Is housework a mindless, unintellectual mode of employment? This is the question Mary Townsend asks in her essay for The Hedgehog Review:
Cleaning is mindless work, we say, and a task we are happy to leave to others; should we have the money, there are maid services or one of the many “Uber for housework” services to take the work off our hands. The repairman, the electrician, the carpenter, and so on, earn our respect because of the intelligent skill they put into their labor; but the sting of domestic work is that it appears to require no particular skill: doing the floors, the dishes, doing the corners, picking up all the things strewn about the house; taking out the trash not once, but again and again, on down into the grave. … But I’m suspicious of the infamous mindlessness of housework. … I suspect we can do more than praise its necessity, and that our inability to make a better case reflects an impoverished understanding of the nature of work, and of thought itself.
Townsend goes on to make a fascinating argument for the deeper mode of thought and being embedded in housework. Feminism has told us that “Housework is something to be liberated from, and something to liberate others from in their turn. The house itself is an oppressive structure, from which we hope to be free.” Yet this contempt for domestic work, Townsend rightly notes, is “all too wicked-stepsisterly, considering the movement’s forgetfulness of the women among the poor and women of color … . While we middle-class women are off pursuing the various professions of lawyer, businesswoman, and so on, who picks up the household slack? Other human beings; usually other women; and, most likely, women of color.” She continues,
The contempt for the house cultivated by this history is not easy to do away with. Personal ambition alone, and especially money alone, won’t solve the underlying problem. Although we don’t pay people enough for housework, the real problem is that we think that money will be enough to cover over our contempt and forgetfulness for the work itself—that we can somehow avoid our forgetfulness of the house itself. This forgetfulness is written into all our thoughts about the properly ambitious work outside the house that people are meant to desire; and the most pressing result is that, again, it obscures the simple practical necessity that someone—a human being—did or will do the domestic work that orders the space around you, right now, both for the place you sit to read this, and if you’re lucky, for the place you’ll sleep tonight.
The work of a stay-at-home mom—as well as the labor done by many domestic workers—is often disdained by our society because it fixates on and around the home. Yet traditionally, the home was not a place to be despised. Being a housewife was not degrading, either: as the gardener, cook, cleaner, and housekeeper, a woman was vital to the health and sustenance of her entire household—as well as, often, the other families surrounding her. What Wendell Berry has called “the essential art of housewifery” was a noble, vital practice. Proverbs 31 speaks of a diligent housewife (who is also an entrepreneur and local benefactor) who is “praised in the city gates”: the place where the leaders of the city would traditionally gather. Being a housewife required craftsmanship, skill, and prowess. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the 19th century, said this of American women:
As for myself, I do not hesitate to avow that, although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life … I have nowhere seen woman occupying a loftier position; and if I were asked, now that I am drawing to the close of this work, in which I have spoken of so many important things done by the Americans, to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply—to the superiority of their women.
The entire family and household depended on women for comfort and survival. Unless one was very rich, and could buy such things from a store, it was the wife who created both clothing and food for her household: she kept her family warmed, clothed, fed. The home was the hub from which all comfort, sustenance, and productivity emanated. To be the matriarch of the home was to inhabit, at least to some degree, a place of prestige and honor. Much of that has changed, as Townsend points out, because of a denigration of the home, and of the life of the home, that we’ve seen since the turn of the 20th century.
Yet Townsend is asking another, very interesting, question here: is housework itself—dusting, sweeping, folding, washing—unimportant because “anyone can do it”? Because the skill involved is minimal? It’s true that, unlike the plumber, carpenter, or mason, housework doesn’t usually require the same puzzling or mental complexity. It’s a work we often repeat endlessly, even in the same day. “All work involves repetition, but cleaning rehearses the doing again and again, without doing anything—except, perhaps, for the state of the house,” writes Townsend. “And not for nothing do people find early childhood work Sisyphean as well: Children in the house don’t merely multiply the work, they constantly undo it; and they themselves require ever-renewed, constant cleaning.”
This is where, I would argue, the moral imagination comes in. The task of cleaning itself may not require a lot of intellectual prowess—but it does require a great deal of imaginative skill and understanding. The work of maintaining a home is tied up inexplicably in the question of what it means to be human, and the person who cares for the home must adhere to a set of underlying ideas and mores that make his or her work meaningful. After all, why is it that we do not wish to live in squalor? Why do we see cleanliness and order as essential tenets for human flourishing? It must be because these constitute basic understandings of what human life should constitute—ideas that have a moral and spiritual tradition.
As Russell Kirk writes, “It is the moral imagination which informs us concerning the dignity of human nature, which instructs us that we are more than naked apes.” It is the undignified work of cleaning the grimy corners of the kitchen floor and washing dirty stockings and underwear that enable the dignity of a clean, light-filled home and healthy, well-clothed body. But in order to understand the importance of that scrubbing and dusting and washing, one must have a vision for its end result and purpose: a flourishing home and family.
In contrast to the moral imagination, Russell Kirk spoke of the “idyllic imagination,” which “rejects old dogmas and old manners and rejoices in the notion of emancipation from duty and convention.” This seems well suited to describe the emancipated housewife Townsend refers to, freed from the bonds of home and housework. It is not at all wrong to work away from one’s home, to have a career. But at the same time, we must recognize that it is through the rejection of old traditions and manners—dispensing with the importance of the home, and home life—that we’ve entered into our new age of careerism.
It’s true that the home is a sphere from which little public recognition or accolades are likely to come. The good deeds and virtues that we grow there are hidden behind closed doors, shielded from the public eye. It’s often a thankless career to pursue.
Yet it is one very well suited to cultivating virtue. It requires regular exercise of the moral imagination: remembering that what one does when scrubbing floors and bathtubs is much more than menial labor. Perhaps the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness” came about because of the virtue-carving we often do when we clean and order the same square footage, day after day after day. It requires discipline, perseverance, patience, humility—and a good deal of kindness towards the inhabitants of one’s home. There will always be the children who, as Townsend writes, unmake things as quickly as they are made. There will always be the pets, who innocently scatter filth everywhere they walk. There will always be the busy adults, who fly through life so swiftly, they barely have time to notice the piles they leave in their wake. Domestic work requires care, kindness, and daily forgiveness.
In his book You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith argues that our daily habits reveal what we truly love. The daily rituals of virtue (or of vice) that we cultivate are most often happening “under the hood” of our consciousness. There’s a “liturgy” we’re repeating with our daily actions—one that informs our most basic desires and wants.
So what is happening, really, when we’re changing diapers and taking out the trash for the umpteenth time? On the surface, it’s a “mindless” ritual, as Townsend notes. But underneath the surface—“under the hood”—we’re repeating a liturgy, over and over. We’re building a set of mental and spiritual disciplines that grow our moral imagination, and point us toward greater happiness.
And this is true whether we’re tending to our own set of home chores, or whether we’re tending the home of another. On the one hand, caring for our own homes grows the virtue of stewardship: it is like farming or gardening. It involves a sense of ownership and pride in one’s property, a desire for order and beauty in the space we call our own. It’s done for the place itself, and for the people who inhabit it, but it’s also to some extent done for us.
On the other hand, all domestic care cultivates the virtue of service: caring for the possessions of others, being willing to scrub their toilets and do their dirty dishes, is a much harder thing (in my opinion) than caring for one’s own home. It requires a givenness and humility, a desire to serve diligently and well. It also requires a degree of love for the goods that undergird the work of cleaning itself: a love of order, beauty, and cleanliness. When we’re cleaning for others, we don’t necessarily get to enjoy the fruits of our labor—except in seeing the job well done, and in feeling pride and joy over the order we’ve brought from chaos.
Perhaps there is another way in which “cleanliness is next to godliness.” And that would lie in the very repetition of it, in the delight that one can take from daily bringing things into a state of beauty, continually bringing light and order out of darkness and chaos. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.” The repetition of tasks often has a deeper meaning, one we shouldn’t neglect: for it’s the repeated acts that are often the most beautiful, and that grow beauty in us.
When I was a kid, my mom almost got my hearing checked. There were times when she’d be standing right next to me, repeating my name, and I couldn’t hear her. Mine wasn’t a medical condition, though, it was a literary one: usually these periodic stretches of deafness involved reading.
I developed a book bubble so thick and insulated from the outside world, the cacophonous din of two younger brothers, a sister playing piano, pets running around, and the call of a mother to dinner couldn’t pull me away.
But I have to confess: my attention game has suffered as of late.
This has a lot to do with the five-month-old who takes up most of my day. My ears are very much attuned to all her stirrings and cries, and rightly so. I don’t expect, or want, to retreat as far into my bubble as I did as a kid.
That said, I think the technological environment we now live in has done more to erode my focus than any amount of baby-care could. It’s the siren call of social media, with its little red notification bubbles, constantly updated news feeds, the “ping” of texts on my cell phone—things that leave me with a paralyzing desire to see what’s happening now, and then in the midst of “now,” to wonder what’s about to happen next.
Reading online is an inherently distracting pastime. There’s the sheer amount of news we are beset with: on Twitter, Facebook, Feedly, or whatever other news aggregating site(s) you might choose. We often have several windows open on our web browsers at a time, skipping from article to article, getting through half of one before moving onto the next.
I had friends who treated music this way growing up: they’d listen to half a song, then skip to the next. It bugged me to no end—what was the use of listening to half a song? Why would you skip the conclusion, the climax and finale of the piece? One shouldn’t deny the artist the simple courtesy of listening to their song the whole way through.
Alas, I’ve denied many writers that courtesy in recent years. All too often, I read the first half of an article and move on, telling myself I’ll “read the rest later.” All too often, “later” never arrives.
It’s true that the style and structure of our news websites make reading difficult. Brightly colored advertisements flash at us from either side or within the very body of an article. Sometimes I’ll start an article, only to be disrupted by the blare of a video ad embedded at the bottom of the page. In the process of reading one New York Times article, I spotted 10 colorful, eye-catching ads, many of which pop up while scrolling through the piece. This doesn’t count the “related coverage” links, blurbs, and pictures that also pull the reader away from the article.
How is anyone supposed to focus in this environment? Long gone are the days when my ears automatically tuned out the cacophony: the din is now spiraling out from the page itself, rather than from my outside environment. And it’s much harder to mute it out.
Two recent articles offered tips on how to counter this dilemma. One from The Atlantic described a new color-coded copy method that aims to help users concentrate when reading online:
The most important feature is that each line begins with a different color than the line above or below. As Matthew Schneps, director of the Laboratory for Visual Learning at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, explained it to me, the color gradients also pull our eyes long from one character to the next—and then from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, minimizing any chance of skipping lines or making anything less than an optimally efficient word-to-word or line-to-line transition.
… The color gradients might be helpful not just with return sweeps, but simply in keeping people’s attention – so they’re less likely to dart from tab to tab. Bias sees an important role for this technology in the era of waning attention spans. He’s 64 years old and describes himself as a “slow but good reader” who “can sometimes stay with something for a long time.” But in recent years, he’s sensed a decline in his attention, and has a feeling that this is a growing problem. “Can we multitask?” he asks, rhetorically. “The research, more and more, shows that we all suck at it.”
At Microsoft in Seattle, for example, Larson has been working for 19 years studying word recognition and reading acquisition. When he started, he recalls, very few people would read any long document on screen. If they got a long email, they would print it out. “But now,” he notes, “that would be an outrageous thing to do.” The task now is to make digital reading better than reading in print.
In this case, colors and fonts function as their own incentives or sirens, keeping your attention despite the other distractions that pull at your focus. Distractibility isn’t your fault—it’s a result of your environment, and thus we merely require some pretty colors, scientifically organized, to fix the problem.
But there’s another possibility; one that will, perhaps, sound a bit curmudgeonly. It could be that “attention” is entirely up to you—to the environment you cultivate around yourself, to the willpower you are willing or able to exert. It is possible that attentiveness is a virtue, and needs fostering.
This came to mind recently while reading a piece in the New York Times titled (rather precociously) “Read This Piece Without Distraction.” Author Verena von Pfetten decries “multitasking,” noting that “humans have finite neural resources that are depleted every time we switch between tasks,” something that many of us do 400+ times a day. Instead, Pfetten argues, we should return to the old-fashioned discipline of paying attention (or, to give it a fancy modern name, “monotasking”). “It’s a digital literacy skill,” Manoush Zomorodi, host and managing editor of the “Note to Self” podcast, told her. “Our gadgets and all the things we look at on them are designed to not let us single-task. We weren’t talking about this before because we simply weren’t as distracted.”
Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, told Pfetten monotasking is “something that needs to be practiced. … It’s an important ability and a form of self-awareness as opposed to a cognitive limitation.”
Sounds like a virtue worth preserving in the 21st century—a sort of excellence well-tuned to the times, necessary to fight off vices of inattention, laziness, and distractedness.
Larson’s color-coded text is a tool that can help us pursue monotasking. But so, too, is the simple act of printing out an article, closing out the extraneous tabs in our browser, or turning off distracting music or tv noise that might pull at our attention. It makes sense that, as long as publications rely on ad revenue, we’re not going to see a disappearance of web ads from our news pages. We can, however, employ different means—mental and physical—to attune ourselves to things that matter, and create new “bubbles” of focus that help us dismiss the siren calls of distraction, wherever they might lie.
When most Americans think about agriculture, they picture a small mom and pop farm with a few hundred acres and a small group of happy cows. Few realize that small agricultural enterprises are far from the norm today: as Leah Douglas wrote for Pacific Standard yesterday, “just four companies control 65 percent of pork slaughter, 84 percent of cattle slaughter, and 53 percent of chicken slaughter. Milk production is largely shaped by one large processor, Dean Foods, and one large cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America.” What are the practical results of this? Douglas writes,
Farmers face less competitive markets in which to sell their goods, leaving them vulnerable to any price offered by a buyer. Distributors and suppliers feel their prices squeezed as large retailers like Walmart leverage their growing power over the supply chain. Eaters are faced with an illusion of choice, wandering through supermarket aisles where dozens of seemingly competitive products might be owned by the same one or two food processors. Workers on farms and in meatpacking plants face pressure to increase production, sometimes at the expense of their safety. Animals living on factory farms are crowded into stifling barns, often receive unnecessary antibiotics, and are susceptible to disease.
Crony capitalism has been a problem in American agriculture for some time; our Farm Bill (which Jim Antle has called “welfare for the rich and politically connected”) doles out subsidies and financial supports to our country’s biggest corporatized farms. This can foster the sort of consolidation described above, while having a deleterious impact on the health of our land and communities, and a detrimental effect on competition and growth in our farming economy.
Throughout this presidential election, “big business” and “big banks” have gotten a lot of attention due to Bernie Sanders’s influence. Yet despite his crusade against large U.S. corporations, very little attention has been paid to agriculture and the role industrialized farms play in helping, or hurting, the U.S. economy. Neither Clinton nor Trump have a positive record when it comes to agriculture. Donald Trump’s only stated positions on farming put him directly in the pocket of Big Ag—he’s also attacked Cruz for his stance against ethanol mandates and subsidies, while declaring his own support for the industry. “His full-throated support for the ethanol mandate puts no room between him and Hillary, who has never met a corporate handout she didn’t like,” writes Tim Carney for the Washington Examiner.
