State of the Union

The Bibliophile’s Conundrum

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How ought we to read? In the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks considers a Vladimir Nabokov quote which promotes the intense reading of a few over the broad perusal of hundreds—and he wonders, is Nabokov right?

“When we read a book for the first time,” Nabokov complains, “the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation.” Only on a third or fourth reading, he claims, do we start behaving toward a book as we would toward a painting, holding it all in the mind at once.

… The ideal here, it seems, is total knowledge of the book, total and simultaneous awareness of all its contents, total recall. Knowledge, wisdom even, lies in depth, not extension. … Since a reader could only achieve such mastery with an extremely limited number of books, it will be essential to establish that very few works are worth this kind of attention. We are pushed, that is, toward an elitist vision of literature in which aesthetic appreciation requires exhaustive knowledge only of the best.

… So, is this an ideal attitude to literature? Is Nabokov right that there is only rereading? Does the whole posture, both Nabokov’s and that of critical orthodoxy, bear any relation to the reality of our reading habits, particularly in a contemporary environment that offers us more and more books and less and less time to read them?

Meanwhile, Ken Kalfus writes a relatable—and even amusing, though in an almost tragic way—piece in the New Yorker about the way we shop for books now:

Bookstores have become places of regret and shame. We once enjoyed shopping in them or simply looking in their windows, back in the days when they were ordinary retail establishments. They were like stores that sold shoes or hats, but with more appealing merchandise. Now they’ve taken on moral significance. Buying a book and choosing the place to do so involve delicate and complicated considerations. You may fail to do the right thing.

… My remorse enfeebles me. I recognize that I’m no longer thinking about the essence of the reading experience or the book I want to buy, which in the depths of my moral rumination has been turned into simply another form of consumption, and not even that, but rather the aspiration to consume.

For the bibliophile, these dilemmas are deeply understandable. We’ve all confronted that large and looming bookshelf, considering furtively—or even fearfully—what we should buy… or whether we should buy anything at all, since we’ve probably got three or even 15 books on our shelf that are as yet unread. We think of the treasure troves left to be discovered, the talented authors who we could support through our sales, the tiny indie bookstore feebly making it by, day by day. And all of a sudden, choosing a book becomes a monumental, even moral, task.

Are other pastimes saddled with this moral weight? Few of us spend such time and mental energy perusing Netflix or movie theatre listings. True, we may be overwhelmed by choices; but in the end, we’re merely seeking some evening entertainment. And unless one is a true film enthusiast, these cinematic choices don’t leave us in any sort of moral quandary or panic.

So why is reading different? Perhaps because, for many of us, it’s more than entertainment: it’s part of a larger search for truth, goodness, and beauty. It’s a way we delve deeper into our souls, and the souls of others. It often leaves us shaken and transformed. As Nabokov points out, the longer we spend immersed in a particular work, the more we begin to know and love it—and the more it begins to change us. Reading leaves a more indelible mark on the human mind than most other forms of entertainment. Thus, choosing a book is often like choosing a particular course for one’s future: mapping out the free hours of the coming days, yes, but even more, mapping out a new mental and spiritual journey for the self to embark upon.

Through our reading, we come to know and love writers. We often find ourselves compelled to keep buying and reading their material, seeking to know them better—and seeking to support their work.

Through our reading, we come to know and love bookstores. They leave us with deep sensory impressions, fond memories of serendipitous discovery, a lingering thirst for joys yet undiscovered. We frequent our favorites with religious devotion—memorizing the layout of their shelves, seeking their most comfortable chairs.

For the bibliophile, reading is a monumental part of living. And thus, the choosing of every book must be considered deliberately and thoughtfully. Which brings us back to the two questions that Parks and Kolfus consider: first, should we seek quality or quantity in our reading? And second, what moral claims should lay heaviest on our hearts in the choosing of a book?

Back in 2013, I wrote about George Vanderbilt’s enormous library and voracious reading habits: he reportedly read 3,159 books in his lifetime (approximately 80 books a year). I used to think that such a feat would be accomplishable for me—3,000 didn’t even sound like that many. But the older I get, the busier life becomes… and getting through 40 or 50 books in a year seems like a monumental accomplishment. I’ve realized that Vanderbilt’s record will never be mine—and that it doesn’t have to be. Instead, it’s become clear that I ought to savor each book: re-reading my favorites, while still seeking those essential reads that stretch brain and attention span in healthy ways. Speed reading is useful for the accumulation of necessary knowledge, while slow reading is essential for the appreciation of written beauty. Perhaps our best reading choices lie at the junction of quality and quantity: we can quickly peruse tedious or secondary works, then slowly absorb the masterpieces worth relishing.

And what of the purchasing of books? William Giraldi touched on this struggle in his excellent piece on personal libraries earlier this year. “Agonizingly aware of the human lifespan,” he wrote, “The collector’s intention is not to read them all, but, as E.M. Forster shares in his essay ‘My Library,’ simply to sit with them, ‘aware that they, with their accumulated wisdom and charm, are waiting to be used’—although, as Forster knows, books don’t have to be used in order to be useful.”

To the non-bookworm, such sentiments probably sound ridiculous and expensive. But to the bibliophile, such a statement bears witness to the dilemma we all face, the tightrope we walk on every trip to the bookstore or the bookshelf: what to read, re-read, and why, are the questions that must be weighed in the balance. Thankfully, a good book is worth all the work.

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What’s the Future of Agriculture?

In a world moving towards vat-grown meats and Soylent, Bryce Oates hopes for a return to the sustainable, diverse, and local:

I suppose we all have our favored notion of what’s to come, what’s preferable, how we should move along the path. Mine is more people on the land farming a mix of crops and livestock, minding the recycling and biological renovation of nutrients while producing healthy food for people, and leaving room for the wildlife with whom we share the planet. That’s already a mouthful, I know, but there also needs to be something said for economic fairness, decent pay, and incomes sufficient to support these food producers and conservationists.

Creating such a future may be difficult, Oates writes, as we would need to build “a policy framework and developing market opportunities and infrastructure. You know, truly sexy things like food processing shops and developing trucking routes.”

Meanwhile, Gene Logsdon wonders whether we ought to forsake capitalistic farming methods altogether, and turn farming into a not-for-profit enterprise:

Not-for-profit farming would be based on a different economic model for farmland. “Profit” would come from the satisfaction and enjoyment and recreational value of possessing or owning land, not squeezing it to death for money profit. Then the land and the farmer’s life on it would not be subject to money manipulation and would not need the highest yields or the biggest machinery to survive. It would just need more not-for-profit food producers.

The major goal for successful farming would not be to reap the highest amount of money from the land but to reap the most pleasure and satisfaction that a farm can provide. For example, the not-for-profit farmer would be content to derive as much enjoyment out of fishing, ice skating, boating, swimming, and bird-watching on his pond that others derive from taking vacation trips to far off lands. Rather than seeing the farm primarily as a place to make money, the non-profit farmer would see it as a refuge from strife. They would then have to make only enough money to pay taxes and cover living costs, the latter being minimal since the farm, correctly managed, can provide many of those costs without cash outlay. The financial reward would come from the rise in the value of the land both as property and as increasingly fertile soil.

Why does Logsdon see this as a more beneficial method than the current one? “When highest possible profit rules farming, the possession of the land inevitably flows into the hands of the richer people and more and more poor people are dispossessed— forced off or lured off the land,” he writes.

Both of these posts seem to raise the question, “Has capitalism broken farming?” As I’ve written in the past, I think it’s more likely that crony capitalism has broken farming, giving us the bloated industrialized system we have today. But these writers aren’t wrong to call for a return to a simpler, more diversified, craftsman-esque style of agriculture. Our current industrialized mode of farming has resulted in a swath of deleterious consequences.

Oates identifies the greatest challenge here: the need for a new infrastructure, one that gives local-food-craving consumers access to the goods they desire. That infrastructure is building, but slowly—impeded by miles of red tape.

The idea of not-for-profit farming is intriguing, but I wonder how well it would sell to farmers themselves—many of whom want to build a sustainable livelihood they can pass onto their sons and daughters. (Although perhaps it’s not a bad idea to open up the possibility of not-for-profit farming for those who are interested in such a lifestyle.) Many of today’s farmers are making “only enough money to pay taxes and cover living costs” as it is: rewarding them for their toil and hard work is a good use of our time and resources. We want to make (sustainable, local) farming a lucrative practice, so that smart and talented people will be drawn to the enterprise. That’s not as likely to happen if we transform farming into a not-for-profit enterprise.

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The Raisin Farmer Wins: A Tuesday Roundup

Back in 2013, I wrote about a raisin farmer fighting the federal government’s “Raisin Administration Committee”: a Truman-era program that has the power to allot a portion of every year’s raisin crop into a government-controlled reserve, where it’s kept off the market. When farmer Marvin Horne decided to take on the committee, the battle went all the way to the Supreme Court—where last Monday, the court ruled in Horne’s favor:

The Hornes went to court to challenge the whole raisin reserve program, contending that it amounted to an unconstitutional taking of their property without just compensation. … The government argued that it wasn’t taking the Hornes’ property because they were free to sell their grapes for other purposes, like wine, instead of raisins.

The Supreme Court rejected those arguments, however, by an 8-to-1 vote, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor the sole dissenter. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the government’s “let them eat wine” argument is “probably not much more comforting to the raisin growers than similar retorts have been to others throughout history.”

… Raisin producer Horne was elated by the court’s decision. “It’s just an affirmation in our Constitution and the American way of life,” he said.

Modern Farmer wonders whether the court’s decision will dismantle the raisin industry Marketing Order. But George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin notes, “… All it means is that the government will have to pay compensation for the fair market value of any of the raisins that are taken this way. I’m not sure if going forward the Department of Agriculture has authorization from Congress to pay compensation in these cases and if they don’t have that authorization, then in order to keep this program functioning, they might need Congress to pass a new law, which … doesn’t seem tremendously likely.”

In other agricultural news, Washington’s corn lobbyists have declared war on sugar lobbyists:

The Corn Refiners, representing companies that produce high-fructose corn syrup, just hired 10 outside lobbyists for an aggressive, unorthodox attack on the federal sugar program just a year after a new farm bill was signed into law. Their first target is the agriculture appropriations bill, now moving through a House committee.

… The sugar program, which has existed in various forms since the 1930s, uses an elaborate system of import quotas, price floors and taxpayer-backed loans to prop up domestic growers, which number fewer than 4,500. … “While every other farm support program has received multiple rounds of reforms, big sugar has not been touched,” said John Bode, CEO of the Corn Refiners group.

… Bode, a former assistant secretary of agriculture during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies, was outspoken in an unusual way for a Washington agribusiness insider. “This is pure crony capitalism,” he said. “Sugar is a mere footnote in American agriculture production, but they make more political contributions than the rest of agriculture combined.  That’s why they have defeated all attempts at reform since 1980.”

Of course, the irony here is that America’s gigantic corn industry benefits from a mammoth amount of subsidies, as well—to the extent that it’s called “King Corn” in a recent documentary about the industry’s crony practices. Michael Pollan dedicated an entire section of his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma to describe corn’s infiltration of the food industry. As James Davis, from the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, told the Post: “We’re not real interested in climbing in bed with the corn lobby to accuse the sugar industry of being prostitutes. We oppose all forms of corporate welfare.”

 

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How to Bring Innovation to Education?

When it comes to reforming K-12 education in America, entrepreneurs hold the key to success—or at least, this was the principal claim touted by panelists at an American Enterprise Institute panel on innovation and entrepreneurship Wednesday.

