed to people, you don’t feel that compulsion to post every day that came with the fear that people would check out your blog, see nothing new, and never come back. People can write at a greater length, with more reflectiveness.
We also don’t have to worry about editors questioning whether our pieces are relevant enough for people to want to click on them from Facebook, Twitter, or wherever else.
I suppose the potential downside is that we will bore the socks off our readers.
What is your favorite thing you’ve written so far at The Zone?
What is the historical high-point of religion’s positive influence in society (i.e., the historical moment which to you most obviously conveys that religion can be a social good), and what is its low-point (the historical moment which to you most obviously conveys that religion can be bad for society)?
I’m going to be a really rude guest and argue with the premise of the question.
Of course, religious societies have had their higher and lower points—if I had a time machine I would certainly visit Constantinople, but I do not fancy visiting Saudi Arabia—yet I think that nonbelievers like myself who talk up the societal benefits of faith do believers a disservice by obscuring the question of whether their beliefs are true. Religions are never going to exist without widespread acceptance of their truth, whatever pleasing rituals happen to be attached to them.
Also, if religious beliefs are true that will inevitably affect our ideas of what counts as healthy and unhealthy social functions.
Right, point well-taken. You said something similar in a piece for us awhile back on the New Atheists: “For a while I was one of those people who thought New Atheists failed to appreciate the significance of religiously-inspired rituals, literature, music, art, and so on. I guess I still do. But as long as people reject their truth, those things will disappear into history. They will become museum exhibits and half-remembered myths, like the glories of Ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome.”
But my question is less about whether religious claims are true and more about the positive/negative influences of religion in society. For example, Matthew Yglesias, who I don’t think is a church-going person himself, recently tweeted: “I think I’m becoming a Straussian/Putnamist who instrumentally wants to get everyone to go to church again.” Implicit in this is a recognition that widespread religious observance can be a positive thing sociologically speaking.
My question is: Setting aside the truth question, what most obviously suggests organized religion’s value to you, sociologically speaking? And what is perhaps its least helpful element, sociologically speaking?
Religion affirms life. One can find inspiration without it, of course, from Camusian absurdism to beer and barbeques, but theistic belief is a tremendous source of motivation when it comes to dedicating oneself to that which is beyond one’s self-interest: loved ones, communities, fellow believers, and the strangers at the side of the road.
Its greatest danger, though, is a fanatical dogmatism that denies life by seeing everything through the lens of a narrow creed—allied, as it always is, with enough self-righteousness to drive fanatics to inflict this blinkered worldview on anyone unfortunate enough to cross their path.
What’s the thing Americans most often misunderstand about British or European politics?
I think Americans too often have a need to think the world has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into being as enlightened as they are.
So, the new friends of the couple popularly known as “Harry and Meghan” think the British monarchy is a baffling, archaic institution that must be brought into line with the USA’s gleaming modern model of dead-eyed celebrities lounging around 10-million dollar mansions plugging “Black Lives Matter” into their iPhones.
You’re not a nationalist (in a past piece for us, you wrote: “I would call myself more of a localist than a nationalist”), but you also think there are lots of problems with the position nationalism is usually contrasted with: liberal universalism or globalism. What do you wish ardent advocates for the latter would better appreciate about the nation state?
I’m not sure what nationalism and localism even mean anymore, but I do believe that a nation is a people living in a place and that the rapid transformation of that people and that place brings about the kind of disorientation we have seen across the U.S. and Europe in recent years.
It would be deeply hypocritical of me to be against immigration per se, and I am not, but I think liberal universalists fail to appreciate the unprecedented nature of the transformations we see across our societies now, as well as the difficulty of anticipating unintended consequences.
What’s your favorite work of literature—and why?
My favorite work of literature is Moby Dick—a work of fabulous achievement about a voyage of catastrophic ambition, pulsing with life, and rich in humor, and leaving one despairing and admiring of Ahab.
You’ve reminded me to re-read it. Thank you!
I could also have chosen The Plague by Albert Camus, In Parenthesis by David Jones, and the short stories of Gogol.
In your arresting personal essay, “Year of the Cold,” you lament that happiness in your university days was elusive, and one reason you give is that you were operating as though “life was something which happened to you rather than something you were actively constructing.” I suspect that this is a point of great difficulty for many people. Is this still a difficulty for you? If not, how have you overcome it?
Much of life is beyond one’s control. Other people influence it, kindly or otherwise, as does fate, kindly or otherwise. But my mistake was thinking life would come to me, in all its riches, without real effort on my part. If nothing else, I have taught myself to work hard. There is no excuse not to if one has a reason to.
I really enjoyed an excerpt you posted of your mother’s writing. Could you share something else of hers here?
Thank you! I’m putting together a small collection of our mum’s writing but here is one of her poems: “Eric Liddell.”
I don’t like to be beaten
head thrown back he can’t see
the tape but knows where he’s going.
The first half I run as fast as I can
the second half I run faster with God’s help.
I will not run
when so much in him must be shouting
“run—this is the time, this is the race”
able to stand, able to wait
Be still my soul
And now confined
he organises children’s games
sprints with them round the walls
to keep them going, until,
a tumour creeping through his brain,
his life contracted to a little place of pain
he runs his last race lying down
it’s complete surrender.
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