Last month, the Obama administration issued an executive order that aims to support “a fair, efficient, and competitive marketplace.” The order condemns practices such as “unlawful collusion, illegal bid rigging, price fixing, and wage setting,” as well as other practices that “stifle competition and erode the foundation of America’s economic vitality.”
Yet despite the attention this new executive order draws to the problems in the American marketplace, it seems ill suited to address the problems therein.”When you see a headline like ‘Obama to Sign Executive Order to Ignite Corporate Competition’ you have to scratch your head at the premise,” notes Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. over at Forbes. “Igniting” or fostering competition often necessitates at least some deregulation, a freeing of the market and the players in that market—”something that doesn’t involve an executive order asking for action items from agencies in 60 days.”
As our system of agriculture has grown in size, it has also grown less sustainable. And while consolidation isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, the obstruction of competition and sustainability are. We have begun to see this, and are starting to consider necessary adjustments. But in order to see real reform, we need to consider changes that might be made at the congressional level, specifically to the Farm Bill, which could bring greater freedom to small farmers and entrepreneurs.
With the triumph of Trump, Americans have spoken in favor of borders—not just the physical borders that automatically come to mind (the ones Trump has asserted he will protect by building a wall), but also the social and cultural borders our country has increasingly abandoned. In a recent article for Spiked, Frank Furedi argues our society has abandoned borders and limits of all sorts:
Western society’s estrangement from borders is not a progressive step forward – rather it expresses a crisis of nerve in relation to holding the line. Western society has embraced the evasive tactic of non-judgmentalism. Now it must relearn the value of making distinctions. It needs to overcome its reluctance to make judgments of value, and stop being afraid to hold the line.
This idea that our society is suffering a “crisis of nerve” in relation to holding firm reminded me immediately of an article Molly Worthen just wrote for the New York Times, in which she critiques the common expression “I feel like”: these words are symptomatic of a time, she argues, in which timidity of will prevents the speaker from making an outright truth claim. Rather than saying “I think” or “I believe”—in essence, holding or drawing a line—we fall back on the easy abstractness of “I feel like.” As a result, our public discourse has grown soft, edgeless, limitless. When emotion dominates our conversations, it is impossible to give any coherent rebuttal. We can say pretty much anything without getting in trouble. You can claim to be a seven-year-old Asian female—regardless of your age, race, or gender. (Indeed, in the linked video, a girl tells the man making the aforementioned argument, “I feel like that’s not my place, as another human, to say someone is wrong, or to draw lines or boundaries.”)
This has maddened many voters, who see this ridiculous, widespread political correctness as a plague enveloping all coherent or cogent conversation. Many of these frustrated people have flocked to Trump.
Yet ironically, despite the fact that he’s the champion of working class people frustrated with post-border politics and language, Trump is a candidate singularly suited to this post-border world. Because the appearance of genuineness—rather than the objective reliability of a truth claim—is heralded as the standard for veracity and dependability, Trump’s been able to garner a considerable following via the mode of his mannerisms alone. As David Butterfield put it in an excellent piece for Standpoint magazine, “the alarming rise of Donald Trump is intimately linked with his direct, no-nonsense talk; the travesty is that his mode of speech seems to weigh heavier with the electorate than what he actually says. Has the natural desire for clarity combined with the misguided fetish for brevity spawned an attitude that privileges blunt and unfiltered nonsense over multifaceted and nuanced commonsense?”
Social media is complicit in this, at least to some degree. Political messages have been significantly influenced by the medium by which they’re promoted and disseminated. Andrew Sullivan argued in a piece for New York magazine that much of the political upheaval we’ve seen throughout this presidential election thus far has been a result of the democratization of media brought about by the internet—a democratization that’s muddied the distinction between politics and entertainment, along with fostering the triumph of “feeling, emotion, and narcissism” over “reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness.”
This is one of the greatest ironies of Trump’s success: the very post-border world (especially in media and culture) that he’s decrying is the very one that’s assisted him to fame and success.
But Trump has rightly put his finger on an angry sore bothering the American public, one that must be tended to lest it continue to fester: namely, the frustration with post-border society and its excesses. As Robert Nisbet wrote in The Quest for Community, if we don’t have a sense of belonging—if we’re divorced from any sort of situatedness—we fall prey to “deeply disquieting states of nostalgia and vague longing. These may transform themselves into innumerable emotions ranging from simple discontent to bitter alienation.”
This means that we need a community, a sense of belonging and distinction within a group of people, but it also means that we need a sense of right and wrong—a sense of limits and objectivity in our culture, discourse, religion, and politics. The breakdown of family and community, church and state—the creation of our post-border society—has not led to greater freedom. Instead, it’s led to a sort of slavery: to the federal government and its powers, to the self and its lusts, to the emotion and its excesses. A world without limits of virtue or courtesy is singularly suited to the bombast and bullying of a politician like Trump (as well as to the dreamy promises of a socialist like Bernie Sanders).
It’s difficult to determine how we can stem the flow of outrage, frustration, and bitterness now spilling forth in our political process—but it will be impossible to do so without recognizing the role that limits must play in healing our society, and our politics. Voters may be wrong in choosing Trump as their candidate—but they’re not wrong in believing that we need borders, limits, and distinctions in our society once more.
“Get big, or get out.” That’s the advice Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, gave farmers back in the 1970s—advice that has been predominantly followed over the past few decades.
But a growing number of farmers are defying that mantra, instead advocating through policy and practice for a sort of farming that many assumed was going extinct. These are what Forrest Pritchard calls “the unsung heroes of local, sustainable food”: the farmers who went organic before it was cool, who were “locavore” before the term existed.
A farmer himself, Forrest Pritchard runs a seventh-generation farm in the foothills of the Shenandoah mountains outside Washington, D.C. In a farm tour and interview I did with him two years ago, he mentioned a book he was working on: in it, he said, he wanted to remind people that sustainable farming isn’t trendy, but rather, “ancient, multi-generational, and multi-ethnic.”
That vision shows in his finished book, Growing Tomorrow. The farmers Pritchard talks to hail from all corners of the U.S.—New Mexico and Massachusetts, Washington and Georgia. He interviews produce farmers, dairymen, bee keepers, and a fisherman. Some have roots in farming: like the fifth-generation berry farmer who’s taking over the farm from her father, or the produce farmer in New Mexico who works land along the Rio Grande that his grandfather bought nearly a century ago. But there are also the newcomers: a beekeeper who used to be a professional soccer player, an orchard farmer who moved here from Mexico, a transplant from England who’s built a mushroom habitat in the woods of Missouri.
Interspersed between the farmer profiles are a vast array of recipes, either shared or inspired by the different farmers interviewed. A (tested and true) recipe for egg noodles, fresh tomato sauce, homemade almond milk, chili con carne, mustard-braised pork shoulder, savory peach soup… there are enough recipes in here to keep me busy all summer. Many of the recipes, too, have the distinct flavor of the farmer’s regional roots: a South Carolinian shares with Pritchard the virtues of boiled peanuts, a New Mexico farmer describes the best way to prepare a traditional chili, a hog farmer from West Virginia shares the recipe for biscuits that Pritchard enjoyed when he visited the farm.
Some of these stories are as much about renewal and hope as they are about present success: Pritchard interviews Detroit-based produce, honey, and compost farmers who are cultivating an urban farm to fight the economic troubles that have plagued their city. Their goal is to fight the prevalence of food deserts throughout Detroit by providing a local alternative and offering “food self-reliance” to city natives. Their composting initiative is meant to build soil health back into abandoned city lots, many of which are “terribly polluted.”
Then there’s the Texas honeybee farmers who are striving to keep their bees alive—battling widespread fears of honeybee extinction and frustrations with the prevalence of insecticides and herbicides that kill bees, among other things. “There’s tremendous state pride here, you can see it everywhere you go,” notes Susan Pollard. “It’s just like the old saying: ‘Everything’s bigger in Texas.’ But when it comes to agriculture, we’re getting left behind. All the focus is on huge crops of monoculture: Corn, cotton, soybeans. But how can they ignore the pollinators, the ones that make most of our food possible?”
Many of the farmers in this book have succeeded by doing a few things well: by trial and error, studying their crops or animals, expanding acre by acre. But more than this, what emanates from the pages of Growing Tomorrow is a deep and contagious passion for the art of farming. These aren’t just farmers. They’re “husbandmen,” dedicated to their vocation despite all its frustrations and difficulties. And their time, dedication, and passion have slowly paid off. We see this in the story of a goat farm that’s also a correctional facility, a place that teaches vocational skills alongside the virtues of cleanliness, diligence, and gentle care. It’s reflected in the story of Iowa farmer Steve Paul who—unlike the vast majority of his peers—is growing organic grains such as buckwheat, rye, and spelt.
These farmers face some significant challenges in today’s economy. Farmers like Paul are competing in a market that’s geared toward the big—those who’ve walked in Earl Butz’s footsteps, expanding and corporatizing. This is where the money has been, at least for the past several decades. But as hog farmer and former A&T State University professor Chuck Talbott puts it, “If we spent the same amount of money on sustainable farming that we do on big agriculture, all the R&D, and subsidies, then we wouldn’t have half the food problems we’ve got.” These farmers are advocating for a different model: one that may be more expensive, at least for a time, but one that promises long-term goods to consumers.
Part of Growing Tomorrow‘s appeal gives is that it helps readers connect with agricultural producers in their area: if I want to get produce from Washington, DC’s Potomac Vegetable Farms, profiled in the first chapter of the book, an index in the back points me to their website, the farmer’s markets they frequent, and information on their CSA program. This book is about connecting locals to the farmers who are trying to do things differently: it gives them a face, a voice, and a simple means to connect.
It’s easy, Pritchard acknowledges, to be dissuaded from supporting such small local producers because of the cost—in time, money, and effort—to procure their goods. It’s not nearly as easy as going to the supermarket and picking up a package of conventionally-produced beef. We ask ourselves, “What’s in it for me? Doesn’t this just make everything harder?”
But this is asking the wrong question, argues Pritchard. These farmers, he notes, “are people who have looked skyward, earthward, and outward. In doing so, they guide us to greater, more important questions: What do we value? How can we participate? What more can we do? Questions like these must grow our tomorrows.”
Last Saturday, I went to the farmer’s market to purchase some eggs. Umbrella and baby in tow, I stopped by a vendor’s booth I’d seen the week before. He was having a special on eggs. I ducked under the tent canopy and grabbed a couple cartons, when I heard him tell another customer that they only accepted cash. I set the cartons down in disappointment, gathered up my things, and told him I’d need to go look for an ATM. He looked at me—wet hair, baby in one arm, purse and grocery bags stuffed under the other—and he said, “You could just pay me next week. It’s raining pretty hard out there.”
This is what the local farmer gives: a human connection, an opportunity to participate in a relationship that extends beyond dollars and profit margins, and slowly develops into a sense of community and belonging.
Farming is no easy task. Farming in a way that’s both sustainable and humane is even more challenging, especially in this economy. A farmer who is willing to defy his cultural voices and the legacy of Earl Butz—someone who’s willing to stay in, and stay small—is worth our notice, and our support.
We’re all supposed to be “detoxing,” “cleansing,” or “decluttering” our lives these days. Gastronomically, the idea is that you pare down your diet to its most basic essentials, and thus cut away pounds, potential illnesses, or any lack of confidence you might feel. Mentally, we’re told to step away from the chaotic buzz of work, social media, television, and life obligations in order to clear out the clutter in our heads and become more “mindful.”
And then there’s the house-oriented version of these words, most recognized in the popular bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Author Marie Kondo tells her readers that the stuff in their homes needs paring down in order for them to really experience joy and peace in their lives. Thus, we’re advised, “If [an] item sparks joy, keep it; if not, dump it.”
In practice, this can be more extreme than it sounds; Kondo’s method involves a categorical purging of one’s possessions, winnowing things down piece by piece until only the most “joyous” items remain. And, she insists, we must do all our tidying in one attempt: no bit-by-bit cleaning, no slow and meticulous purging. Perfection is not just the ideal, it’s mandatory—and it’s demanded immediately.
I can understand what Kondo’s going for, and in a lot of ways, it makes sense. Our house is under 900 square feet, so there’s not a lot of room for “extra” stuff. Before we moved, we did a lot of paring down. But we have held onto things that give us joy: in each room of the house, there’s an object that doesn’t quite “fit.” It stands out, perhaps not comically, but with an air of eccentricity. The bulldog bottle opener in our kitchen (a favorite present from my parents), the bright green-and-pink-painted ceramic pot in our office (a gift from Mexico for our daughter, purchased by our wonderful neighbors), the “Dear America” books on our shelves (the ones my grandma read aloud to me when I was 10 years old, the Christmas before she passed away from cancer): I keep these things around not for their usefulness or efficiency, but for the sweet memories and sentiments they offer, every day.
But alongside these joyous objects, there’s also a bundle of things I hold onto not for memories past, but because of the promise of memories or joys that could be. And I wonder whether Kondo’s method leaves room for that sort of thing.
For instance: all the newborn baby clothes our daughter has already grown out of, I’ve stashed away—for baby number two, or a needy friend, or a future cousin. There’s a closet stuffed with extra pillows and bedding and blankets, because when company comes, I want to be ready. We have a huge pile of extra seeds stuffed in a pot under a shelf in the living room, because no matter how much we grow in the garden, we want to grow more. And the pantry shelves are overflowing with cans and bags and bins, because we love to eat—and we like variety.
There were similar shelves in my childhood home, piled high with canned peaches, pickled green beans, and cinnamon applesauce. My grandmother had whole closets dedicated to her treasured linens and china—things that belonged to her mother, things she had saved for special holidays and seasons. In my father’s office, I remember a wealth of papers and books piled on every imaginable space. It was a place dedicated to knowledge and diligence, study and insight. If that office had been conspicuously tidy, it wouldn’t have felt the same—nor would it have been as productive.
Whether it’s because we’re dedicated homesteaders with canned goods stashed here and there, or whether we’re avid bibliophiles with never-enough bookshelf space, we glory in little messes because they remind us why we’re alive. They help us to reminisce, or to look forward. They’re beautiful in their way, glorious in their careless grace. They offer us moments of joy, little though they may be, as we go about our daily lives.
The millennial generation is especially prone, apparently, to forsaking things for the appeal of experiences, and for the current popularity of minimalism. As Holly Ashby writes for Collective Evolution, status no longer involves amassing material possessions, but rather in projecting a certain type of lifestyle—one built around bohemian grace, virtuous minimalism, and ecological or personal mindfulness. “As technology continues to advance, conservation and ecological issues become ever more stark, and the real, material world loses favour to the one that can be found online, the concept of ownership could find itself becoming ever more irrelevant,” argues Ashby. “With Millennials gradually falling out of love with their possessions, it could be the generations that follow them will pioneer a new way of life, away from the consumerist mindset that has defined the past few decades.”