Despite the variety represented amongst the panelists, most expressed a keen desire for greater school choice and a diminishing of bureaucratic red tape. Meanwhile, there were specific things that seemed to make the panelists—as well as the parents, teachers, and entrepreneurs they work with—frustrated:

  • The nationalization of educational standards (via Common Core), and a corresponding lessening of choice on the local and state level (this complaint also applies to the Common Core tests that many parents are increasingly choosing to opt out of).
  • A broken educational system, insulated by bureaucracy and federal regulations, that seems to prevent any real reform or change from getting up off the ground.
  • A lack of alternative schooling options for families with limited monetary resources. As Michael McShane, an AEI research fellow in education policy studies, puts it in the institute’s just-released education agenda for 2016, “School choice is about equalizing opportunity. … Wealthier families can choose where their children attend school, but poor families cannot. By allowing for the creation of open enrollment charter schools or giving families vouchers or tax credit scholarships, school choice gives low-income families this same benefit.”

While there were a lot of buzzwords floating around during Wednesday’s panels (“disruption,” “innovation,” etc.), a few interesting and thought-provoking ideas also rose to the surface—ideas that may be able to fight some of the above frustrations that Americans are experiencing.

Going Small
Panelist Matt Candler started 4.0 Schools in 2010. The organization helps entrepreneurs create new educational tools for teachers, students, and parents. They also have created what Candler calls “Tiny Schools.”

Charter school startups require a massive amount of work: they must churn through charter applications, rent or renovate a large property, hire adequate staff, recruit in local neighborhoods, fundraising, procure insurance, books, and furniture—etc., etc. While such development may be lower risk than conventional district-led school improvement plans, innovators still rarely have opportunity to test their models and curricula before the students show up, Candler says.

In contrast, a Tiny School enables innovators to test their ideas and models at a very small scale, in a very personal environment, says Candler. Families and students can build strong relationships with educators, and provide extensive feedback—long before the Tiny School ever develops into a full-scale charter school.

The 1881 Institute, NOLA Micro Schools, Rooted School, and Noble Minds Institute were built through Candler’s Tiny Schools Project. As they grow, they’re each looking into different options for expansion: one is partnering with a homeschool collective and a private university to build a summer program. Another is using space in a local private school, while another is contracting with a local public charter school for a year.

Candler argues that by limiting scale and thinking small, schools can focus on building quality, accountability, and support systems. They don’t have to worry about infrastructure issues and “huge bureaucracies.” Meanwhile, students and families get personalized input and care from the school.

In a lot of ways, Candler’s program is reminiscent of the Tiny House movement: it focuses on minimizing costs in order to maximize quality. It works to cater to the needs of the homeowner/student, while also minimizing any detrimental impact on the larger community or ecosystem surrounding it.

Increasing Flexibility
Many of the speakers at AEI’s panels emphasized the frustrations they (and many parents) feel with our rigid yet woefully broken schooling system.We must pay our taxes: yet those tax dollars go toward an educational system that is inflexible, systemically flawed, and ailing. We must send our children to schools, of one sort or another: yet the schools we’re sending them to are often malfunctioning institutions that don’t seem to help our students as much as harm them.

The sort of entrepreneurship that these speakers seemed to be pushing for is the sort that emphasizes parental choice, providing multiple schooling options at price points that are actually feasible for a diverse body of providers.

Yet even here, there’s a degree of rigidity: as Village Capital’s Ross Baird argues, the K-12 model we’re currently working with was built for a bygone era. It worked in an industrial society, in which a bachelor’s degree was in fact a guarantor of social mobility and economic success—but in modern America, higher education is fraught with problems and the “knowledge economy” is quickly taking off. In this society, our school system often seems to be lagging behind.

What seems to be the “future,” then, would be an expansion of school choice and flexibility that enables parents to pick and choose a smorgasbord of educational opportunities, giving them the ability to orchestrate an educational program that suits their students’ needs and talents. So, for instance, a parent could choose to homeschool their child 50 percent of the time, supplementing with Khan Academy, MOOCs, or other online curricula, and then finish out with classes or extra-curriculars with a local charter school or co-op.

One of the panelists, in a private discussion between panels on Wednesday, compared this idea to iTunes and Spotify: we’re currently working with a rigid system (iTunes), in which users choices are limited to buying one full music album or another. You can’t just pick a song from the album—you have to buy the whole package. It’s all or nothing.

The future of education, he suggests, is more like Spotify: you customize and create your own playlist from a myriad of song choices. You build a user experience that fits your personal style, background, social sphere.

As a former homeschooler, the idea of building a smaller, more local, and accountable system is highly palatable and exciting—as is the idea of greater flexibility, of being able to opt in or out of educational methods at one’s own discretion. It’s exactly what my parents fought for: the ability to customize my education in such a way as to make it as rigorous, high-quality, and enjoyable as possible. They melded at-home classes, homeschool co-op literature and rhetoric classes, college language courses, private music lessons, community college orchestra, and intramural sports.

But there are also, of course, problems that can arise from such a diversified model. First, we must consider the fact that such disorganized and unquantified participation could hamper our ability to assess long-term student growth and progress nationwide—as well as impeding us from comparing our students to others in the international sphere. This is, in a sense, the opposite of Common Core, which was built around the goal of increasing our competitiveness in the global sphere.

There are also benefits to a more structured, traditional educational system that we may lose if we allow such flexibility to exist. Students could miss out on important lessons or classes they need in order to get jobs or build a portfolio. Both classical forms of education and vocational systems emphasize certain skillsets that they see as essential to building a well-rounded or well-skilled human being: the former often focusing on the development of abstract qualitative skills, the latter on the development of concrete quantitative skills.

But increased flexibility need not constitute a rejection of such systems or their schools of thought—rather, it could hopefully open up more opportunities for parents and students to tap into those systems. Most parents who don’t care particularly much about their children’s education will continue to enroll their children in one rigid program or another: programs that makes the decisions for them. And that’s completely fine.

But parents who decide to implement a more flexible and varied approach necessarily take on greater responsibility and involvement. They will be called upon to make thoughtful and principled decisions. While some may err on the side of the lackadaisical, letting flexibility devolve into anarchy, most will be able to use a greater diversity of choice to open up more opportunities for their children. Thus it seems that overall, greater flexibility would enable parents from all income backgrounds to have greater access to high-quality education options.

One final thought: an increase in flexibility and small-scale educational enterprise is very reminiscent of some changes we’re seeing in the economic sphere, as people increasingly vary their work schedules from the traditional 9 to 5, cubicle-centric career world to a work-from-home, flexible hours approach. And, just as there are going to be problems and drawbacks in the changes we see there, we should expect problems to arise as our educational system changes. The problems may in fact be similar.

But despite the drawbacks, alternative methods like homeschooling, Tiny Schools, or outside-school options like Khan Academy or Duolingo can help alleviate several of the educational problems we’re facing. The sorts of reform and innovation that AEI’s panelists suggested Wednesday could, in fact, help build a more nuanced, thoughtful, and high-quality system of education here in the U.S.

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Has the Sustainable Food Movement Failed?

Our modern food movement isn’t working, says Pacific Standard writer James McWilliams: even though “muckrakers have been exposing every hint of corruption in corporate agriculture” and “reformers have been busy creating programs to combat industrial agriculture with localized, ‘real food’ alternatives,” factory farms are bigger and busier than ever—in fact, they’re “proliferating like superweeds in a field of Monsanto corn.”

McWilliams is drawing this conclusion from a report just released by Food and Water Watch, called “Factory Farm Nation.” Some of the report’s key findings:

The total number of livestock on the largest factory farms rose by 20 percent between 2002 and 2012.

The number of dairy cows on factory farms doubled, and the average-sized dairy factory farm increased by half, between 1997 and 2012.

The number of hogs on factory farms increased by more than one-third, and the average farm size swelled nearly 70 percent from 1997 to 2012.

The number of broiler chickens on factory farms rose nearly 80 percent from 1997 to 2012, to more than 1 billion.

The number of egg-laying hens on factory farms increased by nearly one quarter from 1997 to 2012, to 269 million.

It seems that, as McWilliams puts it, the sustainable food movement has “hit the brick wall of economic reality.” Despite the efforts of food reformers like Michael Pollan or Joel Salatin, factory-farmed meats and dairy are still just plain cheaper. “To most people, even ethically concerned food people, blueberries are just blueberries,” writes McWilliams. “Food is just food.”

But of course the deeper problem here is that food is not just food—it’s a piece of a larger structure of economy, ecosystem, and community. And the blossoming prosperity of factory farms is not, in fact, a normal or organic outgrowth of free-market demand: it is an artificial construct, a bloated system sustained by government subsidies, crop insurance, and regulatory supports. This should be made clear by the fact that, even as the locavore/farm-to-fork movement has swelled considerable over the past seven to 10 years, these factory farms are still doing incredibly well.

The federal government bolsters large farms and turns a blind eye to their environmental detriments (detailed at length in the Food and Water Watch report), while dis-incentivizing—and even crippling—smaller farms. As the report puts it, Big Ag corporations foster “an intensely consolidated landscape where a few giant agribusinesses exert tremendous pressure on livestock producers to become larger and more intensive.”

Heavily-subsidized corn becomes cheap feed for malnourished, maltreated cattle, as “misguided farm policy [has] encouraged over-production of commodity crops such as corn and soybeans, which artificially depressed the price of livestock feed and created an indirect subsidy to factory farm operations.”

Factory farmers don’t have to worry about their manure lagoons, so they cram as many beef cattle as possible onto their land: “lax environmental rules and lackluster enforcement allowed factory farms to grow to extraordinary sizes without having to properly manage the overwhelming amount of manure they create.”

McWilliams looks at the current situation, and suggests taking extreme measures: “Begin with animal domestication. It’s got to go. Given the centrality of animal products to industrial agriculture (and many other industries), to attack the raising and slaughtering of animals would be a far more effective way to change our food system than localizing meat production or attempting to alter the manner of domestication.”

But when one considers the strong (even fierce) consumer preference for meat, as well as the entire systems of industry and agriculture that rotate around it, it becomes clear that this plan of action would never sell. It could also have harsh consequences for the farmer and land, as author and farmer Shannon Hayes explains in this paper defending small-scale livestock farming.

McWilliam’s problem is that he is only looking at one tier of a much more complicated, layered problem. Fixing America’s food system cannot just be done at the consumer level: with our current system of artificial prices, bloated benefits, and thinly-veiled cronyism, there’s little the consumer can do long-term to fix the problem. Consumers may demand free-range eggs—but factory farms will respond by relegating a few thousand of their conventionally-farmed chickens to a “free range” area, in order to cater to that niche in the market (as Daniel Sumner explains in this EconTalk on the political economy of agriculture). Their overall practices will not change, and any money used to buy those “free-range” eggs will just flow back into the pockets of the industrial farmer.

Being well-informed and shopping locally, via CSAs or farmer’s markets, can help. But it can also be very expensive, and thus turns the sustainable “food movement” into an upper or upper-middle class issue, one to which lower-income citizens have little to no access.

On the other hand, by tackling the cronyism and regulatory system that undergirds our agriculture, we can shift the economic battle to the political sphere and push for change beyond the grocery shelves, looking to the core policy issues that push back any “change” we’re able to achieve.

This could involve fighting for local food freedom, as folks in Wyoming have currently—thus taking some of the price power out of the hands of large farmers and gives it back to small, local operations, and countering the difficulty McWilliams addresses when he notes that factory-farmed food is always cheaper.