Consumerism has definitely developed a bad reputation. And for good reason: Americans are all too often obsessed with “stuff.” But it could also be that our embrace of minimalism is a sign of affluence, not a shunning of it: as Arielle Bernstein pointed out last month in The Atlantic, there are a lot of people who’ve gone through perilous circumstances or intense bouts of poverty—and for them, the concept of “minimalism” or “decluttering” is often careless, a sign of wealth and security:
Of course, in order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust. For a refugee, that trust has not yet been earned. The idea that going through items cheerfully evaluating whether or not objects inspire happiness is fraught for a family like mine, for whom cherished items have historically been taken away. For my grandparents, the question wasn’t whether an item sparked joy, but whether it was necessary for their survival. In America, that obsession transformed into a love for all items, whether or not they were valuable in a financial or emotional sense. If our life is made from the objects we collect over time, then surely our very sense of who we are is dependent upon the things we carry.
This reminded me of stories my parents told me about older relatives who had lived through the Great Depression. They became hoarders, with mountains of food stashed in their basement or piles of extra clothes and newspapers stuffed in their closets. They knew what it was to be empty and needy, to have minimalism forced upon them like an anxious cloud. And they never wanted to face that reality again. To them, ownership was a promise of wellbeing.
While we don’t want to become hoarders, there is an important role for physical things in our lives: we are, after all, physical beings. An embrace of the body and physical existence enables us to live productive, artistic, enjoyable lives. It’s what results in fruitful gardens and beautiful paintings, sumptuous meals and glorious music. If canned goods piled in the pantry, shelves stuffed with seed packets, and closets spilling over with extra blankets help you create—if they help foster fruitfulness, hospitality, art, and thriftiness—then they should be treasured and lauded, not discarded.
Sometimes I call myself a “neat freak,” but I have to admit it isn’t really true. Because I prefer a pile of dishes next to the sink, if it means there’s a homemade dinner in the oven. And I prefer a big mess of books and watercolors and sketch paper on the coffee table, to one immaculately clean but empty of curiosity and creativity. And I prefer a bed only halfway made, because it usually means we were too busy playing with our baby girl and making coffee to getting the bedspread perfectly straightened. These are the experiences that bring us joy, every day. And sometimes that joy necessitates—or at least excuses—a little clutter.
Over at Aeon mag, Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell write that “innovation” is something we’ve blown out of proportion:
… Contemporary discourse treats innovation as a positive value in itself, when it is not. Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end?
One consequence of our obsession with innovation is that we constantly create new things, rather than maintaining and treasuring old ones—and often become wrapped up in consumerism, rather than in care.
Take homeownership and home-building in America: on the street my husband and I live on, the little 850 to 1,000 square-foot houses of past decades are being torn down and replaced with massive, sprawling monstrosities. Area developers don’t care that the lot in question is tiny: yard and space to grow things doesn’t matter these days. What matters is square footage—because every extra piece of hardwood and granite squeezed into that house is extra money in the developers’ pockets, while grass gets them nothing.
Yet at the same time, as Felicia Rose writes for Mother Earth News, “Tiny houses, often defined as those under five-hundred square feet, have gained purchase in recent years. Their lure is apparent. In a society of architectural obesity, they represent a clean-limbed leanness (or gauntness).” How do we reconcile this cultural obsession with “obese” houses, alongside growing desire for houses winnowed down to almost nothing?
While one may be worse for the neighborhood, both reflect our societal obsession with the new, the progressive, the “innovative.” There are plenty of old tiny houses throughout America. But most tiny house owners want something that’s still new, exciting, adapted to the latest technologies, and—perhaps most importantly—rootless. Something on wheels. Something that doesn’t require putting down stakes.
A society in love with innovation is a society that, oftentimes, has rejected the idea of limits. There’s no end to our exploring, because we don’t believe that we should stop anywhere. We aren’t content with our old smartphones or computers—we want the latest, newest thing, and expect companies to keep innovating endlessly.
Additionally, we’ve gotten used to spending money to get something fixed, rather than fixing it ourselves. This cultivates ignorance, and can turn us into discarders, rather than maintainers. Cars and houses can always be replaced with newer cars and bigger houses. Old things require a lot of work, tinkering, and upkeep. New things present us with a degree leisure and ease that is difficult to pass up.
But craftsmen, mechanics, gardeners, cooks, and cleaners—each of these trades, simple though they seem, keeps the world ordered and beautiful. As Vinsel and Russell write, “focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going.”
The individual who dedicates his or her life to maintenance and repair is the one who “keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things,” they write. They are the husbandmen and housewives, plumbers and janitors, construction workers and electricians. “Brief reflection demonstrates that the vast majority of human labour, from laundry and trash removal to janitorial work and food preparation, is of this type: upkeep.”
Jobs that involve “upkeep” are not highly valued in today’s world. A farmer told me last year that most jobs—like his—that involve manual labor are viewed as blue collar and unintellectual, jobs for the high school dropouts and unambitious. Meanwhile, Capitol Hill and Wall Street and Silicon Valley receive the accolades, the geniuses, and the money. The former are, indeed, “ordinary” vocations in comparison, and rather quotidian forms of existence. But the job of maintaining—the earth, its infrastructure, and its people—is absolutely vital to our wellbeing and flourishing.
In The Unsettling of America, farmer and essayist Wendell Berry shares the memory of an interaction he once had with another farmer:
Several years ago I argued with a friend of mine that we might make money by marketing some inferior lambs. My friend thought for a minute and then he said, “I’m in the business of producing good lambs, and I’m not going to sell any other kind.” He also said that he kept the weeds out of his crops for the same reason that he washed his face. The human race has survived by that attitude. It can survive only by that attitude…
Many people associate the word “innovation” with Republican sentiment, because the party prizes capitalism, free markets, and entrepreneurship. But to be a conservative is also, importantly, to desire to conserve things. To appreciate the quotidian labor that keeps our world going—and to join the maintainers in tending our little square of earth, keeping the weeds out of our gardens with the same diligence and zeal with which we wash our faces.
It involves an appreciation for the work of creating, but also an acknowledgment that “new” isn’t always better—that there should be a limit and end (both literally and teleologically) to our innovation, because we already have good things worth tending. And even though we won’t make millions doing it, it is the simple task of maintaining that lifts us out of empty consumerism and into the realm of stewardship and care.
Waiting in line, stuck in traffic, aboard the subway: at moments such as these, we pull out our phones. We text, check Facebook, scroll through pictures on Instagram, post something on Twitter. It’s not uncommon to see a couple sitting across from each other at a restaurant, engrossed in their phones.
New technology has in many ways served as a boon to connection. All of a sudden, we can communicate with loved ones on the other side of the country—or on the other side of the world. We have an instantaneous method for discovering important life news and alerting one another to personal emergencies. Our phones and social media accounts act like leashes, keeping us tethered to each other at all times.
But are we truly caring for and understanding one another through these devices? Are these connections—mediated and interposed as they are through technology—really leading to full and flourishing human relationships?
This is the question considered by Sherry Turkle—a psychologist and the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT—in Reclaiming Conversation. Turkle began studying technology’s effects on society back in the 1980s, when she wrote her first book considering the computer’s impact on the self. Since then she has written three books on the subject, including 2011’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
Why revisit the subject again only four years later? Turkle argues that her observations in Alone Together have only been confirmed in recent years, as social media have built an increasingly important place in the average person’s life. Beyond that, she believes we are finally beginning to see a bit of protest and backlash against the technological craze. In Alone Together, she now writes, “I knew I was describing complications that most people did not want to see.” And today “we are ready to reconsider the too-simple enthusiasm of ‘the more connected we are, the better off we are.’”
Because of our increasing reliance on technology, we have descended from conversation “to the efficiencies of mere connection,” Turkle argues. Technology promises we will be always heard, never alone, and never bored, yet the informal and virtual nature of its connections has encouraged looser familial and romantic bonds. Many young people struggle to conduct interviews, discuss their emotions, or even spend time with their friends without the assistance of technology.
Henry David Thoreau says in Walden that all of life should be set around three “chairs”: one for solitude and contemplation; two for friendship, which we share with kith and kin; and three for society. Turkle believes our relationship with these three chairs has been drastically reshaped by technology. It should be obvious that our ability to enjoy one chair—solitude—has been deeply inhibited, if not often demolished, by our new online lives. For many, it is nearly impossible to sit alone or wait patiently in line without turning to the ever-present phone. There’s a nagging feeling that comes over us in such moments of pause, an almost frenzied desire not to be without entertainment or distraction.
Some argue that we are hiding, on such occasions, from our fears and uncertainties about life: from the sorts of deep thoughts that creep up on us when we are alone. Others believe that we have developed a deep repugnance to boredom—one that is mentally debilitating. Turkle contends that we need moments of solitude in order to develop emotionally, mentally, and relationally: solitude allows us to daydream, discover new ideas, and build a true sense of self based on self-knowledge rather than on the opinions of others. When social media such as Facebook become our go-to in moments of quiet, “we risk building a false self,” while also damaging our creative capabilities.
Turkle considers friendship—Thoreau’s two chairs—in two parts. She first considers ways in which social media and smartphones have damaged our familial relationships, and her thoughts are particularly poignant when discussing the modern family’s inability to negotiate conflict or spend meaningful time together. There’s been an abdication of conversation on both sides in today’s family: while parents complain that their children are addicted to technology and out of touch, children now claim that they can’t pull their parents away from their own smartphones. We often see technological obsession as a young man’s pursuit, but it’s an addiction all generations are susceptible to.
Even though many young people Turkle talks to have a hard time envisioning life without modern communications technology, they’re also quick to admit that something is wrong with their relationships. They want to communicate better with their loved ones but feel they’ve lost both the means and opportunity to do so. The phone and computer, while prompting greater connection across the nation and globe, have failed to foster relationships between people at the most basic and important level: within the home.
Solving this problem will require intentionality, a conscious choice to put away our devices when we are together and carve out precious time for conversation. Turkle suggests designating “sacred spaces” in the home and in relationships: appointing places and times in which technology is banned. This can be a difficult decision for parents to make—indeed, it requires as much from them as it does from their children—but Turkle believes it is necessary to foster lasting relationships between family members.
Turkle’s discussion of the social and romantic lives of young people is saddening, even if what she reports is not altogether surprising. Many young adults find that, even when spending one-on-one time with their peers, their attention is constantly bombarded by the “other”: other friends, other places one could be, other potential partners one could be dating. One girl notes that following a sexual encounter with a young man she liked, she found herself checking the hookup site Tinder while he was in the bathroom. Another girl named Kati tells Turkle that “wherever she and her friends are, they strategize about where they could be. With so much choice, says Kati, it becomes harder to choose … and nothing feels like the right choice. Nothing Kati and her friends decide seems to measure up to their fantasy of what they might have done.”
Beyond the temporality and discontent this can develop among friends, technology’s mediating nature can also instill a sense of separation between its users, shielding them from vulnerability and the rawness of physical connection. The resulting interactions can have deleterious consequences. When she turns her attention to work and school—Thoreau’s three chairs—Turkle finds that much of the cyber-bullying we’re seeing today is a result of this technological connectivity. One schoolteacher told Turkle she believes “children are treating other children as ‘apps,’ as means to an end.” They see their social and romantic interactions through a utilitarian lens, and they aren’t as afraid to hurt each other because they often can’t see the immediate results of their words.
In the workplace, technology has created a barrier to interactions that formerly fostered relationships between employees, clients, and bosses. New hires, some executives complain, are unwilling to make client phone calls or to interact with their fellow employees. They sit at their desks with their headphones on and argue that this insulation actually enables them to work more effectively. But just as in personal relationships, this inability to connect meaningfully in real time begins to weigh on workplace interactions.
Some may wonder whether the progressions we’re seeing in the smartphone and Internet age are any different from those we saw at the dawn of the television age. Older generations complained then, too, of the changes such media would bring and the dangers they posed for youngsters. Such protests were, and often still are, dismissed as Luddite or old-fashioned. The arguments Turkle presents might seem to have a similarly backwards air to them.
But Turkle’s book shows that while the changes we see may not be unprecedented in kind or quality, they are unusual in scope and depth. It’s true that the television changed the way people interacted in the neighborhoods and in the home: as Wendell Berry has pointed out, the television shifted our social lives from the front porch into the living room, prompting us to greater solitude and separation. Today’s technology often fosters the same individualism, but it is more consistently present. Whereas the television inhabits a fixed and limited space, the Internet and smartphone are almost continually present in our lives. Whether at work or at home—even in the car, airplane, bus, or train—the digital world is there, beckoning to us.
While we should not neglect the goods that technology can provide, we should not embrace them without a thought to the possible consequences, either. With each stage of technological development, we’re encouraged to separate ourselves more from the physical space we inhabit. We’re encouraged to live in a virtual reality in which we can distance ourselves from both the blessings and curses of real presence. Yet technology is at its best when it facilitates instead of replaces physical interaction.
The challenges we face in the digital age have grown in scale, prompting new sorts of addiction and disconnection, but many of the underlying problems that Turkle cites are ones we have always struggled with: the fear of being alone, discontent with our lot in life, the desire to be ever entertained, reluctance to commit or be vulnerable. A human relationship has always required virtues such as gratitude, selflessness, diligence, honesty. Technology prompts an ease of interaction that can undermine such virtues, but it doesn’t have to. We must exercise caution and understand that even the most convenient technology requires limits and prudence. Turkle’s book contributes to a discussion that, while as old as human nature, must continue to resurface as our new contraptions, and new ways of spending time, threaten to shift our perception of old truths and virtues.
Gracy Olmstead is TAC’s senior writer.
Our society is characterized by great freedom: by ever-growing personal autonomy, a loosening of social and civic bonds, and a diminishing of cultural and religious value systems. But have these things made us more free, more enlightened? Perhaps not. As David Brooks writes in a Wednesday column,
The liberation of the individual was supposed to lead to mass empowerment. But it turns out that people can effectively pursue their goals only when they know who they are — when they have firm identities.
Strong identities can come only when people are embedded in a rich social fabric. They can come only when we have defined social roles — father, plumber, Little League coach. They can come only when we are seen and admired by our neighbors and loved ones in a certain way. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds.”
You take away a rich social fabric and what you are left with is people who are uncertain about who they really are. It’s hard to live daringly when your very foundation is fluid and at risk.
Brooks explores the importance of “separability amid situatedness”: the ability to have independence and room to grow, within the supporting framework of a loving community and undergirding system of values. This sort of situatedness, he argues, requires a “covenant” rather than a contract. “People in a contract provide one another services, but people in a covenant delight in offering gifts,” he writes. “Out of love of country, soldiers offer the gift of their service. Out of love of their craft, teachers offer students the gift of their attention.”
Brooks’s observations reminded me of an essay Marilynne Robinson wrote for Harper’s Magazine in defense of the public university. In it, she describes the difference between the “citizen” and the “taxpayer”—and the significance of the fact that the former is used less often than the latter:
There has been a fundamental shift in the American consciousness. The Citizen has become the Taxpayer. In consequence of the shift, public assets have become public burdens. … While the Citizen can entertain aspirations for the society as a whole and take pride in its achievements, the Taxpayer, as presently imagined, simply does not want to pay taxes. The societal consequences of this aversion—failing infrastructure, for example—are to be preferred to any inroad on his or her monetary fiefdom, however large or small.
… Citizenship, which once implied obligation, is now deflated. It is treated as a limited good that ought to be limited further. Of course, the degree to which the Citizen and the Taxpayer ever existed, exist now, or can be set apart as distinct types is a question complicated by the fact that they are imposed on public consciousness by interest groups, by politicians playing to constituencies, and by journalism that repeats and reinforces unreflectingly whatever gimmicky notion is in the air. It can be said, however, that whenever the Taxpayer is invoked as the protagonist in the public drama, a stalwart defender of his own, and a past and potential martyr to a culture of dependency and governmental overreach, we need not look for generosity, imagination, wit, poetry, or eloquence. We certainly need not look for the humanism Tocqueville saw as the moving force behind democracy.
… The Citizen had a country, a community, children and grandchildren, even—a word we no longer hear—posterity. The Taxpayer has a 401(k). It is no mystery that the former could be glad to endow monumental libraries, excellent laboratories, concert halls, arboretums, and baseball fields, while the latter simply can’t see the profit in it for himself.
In The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet wrote that the family, religious association, and local community “are essentially prior to the individual and are the indispensable supports of belief and conduct.” These associations are what make us not only “taxpayers”—autonomous individuals in a singular relationship to the state—but rather “citizens,” with a sense of civic duty and a passion for the local sphere. Without community, “you get not freedom and rights but intolerable aloneness and subjection to demonic fears and passions.” One is reminded of the sort of fear-mongering that dominates our politics these days—on the radio, the television, in many partisan publications.
Brooks believes our separation and hostility must be “repaired by hundreds of millions of people making local covenants—widening their circles of attachment across income, social and racial divides. But it will probably also require leaders drawing upon American history to revive patriotism.”
Sadly, we’ve seen some faulty conceptions of patriotism displayed in our politics in recent months; the word seems tainted and frayed by current political discourse and debates, bloated by discussions of American exceptionalism and suspicious, nationalistic belligerence. Perhaps this tendency has grown in part because patriotism without strong local covenants isn’t patriotism at all: it’s loyalty to an intangible, amorphous conception of country—one that isn’t tied to anything concrete or specific. Ian Corbin pointed this out in a thoughtful Independence Day piece last year, arguing that our patriotism must latch onto a local sphere before it can (healthily) blossom into any sort of national allegiance: “I believe we should shamelessly embrace our cultural balkanization, or to put it more gently, our cultural federalism,” he wrote. “It is nowhere written that a person ought to feel equally at home in every nook and cranny of the state she calls home. If there is a deep sense of patriotism available to us Americans, it will have to be based in local soil.”
As Nisbet wrote, if we don’t have a sense of belonging—if we’re divorced from any sort of situatedness—we fall prey to “deeply disquieting states of nostalgia and vague longing. These may transform themselves into innumerable emotions ranging from simple discontent to bitter alienation.” This words seem to perfectly describe the malaise and bitterness that currently plague our politics, pushing voters to choose anti-establishment candidates and their Us vs. Them rhetoric. “It is not merely that an orderly, predictable world of values has been replaced by the unpredictabilities and moral voids of civic life,” writes Nisbet. “Fundamentally it is the loss of a sense of belonging, of a close identification with other human beings.”
This loss leads us not only into callous individualism—it can also lead us into coarseness, into a bitter and vengeful expression of uncensored emotion: “Moral conscience, the sense of civilized decency, will not long survive separation from the associative ties that normally reinforce and give means of expression to the imperatives of conscience,” writes Nisbet. Do we not see this in the often crude and offensive banter between presidential candidates, between their adherents on Twitter or other social media platforms?
Our autonomy—the breakdown of family, community, and church—has not led to greater freedom. Instead, it’s led to a sort of slavery: to the state and its powers, to the self and its lusts, to the emotion and its excesses. “Genuine freedom is not based upon the negative psychology of release,” writes Nisbet. “Its roots are in positive acts of dedication to ends and values. Freedom presupposes the autonomous existence of values that men wish to be free to follow and live up to.”
Thus we return to Robinson’s Citizen vs. Taxpayer. They are concrete examples of what our freedom ought to be characterized by: not a complete freedom from social obligation or allegiance, but rather a freedom to give of ourselves in a larger cause, in a community and/or covenant that has deep and lasting meaning. Robinson’s example of worthy citizenship is an allegiance to American higher education, appreciation for the patronage necessary to keep the liberal arts alive. Unless we’re willing to give a little of our paychecks and our allegiances to the higher education and what it stands for, she argues, we are refusing to display the sort of civic spirit that has traditionally been the bedrock of American patriotism, of American society. Being a “citizen” requires—it does not just entitle. It involves a sort of noble attentiveness to duty and obligation. Some might argue that it would be better if, instead of paying our dues to public universities, we demonstrated greater generosity to the private university. But either way, Robinson’s point still stands: our citizenship should involve a sense of belonging: a devotedness to family, community, and posterity.
Perhaps such attitudes of love and allegiance can be a solution, at least in part, to the fragmented autonomy that Brooks is describing. Perhaps they can animate our patriotism, and save it from frenzied dogma or hostile belligerence. Because being a citizen reminds us that before we can claim anything for ourselves, we must give of ourselves in local covenant.
When the Brussels attacks happened, media coverage and popular outrage filled the days after—like the Paris terror attacks the year before, they dominated the news. And rightly so.
But what of the terrorist bombing in Pakistan on Easter Sunday? The coverage has slowly started to trickle in; the frustration is slowly building. The Vatican Insider shares some details on the bombing:
Many of them were faithful who had attended the Easter liturgy in the two nearby churches of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal community that also runs a student college in Lahore. Christian families with children, who simply wanted to spend a peaceful Easter day at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park. Nature, picnics and children playing. This green space is frequented by students attending the nearby University of the Punjab, the region’s biggest and most important educational institution.
It was easy for the Taliban suicide bomber to take up his position by the park’s exit and carry out a massacre using 20 kg of explosives, that claimed the lives of 72 confirmed victims and left 350 injured. The death toll looks to rise given the number of people – especially women and children – currently in a critical condition.
But the response to this horrific bombing was much smaller than what we saw in response to Brussels. Coverage has been slow and sporadic. There hasn’t been any sort of statement from the White House or President; celebrities’ response has been muted in comparison. Vox is actually one of the publications that has taken note of the discrepancy in coverage, noting that a Dallas hotel’s tribute is one small exception to an overall quiet response.
People have noted this in the past: it often seems that the U.S. does not respond with the same gravity to atrocities that happen in non-Western countries. We change our profile pictures and update our statuses for Paris, but it barely registers in our news feed reading when similar—or worse—things happen in other countries.
Yet it also seems that some particular details from the Sunday blast should have caught the attention of the media with greater speed and alarm than they did: the people killed in Pakistan on Sunday were mainly women and children, and mainly Christian. They were celebrating Easter together. The bomb was set off near a playground area. At least 29 children were killed—almost equal to the entire death toll of the Brussels attacks.
Honestly, I wonder whether I would have even noticed the news headlines about the bombing, if it wasn’t for Facebook’s mistaken safety check that it sent to my phone. When it said I was near the “Lahore bombing” and asked me if “I was okay,” I Googled those words. When Facebook later issued an apology to those who received mistaken safety checks, I wanted to say, “No, don’t—if it weren’t for you, we all would’ve ignored Pakistan and gone about our Easter festivities without a thought.”
It’s difficult to imagine what the response in the U.S. might be if some terrorist or vigilante planted a bomb near a playground area—if our children were similarly targeted and killed. The president would surely issue a statement. Interviews with parents and family members would dominate the evening news. Outrage would spill over on Twitter and Facebook. Hashtags would help us all show our solidarity and sadness for the victims.
But perhaps this bombing has not been as talked about because it wasn’t an ISIS attack—it was a Taliban suicide bomber. And ISIS has been our main focus when it comes to covering terrorist activity as of late, especially considering media coverage of the 2016 presidential election.
Or perhaps the quiet coverage is a result of the fact that the event happened on a holiday. Yet the fact that those targeted were Easter celebrants, it seems this would only draw attention to the bombing. On a day when millions celebrated Holy Week and Easter in peace and comfort, one group of rejoicing people were struck down.
Perhaps it hasn’t been covered much here in the U.S. because U.S. Christians are often seen as entitled, bigoted, or intolerant. (The support of Trump among American “evangelicals” has only drawn further support to this stereotype.) Pakistani Christians targeted by an extremist don’t fit with this narrative. The media is more likely to report on the lone wolf who shoots an abortion doctor, the Christian who slams homosexuals, or the church with a misogynistic pastor. Persecuted Christians—or little children killed at a park playground on Easter—don’t quite fit that overarching narrative of the entitled, bigoted, intolerant Christian. It’s difficult for many Americans to comprehend that in a country like Pakistan, Christians are a persecuted minority.
To be fair, some publications did finally start writing about the attacks in Pakistan. The Daily Beast got out a story—a fantastic one, actually—on Monday afternoon. Writes (Muslim) author Maajid Nawaz,
Yesterday’s heartbreaking blasts made this the third time this month alone that Pakistan has been attacked by jihadists. All this just in Pakistan, just in March. And this needs to be understood in the context of the global jihadist insurgency that is upon us: unprecedented in its scale, pluralistic in its leadership, fractured in its strategy, nevertheless inspiring in its central message, and popular enough in its appeal that it is able to move masses.
… Many still deny this insurgency exists, and it is true that these countries have locally specific factors that contribute to their respective insurgent conditions. Yes, the groups behind these attacks are not under one central leadership, rather they are either affiliates or offshoots of competing jihadist groups. But they all share one cause.
They are all—including ISIS—derived from, or affiliated to just two jihadist groupings: al Qaeda and the Taliban. In turn, jihadists all drink from the same doctrinal well of widespread, rigid Wahhabism. And they share the ideological aims of popular non-terrorist Islamists. They are all unified behind a theocratic desire to enforce a version of Sharia as law over society.
… Our failure to recognize this as a civilizational struggle—one centered around values—has allowed the fundamentalist problem of Wahhabism, and the political problem of Islamism, to fester and metastasize. This struggle is an ideological one before it is a military or legal one. Vague platitudes that this has nothing to do with Islam—my own religion—are as unhelpful as saying that this is the essence of Islam. Extremism certainly has something to do with Islam. Not nothing, not everything, but something.
The Lahore bombing underscores the very religious character of the jihadists’ fanaticism. This was not about alienation in a European ghetto, or revenge for American and European airstrikes in the Middle East— the secular-sounding explanations offered as the motivations of people like those who carried out the Paris and Brussels attacks. Lahore was about pure, vicious religious intolerance, killing Christians—including Christian children—on Easter Sunday because they were Christians and not the kind of Muslims the murderers claim to be.
… So, let there be no doubt. We are in the middle of a struggle against theocracy, and for secular liberal democratic values. Muslims and non-Muslims respectively must join together in that fight. This is why Trump’s divisive rhetoric is so unhelpful. Everyone must stand together to discredit Islamism, and to support a reform in Islamic discourse. All of us together are responsible for challenging intolerant, theocratic thinking before it spills over to violence. All of us together are responsible for refusing to allow religion to become the primary bond that divides us from “the other.”
In the midst of my frustration about coverage (or lack thereof) of the Easter bombing in Pakistan, this story appeared. And it reminded me of what makes journalism great.
It rejects stereotype and embraces the complex, harrowing stories that plagues our world. It demonstrates nuance and thoughtfulness, avoids vitriol and assumption. While the author could have been on the defense, he chose instead to look carefully at both sides and present an argument that unites, rather than drives apart. When we write thus—thoughtfully, carefully, truthfully—we do the world an important service. We help bring light to tragedy, and give support to the weak and vulnerable. We fight injustice, abuse, and the horrors of extremism, like what we saw in Pakistan on Sunday, or in Brussels last Tuesday.
Perhaps this is one way we can use “weapons of love” to fight violent extremism, as Pope Francis put it in his Sunday Easter message. “May he [the risen Jesus] draw us closer on this Easter feast to the victims of terrorism, that blind and brutal form of violence which continues to shed blood in different parts of the world,” he said. “With the weapons of love, God has defeated selfishness and death.”
Last week, Rod Dreher wrote about a Muslim who was murdered by another Muslim believer for saying he loved Christians. His piece demonstrated the important truth that not all Muslims are terrorists or intolerant extremists, as some have touted. But it also shows that that intolerance is out there. Similarly, the stories about misogynistic pastors or lone-wolf gunmen are important. They need to be told, condemned. But so too must we tell the stories of those wrongfully killed, tortured, even crucified for their faith.
It’s easy to get caught up in the push and pull of presidential politics—especially when they’re as sensationalistic and dramatic as they have been this time around. But let’s not forget, in the midst of the entertaining, to pray for the heartbreaking and the heartbroken: to remember lives lost in countries beyond our customary notice or concern, and to use “weapons of love” to fight such injustice, whenever we get the chance.
When you are about to have a baby, the floodgates of warnings and omens break forth. I’ve never heard so many “just you wait”’s in my life. Have trouble sleeping around your pregnant belly? “Just you wait till you have a cluster feeding baby.” Struggle getting dinner together on a regular basis? “Just you wait till you’ve got a clingy little one who wants all your attention.”
Even when you do finally experience these things for the first time, you still haven’t arrived. That’s when all the one-upmanship begins. “Your labor was six hours? Wow, that’s nothing. Mine was 24 hours.” Or—“Your baby only sleeps in 3 hour stretches? Mine would barely make it two.” Or— “Your baby is a fitful napper? Just wait till she’s a toddler and refuses to nap at all.”
Alongside these conversations, I began noticing all the Facebook statuses: “Toddler destroyed the bathroom today…” “Haven’t slept in days…” “Husband finally rescued me so I could get away from these monsters…” There’s often a note of sarcasm and playfulness in these statements, but oy. It’s still discouraging. It made me wonder what I had gotten myself into. I struggled not to envision years of frustration, stress, and sleeplessness, stretching before me like a brooding dark cloud.
Where was the joy?
Well, that’s the secret—the secret all the voices on social media or in-person conversations weren’t offering me. It’s the secret that you may not have realized just yet, because those are the voices you’ve been listening to.
So I want to be the one to announce loudly, for all to hear: HAVING A KID IS FUN. PARENTING IS FUN. BABIES ARE FUN.
I’ll explain: yes, there is pain and discomfort. Labor isn’t the easiest thing in the world (to put it very, very nicely). And when that little newborn enters the world screaming, life changes forever. That baby will demand time and attention you didn’t know you had. He or she will take away hours of sleep that you previously enjoyed, fill your arms and prevent you from getting “important things” done. He or she will cry when least convenient, refuse to nap, learn to do obnoxious things to get your attention. There may be health scares, temper tantrums, moments of distress, fear, or frustration.
But parenting is still fun. Because those are just the negative moments in a whole world of sweet, positive things. When that little newborn enters the world, they love you with their whole heart—depend on you, love you, enjoy spending time with you. That little one will want to nestle in your arms and cuddle. He or she will smile their first smile into your face, utter their first word in an effort to communicate with you. Selfishly, it’s an incredible thing. That baby means you won’t be alone. You have a companion: someone to go on walks with, someone to watch the evening news with, someone to sing songs to. And unselfishly—the fact that your life can help produce life, that you can help bring into the world and nurture a new, life-bearing, creative, unique soul, is an unspeakable gift.