Change may also necessarily involve the establishment of some environmental measures to crack down on the extreme pollution and maltreatment of land that is currently allowed in factory farms, as Food and Water Watch’s report argues.

But it is important to note that our current situation—undesired as it is by a growing number of consumers, costly as it is long-term for land, animal, and person—cannot be sustained without artificial incentives and consumer ignorance. By fixing the first politically, we may in fact find it easier to fix the second organically, bit by bit. This may help fix the problem that McWilliams is addressing—while still allowing consumers to have their bacon and eat it, too.

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Reading in the Summer

Stephanie Cohen argues at Acculturated that we should ditch summer reading lists, especially for kids:

Today, every June, newspapers, magazines and websites, along with librarians and teachers, post their must-read summer book lists for students—100 must reads, books for introverts, Bill Gates’ summer reading list, a light summer reading list, a counter-cultural book list, or a banned books list—the variations are endless.

From Milwaukee to Miami, reading clubs and contests featuring prizes are kicking off with names like Librarypalooza. Parents head to the library and the bookstore to find a few of the listed items for their sons and daughters, but often their kids don’t care for the books that were picked.

In contrast to these longwinded lists, Cohen recommends a more flexible and enjoyable reading plan:

Tropical license means throwing the bookshelves wide open and letting children dive into piles and piles of books, some of which they may love, hate, not finish, or never forget; others will make them burst into spontaneous laughter or tears, or encourage them to become deep sea divers or zoologists … parents need to give their kids the “license” to explore.

I would agree—and in fact, would argue that adults should largely follow the same rule. It seems we can easily force ourselves into reading books that we’re rather unhappy with, or bored by. Many of us read not out of joy, but out of a sense of compulsion—because certain books are “good” for us.

But summer should be an opportunity to branch out, to find new things, and to exercise some “tropical license,” as Cohen puts it. We ought to “dive into piles and piles of books,” which we can either treasure or laugh at or forget, and we ought to enjoy the process thoroughly.

This has been my goal for the summer, and it has led me to some interesting reads. Here are the most recent five:

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

I loved the beginning of this book, and then found myself incredibly disappointed by the end—and have a sense that most other bibliophiles who read it will feel similarly. Nonetheless, the characters are intriguing and quirky. The contrast offered throughout between physical books and the blossoming world of technology is also interesting to consider.

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner

This classic was a book to savor—to read slowly, and thoughtfully. Stegner’s exploration of pioneer life in the Northwest is poignant, thoughtful. But it’s more than this: it’s also a deep and considerate look at the pains and pleasures of marriage, the differences that can divide us or draw us closer together. Highly recommend.

The Luminariesby Eleanor Catton

Worried at the start by this book’s length (820+ pages) and rather slow beginning, my first hesitancies were quickly relieved as Catton’s witty narrative unfolded. Written as a parody of the 19th-century novel, this book’s fascinating cast of characters are all interwoven within an astrologically metaphorical plot. It has the elements of a historical novel, a whodunit, and a romance. I finished it in a matter of days.

Fierce Convictions, by Karen Swallow Prior

This biography of Hannah More is well worth reading: the English poet, pamphleteer, essayist, and novelist was an essential member of the 18th and 19th-century abolitionist movement. She was friends with Edmund Burke, Dr. Samuel Johnson, William Wilberforce, and countless other key thinkers of her day—but brought her own wit, vivacity, and piety to the reform movements of the time. Prior captures much of her zeal, though I still felt by the end that the depths of More’s character remained a bit obscure and fuzzy amidst all the facts and chronology. All the same, it’s time more people read about More’s work and life.

The Secret Historyby Donna Tartt

This one I’m still reading. Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch won a Pulitzer Prize last year. It was an interesting read, moody and introspective, with many elements of a Dickensian novel. But the protagonist, Theodore Decker, was rather difficult to like: an opaque, blasé, apathetic young man. This book has a similar feeling of Dickensian hyperbole, the same dazed and rather half-hearted protagonist… but at least thus far, the plot seems more intriguing. My guess is that Tartt’s protagonists have this two-dimensional character and lackadaisical outlook on purpose: that she’s making a point, perhaps, about the millennial generation, or about the world we live in. Perhaps I’ll have a better idea by the time I finish this book.

♦♦♦

Reading in the summer is about finding new favorites, and letting yourself read whatever piques your curiosity—not limiting yourself to the “classic” (unless you want to), but rather exploring new genres, intriguing bestsellers, curious subjects or authors.

It’s too easy to fall into scholastic lists, and to lose the joy of exploration and adventure that are integral parts of reading. We can, instead, use our summers to let the creative and moral imagination bloom forth again: to set aside work and serious reads, and to delve into works that truly delight or excite us.

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Millennials Search For Religious ‘Authenticity’

Millennials are forging their own path when it comes to church attendance and religion.

As a popular May Pew poll pointed out, many of these young people are veering sharply away from organized religion and towards the “nones” category, an opaque motley of agnostics, atheists, and the “free range faithful,” as Elizabeth Drescher calls them in her article for America magazine. They are, as she puts it, “ambling all about the religious landscape to partake of its diverse offerings without seeking a single set of answers (or questions) or intending to settle in one spiritual place.”

However, while they seem to be seeking more flexibility, Drescher’s article also notes that most “nones” have some specific goals in mind: they want something “relational and experiential, oriented toward being present to the spiritual based in the self, the other and the world instead of in structures of belief, belonging and behaving associated with traditional religions.”

Those who remain inside the church are seeking a similarly specific and personal religious experience—even if they’re looking for it in more conventional venues. Take this list of church qualifications, put together by a millennial named George. When Southeastern Seminary professor Chuck Lawless asked him what he would like to see in a local church, he responded with these personal guidelines:

  • Bold preaching and sound doctrine that is not watered down. The church should speak truth without sugarcoating the gospel.
  • Genuine opportunities to get involved, where he can make a real difference in the world.
  • A real community of believers, people with whom he can hang out, but who also push and challenge him.
  • A strong commitment to evangelism, especially locally. He would like opportunities to connect with and influence the local community for God.
  • Worship services that are “unrehearsed, naturally flowing and Spirit-led,” but that also have an “authenticity that validates the message and structure that follows the Lord’s leading.” He would also like to see a “strong, team-focused worship leader” and variety in worship.
  • Hospitality that welcomes others. He would like a church that welcomes strangers and does not “cocoon itself” around the familiar.
  • Humility in leadership and flexibility in terms of where and when the church gathers. The “where” is not as important as that the congregation “truly be the church” and “truly know God.”

There is a danger to creating lists such as these: it means that we come to the church with the attitude of a consumer, looking to see how it fulfills us, rather than approaching it humbly, with an awareness of our own insufficiencies. That said, George seems to have a refreshing appreciation for strong biblical doctrine, delivered forthrightly. This would seem to indicate that, despite some broader cultural trends, there are at least some millennials who want the Gospel—not a politically correct, modernized version of the Gospel.

Additionally, we can applaud George’s desire for tangible community connection within the church, reinforced by a strong local vision. There has been, amongst some churches, an abdication of local outreach—whether for the glamor of globalized missions, or for the ease of intra-church networking. His list indicates a desire for more thoughtful and thorough ministry in the church’s own backyard.

But consider some of the other words used in George’s list to describe his desired church: “genuine,” “real,” “unrehearsed,” “natural,” “authenticity,” “flexibility.”

These words are reminiscent of the “free range faithful,” who are also engaged in an earnest search for something raw, organic, “authentic.” They’re just searching for it in a different venue than George is. The urge for a more natural religious experience is an old one, and it’s been touted by various romanticists for ages, from Thoreau in Walden Pond in the 1850s to the unbound hippies of the 1960s.

In seeming stark contrast to these free-range faithful are today’s high-church hipsters: people searching for authenticity, often seeking it in the old or obscure, scorning the modern trappings of their society. By going high church these hipsters have rejected the flexible and unrehearsed vibe that George is looking for. Rather than demanding less structure and tradition, they’re finding their comfort in more.

But in their embrace of the old liturgical service, they often are tapping into an aesthetic preference—like Thoreau and George—more than they are embracing a doctrinal and theological way of life. Take Jimmy Fallon, who talked to Teri Gross of NPR about attending mass growing up: “I just, I loved the church,” he said. “I loved the idea of it. I loved the smell of the incense. I loved the feeling you get when you left church.” Fallon stopped going to church when the service became less traditional.

Of course, there are legitimate problems with attempts to “modernize” old and carefully preserved traditions of worship, and Fallon is right to point these out. But at least some of the millennials who are going high church seem to be doing so because they see in it that vintage, nonconformist vibe they are after. Like smoking pipes and playing old records, it gives them a sense of authenticity, of separation from the vulgarities of modern culture. And in this sense, they are still members of the free range faithful: seeking something “genuine” and “real” perhaps, but not necessarily looking beyond the beautiful traditions to understand their core. Their definition of real and genuine involves more structure and form than George’s, but even liturgy can become another consumer’s choice in today’s church.

The search for “authenticity” is difficult to define or to complete, because we ourselves are a mess of contradictions and charades. How can we properly scrutinize our own motivations—and the motivations of others—determining what is real, and what is fake? Both in personal and communal living, there are layers of facade we must break through, subconscious lies that must be confronted. Most attempts to liberate ourselves from societal or religious masks will lead to greater confusion and disguise: the hipster who smokes his pipe or listens to old records out of a desire to separate himself from society is acting out a part he has scripted for himself.

We can treat church the same way: like something that’s supposed to give us a sense of nonconformist identity, something that will go against the grain amidst a mainstream culture gone mediocre. We can create our lists, and check them twice: noting with derision any perceived melodramatic elements or rote routines in a service or its congregants. We can leave with a shrug of our shoulders, explaining that the church just wasn’t “authentic” or “genuine” enough, explaining that things seemed too rigid and rehearsed.

But to merely abdicate the church for its flaws is an improper response—just as bringing a long list of qualifications and demands is also flawed.

Leaving the church should not be done merely out of an aesthetic frustration with perceived artificiality. Pretension is truly indicative of the sin that cakes and coats our lives, covering us in layers of unreality, insulating us from each other. Whether we seek genuine religious experience within or without Christianity, we will find that artificiality constantly gets in our way—because truth is difficult to seek, and often easily disguised.

But this is what church is about: the slow stripping away of such unrealities, the slow sanctification of the body as we come—again, slowly—to see each other, and ourselves, with truth and grace. It’s a painful process, one that is often stalemated or short-circuited by our own flaws and shortcomings. No church is perfect, because no person in the church is perfect. Therefore, we will have to go through the process of becoming-real, no matter what church or denomination we join, no matter what pastor or priest we follow.

The truth is, the longer you are part of a church, the more you will begin to notice its dust and dimness, its fake smiles and half hugs. Many have memorized rituals that have no heart or purpose behind them. You will begin to see the church’s flaws, and they may frustrate or even disgust you. But if you seek church (or religious experience) somewhere else—reveling in all its polished “authenticity” and golden sheen—it will not take long before there, too, you will see the fatal flaws, the pretensions. And they may again drive you away, urging you into a “free range” faith that is ever seeking the authentic.

But you can choose to stay and to love this flawed and marred church, still so far from perfection. You can choose to walk amongst the faltering limbs of this body, this ailing bride, because you know that you too are a flawed limb. You know that you, too, have caked makeup over your raw sores, and have attempted to look “normal,” even perhaps “authentic.” You know that you’ve whitewashed your tombs.