I know many grown parents who have cultivated strong relationships with their children through the years. And when these parents speak of their children, it isn’t with annoyance or frustration. When their children are grown, they become friends and enjoy their time together. The strength of these relationships seems to stem from the fact that over the years, the parents developed a healthy understanding of 1) their responsibility to their children—to serve and to discipline them—and 2) of their children’s autonomy and personhood.
It’s a fragile dance, one that often seems to difficult to balance. These parents know that, from the moment a child is born (or even before), their life will be one of service and sacrifice toward that child, helping them grow into a responsible and kind human being. But these parents also know that this does not involve bowing to a child’s every whim and fancy; they understand that a child’s raw material requires careful nurturing—and that requires discipline. We must help inculcate habits of virtue by developing incentives that draw a child toward the Good, teaching them the right reaction to various pains and pleasures. This is part of our service toward our children—not just giving them a candy to get them to stop whining, not just turning on the TV every time they bother us; but rather, teaching them to love what is good, to exercise self-control, to know what is prudent and right. This involves work. But the result is often a relationship strengthened by love and a desire to do what is best for the child, even when it’s troublesome and frustrating.
The balancing side of this is that these parents don’t see their children as playthings or passive objects. They care less about their children’s grades or extracurricular achievements than they do about their character. When their child expresses a desire to try something new, they’re encouraging—but they don’t pressure him or her into some pursuit that they will not enjoy. These parents see their children as creative, exciting, unique human beings, and enjoy watching them grow in their own way, in their own time. When their children are young, they don’t worry about what others think, about whether their child is “advanced” or not, about whether they’ll be a straight-A student. They don’t try to cover up the imperfect moments, or wish their kids would finally be old enough for daycare, old enough to go to school, old enough to finally move out. On the flip side, they don’t “vent” about their children constantly in public forums, complaining about their problems and issues. They recognize the fact that—just as it isn’t appropriate to do that in regards to their husbands, or sisters, or parents-in-law—it’s not appropriate to do with their children, who are also people with feelings and dignity. As their children grow into adulthood, they show deference and respect to the maturing person before them. They see that their children do not belong to them—rather, they see each child as a gift, one to be tended, but also respected.
My grandmother once told my mother that “we raise our firstborns for other people”; it’s a statement I now think about constantly, hoping and praying that I don’t fall prey to this temptation. But when we’re constantly posting about our lives online, it’s difficult not to feel this temptation. I want to share moments from my daughter’s life with her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins; what I don’t want is to use her to get accolades, praise, or sympathy from any or all of the above. Often—as with all things in life—it’s difficult to separate my motivations as I’m hitting “post.”
But I am trying, every day, to enjoy moments with her in all their sweetness before I even think about “sharing” them. To savor the times my daughter laughs or coos or starts to roll over. To talk to her when we go on walks, to read books with her, to cuddle with her—to see her little personality develop, her little will and opinions get stronger and more evident. To start praying for the days ahead when she’ll need discipline, encouragement, admonition. To be grateful that I get to be present for these sweet days—grateful that I get to be her mother, grateful that we get to spend life together from here on out. As I sink into each moment, I find myself having more fun than I ever thought I would. When she grins at me, I grin back. We laugh together—or more often at this point, I laugh at her, especially as she grows more opinionated and animated.
And despite all the negative social media posts, all the warnings, all the “just you wait”’s, I’m discovering that life with this baby girl is wonderfully fun. I am filled with awe at the fact that I got to help create a new life, and now get to watch that life develop and grow. I get to spend time with her, get to see her pursue her dreams and help her reach them.
The greatest challenge of the days ahead will be learning to strike a good balance between the above two things: between service and deference, love and respect, discipline and freedom. But I suspect—and hope—that if I continue to see this baby girl as a living breathing wonder, as a gift, it will help turn my heart towards that correct balance, and bring joy in the days to come.
My dad introduced me to March Madness when I was about six or seven years old. I watched him swirl little pieces of paper around in a baseball cap, each holding the name of a basketball team. All four of us kids took turns drawing team names out of the hat, and he helped us read the names aloud—team names like Wake Forest, Butler, Xavier, and Duke. I thought “Wake Forest” was a beautiful name.
Dad would color code our different teams, and we kept track of their progress through the championship. The child with the winning team got to pick a nice restaurant for a celebratory family dinner. We always hoped the baby of the family, Johnny, wouldn’t win—he always picked McDonald’s.
All of us, from age four on up, watched our teams compete with rapt attention. My younger brother told me recently that this was one of his earliest (and favorite) memories. Even though I previously had little to no interest in sports, I suddenly became a sincere basketball fan. And after years of watching March Madness, it’s become one of the highlights of my spring. Though my family loves football, baseball, and even golf, this is the one game that unites us and fosters camaraderie in a unique way—indeed, I think it’s American sports at their finest.
The March Madness tournament usually takes about a couple weeks—two days each for the rounds of 64, 32, 16, and eight, and then two days for the semi-final and final games of the competition. Each day brings new surprises and upsets. American sports are all about the Cinderella stories: we all love a good underdog. And that’s one of the primary reasons we love March Madness—you never know what might happen.
In the heat of the tournament, teams don’t always follow with their statistical chances. Each game is only 40 minutes: as the buzzer winds down and enthusiasm escalates, one or two players can change the entire outcome of a game. All it takes is the right matchup, the right pass, the right defensive moves.
Back in 2008, no. 10 seed Davidson surpassed everyone’s expectations and made it to the Elite Eight in tournament play. Watching Davidson smash my (and everyone else’s) bracket was an irksome yet exciting experience. Most of us had dismal scores by the end of the tournament, but we couldn’t help loving Davidson for their brilliant Cinderella story. Even last year, No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast beat No. 2 Georgetown—and became the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16. I’m still waiting for the day a No. 16 takes the whole championship by storm. You never know.
Unlike the Super Bowl, which experiences a lot of buildup and then is over in a day, March Madness is a multiple-week affair, jam-packed with basketball games. There’s always a new surprise around the corner, and fans constantly share their results and disappointments with each other. In college, fellow March Madness fans watched the matchups with me while doing homework and writing papers. Some of us (ahem, maybe me, but I’m not admitting to anything) watched the live games on our computers during Physics class. At work, fellow employees talked about their alma maters’ prospects for the championships, and competed with each other for gift cards and prizes.
Though there’s always commercialism involved in today’s sports, this tournament is about the teams: their tenacity, their togetherness, and their ability to transcend circumstance. Professional sports often fixate on one or two all-star players—Peyton Manning, LeBron James, Derek Jeter—rather than cheering for a team as a whole. While college sports still highlights a few players who rise to the top, the game is primarily focused on teams as a whole, and their ability to work in cohesion. Basketball is a fluid and fast-paced sport. The players’ pace, intuition, and ability to communicate always rise to the forefront in the tournament.
Team players change with every year—it’s harder to follow a specific player, but in a sense, seems to help convey the overall spirit and ethos of a team. My sister always cheers for Duke, no matter their place in the tournament. They’re her team. In March Madness, almost everyone has a team they’ve followed and cheered for throughout the years. Like other college sports, this championship encourages a fierce loyalty.
Though coordinating bracket pools and game-watching parties around the frenzy of work and commutes also requires some teamwork, fans flock together every year for March Madness. In this sense, too, the tournament is a team event. We band together, and wait excitedly for history to be made.
Now grown up, married, and living on the opposite side of the country, I still participate in tournament competitions with my family. My husband may have been a bit puzzled when he saw my growing enthusiasm through February (and even before), as we counted down to March Madness. I signed us up for two separate bracket competitions—and then, if that wasn’t enough, I began slicing up team names into little strips of paper, and sticking them into his Green Bay Packers baseball cap.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
I was carrying on a tradition, one I’ve proudly participated in for the past 17 years. We drew our teams—I got Villanova, another one of my favorite names. When we have children someday, they’re going to join in the fun, too. Because March Madness, for me, isn’t really about winning—it’s about family, Cinderella stories, and the joy of a wonderful tradition.
Gracy Olmstead is TAC‘s senior writer.
Who’s voting for Trump? It seems every publication has asked this question—from The Week to the Wall Street Journal to GQ. But when we read these articles, we—along with the authors—are usually asking this underlying question: why in the world would anyone vote for Donald Trump?
Because these two questions, who and why, have dominated the media over the past few months, I’ve really appreciated Rod Dreher’s commentary on Trump voters as of late—especially his post Monday about the ethics of the working class, particularly those in the older generation. Rod notes the virtuous kindness of his father, the way he reached out to everyone in his community—yet adds that many of his father’s political inclinations would put him in sympathy with Trump supporters.
Rod’s blogpost reminded me of a conversation I had with my grandfather back in Idaho, on my last visit home. He said he was voting for Trump. When I asked why, he said many things I’ve heard repeated by others regarding Trump’s political incorrectness, the fact “he says it like it is,” is “not afraid to stand up to the establishment,” the fact he cares about American jobs, et cetera. I recognize in my grandfather many of the attributes Rod saw in his father, attributes that push him toward Trump’s message. My grandpa doesn’t really use social media; I doubt he has seen Trump’s controversial Twitter posts and retweets, hasn’t been fully exposed to the most controversial comments he’s made.
My grandpa is an incredibly hard worker. He grew up on a farm, started his own dairy, helped open a local bank. Since his wife died, he’s spent quite some time connecting with others who’ve experienced loss, letting his sociability and warmth minister to others. He’s the sort of man who knows everyone, loves deeply, and feels a strong loyalty to place. He’s also the kind of person who speaks his mind unashamedly, and is not afraid to express politically incorrect opinions.
Of course, we disagree on quite a few issues. He’s a Fox News fan, and with that, taps into some of the more belligerent voices of the Republican movement than those I would care to identify with. But when it comes to the local sphere of government, culture, and community, we agree on most things. We have the same vision: for a land well-tended, a vibrant local economy, limited and accountable government, healthy churches and schools.
Even though I share the concerns of many others regarding Trump’s candidacy, I have grown frustrated and saddened by the belligerence this discussion has caused between groups of people. I appreciate, so much, the thoughtful commenters here at TAC—who even when they disagree, present thoughtful and honest opinions without maliciousness. When Trump supporters have commented on my anti-Trump stories, they’ve been thoughtful and respectful. I owe them the same deference.
But the #NeverTrump movement has often encouraged attitudes of disdain, scorn, and contempt not just for Trump, but also for Trump voters. When Donald Trump’s Chicago rally erupted in violence last week, I felt indignation and frustration: indignation at Trump, because he’s garnered tremendous power over the past several months, and it’s a power he seems to wield thoughtlessly. When he encourages violence at his rallies, he’s not the one who ultimately suffers the dangerous consequences: it’s the elderly, the families, the children in attendance who then become targets of violence by angry protesters. But I also felt frustration with those protestors—who “call candidates’ supporters names like ‘racist’ and interrupt their speeches … [who] have climbed onstage uninvited in order to promote their own political causes or, in at least one instance, possibly to assault an office-seeker,” as Newsweek notes. I read this account of the Chicago rally protests, in which the writer describes some of the particular violent instances he observed:
- A single white Trump supporter who held up a sign and stood quietly as three dozen people surrounded him, smiling and screaming, snatching and pushing at him until he had to run for police cover. Someone grabbed his American flag and threw it on the ground and he fought to recover it. The police escorted him away.
- Two young men, perhaps 17-19, standing quietly as they waited for a ride home. They were wearing their MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hats, looking terrified as people cursed and swore at them, and occasionally threw furious challenges for debate. The two young men held their ground. Only once did one of those hats come down, and it quickly went back on again.
Reading this, I had a picture of my grandpa in that crowd. I could see him proudly sporting a “Make America Great Again” hat. I could see his troubled face, looking out at a sea of angry young people, none of them willing to listen to his side of the story—none willing to consider the point of view of a man who’s dedicated his entire life to place, family, community, and feels as if his world is slipping away.
I don’t want to make presumptions about my grandfather’s allegiance to Trump. I don’t really think he’d be the sort to go to a rally—but there are many people out there who have, and I don’t think all of them are bad people. I don’t think all of them are misogynists, or racists. So the anti-Trump stories, memes, and videos in the media have started to frustrate me—not because I like Trump, by any means, but because I do love some of his supporters. And while I intend to keep noting my many concerns about him as a presidential candidate, I don’t want to join in the jeering. This is why Michael Brendan Dougherty’s writing about Trump has been so refreshing—he’s not a fan, but he’s thoughtful and sympathetic toward the candidate’s supporters.
The world we grow up in, the political context we’re surrounded by, helps form our characters and opinions. Each generation seems to have its weaknesses and vices: mine (the millennial generation) is often prone to attitudes of entitlement, laziness, skepticism, moral ambiguity. But we’re also more likely to exercise a certain set of virtues: mercy, empathy, kindness, tolerance. Many of us support Bernie Sanders, it seems, because his political platform complements both our virtues and our vices.
My grandfather’s generation has a different set of virtues, a different set of vices. Donald Trump’s platform and political rhetoric sits well with some of their natural inclinations. When I get angry and frustrated with the Trump voter, I have to remember that the world I live in is very different from the one known to many of them. I am called to show them tolerance and empathy, to try to understand them, despite our differences.
This could be my millennial leaning toward “softness” and “tolerance” coming out. But it’s also, at root, my love of community—and desire that, in the end, our presidential election won’t destroy opportunities for important political discourse. Because there are many other things worth talking about, many other important battles worth fighting—and if the Republican party as we know it is going to be forever changed by this 2016 election (as some believe it will be), it seems best to consider how best to harness this change in a productive fashion. How to work with those who are different than us, so that—whether some or all of us are disappointed by the results of the election—we can use that disappointment to foster a conversation, cohesion, understanding, rather than letting it foment into bitterness and anger, as it has this time around.
What is the purpose of film?
For some, it is to entertain: to draw moviegoers with humor and sex, intrigue and violence. The meaning and meat of a film matters less than the money it draws. For others, films are meant to inform and transform: to convince watchers that some piece of knowledge should change their lives.
But for Austin-based filmmaker Laura Dunn, filmmaking is primarily about telling a story. And while stories can transform, convict, and entertain, none of these things matter to her as much as being true to the story itself.
Dunn made her first film when she was an undergraduate at Yale University. She used to tackle film projects as an activist, she said in an interview, with an aim to change people’s way of thinking. “That’s when I was 19, and I’m 40 now,” she says. “I see things differently. I definitely make films to connect with people, to bring light to things that need to be seen and heard—but I don’t set out self-righteously to change people. …You want to represent people who are good, kind, and generous to trust you with their stories. You want to do that respectfully.”
And that is precisely what she has done with The Seer, a new documentary about writer Wendell Berry, set to be released at Austin’s South by Southwest Festival on Saturday. The film is co-produced and directed with her husband, Jef Sewell, and backed by executive producers Terrence Malick and Robert Redford, as well as several co-producers including Nick Offerman (fondly known as Ron Swanson on the TV comedy series “Parks and Rec”).
Berry is a Kentucky-born farmer and philosopher, essayist and poet, environmental activist and localist. He’s written fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and has been the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the National Humanities Medal, and the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. Those familiar with Berry’s work know that he is an outspoken advocate for “flyover country”—for towns and communities, farmers and farms neglected or even maltreated by modern politics and culture. His nonfiction work lauds a loyalty to place, to family, and to community that we’ve largely forgotten. His poetry exudes a reverence for the created world, for the glory of quotidian rituals and objects. His novels combine both these things in characters that love their towns and land. Through this immense body of work, Berry has appealed to a wide range of readers, transcending political and personal biases.
Dunn’s documentary opens on a cityscape—flashing lights, blurred movement, darkness. Then it cuts to an aerial view of the woods, as Berry recites his poetry: “I saw the forest reduced to stumps and gulleys, I saw the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley, I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked like every other city.”
This opening reminded me of Berry’s novella “Remembering,” in which protagonist Andy Catlett goes to the city and feels its lack of community, of membership, and then decides to return home to the place he loves and the people he knows. The documentary gives action and picture to Berry’s words, tells the narrative through shots of city and cubicle, forest and demolished hillside.
After a long pause, it then cuts to the soft footfalls of an unpictured person through Kentucky woods, a black and white-spotted dog trotting gracefully ahead. The music is gone, and all we hear is the wind, the lowing of cattle, the rustle of leaves, the tread of footsteps, the sound of birdsong. “I have lived nearly all my life in a place I can’t remember not knowing,” we hear Berry say. “I was born to people who knew this place intimately, and I grew up knowing it intimately.”
While Dunn’s film could have focused on the man and his accomplishments, The Seer does something quite different. It looks at Berry’s community in Henry County, Kentucky—and thus gives us a glimpse through Berry’s own lens, helping us see the heart of Wendell Berry by showing us what he loves: the people and place he has devoted himself to.
The title of the film itself indicates this: a “seer” is not just one with a prophetic vision. It is also someone with a particularized vision—a person who sees through a glass, looking at something specific.
One of the key moments in Dunn’s film is when she shares a quote from an NPR interview with Berry from 1998. He had built a 40-pane window in his Kentucky farmhouse, and he always wrote by the light of that window. “When I set out, the idea of that 40-pane window was always important thematically,” Dunn said. “It was really provocative to me. He talks about looking through a frame, holding up an artifact through which you can see. There’s a beautiful contrast he draws between the frame of the window as a manmade construct, and the natural world that doesn’t behave how you’d expect it to.” This became Dunn’s inspiration for The Seer—it never shows footage of Berry himself, but rather gives us a view into his glass: letting us see what “the seer” himself sees. The closest we get to an actual glimpse of Berry is seeing him type with his old typewriter.
Part of the reason for this decision not to show Berry is, as I suspected, due to the fact that he himself did not want to be filmed. Berry’s work is very cognizant of the damages that machines—be they automobile and tractor, or television and computer—have had on human relationships. While this may not be the reason he asked not to be filmed, it fits his personality and body of work to hide his face from the camera.
Dunn could have laced together bits of footage of Berry to remedy this dilemma. But she didn’t. “This was the ultimate challenge: but for me, it was the ultimate opportunity, too,” she said. “He is such a distinct voice. To make a film, but not film him—it reflected something essential about him.” So she embraced Berry’s own reticence of the camera, and decided to paint this unique picture of his world and the people he loves.
“If you draw a portrait of someone, artistically, you don’t just take a photograph or draw the literal lines of their face,” Dunn notes. “That doesn’t express who that person is. This film was an inspiring challenge—how not to draw a picture of [Berry’s] face, but reflect who he is.”
The film is full of black and white photos of Berry and his family, taken by his close friend James Baker Hall over the years—photos that very few people have seen before. Dunn and her team used these pictures to shape a “creative composite,” showing Berry’s life journey frame by frame.
But The Seer primarily focuses on a series of inhabitants from Berry’s own Henry County, Kentucky. The film is a tribute to farmers—their hard work, love of land, and traditional values. It’s a memoir to a sort of farming that’s dwindling and dying out, as industrialized agriculture takes its place. And it’s a collection of Berry’s own calls to halt such “progress,” to ponder the dangers of our ways, to preserve the old ways and the beauty of their rhythms.
“The farm is a beautiful way of understanding relationship of ourselves to land, to each other, to God,” Dunn says. “Wendell doesn’t just isolate an environmental issue—he helps us see how interconnected these pieces are, helps us see what our culture denigrates, at such high cost to our families.”
The Seer is gentle in its message about agriculture. Berry’s work lauds the small, the sustainable, the organic; and so, too, does the film. But when Dunn interviews farmers who do not fit this model, she does not paint them as greedy villains. Rather, she shows their goodness, their love of farming, and their utter helplessness in an economic and regulatory environment that is often working against them. They all obviously love their trade and their land, their homes and families: but they don’t know how to make ends meet. They’ve adopted the famous adage, “Get big or get out.” And it’s betrayed them. This is the root of much of Wendell Berry’s writing about agriculture, and The Seer brilliantly interweaves clips from Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s famed calls to expand and industrialize in the 1970s, alongside Berry’s own poignant rebuttals. It also features interviews with Berry’s daughter Mary, who serves as executive director of the Berry Center, which aims to help encourage sustainable farming, land conservation, and “healthy regional economies.”
In an early section of the film, Mary Berry talks about how her parents taught her to “look and see”—every time they went on a walk, they would point out the beautiful and the ugly, the well-kept and the neglected, the forgotten and the precious. This, too, reminds us of Berry’s calling as a seer. Dunn notes that in a nonfiction piece called “The Unforeseen Wilderness,” Berry wrote that “before you can be a seer, you have to be a looker.” To Dunn and her husband Jeff, “when everyone is looking at screens and phones, iPhones and computers,” this reminder to “look and see” is vital.
The Seer is a graceful piece. You can tell it took time to make—it reflects the age of something that has been well considered, aged like a good wine. It has layers of flavor and depth. The interviews are interspersed with black and white photos of Berry’s early work in Kentucky, shots of rustling trees in the woods, children playing in fields and gardens, abandoned farms. Each piece reflects an aspect of Berry’s work and vision, building a sense of longing for a home, for a place that is being abandoned. Composer Kerry Muzzey has constructed a lovely score, one that fits the quiet, thoughtful nature of The Seer. The combination of strings and soft piano, occasionally punctuated by moments of stillness, give the film a sense of reminiscence. It’s at times melancholy, thoughtful, serious, and sweet.
Despite the haunting sense of loss we might experience when seeing the helplessness of aging farmers, the shots of dilapidated barns and deserted farmhouses, there is also beauty reflected throughout the film. Much of this comes from the hope reflected in the face of younger generations, people picking up Berry’s call and embracing it. There are those who stay—and this film is also about those who stay: like Tanya Berry, who chose to follow her husband back to Kentucky, even though it was not her home, at least not at the time.
“I started this film thinking so much about Wendell and what a hero he is,” says Dunn. “But as a stay-at-home mom, as a woman, a homeschooler—the person who really stays with me, who I think about day in and day out, is his wife Tanya. She changed my way of thinking in this film. She elevates the domestic realm.”
Tanya grew up mostly in Northern California in a family of artists, notes Dunn. Her father was the Head of the University of Kentucky’s Art Department, where she also attended college as a music major. But when Wendell Berry decided to travel back home to Kentucky, Tanya followed: “I had no clue what I was getting into, but I’ve been lucky because of him, because he’s the kind of person he was, and he’s been lucky because of me, because I believe in the continuity of the home and the family.” She notes that growing up she’d lived all over the country, “moved and moved and moved,” and she had an intense desire to have a home—a place where her children could belong.
And this is a desire that many of Berry’s readers have: a yearning for a place of their own, for a home and community. His writing often draws people back to the land, to the places they’ve forgotten or neglected. This is one of the reasons why Dunn is planning to show the film at South by Southwest: Austin is her home.
“A lot of the same forces of development, change, and money that are destroying farms in Kentucky are destroying our home here,” she says. “It’s really meaningful to be able to show it at home, since it’s largely about finding your home in a world that feels so despairing a lot of times, where so many of the things you love are being destroyed. This is our home, and we’re going to start here.”
She hopes to show the film in smaller, local communities, because this would reflect the heart of Berry’s work. “If you do something trying to reflect spirit of Wendell Berry, you’re not just going to show it at big festivals and theatres, but also embrace the small, meaningful scale,” she says. “What we’re most interested in is bringing film to communities where it might inspire people, while celebrating [farmers] and their important good work.”
Wendell Berry decided that returning home and caring for his place mattered more than prestige and urban splendor; and it would seem that he’s been blessed for this decision. While he’s not a household name, recognition of his work is steadily growing. The unforeseen consequences of our agricultural and cultural developments that he warned about in the 1970s are becoming widely recognized and worried over today. Yet he’s refused to embrace a party or public movement, choosing instead to walk his own path. This means he’s angered people on both left and right—but it’s also enabled him to bridge ideological barriers and appeal to a large set of people. He’s tapped into a yearning that lies in the heart of so many: a love of home, of place, of traditions that are worth preserving and communities that are worth celebrating. We don’t want to lose these things, and Berry helps explain why.
The Seer perfectly embodies that message, entreating us not to forget or step away from our homes and our communities, but rather to restore and love them—to “look and see.” This, if any, is the transformative message that Dunn brings to her film. It’s a piece that she hopes might urge watchers “to turn away from the film, and turn into their own lives … to turn the television off and go outside.”
In the days leading up to Super Tuesday, Republicans were out in full force on social media, doing everything in their power to stop Trump. Their slogan? #NeverTrump: an insignia on the end of almost every post, a battle cry to other voters to stop his rise in its tracks.
Never have hashtags had such a huge role to play in a presidential race. There’s the popular and catchy #feeltheBern, which has become a chant at Bernie Sanders rallies. There’s #CruzCrew, #StandwithRand, #TeamMarco, and others.
But this has also been a week of negative hashtags: most importantly, #NeverTrump. Following John Oliver’s incredibly popular Trump takedown on Last Week Tonight, #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain has also been immensely popular. Another I saw—presumably based on a Marco Rubio quote—was #FriendsDon’tLetFriendsVoteforConArtists. Long, yes. But effective? Most definitely. And perhaps most telling: practically everyone in my online friend group has been posting anti-Trump statuses, videos, memes, and articles over the past week. It’s as if they collectively realized that yes, indeed, he was succeeding in his run for president—and they wanted to exert whatever social pressure they could on their friends to prevent this from becoming reality. Thus—#FriendsDon’tLetFriendsVoteforConArtists.
That statement—and its online medium—is very important in 2016. It seems obvious that Facebook (and other social media) will be playing an ever greater part in our political discourse, and may have an increasingly civic role in the days to come. The past week has demonstrated that these platforms will not only urge people to vote, but will also pressure people to vote for a specific candidate.
Facebook’s increasing civic role could be a good thing—in communities where we no longer know our neighbors, we get less political and social input from our local arenas. When we walk (or drive) around our local communities, many of us do not run into familiar faces with the regularity that we used to; we’re less likely to talk politics with the people we see at local coffee shops or grocery stores. Facebook could fill that hole in an important way: by opening up a place for political discourse, in a country where we increasingly feel awkward doing it in the physical neighborhoods we inhabit.
But it’s also true that Facebook (and other social media) could become a political bubble of peer pressure, in which we have a distorted sense of who we should vote for or how we should react to political events. The clamorous shouting of our friend groups—many of whom share political alliances and sentiments—could deafen us to the voice of reason, prudence, or caution. It could make us less sensitive to those who have differing opinions or views.
There are two reasons this seems likely to happen: first, because we don’t know exactly how Facebook’s own algorithms could be influencing what we see and when? Is there a reason #NeverTrump was dominating my newsfeed this week? Was it as popular a movement as I thought it was—or did Facebook already know that I was not a Trump voter, and thus began feeding me the content it associated with my political inclinations? Could it be that pro-Trump people saw less—or even no—#NeverTrump content? Facebook has been known in the past to skew its newsfeed items toward the positive. And it uses a “rich get richer”-style algorithm to determine what ends up in your feed. This would mean that, if you don’t like Trump, the #NeverTrump content would bolster your mood, spread through your friend base, and dominate your news feed. If you were a fan of Trump, you would be less likely to see such posts—partly because your friend base was likely more pro-Trump, but also because the negative nature of the posts would be less suited to a “happy” newsfeed.
As one person put it, it would be interesting to see a Venn diagram of how Trump support overlapped in our friend groups. Because if my Facebook friends’ statements were any indication, Trump should have suffered a serious blow on Tuesday night. Yet as results poured in, he continued to stand as the frontrunner. So something—whether it was algorithms or friend circles, indignation or stubbornness—prevented my friends from reaching the voters they meant to reach. Based on the results of Super Tuesday, the voters #NeverTrump posts were meant to reach were either offended by them and voted for him anyway, or didn’t see them much or at all.
And that has very interesting implications going forward: it seems to indicate that certain voter cliques could whip each other into a frenzy, while others could foment their own sentiments and interests, without any real transformation or change happening. This could result in less and less understanding, but rather in increasing levels of anger and disgust. Whereas standing outside your local voting place with a “Don’t vote for Trump” sign would definitely result in an opportunity to reach some with differing opinions, it would appear that doing so on Facebook will only have a limited effect.
How does the food we eat affect us as people? Michael Pollan’s books—The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Cooked, In Defense of Food, and others—consider the history and science behind the way we eat, and how our eating habits have changed over time. His books often lead us on a sort of journey: in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he spends a few weeks farming with Joel Salatin, then goes on to learn how to forage for mushrooms and hunt wild boar. His journeys are usually structured around a question about food and our relationship to it: why do we farm this way? Is eating meat ethical? Is there a right—or better—way to eat than our current one?
“Cooked,” a documentary just released on Netflix, takes Pollan’s book of the same name and gives it cinematic color and texture. It’s divide into four segments, each named after one of the four classical elements: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth (or, according to their primary subject matter: Meat, Soup, Bread, and Cheese). It’s a journey into our oldest traditions of cooking: from roasting meat on a spit, to preparing cheese in old wooden barrels, to making kimchi. Throughout, Pollan considers why cooking has developed in the way it has, and why the old traditions—baking bread from scratch, say, or fermenting our vegetables—are important and worth preserving. In this way, it’s a rather conservative piece.
“Cooked” crams a lot of material into four 50 to 58-minute segments. Parts feel a bit rushed. Additionally, crusader that he is, much of Pollan’s documentary levels a variety of attacks at big business and capitalism for all our current food woes; it’s the advertising industry, he believes, that have undermined our old traditions of cooking. And while there’s some truth to this, less considered are the ways in which the decline of private association and the family may have also affected our eating habits. After all, in a home where no one is ever at home, there isn’t really time to cultivate the cooking habits of yesteryear.
Pollan, in the documentary’s “Air” episode, targets food companies in the 1950s who convinced housewives they could do better buying canned goods and Wonder Bread than making meals from scratch. “The collapse of cooking can be interpreted as a byproduct of feminism, but it’s a lot more complicated and a lot more interesting than that,” Pollan said in an interview with Mother Jones. “Getting it right in the film took some time, but it was important to tell the story of the insinuation of industry into our kitchens, and show how the decline of cooking was a supply-driven phenomenon.”