Church is not about our perfection or authenticity. There are layers of sin and blindness that we have yet to uncover. But church is about Christ, as Rod Dreher reminded his readers last week. It’s about the Gospel. And that truth reaches out to us in our states of inauthenticity, giving us a chance to rise above the facades.

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Faith in Diplomacy

Of Homes and High-Rises: Tuesday Roundup

In response to housing difficulties and frustrations, James Poulos suggests that Americans should just move abroad:

… In the old days lots of our struggling citizens hit the open road, bound for parts of America that weren’t, let’s just say, Americanized yet. Yet today, we don’t have to perpetrate a genocide in order to emulate them. We just have to dare to start over in a foreign country.

The case for doing so ought to be pretty strong. Turned off by an exile in suburban Siberia? Pushed to the brink by gentrification? Unwilling to believe that a twenty- or thirtysomething adult must resign to an overpriced micro-apartment to access a life or a job of adventure?

These are all extremely powerful reasons to take the American Way somewhere outside America’s borders. … Libertarian-leaning cosmopolitans already sing the praises of Latin America. (For the not-so-libertarian, soon Cuba will be in play.) Commercial centers in the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia offer selective but distinct opportunities. Some religious Americans will find deep nourishment in Europe; others, of a different disposition, in sub-Saharan Africa. … Americans ready to adopt local ways — not just adapt to them — are very likely more welcome, and more desirable, than we are apt to imagine

But will such an emigration ever actually happen? Poulos says no—”Americans just feel too tied down emotionally to ever move abroad. … There’s also our national problem with risk. We’d rather pile up tiny, stupid risks, guaranteeing that we’re trapped in lives we dislike, than gamble our futures on one big risk.”

Yet Poulos does not mention, oddly enough, the ties to neighborhood and community that often compel people to stay, despite challenges and personal hardships. This loyalty to place is illustrated well in a Los Angeles Review of Books piece, titled “The Fight for Frogtown.” In it, author Molly Strauss considers the dilemmas of staying put,in the midst of a gentrifying neighborhood:

Elysian Valley — also called “Frogtown” — is sandwiched between the Los Angeles River to the east and the I-5 freeway to the west. Traditionally working class with a large immigrant population and, historically, a mix of residential and industrial uses, the 0.79-square-mile area has seen properties flip since the Army Corps of Engineers announced a year ago a $1-billion plan to revitalize the Los Angeles River. … With the city repositioning its river as an amenity rather than a flood control channel, the neighborhoods along its banks are receiving unprecedented attention. Property values are rising.

Factors like these leave certain Frogtown residents on edge. They’re worried about displacement. They’re worried about commercial activity coming in that won’t serve the community. … They’re worried about density and height — developers building as big as they can legally go and dwarfing the one-story houses; about naked bike rides and eminent domain. Some of these fears are well founded (that naked bike ride really did happen — “a 200-nudist cycle parade down Blake Avenue,” said De La Torre). Others, less so. Regardless, there’s a sense in the community of losing control — that outsiders serving private interests will transform this neighborhood of about 8,900 into a place residents will no longer be able to recognize, or afford.

As local resident David De La Torre tells Strauss, Frogtown’s community isn’t afraid “of the people that are coming in. Elysian Valley is the most embracing of neighborhoods. The dynamics of its demographic makeup are proof of that. Dissatisfaction comes from the failure to recognize the characteristics of the neighborhood.”

What De Le Torre seems to put his finger on are the deeper ethos changes that drive established communities out when gentrification moves in: it isn’t just about the fact that land prices go up. It’s also that the community fabric changes: marijuana dispensaries and nudie bars don’t appeal to the middle-income, blue collar, elderly, conservative, churchgoing neighborhoods that De La Torre describes. Their fight isn’t just for housing—it’s also for their way of life.

Speaking of urban ways of life, Citylab has just published its Highrise Report. Some interesting discussions therein include this look at the UK’s tower blocks, the “Anglo-American backlash against the modernist tower,” and how high-rises may in fact become trendy in the future:

 In the 1960s, Britain was building more public housing than any other Western European country, and even gave then-Communist Eastern European states a run for their money. Such a radical transformation of the urban landscape with new forms was especially likely to create a backlash, not least because England (though not Scotland) traditionally focused on house building, making the concept of the apartment complex itself contentious.

… “The obvious comparison is with 19th century tenements,” says Glendinning. “In the 1970s, they suddenly went from being the most reviled thing everyone wanted demolished to something that was generally seen as a kind of heritage. There was a transitional period in the ‘70s when a lot of people were still saying how ghastly they were, while others were advocating for their preservation. I think that [when it comes to modernist high rises], we’re in that transitional period now.”

The article brought to mind Benjamin Schwarz’s excellent cover story on Britain’s urban redevelopment, published earlier this year. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. He considers ways in which this sort of housing actually worked to undermine the British working-class family and its way of life. It presents an interesting counter-narrative to Glenndinning’s description of the tower block.

It is a way of life—and its destruction—that each of these pieces considers. Poulos looks at the narrowing housing options that Americans face, and suggests a sort of pioneer movement into new territory. While this isn’t necessarily a bad idea, it could also spur on an abdication or abandonment of place that could leave things worse than they were before. In contrast, the Futura de Frogtown project seeks to present solutions to a current housing problem: to prevent destructive urban planning from taking place, and therefore enable a community to stay put.

The frightening alternative—one that could be realized either by Poulos’s suggestion, or by the urban planning described in both Strauss’s piece and Schwarz’s—is that of an undermined and fragmented community, one that slowly begins to collapse as its familial and communal fabric frays and dissipates.

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Food Obsession in Modern America

Damon Linker writes for The Week about America’s struggle with obesity:

… A lot of us go about much of our lives in a state that could be described as a low-grade anxiety attack — and stuffing our stomachs with vast quantities of unhealthy food to soothe it, even if the resulting weight gain and worries about health problems ultimately contribute to making the anxiety worse.

What’s going on here?

We find one helpful suggestion in, of all places, the pages of Martin Heidegger’s philosophical masterwork Being and Time — at least part of which is concerned with exploring the multitude of ways that people flee from their mortality.

All of us know, intellectually, that we will die. But Heidegger suggests that we only come to grasp it existentially in the mood of anxiety. In anxiety, the average everyday pursuits that normally occupy and absorb us recede and appear drained of meaning. … It can be a chilling experience — and so we flee from it, throwing ourselves more fully and more deeply into the world, finding comfort and solace in its seeming (but deceptive) solidity. Addiction and obsession are particularly intense forms of this fleeing into the world, Heidegger proposes, since they turn one particular entity within the world into the nearly exclusive focus of our existence.

But if that’s the case, then an obsession with food — the consumption of which assimilates worldly entities into our very selves, causing a visceral feeling of fullness, which compensates for the haunting perception of existential emptiness that accompanies anxiety — may be among the most potent ways to ward off an existential crisis.

If Linker is right, food obsession—be it in excess or in defect—is often tied to a deeper angst, one we’re trying to assuage at every opportunity. Many of our food fears or indulgences are tied to a sort of worship: we make food an item of first importance, and it becomes impossible to resist. Either we are tethered to health with unbreakable bonds of fear—fear of mortality, perhaps, fear of a lack of control, fear of imperfection or public shaming—or we are tied to unhealthy foods by cravings for love or safety or comfort.

Our attitudes toward food often also seem inextricably tied to our community: we eat according to the habits and customs of those we share space and time with, and often according to the collective fears or pressures they impress on us.

For instance: I grew up in a lower-to-middle income area in midwestern Idaho. The county beside mine was one of the poorest in America. The area was full of large (and thus frugal) families, along with many immigrants. It was the sort of place where you stopped by Taco Bell or Wendy’s after church, where grabbing a Carl’s Jr. burger after a baseball game or school activity was simply a matter-of-course. Many moms I knew were religious coupon-clippers, stocking up on breakfast cereals and canned foods in order to stretch their groceries as far as possible. My mother knew how to incorporate fruits, veggies, and whole grains into every meal—but overall, the region was not very health-focused. If there was any sort of pressure exerted on the community, it was to be frugal, to avoid excess spending. The organic movement was seen as wasteful, those who shirked fast-food restaurants were seen as snobbish.

When I went to college, the communal eating landscape changed. I became acquainted with the salad crowd: salad for lunch and dinner, most often, piled high with vegetables and just lightly tossed with vinegar. There was a greater emphasis on the various dietary components of a dish—carbs, calories, sugar. I became acquainted with east coast eating, which is most often more health-oriented and restrictive than eating in midwestern or rural areas. And indeed, there are a variety of good and admirable principles embraced here, principles I’ve adopted. But I also saw the extremes to which this healthy eating could be taken: I watched women turn rejecting glances toward the dessert table every night, saw them painstakingly order egg-white omelets with no cheese and only x amount of veggies at the breakfast counter, heard rumors of sugar and fat that made peanut butter an unhealthy indulgence. Even whole grains seemed increasingly off-limits: carbs were viewed with a fearful or tentative eye. I began to feel dismay and frustration. What could we eat, then, besides a smattering of spinach and balsamic vinaigrette? Would peanut butter—the dearest of all snack foods—be forever tainted in my memory?

This is when I joined another community: one very much aligned with from-scratch cooking aficionados like Michael Pollan, but also very flexible, and meant to be geared toward moderation. My sister-in-law calls it the 80-20 crowd—people who try to eat healthy at least 80 percent of the time, but don’t mind a little splurging around 20 percent of the time. We still eat lots of fruits, veggies, oatmeal, et cetera—but there’s also the occasional delectable doughnut, juicy burger, slice of grease-oozing pizza. And they’re enjoyed to the fullest. One could say that this is an attempt to eat according to Aristotle’s conception of virtue.

Just as we can be tethered to certain food habits by our fears, as Linker points out, we are tethered to our community and often deeply influenced by its habits and mores. Those who live in D.C., filled as it is with fit people and SweetGreen stores, are more likely to feel public pressure to live and eat similarly. Those who live in an area where people sneer at the obsessively healthy are more likely to stop by KFC for dinner. But the two go together: we face pressure from within and without to live—and eat—a certain way. It seems incredibly complicated, and indeed it is.

I often wonder if these modern complications and pressures surrounding food are at least somewhat tied to the fading of religious food codes in America. Throughout history, people have faced pressure to eat a certain way, within certain limits: but these eating tenets used to be tied to one’s religion (and in many countries, still are). Thus, they weren’t really about the self, and they weren’t just about one’s community, either: they were reminders of our spiritual state, of our inner wellbeing. They were often reminders of the importance of nature, and of the care and stewardship we should show towards animals and plants alike. They were meant to foster self-control and an uplifted eye: an attitude that forsook the self and its craven appetites for something deeper, more lasting. They were meant to turn us toward the divine, and thus to assuage our anxieties and encourage our faith. Patterns of moderation, self-control, and self-sacrifice weren’t just about getting a lean, toned body, or being accepted by one’s peers—though care for the body and involvement in community were also seen as important. But in subjugating the self and its appetites, the goal went beyond the temporal and stretched toward the eternal. Choosing to fast, or to partake in a period of restrictive eating for a season like Lent, was in fact about looking beyond oneself.

This, too, is a community I would like to join. The community it ties us to is not one of shaming or judgment, but rather one of accountability and support—one that reminds us to look beyond ourselves, and to consider our own cravings secondary to the larger earthly and spiritual landscape that surrounds us.

Linker is right to see the obesity epidemic in America as a spiritual crisis. But I would argue that it’s also, by extension, a community crisis: the result of an atmosphere in which secular voices have adopted religious language and forsaken both moderation and reflection. To transcend this crisis requires us to find correct voices: for the secular, this may involve adopting a moderate and considerate community, like the 80-20 crowd. For the religious, it may involve reconsidering the dietary codes that have been forsaken with time—not in order to become shackled to legalism, but rather, to be released from it.

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Forsaking Cars and Homes

Americans are moving away from home ownership—for a variety of understandable reasons, it would seem. Mechele Dickerson reports for The Conversation that many millennials, facing economic uncertainty and a bevy of student loans, find the idea of home ownership rather distasteful at the present. “Americans of all ages are renting rather than buying, mostly because wages have been stagnant for all workers except the highest earners for about three decades, and because wages have not kept pace with home prices,” she writes. “In addition, potential first-time home buyers and those with blemished credit are being shut out because stricter lending standards make it harder for them to qualify for a mortgage loan.”

The rental rate is almost at a 30-year high, and the homeownership rate is at a 20-year low. “Until renters become more optimistic about their economic future, they will not be convinced to buy homes. And until they buy homes, there will be little reason to celebrate homeownership.”

Meanwhile, The Washingtonian reports that D.C. (and other cities) are moving away from car ownership, as apps like Uber and Lyft, as well as delivery services like Amazon and Peapod, continue to shape our streets and navigation preferences. They predict that Washington in particular will become a denser, less car-prominent city in the years to come—and that many other urban centers will follow suit. “Small things, we’ve learned, can alter neighborhood dynamics in a big way,” notes author Benjamin Freed. “And with every resident—car-owning or not—who comes to rely on a newfangled transportation service, or stops expecting there to be parking outside her home, or leads a life in which a bike lane or new streetcar is essential for getting to work, the politics change a bit.”

Speaking of politics and home, Jake Meador has an interesting blogpost over at Mere Orthodoxy, in which he considers the importance of home-as-retreat and the “Benedict Option” (see Rod Dreher’s blog for extensive coverage of the idea). Meador looks to L’Abri, Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s retreat for inquiring young students, and asks the question: “Could this be the best way for the Benedict Option to be realized?” L’Abri and its descendents are not just focused on retreat, however, but also on begetting: “The begetting is the key. The Benedict Option cannot simply be a refuge or haven from the forces that exist outside of it. It must also be an incubator, a place that remakes the world. If the Benedict Option is not an incubator as well as a retreat it will fail.” Meador goes on to advocate very strongly for the home as center of one’s cultural and familial existence:

Creating a home takes time and requires sacrifices of us. These demands force structures upon our lives that constrain our autonomy but through which we arrive at true freedom. This means that the differences of the faith must touch our material lives in tangible ways. We cannot go on having both parents work full-time jobs outside the home, thereby reducing the work of home-making to the coordination of consumption patterns and reducing the home itself to a kind of high-dollar storage shed. We cannot go on entrusting the formation of our children to government-run schools that reinforce rampant individualism and undermine more humane values. We cannot go on living life at a pace that makes silence and contemplation and the sharing of unhurried time impossible. These are the routines, habits, and customs that will eventually devour Christian community.

It’s interesting to consider how—and whether—Meador’s vision of home is changed at all by our new sharing economy, and the deescalating rates of home ownership. Do these things affect the way we interact with our neighbors, treat our houses? Will they propel us toward or away from hospitality? In some ways, current transportation trends could be beneficial: they don’t seem to have a negative effect on the way people inhabit their homes, and could in fact encourage people to spend more time in their neighborhoods, building local ties. The renting trend doesn’t necessarily seem detrimental, except for the fact that—in the absence of ownership—there’s a temptation to act more like consumers and less like stewards. We may invest less in our houses and neighborhoods, because we feel no sense of duty or responsibility toward them. But this doesn’t have to be true.

Finally, on a fun note, the Los Angeles Times has published a summer booklist for readers, compiling potential reads by genre preference.

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Searching For Purpose

Jonathan Malesic over at The New Republic urges workers not to search for purpose in their jobs:

We would be better off if we liberated work from the moral weight of “purpose.” There is dignity in the struggle just to get the objective (NEED, PAID) and subjective (GOOD, LOVE) elements of our work closer to each other. … Few of us will ever find our meritocratic purpose, much less “OWN it!” That shouldn’t mean we’re failures. Often, just standing in the PAID circle is a triumph. That’s certainly true for day laborers, whose purpose on the job is to make each other’s work bearable. Their rule is, “Carry your end of the load.” If we all adopted that rule, then once we’ve carried our end, we can meet at the water cooler, share a laugh, and scheme to knock off early. Being human together is purpose enough.

Meanwhile, David Brooks writes in the New York Times that it is in fact the small life well-lived that seems to give us meaning:

Terence J. Tollaksen wrote that his purpose became clearer once he began to recognize the “decision trap”: “This trap is an amazingly consistent phenomena whereby ‘big’ decisions turn out to have much less impact on a life as a whole than the myriad of small seemingly insignificant ones.”

Tollaksen continues, “I have always admired those goal-oriented, stubborn, successful, determined individuals; they make things happen, and the world would be lost without them.” But, he explains, he has always had a “small font purpose.”

Malesic’s piece indicates that—contrary to popular consensus—searching for purpose in work will only end in frustration. Many Americans focus their entire lives around work, dedicating 50 to 70 hours a week to their career. They have a trajectory in mind, an end: yet oftentimes, their hopes are disappointed. There are days in which they feel motivated, inspired, purposeful, but there are also times when all the joy fades from work, hopes are dashed, and our purpose feels muddled and distant.

If we attempt to find our telos, or end, in work, we will be disappointed. Not because work isn’t important: indeed, the ability to work is fundamental to our nature as human beings. We were made to work. But work is not sufficient for human flourishing: it is only one component of the human soul. Thus, no matter the achievements and accolades we may procure in our vocational duties, we will not find purpose if we are not seeking it in deeper and more diverse venues. If we are to seek purpose as “the reason for which something exists,” as my dictionary puts it, we must acknowledge the fact that circumstantial things like employment will not be able to provide lasting purpose to our lives.

So what things should we look to for teleological fulfillment? There are, of course, the beliefs, philosophies, or religions that we hold dear: they often provide the compass and timeline on which we base our entire life. Without them, it would be difficult to determine an “end” which we are pursuing.

Additionally, Brooks’s piece seems to highlight the importance a sense of self plays in establishing our sense of purpose: not that we ought to have a bloated sense of self-worth, but rather, a proper understanding of oneself—balanced with humility and discretion—helps us consider the role we can or ought to play in the world.

Meanwhile, the relationships we have—with family, friends, and community—can bring great purpose and fulfillment to our lives. We must consider carefully the importance of people in giving our lives meaning. While we should never found our entire sense of worth or meaning on the opinions or presence of others, we also cannot ignore the fact that a life devoid of community is oftentimes devoid of purpose, as well.

Brooks’s piece reminded me of my grandmother. She did not live a grandiose life. She rarely traveled outside her home state. She lived in a simple, yet elegant way: using every opportunity to beautify the world around her, to bless the people she loved. Work was important to her, and she worked hard. But she also was very involved in her church, a devoted mother and grandmother, a faithful friend. Her way of living was, as Brooks put it, that of a “small, happy life”—one filled with things like strawberry shortcake and Easter baskets in the spring, family grilling parties and homemade pickles in the summer, giant Christmas trees and hearty stews in the winter.

It’s worth reemphasizing the role that humility plays in giving us purpose: Brooks points out that it is those who live small, unrecognized lives with contentment who are often the most happy—while those who seek a grandiose and perfect sense of “purpose” end up unhappy and discontent. They may feel that all their efforts only amount to “not enough.”

Those who live a simple life, grateful for its blessings and significances, are liberated from that discontent. They don’t need great successes or accolades in order to feel accomplished: rather, they beliefs and relationships they hold dear bring them purpose.

The small life is often seen as unfulfilling. We worry we’ll get to the end of our lives and think, “All that ambition and dreaming wasted. All those opportunities not taken.” But really, what Brooks seems to indicate, is that there are few people who achieve positions of extreme passionate purpose and acclaim in the world. Rather, it’s those who find purpose in the sweet, small things that will be happiest in the end.

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Parenting in America

Whether you’re an advocate of “free-range” or “helicopter” parenting, public school or private, breastfeeding or formula, you probably know that parenting tactics and methodologies can be highly controversial in America. Here are four stories that highlight some of those controversies and considerations:

First, Quartz argues that Americans have turned parenting into a religion—and, in so doing, are destroying their marriages. A woman who told Oprah she loved her husband more than her four children “was not only shouted down by America for being a bad mother; strangers threatened her physically and told her that they would report her to child protective services. This is not how a civil society conducts open-minded discourse.”

While there are a variety of reasons parenting could become an increasingly idolized role in America, here’s one thought: our society seems to separate people according to their relational status. They’re catered to on an economic and social basis depending on whether they’re single, engaged/married, or part of a family. Even at church, congregations are often separated into Bible studies or “small groups” according to age, marital position, and familial connection. This seems to teach us that each stage of life is separately focused: that while single, we can focus on ourselves… while married, we can focus on our spouse… and while parents, we must focus on our kids. Any sort of holistic integration is discouraged. Parents begin to feel that, once they become parents, there’s no looking back: their new stage of life must be all about the kids.

In contrast, some millennial parents seem to be adopting a more laissez faire approach to parenting: Rebecca Koenig writes that a lot of Washington, D.C. adults in the 21 to 36-year-old crowd are starting to take their children with them to local breweries on weekends: “With their daytime hours and relaxed vibe, the city’s craft breweries attract the stroller set. And the proprietors of these relatively new social spaces are working to accommodate their youngest visitors.” As I’ve written before, it seems that many urban centers can have an almost anti-child vibe, and so in some ways, this could be seen as a positive development. It could signal that local restaurants are beginning to open their doors to a more diverse crowd, and that some young parents are increasingly refusing to separate their lives into “adult” and “kid” spheres. But how do you balance the necessarily adult components of a brewery with parents’ desire for a “kid-friendly” space? Are there actually limits to where parents should take their children—or is such an idea just the voice of parenting-as-religion?

Speaking of laissez faire parenting, Pacific Standard just published a Q&A with unschooling mother Milva McDonald, who believes that children’s education should be as self-guided and unrestricted as possible. She expresses her teaching philosophy (or lack thereof) thusly: “I completely disagree with the school of hard knocks philosophy, the idea that you develop strength by facing adversity. For children, I think that’s completely wrong. I think it’s just the opposite. I think that children become strong by having their needs met.”

This raises interesting questions about parenting, as well as about education. First, we must consider whether parents should have an authoritative role in their children’s development—whether discipline is an important part of a child’s mental and ethical maturation. Second, we must consider whether McDonald is right about young learners: will children sufficiently challenge their own predispositions toward laziness or ignorance without an older adult coaching and challenging them?

Finally, over at the Washington Post, Jaci Conrey talks about the “slow parenting” movement: a parenting methodology that “cherishes quality over quantity, being in the moment, and making meaningful connections with your family.” Slow parenting experts encourage parents to only allow a certain amount of extracurriculars or school activities, emphasizing instead family dinners and other time spent together as a family. Some slow parenting advocates also encourage social media fasts and spending as much time outdoors as possible.

It seems that this story could either fit inside Quartz’s parenting-as-religion dilemma, or become at least a partial fix to the problem. Many parents seem to organize their entire lives around their children, spending their days ceaselessly driving from soccer games to violin practices to church activities, so on and so forth. Refocusing children and parents on the home could result in strengthened relationships amongst all members of the family, both spouses and children. But it could also easily fall prey to the religious trappings of other parenting movements—turning its objectives into tenets, and putting children at the center of it all.