To his credit, Pollan acknowledges the vital and under-appreciated work that homemaking consisted of up to this point. He implies (though carefully, considering how politically charged the subject is) that the work of women in the home contributed to the flourishing of the entire family, and that our lack of this presence has had consequences to our diet, and thus to our health and happiness. (For more insights on this subject, consider reading Shannon Hayes’ book Radical Homemakers.)
The New York Times‘s Neil Genzlinger finds fault with “Cooked” because he thinks it’s too gentrified—because only rich people can feasibly cook in the way Pollan demonstrates:
It would be great if all 7.4 billion of us could hunt our own lizards and cook them over an open fire, spend hours baking our own bread from grain milled on stone, and so on. But there’s a gentrification to Mr. Pollan’s brand of culinary advocacy.
The world’s poorest people — some seen in idyllic imagery here — have to devote long hours to basic subsistence, and the world’s relatively well off have the luxury to indulge in artisanal cooking. Yet applying his ideas across the whole range of human circumstances is a trickier subject than this pretty series wants to tackle.
Part of the appeal Pollan seems to be making, however, is that such cooking used to be common among people of all backgrounds and incomes—he suggests that, rather than being a meager and debilitating practice (as “devote long hours to basic subsistence” would imply), the work of creating food actually elevated the lives of those who created them. It lent grace, rhythm, beauty, and fellowship to their lives. It built up communal bonds, fostered traditions of hospitality, encouraged health and wellbeing. He shares the story of Moroccan communities who bake their bread in communal ovens. This is part of their heritage and culture—yet as Pollan’s documentary shows, this practice is growing rare as people turn to the ease of grocery store loaves.
I can see Genzlinger’s point—not because I think the barbecuing, soup-making, or bread-baking that Pollan describes are only for “rich people,” but rather, because we’ve largely lost the skills associated with this work. Many of the people throughout Pollan’s documentary refer to cooking traditions their mothers or grandmothers taught them: skills that were handed down through generations. It seems that we’ve lost a lot of these skills, and thus re-learning them presents a challenge of time and resources that many of us just don’t have. But baking a loaf of bread requires the cheapest of ingredients: flour, water, salt, a little yeast. Buying a whole chicken and roasting it with a few spices needn’t require an entire paycheck. Without an understanding of how to do these things, however, they become a costly endeavor.
There’s also a sense in which we think we don’t have time or money, because we apportion our resources differently; as San Francisco Chronicle reporter Tara Duggan notes in her “Cooked” review, “If we shouldn’t let corporations make our food, as Pollan argues, should each of us rise before dawn to bake loaves of bread and homemade granola bars for our children’s lunch each morning? There’s something about his idea of cooking as a moral imperative that feels insensitive to the realities of modern life.” But when she asked Pollan about this, he reminded her that, while it’s true we often work longer hours and spend more time commuting, we also spend more time in front of the television and computer than we used to.
Each segment of the series features a person, family, or tribe who complete a culinary ritual because this is how it has been done for generations. Making beer out of yucca root, cheese in old wooden barrels, Indian food with homemade coconut milk: these things have scientific reasons for being good, but that’s not usually why we embrace or enjoy them. They emanate from a sense of worship, a desire to nourish loved ones, an enjoyment of ritual, an eagerness to show hospitality. This is what cooking traditionally does: it brings us together, and fosters a sense of belonging. It involves a very conservative respect and reverence for the past, for the rituals and traditions of our forbears. Pollan’s documentary helps us remember the “why” behind our cooking, the human love and fellowship at the heart of it all.
Amazon is slowly killing the bookstore—or so we have thought, up to this point. After Borders closed, as Barnes & Noble has struggled to make a profit, many bibliophiles anxiously feared the day when their favorite pastime—perusing shelves loaded with actual physical books—would vanish. Even though the e-book has not yet conquered the codex, we’ve wondered whether it was merely a matter of time. Recently-published works such as Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore depict the physical bookstore as something ancient and quaint, unnecessary and easily replaced by the wonders of modern technology.
So it comes as something of a shock to hear that Amazon may open as many as 400 brick-and-mortar bookstores in the coming years. Why this move “backwards,” away from the progressive pull of technology and the digital world?
David Sax argues in The New Yorker that e-commerce isn’t as financially lucrative as we think it is. Amazon may in fact benefit from opening some physical locations: “online retailers rely heavily on offering the lowest possible price. And competition on price is intense, because a better offer is always just a click away,” he writes. Additionally, though we get amazing deals on shipping via Amazon, there really is no such thing as “free” shipping: “The U.P.S. driver doesn’t work for free, and the gas in the truck isn’t free, either. Amazon and other online retailers must absorb these costs, cutting into their potential profits and placing further stress on their pricing strategies.” But those aren’t the only reasons he believes such a move could be good for Amazon:
The move from e-commerce to physical retail makes sense for deeply human reasons, too. Shopping has never been purely a transactional exchange of cash for goods. It’s also what we do on vacation, on weekends, and when we walk down a street. We shop to be with people, to have a place to go, to touch things, to indulge our consumption fantasies. Online shopping can offer a kind of digital mimesis of these things, but it doesn’t reward consumers in the same way as a physical store. Right now, Amazon might be the best place to find any book on Earth and purchase it at the lowest possible price, but the experience of shopping there remains impoverished.
… The report of new Amazon stores comes at a time when independent bookstores are experiencing a surprisingly robust resurgence. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of new bookstores in the U.S. has grown by more than twenty-five per cent in the past six years, while in-store sales have also grown. … Aware of the advantages of physical space, some e-commerce companies are already opening stores or deepening their investments.
It’s interesting to ponder the way physical presences still influence our desire to buy goods. Companies do well when they are able to foster a brand with a particular ethos and appeal. This is more easily done, one might argue, in a physical space. Barnes & Noble, with its dark bookshelves and hunter green accents, its café with artistic portraits of famous authors, its carefree and bright children’s section, all contributed to its brand. Anthropologie is a store that works hard to curate its own image, with window displays created by local artists, the ever-present scent of candles, and piles of beautiful fabrics and textures. As Chavie Lieber writes for Racked, “Everything about Anthropologie’s stores is meticulously calculated. In an age where companies are closing brick-and-mortar stores and spending money on perfecting the e-commerce experience, Anthro has its eyes focused on its retail settings and the sensory components that attract legions of dedicated shoppers.” There’s no doubt that Anthropologie’s strong physical brand has contributed to its success in all venues of retail, both on and off the web. It has cultivated a following because people enjoy the experience and aesthetic of shopping at the store.
It’s also worth noting that social media such as Instagram and Snapchat—visually-based mediums that prompt us to share beautiful things we are experiencing in a given moment—have spurred on a return to the aesthetic sale. Most companies who advertise their goods on Instagram are trying to sell an experience, something that is lovely and envy-inducing. It would be hard to market an Kindle on Instagram—but a pile of aged volumes, their tattered covers made mysterious with pools of shadow and the perfect backdrop? And what if you added a young hipster in the corner, her eyes framed with glasses, clutching a perfectly poured latte?
One could easily see how physical bookstores could develop this aesthetic appeal, and how such an appeal might help an increasingly amorphous company such as Amazon cultivate an aesthetic, a face, that customers can connect with.
Whether Amazon can compete with the appeal of smaller, indie bookstores remains to be seen—many of them have done remarkably well in recent years, and the used bookstores have an advantage that many larger stores such as Barnes & Noble do not. Or at least, so suggests The Awl‘s Drew Nelles, in his profile of a brick-and-mortar bookstore in Queens:
Topos is a snug place to spend the day drinking coffee and talking to strangers. Offering coffee and books at the same place is not a novel idea, but it is one way for booksellers to pay the bills, even if nobody likes to read anymore. … One of Topos’s other founders, Benjamin Friedman, helped start the shop after fleeing St. Mark’s, the East Village landmark, which is tens of thousands of dollars in debt to its landlord, and has been perennially on the verge of closure. Other shops have shuttered, or fled Manhattan in search of cheaper rents. But this has not necessarily been the case for used bookstores, many of which are thriving. “Strangely enough, it’s the big chain bookstores that are more of an anachronism,” Björkenheim said. “Even Strand is having to do a lot more of what Barnes & Noble was desperately doing for the last ten years. I don’t even know what they’re selling now—more tchotchkes and t-shirts and tote bags. Which is something a used bookstore doesn’t necessarily have to resort to.” The whole industry was probably heading in this direction, he added: “smaller used bookstores, rather than enormous megastores.”
… Friedman, a cheerful, loquacious man who worked in new bookselling for many years, talked about why used bookstores are still a viable venture.“The not very glamorous economic answer is that it’s a lot easier to make money selling used books,” he said. “On the whole, the problem with new books is that there’s a list price set by the publisher and a discount price that’s also set by the publisher. So, as a new bookseller, you have no control over what the book sells for or what you pay for it. With used books, if you’re smart, you find ways to get them cheap, and you decide what you price them at. As a general rule, on any book, a used bookseller is probably making twice as much profit as a new bookseller. And that’s the difference between making it and not making it, because the profit margins on new books are razor-thin. At a used bookstore, no one is getting rich, but you can make enough to stay alive.”
It makes sense: bookstore owners who are able to get their books at estate sales and auctions are going to make more than those who have to negotiate prices with publishers. They have more flexibility and independence, and thus are more likely to make a profit.
But one of Topos’s customers also hints at another reason the used bookstore is often more successful, and it goes back to the aesthetic element a physical store can cultivate: “My favorite thing is the smell of used books,” a customer, Jeff Freer, told Nelles. “It’s the smell of, ‘We have something here.’ The smell of, ‘It’s not going to disappear.’ The digital can be gone in an instant. But smell has to come from time.”
We are sensory creatures. Our participation in the world is not just prompted by information and digital connection, but also by things such as feel, taste, touch. You can buy a copy of The Brothers Karamazov on your Kindle—or you can stroll over to the nearest bookstore on a rainy day. You can wander through the shelves, pick up a hardback copy, and flip through the pages. You can buy a latte from the café, settle into a shadowy corner, and begin reading with the quiet buzz of other readers around you. For some, the former option will always sound more palatable, because of the ease of the sale. But for others of us—the dogged bibliophiles who love reading for its aesthetic, as well as for its information—we’ll always go back to the bookstore.
But many of my book-loving friends feel almost offended at Amazon’s latest move. After the online retailer “killed” off several of their favorite bookstores, will they now replace them, opening up locations in old Borders buildings? (Probably not literally, but the image is a powerful one.) As Gizmodo put it, Amazon’s move “particularly amusing given how [they] spent the past two decades driving booksellers like B. Dalton, Borders, and Waldenbooks out of business by undercutting their prices. … We can’t wait to see Netflix open up laserdisc rental shops next.”
My guess is that Amazon, if its move pays off, will begin to compete with stores such as Barnes & Noble: larger bookstore franchises that sell mostly new copies. But the little indie bookstores, such as Washington, DC’s Capitol Hill Books or Politics & Prose, will continue to flourish. Because their customer base is seeking something that only they can provide: the appeal of the little, the local, and the old.
“In the long run democracy will be judged, no less than other forms of government, by the quality of its leaders, a quality that will depend in turn on the quality of their vision. Where there is no vision, we are told, the people perish; but where there is sham vision, they perish even faster.” – Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership
Throughout the 2016 presidential race thus far, there have been interesting rhetorical parallels in the language of anti-establishment frontrunners such as Trump, Cruz, and Sanders. But the New Hampshire primaries made it evident that winners Trump and Sanders had, as the New York Times put it, “harnessed working-class fury to surge to commanding victories,” dealing “a remarkable rebuke to the political establishment, and [leaving] the race deeply unsettled.”
Throughout debates and across the campaign trail, Trump and Sanders have criticized the leaders or elites who currently “run the show”—be it economic or political—in Washington or on Wall Street. They employ “us versus them” language that pits voters against Washington insiders and their ilk. As Scott McConnell put it on Tuesday, “both campaigns are criticizing the same thing, in divergent but essentially parallel ways. I don’t think this has a precedent in American history, the leading candidates of both parties running essentially class-based campaigns against a financial elite.”
They have a good deal to criticize. Crony capitalism is rampant in our political system. Many working-class Americans on the right believe they are largely disrespected, ignored, or disdained by those elected to represent them. As Faith Whittlesey—former ambassador to Switzerland and head of public liaison for President Ronald Reagan—wrote in a Daily Caller story last week, “We have seen grave threats rise to religious liberty, the wild abuse of Constitutional guarantees and authority by activist judges and the Executive Branch. … The leading candidate of the Democratic party declares that Americans who belong to the Republican party are her “enemies,” while the president issues lawless amnesties for illegal aliens, and rewards leftist mayors of “sanctuary” cities who flout the very immigration laws which he once swore to uphold.”
Many similar sentiments are shared by those on the left: Bernie Sanders appeals to those who believe these “backroom elites” are governing Wall Street, that the big banks are taking advantage of the average American, and that the American dream is increasingly illusory for an entire generation of young people, who are graduating with mountains of student debt and struggling to find employment.
Trump, meanwhile, speaks of a ruling class that has betrayed the American dream and the American worker. He’s denounced “‘stupid’ leaders weakening America,” while railing against illegal immigrants and preying on the resentment felt by many who believe they’ve been unfairly granted amnesty. His audience in New Hampshire and beyond belong to a group that F.H. Buckley calls the “right wing Marxists”:
All that was solid has melted into air, and what begins to take its place is a right-wing Marxism scornful of Washington powerbrokers and repelled by the US’s immobile, class-ridden society. Voters across the spectrum demand radical change, and yet a bien rangé Republican elite seems content with minimal goals at a time of maximal crisis. The right-wing Marxist might hope for less conservative heart and more conservative spleen. … He has all the passion of a Bernie Sanders, but with this difference: the right-wing Marxist pursues socialist ends through capitalist means.
Interestingly, Irving Babbitt predicted many of these dynamics in his classic work, Democracy and Leadership. He warned that because of our turn away from traditional humanism, a victimhood mentality would prevail in our politics. This turn, he believed, was significantly influenced by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who introduced a new philosophy of human nature into Western culture:
“The old dualism put the conflict between good and evil in the breast of the individual, with evil so predominant since the Fall that it behooves man to be humble; with Rousseau this conflict is transferred from the individual to society. … The guiding principle of his writings, he says, is to show that vice and error, strangers to man’s constitution, are introduced from without, that they are due in short to his institutions. … A small group at the top of the artificial hierarchy, kings and priests and capitalists, sit on the lid, as it were, keeping man’s native goodness from gushing forth torrentially. … the inevitable effect of the Rousseauistic evangel is to make the poor man proud, and at the same time to make him feel that he is the victim of a conspiracy.” [emphasis mine]
All these candidates, on left and right, present to their audiences a vision of America as a place of big versus little, elites versus working class, us versus them. Additionally, they all provide some vision of what a winning nation would look like: a place in which the little guy can succeed, the “American dream” might still be alive, might and power abroad might still prevail. While there are nuggets of truth to both their complaint and their vision, both sides have leant teeth to their cause by placing all current fault in our institutions, rather than calling their voters to responsibility, and by vesting the whole of their solution to the power of the executive—be he a wall-builder, or an advocate for free tuition.