A lot of these stories, in the end, have a related concern: how do we cultivate virtuous human relationships, and how do we balance priorities in a mature fashion? When we are responsible for lives besides our own, how do we steward those lives responsibly? If you believe humans are sinful—or even just that they can make mistakes—then you know that, regardless of parenting philosophy or practice, they’re going to mess up. But each of these stories present unique and interesting questions as to how parents can encourage, instruct, and interact with their children—and whether there’s ever a limit to how seriously they should take that job.

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FOMO vs. the Power of Gratitude

There’s irony in the juxtaposition of two recent Pacific Standard articles—one discussing our deep social fear of “missing out,” the other speaking of the empathy that grows from experiencing a moment of awe. These two excerpts help demonstrate the contrast: First, Chris Colin argues that we need not fear or attempt to overcome FOMO, but should rather embrace it—

Longing isn’t just another inconvenience for today’s eager solutionists to disrupt. It is a vital biological tool. To put this in programmer-speak, FOMO’s a feature, not a bug. Life is a miracle. If we’re not heartbroken over all we’re not experiencing, I daresay we haven’t gotten our arms around the situation.

The other day, in a small San Francisco redwood grove, I found myself gazing up at the wild geometry of branches. The very perfection of the moment made me start wanting more. What would it be like to lead a different life, here under this canopy? What would it be like to be that park ranger over there? Or that bird screaming overhead? This marvelously infinite universe we confront—how shatteringly bogus it is to have access to just one sliver of it! And how much more bogus it would be, for the sake of pretending that FOMO doesn’t bother you, to make do with an inferior sliver.

You can’t pine after every stupid thing. But to declare yourself happiest without the pleasures that passed you by is to be guilty of either fragile self-deception or sad resignation. … Literature and its attempt to deliver us lives beyond our own—that’s FOMO. Banishing it keeps Jacques Cousteau on deck and our Mars rovers on Earth and Adam and Eve in Eden.

Now consider these words from Tom Jacobs, author of the awe article:

… 90 University of California-Berkeley students were escorted to “a grove of Tasmanian eucalyptus trees with heights exceeding 200 feet.” Half spent one minute looking up at the towering trees, while the others spent the same amount of time staring at “an adjacent tall building.” …

Immediately afterwards, a researcher “approached participants holding a questionnaire and a box of 11 pens, and spilled the pens in front of them—ostensibly by accident.” Those who had stared at the trees not only reported higher ethical standards and lower levels of entitlement, but demonstrated that selfless state of mind by picking up more of the pens.

It all suggests that “awe leads to more pro-social tendencies by broadening the individual’s perspective to include entities vaster and more powerful than oneself, and diminishing the salience of the individual self,” the researchers conclude.

Fascinatingly, both Colin and Jacobs use trees as items for developing a yearning or longing within the human soul. But in Colin’s example, the tree develops a thirst for more—an insatiable desire to experience a greater swath of human experience. This, he argues, is ingrained in our natures: it’s who we are. FOMO is part of us.

In the second example, Jacobs describes a study in which trees develop a thirst for service—for less, in essence. Staring at the tree prompted study participants to have lower levels of entitlement, thus diminishing their desire for personal satisfaction or experience.

Can both be true—can we, in a moment of awe, be prompted to either the thirst for more, or the thirst to give? And if so, how do we determine whether the former or latter attitude is the correct one?

It’s interesting that Colin references Adam and Eve. They were, according to the biblical account, also fixated by a tree. It made them thirst for more—prompted them to be discontent with the “sliver” of the universe they had been offered. It, in essence, prompted them to seek autonomy: independence from the finitude and restraints they were experiencing. They wanted liberation from their limits.

The Adam and Eve story does seem to indicate that such a thirst resides within the human soul. But obviously, if we are to believe Jacobs’ example as well, it’s not the only reaction we can have. The second possible reaction to the trees was one of awe: being overcome by a thing of beauty or majesty, and propelled by it into a humble acknowledgment of our small place in the world. Rather than becoming discontented with their “sliver,” the study participants seemed to harness their own experience of smallness to prompt them into service.

In his book The Politics of Gratitude, Mark Mitchell describes the ways in which gratitude—an attitude of humility coupled with awe—helps create a strong and vibrant human society:

We are not solitary creatures owing nothing to anyone. Rather, gratitude points to our dependence. It points to our contingency. When our thoughts are characterized by gratitude, they are outward looking. Gratitude breaks us out of the cocoon of self-satisfaction and self-concern that is a constant temptation and impels us to think about the ways our lives are related to others. …

When humans acknowledge fundamental limits, we are better positioned to see the world correctly. When we recognize our dependencies, we are, ironically, better equipped to live well. When we deny or ignore these, we naturally attempt to demonstrate our adequacies. We naturally seek to find a venue by which we can truly realize the autonomy we claim as our right. We naturally seek to swallow the world only to find ourselves choking on reality.

Of course, the thirst for more is not always a bad thing: our thirst for knowledge, for human companionship, for happiness—there are many good thirsts. The question is one of satiation: when will we be satisfied? Or, as Colin suggests, is it a feature of human life to never be satisfied—to always be seeking more?

Some might argue that such insatiable thirst is what kingdoms and civilizations are built upon. But it seems such a view overlooks the goods that come from reaching a point of awe, and thus satisfaction, with the life we have. It seems that FOMO, especially in this world of limitless possibilities, could become overwhelming—could even drive us insane. We’re not just confronted with a tree, but rather with an endless forest of possibilities, offered to us by a globalized age. And it seems we will never see the beauty of one tree for the magnitude of the forest, if we are determined to experience all and forsake our sliver.

Thus, it isn’t a matter of forsaking more altogether—but rather, knowing when to stop and savor the moments, friends, family, things we’ve been given. It’s about knowing when the bouquet of beauty and goodness that we’ve collected is enough to drink in and savor, without pulling the flowers from the earth without end. Jacobs suggests that when we reach that moment, rather than merely keeping it to ourselves, we will be empowered to reach out and bestow its beauty on those around us. Awe—humility and gratitude, inspired by what we’ve been given—propels us outward. It gives us the ability to say “enough” to ourselves, and “more” to those around us.

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Choosing to Opt Out of Standardized Tests

In a backlash against Common Core standards, many New York state parents have decided to “opt out” of new standardized tests—and their numbers are snowballing, as the New York Times reports:

Across New York State, a small if vocal movement urging a rejection of standardized exams took off this year, maturing from scattered displays of disobedience into a widespread rebuke of state testing policies.

At least 165,000 children, or one of every six eligible students, sat out at least one of the two standardized tests this year, more than double and possibly triple the number who did so in 2014, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

… At the same time, some education officials and advocacy groups fear, the opt-out movement will reverse a long-term effort to identify teachers and schools — and students — who are not up to par, at least as far as their test performance goes. Of particular concern is that without reliable, consistent data, children in minority communities may be left to drift through schools that fail them, without consequences.

Parents interviewed in the article say that they’re not trying to avoid low test scores, though children’s scores did plummet last year after the new Common Core standards were instituted. Rather, parents said “they felt [tests] put too much stress on students, for example, or because they wanted to make a statement on behalf of teachers.” Under Common Core, teacher evaluations and tenure are both tied to test performance scores. This has resulted in a strong reaction from teachers’ unions and parents throughout New York.

This “opt out” movement can be viewed through two lenses: the first lens is one of concern, because such opting out decreases school and teacher accountability, removing the state’s principal means of judging their performance and impact on kids’ learning. Our ability to judge how well a school is doing is increasingly tied to data, to quantifiable measurements of a student’s progress. As the New York Times put it in an April article,

Critics of the campaigns against testing, including many state and local education officials, say the unions are not acting out of concern for children but are trying to undercut efforts to institute tougher evaluations. They argue that annual testing is critical for tracking how effectively schools are educating poor and minority students and that evaluations based only on subjective criteria like observations typically fail to identify weak teachers.

But the other lens we must consider is a positive one: for those with more libertarian inclinations, this development could be good. It removes educational power from the state, and instead vests it with parents and teachers, who one might argue are a better judge of students’ needs and performance than any test can be. It is worth noting that tests are not always a good judge of a student’s abilities: much depends on the learning style of the student. Many parents and teachers are cautious of standardized tests because they believe that, while tests may quantitatively measure a students abilities, they cannot take into account the qualitative growth of that student.

Homeschoolers have been “opting out” of regular standards for decades. Though many take standardized tests, depending on the requirements of their state, many also avoid such testing whenever they can—as do many private schools.

We must also carefully consider whether tying teacher performance to test scores will truly improve students’ classroom experience. While it may have a positive effect, it may also propel teachers to stick solely to test-related material, thus significantly narrowing students’ learning possibilities. The fear of losing one’s job over standardized tests may even motivate teachers to cheat, as NPR reported last year. Thus, the idea that high-stakes testing provides accountability is tenuous at best. It largely depends on the situation and the teacher. A one-size-fits-all education model may in fact result in less learning and less accountability.

Interestingly, this latter view—that standardized testing can be unproductive or even damaging—seems to be shared by many on both left and right: it appeals to unions, to “parents who object to testing,” and to “Republicans who oppose the Common Core standards as a federalization of education,” as Kate Taylor and Motoko Rich note in their Times piece.

But both pros and cons should be taken into account—as The Onion reminds us in this piece on standardized testing (albeit humorously), there are two sides to the story.

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Millennials, Christianity, and Covenant

When Pew published a poll May 12 that presented a “sharp” decline in Christian religious attendance over the past seven years, the Internet responded en masse. Some said that this was not demonstrative of an actual decline in Christian faith—but rather, was indicative of a decline in nominal church attendance. Rod Dreher suggested that perhaps it’s a response to growing discrimination, the changing realities of post-Christian America. Both Michael Brendan Dougherty and Mark Movsesian considered the consequences of a world in which “Nones” (Americans who define themselves as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular”) continue to fill the American landscape.

As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry notes in The Week, religion is “mutating, thriving, growing” fiercely throughout the world. Christianity is spreading at an incredible rate throughout many former Soviet bloc countries, through China, Latin America, Africa. It’s here in the U.S. that things seem stale.

Much of the changes reflected in the poll goes back to the “remarkably rapid growth” of “nones”—a group that has grown from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent in the last seven years. Damon Linker believes this growth “is closely connected to the fact that more than one third (36 percent) of the so-called Millennial generation declines to affiliate with any religion.” An older, more religious generation of Americans “are being replaced … by what seems to be the most secular generation in American history.”

So let’s look at the millennials. Why are they “nones”?

In her book Got Religion?, Naomi Schaefer Riley considers millennials’ abdication of church (as well as the synagogue and mosque, which have also seen a decline in attendance). Many of the deterrents she pinpoints are social and communal: if a young person’s friends leave the church, they are likely to leave, as well. “When a group of friends who are coreligionists starts to dissipate, the religious observance starts to fall off,” writes Riley. “Practicing a faith does not, on its surface, seem like a team sport. There’s no reason you can’t go to synagogue or church alone. But people don’t.”

Additionally, Riley points out that declining marriage rates have a strong impact on church attendance. Young adults have always demonstrated a likelihood to sow “wild oats” and wander from church. But getting married usually tied such people down: church attendance is always more steady among the married, especially those with families. Today, young people are putting off marriage for longer and longer amounts of time. This decreased emphasis on marriage has a profound effect on church attendance.

It seems the two declines could be philosophically related: marriage is increasingly seen as a feelings-based, consumer-driven relationship. Many worry about the commitments and sacrifices that marriage presents, the narrowing of options and choices that it signifies. Meanwhile, the idea of marriage as “covenant”—as a sacred and binding act, “not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God”—has fallen out of popular memory.

The church, throughout Scripture, is referred to as “the bride of Christ.” Marriage is meant to be a reflection of “the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” Thus, this shift in our understanding of marriage would seem to impact youths’ ability to build a proper relationship with the church: they view church, and God, through the same self-focused eyes with which they view marriage. They don’t understand that being part of a church constitutes being part of a covenant, binding relationship. Church, instead, is about them—their wants and wishes—and they’ll only attend if it gives them tangible goods.

In discussing things that have drawn millennials back to the church, Riley occasionally provides examples of this consumerist mindset: some churches, synagogues, and mosques have focused on building fun programs for single adults, providing things like potlucks, hiking activities, international trips, and interactive worship nights. These things aren’t wrong, in and of themselves—indeed, they can be great ways to build community amongst church members. But they are also offering goods or products to youth, rather than cultivating a self-giving relationship. And for this reason, it seems unlikely they will foster a long-term relationship between youth and their religious group. They seem more likely to foster an atmosphere in which the church must constantly cater to its younger demographic, trying to make itself as “fun” and “cool” as possible. This is a trap that churches have been steadily falling into for the past several years, and it’s resulted in an atmosphere that many feel is fake, irreverent, and stale.

This demonstrates another problem with modern American churches, and with the people who accept or reject them: they so often focus on momentary, worldly concerns. Not all such concerns are bad—many choose churches based on their service in the community, their work with the poor, the traditions they espouse. There can be many good material reasons to join a church‚ as well as bad reasons. But the problem here is that we may become so focused on the political or social facets of our faith, that we lose sight of the deeper philosophical and theological truths necessary for a church to thrive. “Church shopping” is symptomatic of someone looking for a laundry list of experiences or services that they think it ought to provide. But church is meant to be more serious, more metaphysical than this: church is meant to delve into the deepest subjects, the ones that have to do not just with this world, but with the next.

These are conversations that aren’t happening within the church—and don’t seem to be happening outside it, either. Questions of existence and being, good and evil, life and afterlife—are they a part of our regular public discourse? Are they discussed at dinner parties, social gatherings? Do college students regularly delve into discussions of the divine? Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems such talk is far from popular today. Social and political topics are explored at length. Questions of culture and civilization abound. But these discussions are always tied to the momentary. Our discussions of church rest upon its social and political views, rather than on its ability to address questions of truth and being.

These two problems—consumer preference to the neglect of covenant, focus on the material to the neglect of the spiritual—are obviously related. It seems that unless Americans are willing to take seriously the prospect(s) that we are not alone in this world, that this life is not all there is, and that there is a moral, omnipotent God, then church attendance will continue to decline. Because without those deeper spiritual concerns, one can get more community and affirmation out of a local club or sports team than one can get out of a church—and with less personal sacrifice and discomfort, too.

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Love and Marriage in “The Madding Crowd”

Alex Bailey/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Alex Bailey/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

**Spoilers Below**

You can always tell it’s a Hardy novel when fate brings horribly bad things to good and likable people: a well-meaning sheep dog runs his herd off a cliff to their death, thus ruining the fortunes of the kind farmer who herded them. A young bride gets confused and shows up at the wrong church—thus resulting in her groom’s rage and humiliation, and (eventually) her own demise. A stately gentleman receives a valentine in jest, and it turns his whole world upside down.

Far From the Madding Crowd is one of Hardy’s most interesting works: it features a strong female lead in Bathsheba Everdene (apparently the inspiration for Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games protagonist, Katniss Everdeen), several surprising plot twists, and a strong cast of supporting characters.

The new movie adaptation directed by Thomas Vinterburg is stately and Austen-esque, but—however tamed down they may be—one can’t miss those black moments of Hardy fate.

The film begins when Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) goes to live and work with her aunt. There, she meets humble sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), who becomes enamored with this independent young woman. But when Gabriel proposes, Bathsheba turns him down quickly, declaring herself too independent.

Not long after, Gabriel loses his farm and livelihood in a tragic accident—meanwhile, due to a stroke of good luck, Bathsheba inherits a farm. Thus Gabriel ends up working in Bathsheba’s employ, and has a front and center seat for all the drama that begins to unfold around her. A neighboring landowner (Michael Sheen) falls for Bathsheba after she sends him a valentine as a joke; his admiration quickly turns obsessive.

Another suitor enters the scene: Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). The soldier is supposedly sexy and irresistible (yet, at least in my eyes, more ridiculous than convincing). Hardy’s Troy appears to have both more magnetism and more vice than his cinematic counterpart. As Lawrence Toppman puts it in the Charlotte Observer, the film’s Frank, rather than being chronic womanizer and liar, is “just a guy who makes bad choices, and the role is cut so much that he becomes a nuisance, rather than a threat to village stability.”

Throughout the story’s twists and turns, Hardy presents three choices of marriage for the young Bathsheba. First, there’s the choice that’s founded on lust, passion. Frank seduces Bathsheba, and she falls for him. It seems uncharacteristic of this strong and independent young woman—but Mulligan does a good job showing the two sides of her heroine: there’s the resourceful and independent Bathsheba, yes, but there is also the vulnerable and innocent orphan, who knows little of the world. Troy is the stereotypical “bad boy,” who promises her excitement and passion. Importantly, Bathsheba’s choice goes horribly wrong: underneath the glamor and romance, we find that Troy lacks character. He also disdains farm work, leaving Bathsheba without a partner in life.

The second marital choice presented here is Boldwood: a middle-aged and wealthy gentleman, who promises Bathsheba every comfort. In his quiet and composed proposal, he is quick to list off things such as “comfort,” “safety,” and material possessions he can give her. The opposite of Troy, he offers Bathsheba a marriage of security—but not of love. He may be more of a partner and help to her than the wild soldier, but they are mismatched in almost every other way.

So many modern marriages fall into the first trap: confusing lust with love. We make choices based on feeling, but little else. These marriages fall apart as life grows difficult, as character flaws and personal differences are revealed. Meanwhile, it seems that many classical marriages followed the pattern of the second choice: in arduous times, when one’s future comfort and security often rested on the prospects of a good marriage, many married safely. Charlotte Lucas’s marriage to Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice is perhaps one popular literary example of this.

Yet Hardy presents us with a third choice—Bathsheba’s final choice is also her first: Gabriel. They become dear friends. They rely on each other. They are partners in work, both tending the farm with devotion. Gabriel is steady, loyal, and a man of good character. And they care for each other. This match is an idealized one, certainly, but not an impossible one. In Gabriel, Bathsheba finds the perfect combination of good character, friendship, and love. They marry knowing each other’s weaknesses and strengths, already having had to forgive each other a great deal.

Mulligan brings to this movie much of the quiet intelligence and grace she portrayed in the BBC production of “Bleak House”: she’s determined, resourceful, and has a touch of tragedy in her air. This depiction is, however, not entirely true to Hardy’s Bathsheba: as Lucasta Miller notes in the Guardian, “Hardy’s heroine is a paradoxical character, designed to provoke, tease and confuse the reader just as she does her suitors. The new film, in contrast, presents a Bathsheba who is ‘hygienic’ for modern audiences: an empathetic, egalitarian modern feminist, self-empowered but not motivated by power.”

Schoenaerts and Sheen are likable and nuanced characters, though also perhaps toned down to some extent. Sturridge was the main one to disappoint, with his overly melodramatic flourishes and sleepy, emotionless expressions.

Vinterburg’s film has its modernized twists, but the bones of Hardy’s novel are still here. Compared to the rom-coms that normally appear in theaters, “Far From the Madding Crowd” possesses more honesty and candor about the mistakes we make in love—and the virtues that are necessary in order to make it worthwhile.

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Can We Fight Big Ag Cronyism?

It seems that when most Americans think about farmers, they conjure up an image of a straw hat-clad gentleman in overalls, milking a cow or riding a tractor. He’s probably scraping by from season to season and constantly consulting an almanac.

But as Vincent H. Smith wrote on Monday for the Washington Examiner, this vision is rather skewed. It misrepresents a huge portion of farmers, who are far from “scraping by.” Indeed, many modern farmers are wealthy corporation owners—and they owe much of this wealth and security to taxpayer dollars:

For several decades, as a group, farmers have enjoyed substantially higher incomes and substantially more wealth than the average American. The largest producers, the top 15 percent of all farmers, receive about 85 percent of all farm subsidy payments. They are much richer than other farmers and enjoy incomes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Over the past five years, farmers have enjoyed record, or near-record, crop prices and profits. Not surprisingly, farms fail financially at a fraction of the rate of businesses in every other major sector of the economy.

Yet the 2014 farm bill contains a range of new farm subsidy programs that are likely to cost billions of dollars more than the ones they have replaced. The new programs will continue to send most of the subsidies to the largest and most successful farms that are least in need of government help.

Smith’s piece excellently pinpoints the problems with our current subsidy and crop insurance programs. Why do we continue to pay billions (“In 2015 alone, [farmers] will receive about $18 billion in the form of direct taxpayer-funded subsidies”) to successful, wealthy farmers? As I have discussed with Lori Sanders of the R Street Institute in the past, small farmers’ interests are not protected in Washington: the Farm Bureau has developed a reputation for supporting agribusiness, to the detriment of smaller family farmers. “In addition to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s twenty-two lobbyists, no fewer than 20 of the state Farm Bureaus, including Missouri, have registered lobbyists in Washington, leading the field of agribusiness lobbyists,” Ian T. Shearn wrote for The Nation in 2012. “Over the past decade, the nation’s ten largest agribusiness interests gave $35 million to Congressional candidates—led by the Farm Bureau, which gave $16 million, or 45 percent of the total.”

Smith does a good job noting that the American citizenry ultimately pays the price for these large farm subsidies: Though the odds of getting a payout from crop insurance are “massively stacked” in favor of the farmer, “agricultural insurance companies … are not really losing any money because almost all crop insurance program losses are underwritten by taxpayers.”

What Smith doesn’t describe is the toll that this unfair system takes on other farmers who aren’t within that top 15 percent. As Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn) told Taxpayers For Common Sense when discussing his  Harvest Price Subsidy Prohibition Act, “Big agro businesses and insurance corporations have a sweet deal with our crop insurance. … The largest corporate farms collect the lion’s share of the money, creating an unfair playing field for family farmers. Ninety-nine percent of the people in my district do not get subsidies from the federal government to run their businesses.” Such a system sets up large farms to keep getting larger, while putting a permanent burden on smaller, non-industrial enterprises.

Smith presents some interesting ideas for emergency aid that would assist farmers in the event of a real disaster, but he believes it “almost surely cost no more than between $4 billion and $6 billion a year.” This would “force farms to manage their everyday normal production and price risks for themselves; the risks they currently hand off to the tax payer.”

It is past time for Farm Bill reforms to happen. But the question is now, as always, whether the politicians in Washington will listen—or whether they will continue to benefit the Big Ag lobbyists and cronyist system currently in place.

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Against Kant and Consumerism

Matthew Crawford is a motorcycle mechanic with a degree in physics and a Ph.D. in political philosophy. In Shop Class As Soul Craft, he surprised the world with a fascinating ethics of vocation—one that advocated manual work and blue-collar jobs, thus running counter to popular conceptions of what makes a job “good.” His unusual background enables him to marry abstract philosophy with technical discussions of skill.