This vision becomes appealing not only when we begin to separate as classes—into groups of urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, young vs. old, elites vs. working class. It also blossoms when community falls apart. A shining vision of American exceptionalism—and in Trump’s case, of a racism-tinged nationalism—is especially appealing when you don’t have a human-scale vision of flourishing to counter it with. Everything pools into nationalism, instead of into a sturdy localism. We have the individual and the state, without any mediating institutions or communities.
Once again, it isn’t that Americans have nothing to complain about. There are plenty of reasons for them to resent the establishment. But Rousseauistic dualism prompts us to pursue charismatic leaders such as Trump and Sanders, looking to them for a solution to our problems, rather than nurturing real accountability and change. We find ourselves promoting candidates who foment political hatred and anger: who draw people not because they have real solutions, but because they have the right rhetorical arguments.
It is obvious that Trump and Sanders are winning a lot of support because they say things in a “sincere” or “genuine” way. Babbitt believed this temptation was an outcome of Rousseau’s thought:
It seems to be assumed in certain quarters that almost any opinion is justified provided it be held with sufficient emotional vehemence. … Sincerity is indeed only one of a whole class of virtues that are often taken to be primary when they are in fact only virtues with reference to something more fundamental. Many of our ‘liberals’ conceive that it is in itself a virtue to be forward-looking, whereas it may be a vice, if what one is looking forward to should turn out to be pernicious or chimerical.
One can’t help but be reminded of the long argument that filled last Thursday’s democratic debate, in which Sanders and Clinton fought over which of them was more “progressive.”
Many also applaud Trump because he “is not afraid to say it like it is,” as if his frank (or more often, rude and insulting) manner is in itself a virtue. Though I agree with Ms. Whittlesey on many things, and applaud her inestimable contributions to both the U.S. pro-life movement and to our diplomatic relations abroad, I disagree with her when she supports Trump because “America needs another man in the no-nonsense Jacksonian mold; a Patton, a bold and adventurous fighter. We need a man who can, as Reagan did, electrify the room when he walks in, a man toward whom all heads turn.” She calls for “someone with charisma, quick wit, and determination”—someone who “effortlessly outshines the very able but lesser men who join him on any stage … a leader of superior mental agility who doesn’t apologize…”
But our politics have always been populated with charismatic, entertaining men: Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have all been presidents in this vein. And their charisma, while appealing, did not necessarily make them better presidents. Nor did the bold, sweeping measures that many of them enacted necessarily help voters—at least not in the long term.
What we need instead is force of character, someone who is not afraid to do or say the unpopular thing—someone who is characterized by humility, prudence, and a moral imagination. Someone who sees inequality and injustice, and is willing to recognize that it affects all people: not just those within his or her special interest group. As Babbitt put it, “Where there is no vision, we are told, the people perish; but where there is sham vision, they perish even faster.” A lack of political correctness and willingness to “tell it like it is” does not necessarily translate into prudent policy.
We need a citizenry willing to turn away from bitter, angry rhetoric, and to instead embrace the possibility that real change must often start small; a citizenry willing to admit that sweeping solutions—whether they come in the form nationalism or socialism, Trump or Sanders—are unlikely to solve the problems that currently beset us. Instead, we must cultivate again an understanding of that “conflict between good and evil” that “behooves a man to be humble,” and that calls us all to rise above attitudes of victimhood, and urges us instead to embrace both prudence and charity.
Agricultural policy may be one of the least talked about issues in the 2016 presidential race, at least when it comes to the debate stage. Though not as glamorous as discussions of immigration reform or fighting ISIS, it’s still a vitally important issue with significant ramifications for the federal budget and the broader economy. Thus far, it has gained some air time in Iowa, largely because of the state’s significant farming demographic. But even there, candidates largely focused on ethanol mandates, while neglecting the larger issues of a retiring farming workforce and rampant Big Ag cronyism.
So what do the 2016 frontrunners have to say about agriculture? And how many of them are really as principled about ag reform as they claim to be?
Take Ted Cruz, Iowa’s winner: he’s known for his principled, dogmatic stands on fiscal issues in the Senate. He opposed the Farm Bill back in 2013—though he primarily spoke against the food stamp elements of the bill, while ignoring what Jim Antle called the bill’s “welfare for the rich and politically connected.” Nonetheless, he’s been brave enough to express his opposition to ethanol mandates, even while campaigning in the land of King Corn. “I don’t think Washington should be picking winners and losers,” he told a crowd of Iowa farmers last March. “I have every bit of faith that businesses can continue to compete, can continue to do well without having to go on bended knee to Washington asking for subsidies, asking for special favors.”
But does Cruz really have the guts to fight ag cronyism when his potential presidency is on the line? Despite his transparent resolve in Iowa, in December, Cruz flipped his vote on an important crop insurance funding measure in a highway bill in December. Lori Sanders of the R Street Institute explains the bill’s importance:
Tucked neatly away in Sec. 32205, on Page 1,143 of the 1,301-page bill, is a repeal of Sec. 201 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, passed in early November. For taxpayer advocates, Sec. 201 was one of that bill’s strongest selling points. It ordered the Department of Agriculture to renegotiate the Standard Reinsurance Agreement the federal government has with private insurers who participate in the federal crop insurance program. It would push their taxpayer-guaranteed rate of return down from 14 percent to 8.9 percent.
This small reduction actually goes a long way. The agriculture portion of the farm bill is vastly over budget, to the tune of more than $5 billion in 2014 alone. Despite Big Ag’s cries that their programs deliver taxpayer savings, a large chunk of the supposed savings from the latest farm bill already have been squandered on higher-than-expected payouts from our overly generous farm programs.
That’s why free-market advocates from Citizens against Government Waste to FreedomWorks to the National Taxpayers Union came out in force to support renegotiation. The Heritage Foundation lauded the provision as real savings in a package they otherwise termed a “colossal step” away from fiscal restraint. Unfortunately, it seems Big Ag is about to win the day, and in the most backhanded way – by attaching a seven-line provision to a completely unrelated bill.
Politico reported that, while originally voting “no” on the measure, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts took Cruz aside and talked to him. After a brief visit to the Senate cloakroom, Cruz stepped back in and voted “yes” for the measure. Other fiscal conservatives such as Mike Lee of Utah, and Rand Paul voted against it.
Could this demonstrate that Cruz, in truth, would be willing to give up his fiscal conservatism when pressured? Perhaps not—but at the same time, it is curious that he would flip-flop on this issue so close to the Iowa caucuses.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s only stated positions on farming put him directly in the pocket of Big Ag—as Tim Carney puts it over at the Washington Examiner, “he confuses pro-business corporatism with pro-market free enterprise.” Carney reports that Trump has attacked Cruz for his stance against ethanol mandates and subsidies, while declaring his own support for the industry. “His full-throated support for the ethanol mandate puts no room between him and Hillary, who has never met a corporate handout she didn’t like,” notes Carney.
As the most successful establishment Republican in the race thus far, it seems unlikely that Marco Rubio would be willing to fight the Big Ag lobbyists on such measures as the Farm Bill; for one, he’s a huge supporter of sugar subsidies as a Florida senator. On the campaign trail in Iowa, he was reluctant to speak up against the ethanol mandate, and chose to do so in a limited fashion—seemingly in order to stay on the good side of Iowa voters. His website’s stated platform on agriculture includes repealing “burdensome regulations” on farmers in the energy and conservation realm, but doesn’t touch on the Farm Bill.
Rand Paul, one of the few Republicans willing to oppose Big Ag cronyism, just dropped out of the 2016 race. But this may prove beneficial for fiscal conservatives long-term, as it enables him to continue pushing for fiscal conservatism in the Senate. In 2012, reports BallotPedia, Paul introduced an amendment to limit farm subsidies to those whose income is more than $250,000. “My friends across the aisle are commonly saying why don’t those of means pay more or receive less? This amendment would do precisely that,” he said on the Senate floor. “Currently nine percent of farmers are receiving nearly a third of the benefits. … I think this should change and that the wealthy shouldn’t be receiving farm subsidies.” When he originally launched his campaign, Paul told supporters that “I will place common sense and reasonable limitations on a bureaucracy that seeks to target well-intentioned businesses with burdensome regulations.” This is needed for U.S. agriculture—and hopefully Paul will continue this work on the Hill, no matter who resides in the White House.
The two democrats contending for the presidency, meanwhile, carry two different views on the problems we have with agriculture, writes Grist’s Nathaniel Johnson. While Clinton holds what Johnson calls the “underinvestment theory” of farm failure, focusing more on spending money than on reigning in cronyism, Sanders adheres to “the ‘unfairness theory’ of farm failure,” arguing that small and midsize farms “are being held down by unfair competition from foreign trade, big agribusiness, and the government subsidies that support the largest farmers.” Unlike many in the 2016 race, Sanders recognizes the frustrating cronyism entrenched in our agricultural system—practices that prevent small and midsize farms from flourishing, while lending a hand to the market’s biggest players.
“It is unacceptable that just four corporations control 82% of the nation’s beef cattle market, 85% of soybean processing, and 63% of pork processing,” Sanders’s website states. “It is unacceptable that there are over 300,000 fewer farmers than there were 20 years ago. It is unacceptable that the top 10% of farms collect 75% of farm subsidies, while the bottom 62% do not receive any subsidies. We have to adopt policies that will turn this around.” He also expresses support for local and regional food systems: “Farmers throughout the country are boosting their bottom line and reinvigorating their communities by selling directly to local consumers, institutions, and restaurants. Senator Sanders will invest in this movement, helping Americans support local farms.”
But it seems unlikely that Sanders’s support for regional food systems would result in support for local food freedom laws, which enable farmers to sell to informed consumers without being subject to the usual licensure, permitting, certification, inspection, packaging, or labeling requirements by state agencies. It’s the sort of thing libertarians rally around—but would a socialist like Sanders be willing to support such a movement away from the directive power of the state?
Additionally, Sanders’s stated goals as president are focused on reversing trade policies like NAFTA, enforcing antitrust laws, and increasing monetary supports to rural America—without addressing the Farm Bill’s bloated subsidies or crop insurance programs. Though he opposes government supports for the top 10 percent of farmers in theory, one wonders how he would practically fight such supports without tackling the overreaching arm of Washington. He has recognized the perils of Big Ag—but not the connected perils of big government.
Anti-establishment candidates such as Cruz and Sanders have shown a past willingness to shake up Washington with their opposition to cronyism. Cruz has demonstrated at least some loyalty to fiscal conservatism and fighting big government; Sanders is willing to fight corrupt big business interests and stand up for small farmers who need a voice. If one were to combine these two loyalties, we’d have the perfect candidate: but as it stands, U.S. agriculture seems likely to face the complications of corruption and excess oversight in 2016 and beyond.
What would induce a person to join the ranks of ISIS? More than you might think, Ross Douthat argues over at the New York Times: in a world that offers us temporal rather than eternal promises, the Islamic State is reminding young people that they have souls: as the New York Review of Books piece that Douthat quotes points out,
France’s Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Drift Related to Islam (CPDSI) estimates that 90 percent of French citizens who have radical Islamist beliefs have French grandparents and 80 percent come from non-religious families. In fact, most Europeans who are drawn into jihad are “born again” into radical religion by their social peers. … ISIS is a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that many of them will never live to enjoy …
This is something the West has a hard time understanding, says Douthat. In our largely materially and rationally focused society, we don’t understand why young people would join a group of beheading extremists. Yet in underestimating the force of ISIS’s message, we undermine our own ability to fight them:
The deep reality here (a reality not unlike the one that’s playing itself out on certain college campuses right now) is that many human beings, especially perhaps young human beings, still crave a transcendent purpose, even in a society that tells them they don’t really need one to live a comfortable, fulfilling life. And more than that, many people experience both a kind of liberation and a kind of joy in submission to these purposes, even — as is the case with ISIS — when that submission involves accepting forms of violence and cruelty that rightly shock the conscience of the world.
… “Nothing costs enough here,” Huxley’s Savage complains about the brave new world. If ISIS costs, a certain meaning-starved cohort in our world thinks, maybe that just means it’s real. That cohort is still mercifully small, and unless radical Islam acquires a lot more intellectual cachet it’s likely to remain so. But if the West’s official alternative to ISIS is the full Belgium (basically good food + bureaucracy + euthanasia), if Western society seems like it’s closed most of the paths that human beings have traditionally followed to find transcendence, if Western culture loses the ability to even imagine the joy that comes with full commitment, and not just the remissive joy of sloughing commitments off — well, then we’re going to be supplying at least some recruits to groups like ISIS for a very long to come.
“Nothing costs enough here.” It’s true of Western society in many ways—especially in the realm of the spiritual and philosophical. This is something Rod Dreher has pointed out in his columns about “moralistic therapeutic deism“: while ISIS has given people a story of transcendence, Western churches have settled for “rationalism and do-goodery.” We’ve cheapened our Gospel by cutting out the supernatural and the difficult—by making it primarily about this life, and about pleasing people, rather than refocusing on the eternal and on God.
While the fears and doubts expressed by many American Christians over the Syrian refugee crisis are understandable, I think they are often symptomatic of this refocusing on the temporal and rational, rather than the eternal and spiritual. On Friday, I argued for The Week that Christians should be encouraging the U.S. government to admit refugees. This argument could have focused on presenting a rational, data-driven discussion of the costs and benefits: whether refugees will pose a risk to national security, whether we have the means to both screen and house them properly, etc. And there are some excellent resources on this subject, giving intelligent arguments for why the risks are much lower than most Americans think.
But instead, I tried to focus primarily on biblical and ethical arguments for Christians to consider—primarily because of the argument Dreher and Douthat are making. We religious people in the West are far too quick to secularize our conversations, focusing on the material and not the spiritual. We focus on the societal, political, and personal implications: on the worries of this life. And in so doing, we sell our religion cheap. We cut the heart out of it, and only strengthen the Islamic State’s cause. We show that we are not as devout as they—that we offer no equal (or superior) path of devotion to follow. We offer only the comforts of this world, and in the process, cut off the lost and alone from both the temporal and supernatural comforts they are craving.
In his Lenten message in February, Pope Francis warned listeners to be wary of “globalized indifference.” He said,
The love of God breaks through that fatal withdrawal into ourselves which is indifference. The Church offers us this love of God by her teaching and especially by her witness. But we can only bear witness to what we ourselves have experienced. Christians are those who let God clothe them with goodness and mercy, with Christ, so as to become, like Christ, servants of God and others. This is clearly seen in the liturgy of Holy Thursday, with its rite of the washing of feet. Peter did not want Jesus to wash his feet, but he came to realize that Jesus does not wish to be just an example of how we should wash one another’s feet. Only those who have first allowed Jesus to wash their own feet can then offer this service to others.
Some may think that a deep focus on the transcendent would deaden our hearts and deafen our ears to the sufferings of this world. But as Pope Francis pointed out, it’s the exact opposite: a person transformed by the supernatural is uniquely able to serve those who live in this world. As C.S. Lewis once said, throughout history “the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.”
This is the joy that can fight “the joy of ISIS”—it’s one that offers healing, comfort, and peace, rather than a gospel of stealing, killing, and destroying. But in order for the searching to find it, someone must preach it.