The subtitle to his latest book promises a look at our “age of distraction.” There have been a plethora of articles on this topic of late—they bemoan our lack of “mindfulness” and diagnose the ills of our attention-deficit society. A book on this age of distraction would perhaps reflect upon the mind as affected and shaped by technology. It would consider televisions and smartphones, Twitter and Google. But in fact, Crawford’s book takes on an immensely grander project. The World Beyond Your Head isn’t about technological distractions, it’s about another kind of virtual reality and its deceptions—about the epistemological frauds we have believed since the Enlightenment.

The premise of Crawford’s book is that our distractedness is merely symptomatic of a deeper cultural defect, a misrepresentation of the self that has permeated our society. He traces this back to Enlightenment philosophy, especially the thought of Immanuel Kant. Enlightenment thinkers of the late 17th and 18th centuries presented a view of the person that contrasted drastically with medieval and ancient thought: they put unprecedented emphasis on the rational individual as separate from society or community. They posited new theories about freedom founded upon reason and self-determination, with epistemological roots in ideas such as Descartes’s famous claim that “I think therefore I am.” Kant believed that knowledge and ethics must necessarily be situated within the mind—that existence must be interpreted through the autonomy of the individual.

In advancing this claim, Kant built a “high wall between the empirical world and the purely intellectual, where we discover a priori moral laws,” writes Crawford. “Reasons to act must come only from the latter if we are to be free, and the will is to remain pure, ‘unconditioned’ by anything external to it.” This has led to a society in which individuals can never fall back on real-world authorities, traditions, or supports. Rather, we are constantly striving to develop lives of meaning without any outside recourse. The soul is increasingly insulated from the world outside our heads. Whereas in the real world, Crawford writes, “we are subject to the heteronomy of things; the hazards of material reality,” what Kant has given us is our modern identification of freedom with choice, in which choice is a “pure flashing forth” of the individual will.

This association set the stage for today’s culture, in which choice “serves as the central totem of consumer capitalism, and those who present choices to us appear as handmaidens to our freedom.” Kant, by trying to secure the freedom of the will from outside influence, severed our minds from any causal relationship with the world. With this isolation comes fragility—the fragility of a self that cannot tolerate conflict or frustration. “When dumb nature is understood to be threatening to our freedom as rational beings, it becomes attractive to construct a virtual reality that will be less so, a benignly nice [reality] where there is no conflict between self and world.” Autonomy, instead of bringing freedom, makes us slaves to the comforts of an arbitrated reality.

Consumer culture tries to destroy the discomforts and imperfections that are necessarily part of life. Take modern cars: they are designed in an insulating and distracting way. Very rarely can a driver feel their speed or have a sharp understanding of the perils of the road: we are wooed into complacent passivity by the smooth pace of the drive, the silence of the engine, the pop music playing on the speakers. Everything within a car is constructed to give a sense of isolation and ease. Automobiles “can foster circumspection—literally, looking around for others and regarding oneself as an object for others in turn—or a collection of atomized me-worlds.” Our experience becomes ever more “mediated by representations, which remove us from whatever situation we inhabit directly, as embodied beings who do things.”

The cultivation of “me-worlds” extends beyond automobile design. Crawford spends a good deal of the book arguing that an Enlightenment approach to epistemology leads to narcissism: an understanding of the world that revolves entirely around the self. The narcissist “treats objects as props” and struggles to comprehend them as objects with a reality of their own. The fantasy of autonomy, when full-grown, results in a “project of open-ended, ultimately groundless self-making.” Interestingly, Crawford identifies our treatment of others as the root of online narcissism in the age of Facebook: “We increasingly deal with others through representations of them that we have,” he writes. “This results in interactions that are more contained, less open-ended, than a face-to-face encounter or a telephone call, giving us more control.”

Crawford could have written in greater depth of the relationships—with friends, family, and community—that necessarily shape the self and the society in which we live. Our relationships are ever more removed from reality by layers of virtual media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat become substitutions for real-time interactions. What consequences will this have? As it is, Crawford remains more abstractly focused on the individual’s relation to the world of consumerism in which one is constantly pulled about by distractions. His discussions of community mostly focus on the relationships between teacher and student, craftsman and apprentice. As with Shop Class as Soul Craft, this book has a vocational bent.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans’ love of autonomy could have grave consequences: he wrote in Democracy In America, “Not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” Whereas Enlightenment philosophers believed that knowledge must begin and end within the self, Crawford points to Hegel, who believed “we need other people as a check on our own self-understanding.” Crawford also references Tocqueville and Soren Kierkegaard to argue that individualism does not in fact foster individuality. thisissueappears

Individualism, defined as an Enlightenment doctrine about how we acquire knowledge, was meant to “liberate us from authority” via “radical self-responsibility.” Yet this enforced self-sufficiency has resulted in slavery to consumer culture and public opinion. In contrast, “it is by bumping up against other people, in conflict and cooperation, that we acquire a sharpened picture of the world and of ourselves, and can begin to achieve all the earned independence of judgment.” Individuality—with all the intellectual freedom it brings—stems from our integration into a tradition, a place, and a skillset.

To demonstrate this, Crawford looks to the hockey player, the short-order cook, the jazz pianist, the motorcycle racer, and the organ maker: all of them artists, all of them embedded within the thought and theory of a specific tradition. All of them are proficient and free within their skillset. Crawford argues that to be free from our culture’s distractions, we must cultivate an awareness of—and love for—the world beyond ourselves. This is perhaps best described by an Iris Murdoch quote Crawford employs in both Shop Class as Soul Craft and this book:

If I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. … My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me. Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.

Obviously, this book is about much more than overcoming distraction. It is about seeking individuality and the freedom that emanates from an excellent and virtuous soul. Crawford’s book is crammed to overflowing with thought and theory, and some parts seem tedious or knotted—it is difficult to discern his whole argument until the very end, at which point one can retrace one’s steps and follow the intermingling threads. Some of his arguments seem half-baked: Crawford’s introductory consideration of the “attention commons” is fascinating—he suggests that silence ought to be preserved and protected, like water or air—yet this idea remains unmentioned throughout the book until the closing pages. His suggestion that we bring back “hands-on education” is vague: some sort of apprenticeship model, if incorporated into a robust education system, would most definitely be useful, but the specifics matter and are the real challenge. Crawford’s book is strong on theory but lacking in practical application.

That said, The World Beyond Your Head argues well that true individuality stems from the robust nurturing of a “little platoon,” from integration into associations that foster excellence and meaning. For American society to emerge from the distractions of consumer culture and virtual existence, we must look beyond the symptoms and consider the disease: the shroud of individualism that prevents us from fully embracing the real world. 

Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor of The American Conservative.


Iowa Builds a Locavore Community

Pottawattamie County, Iowa is rethinking the way it fosters commerce. Atlantic reporter Nancy Cook calls it “innovative regional economic development”—some may call it old-fashioned localism. Yet considering these Iowans live in the very heart of commodity-farming territory, building a local, small farm-centric food culture may be “innovative” indeed. Cook writes,

Pottawattamie County has collaborated with towns and cities beyond its borders to boost the reach of its local farmers and to foster a different kind of agricultural sector that grows fruits and vegetables for its own residents to buy and eat. It has worked to train the next generation of farmers and to help existing farms with small-business coaching.

But this is about more than the “eat local” movement and trends toward gastronomic localism: it is also about trying to help a state economy flourish, and about building a long-term agrarian culture that will provide jobs for the next generation:

Part of the strategy to keep money in-state was to shift the type of farming that southwest Iowans engaged in from large industrialized farms to smaller operations that grew food that local people could eat. From this initial series of meetings was born the Southwest Iowa Food and Farm Initiative. The group has grown to a roster of more than 50 farmers, O’Brien says, with a smattering of local food-policy councils.

Known as SWIFFI, the group does both education and outreach. It has helped traditional farmers develop their business savvy through workshops and coaching. The nonprofit has set up local farmers’ markets and CSAs (“community-supported agriculture” networks) throughout its corner of the state to connect residents to local farmers. For a while, it even identified and mentored aspiring farmers, and trained roughly 50 young people in farming with the hope that they’d remain in rural Iowa.

Iowa is the heart of corn and soybean country. These two heavily-subsidized crops make up the lion’s share of American agricultural production—and they’re pretty much inedible for the farmers who grow them, as well as for their surrounding communities. As Michael Pollan notes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Iowa’s corn crops “must be processed or fed to livestock before they can feed people. Water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink: like most of Iowa, which now imports 80 percent of its food, George’s farm … is basically a food desert.” [Emphasis added.] Pollan goes on to consider the impact that this has on a surrounding community:

There are many reasons for the depopulation of the American Farm Belt, but the triumph of corn deserves a large share of the blame—or credit, depending on your point of view. When George Naylor’s grandfather was farming, the typical Iowa farm was home to whole families of different plant and animal species, corn being only the fourth most common. … This diversity allowed the farm not only to substantially feed itself—and by that I don’t mean feed only the farmers, but also the soil and livestock—but to withstand a collapse in the market for any one of those crops.

… Beginning in the fifties and sixties, the flood tide of cheap corn made it profitable to fatten cattle on feedlots instead of on grass, and to raise chickens in giant factories rather than in farmyards. Iowa livestock farmers couldn’t compete with the factory-farmed animals their own cheap corn had helped spawn, so the chickens and cattle disappeared from the farm, and with them the pastures and hay fields and fences. … Now [corn] proceeded to push out the people. For the radically simplified farm of corn and soybeans doesn’t require nearly as much human labor as the old diversified farm … So the farms got bigger, and eventually the people, whom the steadily falling price of corn could no longer support anyway, went elsewhere, ceding the field to the monstrous grass.

Human society relies on a diverse web of animal and plant life in order to survive: it requires a diversity and division of labor that enables the entire local ecosystem to flourish. A landscape of corn, and only corn, achieves the opposite of that: it drives out a diversity of plant and animal, but it also cuts off a need for human workers. It destroys community, by destroying the intricate web of commerce and agriculture that a community needs in order to thrive. Rather than being self-sufficient and mutually supportive, Iowa is reliant on imports for its daily bread, and is increasingly populated by ghost towns, as Pollan writes.

SWIFFI seems to be attempting to fight this lack of self-sufficiency, while also fighting for an old-fashioned, yet more sustainable and profitable, method of farming. Family farms are steadily deteriorating, and few young people have shown a deep interest in living in America’s rural heartland. There is a need to identify and attract young people who might like to be farmers—and an even greater need to train and support them as they face the considerable challenges that farming often presents, at least at first.

Of course, there will be challenges ahead for this new initiative. Farmers will continue to face an uphill battle as they work within a skewed market that feeds off of cronyism and Big Ag subsidies. Our current system of agriculture does not favor the small diversified farmer: when it comes to measures like the Farm Bill, large industrial farms will always get the financial and regulatory support. Perhaps, as part of its efforts to build a local food economy, SWIFFI can fight for a Food Freedom Act similar to the one just passed in Wyoming. Such a measure would further incentivize local consumers and benefit small farmers by cutting out some of the packaging, processing, licensing, and regulatory costs that can burden the price of local goods.

Additionally, while there’s a continued need for the community to support these efforts through demand, many Americans (myself often included) live by a “cheaper is better” mantra, and it is difficult to demonstrate why quality should trump the smaller price tag. SWIFFI and its partners will have to demonstrate why the quality, sustainability, accountability, and locality they support are superior to supermarket imports. Thankfully, as the growing popularity of locavorism across the country seems to indicate, this is not a difficult argument to make—the benefits of buying local often speak for themselves. Hopefully Iowans will begin to see those benefits and shop accordingly.

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