State of the Union

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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Considering Motherhood

Mother’s Day always offers us a good opportunity to consider cultural and personal histories of motherhood: its trials and blessings, lessons and victories. For Smith College president Kathleen McCartney, however, Mother’s Day offers a chance to rethink the entire meaning and methodology of motherhood—as she writes for the Boston Globe,

Motherhood is a cultural invention. It reflects a belief adopted by society that is passed down from one generation to the next. In US culture, we hold to the idea that young children are better off when cared for exclusively by their mothers. Mothers are bombarded by this message in the media, especially in programming directed to them.

In many past societies, McCartney says, childcare was driven by economic considerations: ”In foraging societies, mothers stay in close proximity with their babies, while in agricultural societies mothers share child-rearing responsibilities with those less able to be productive in the fields, like grandmothers and young girls.”

Interestingly, McCartney spends the last portion of her column arguing for longer maternity leave—which, while not necessarily contradicting her claim that childcare is the best method for modern mothers, doesn’t automatically support that claim, either. “Numerous analyses have demonstrated the benefits of parental leave policies to workers and employers,” she writes. “Parents have time to bond with their children; health care costs go down; and fewer families are pushed to rely on public assistance.”

I agree wholeheartedly with McCartney that a good parental leave policy is incredibly beneficial to both parents and child, ensuring that they have a time of rest and bonding before career responsibilities start up again. But I disagree with her that motherhood—which, in her article, seems to specifically denote stay-at-home mothering—is a “social construct.” No matter the time or place, women have felt a strong allegiance to and responsibility for their young. This is not merely a cultural facade: it’s rooted in a woman’s very nature—even in her brain.

Adrienne LaFrance illustrated this in an article for The Atlantic in January. When women become mothers, they undergo considerable neurological changes: “Gray matter becomes more concentrated. Activity increases in regions that control empathy, anxiety, and social interaction. On the most basic level, these changes … help attract a new mother to her baby.”

Attraction almost seems to mild a word, however, to describe the changes in a mother’s brain as she grows close to her child:

Just by staring at her baby, the reward centers of a mother’s brain will light up, scientists have found in several studies. This maternal brain circuitry influences the syrupy way a mother speaks to her baby, how attentive she is, even the affection she feels for her baby. … Oxytocin also increases as women look at their babies, or hear their babies’ coos and cries, or snuggle with their babies. An increase in oxytocin during breastfeeding may help explain why researchers have found that breastfeeding mothers are more sensitive to the sound of their babies’ cries than non-breastfeeding mothers.

… What scientists do know, Feldman says, is that becoming a parent looks—at least in the brain—a lot like falling in love. Which helps explain how many new parents describe feeling when they meet their newborns. At the brain level, the networks that become especially sensitized are those that involve vigilance and social salience—the amygdala—as well as dopamine networks that incentivize prioritizing the infant. “In our research, we find that periods of social bonding involve change in the same ‘affiliative’ circuits,” Feldman said. “We showed that during the first months of ‘falling in love’ some similar changes occur between romantic partners.”

Becoming a mother is like falling in love, LaFrance writes. It initiates an incredible transformation of a woman’s brain, triggering emotions and inclinations that she did not feel before—like opening up a new room in her mind.

This is why, I think, so many mothers don’t just choose to return to their life pre-baby. They have undergone a series of neurological, emotional, and personal shifts. They’ve fallen in love a second time, and find themselves tied, body and soul, to a new human being in their life.

It seems incredibly normal, in response to such changes, to want to be close to one’s child—to want to observe his or her primary years of development, first moments of walking and talking, learning colors and letters and sounds. It makes perfect sense that a mother would want to remain as invested in this new life as possible: for just as falling in love calls us beyond ourselves, calls us to seek the good of another before our own wishes and wants, so motherhood may call us to abandon our preconceived notions of life and ambition, in order to care for a new responsibility, a new love.

Of course, this isn’t the only path open to mothers. But it needn’t be a condemned and despised path, either—one viewed as personally constraining or socially enforced.

When I asked my mother whether it was difficult for her to give up her career ambitions to be a stay-at-home mom, she was surprised. She said it was never even a question for her, never gave her a moment’s doubt. She wanted to stay at home, and never regretted her decision.

Of course not every mother will feel this way—many don’t. And choosing to work a full-time job does not constitute a desertion of one’s motherly responsibilities: indeed, a mom who works from home can have a substantially better relationship with her children than one who stays at home. It all depends on the mother: how (and whether) she invests in her children, how she demonstrated her affection.

But I cannot thank my mother enough for her faithful investment in my life: for the things she gave up, in order to be close to my siblings and me. She taught me that motherhood needn’t just be a chore, an infringement on career ambitions and goals: it is also a priceless gift, an opportunity to invest in a unique human life. Regardless of the motherhood path one chooses, one thing is for sure: no woman who chooses to become a mother will ever be the same.

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Battling Current Events Fatigue

It may hit you when you read about an ISIS beheading—or when you watch coverage of the Baltimore riots. It may slowly slide over you when you see another story about human trafficking, civil wars abroad, political gridlock in Washington, public scandal. This overwhelmed feeling, writes Cheryl Magness for The Federalist, may be closely related to compassion fatigue:

[Compassion Fatigue is] a syndrome that affects those who give extensive and ongoing care to others. Compassion fatigue occurs when one who is repeatedly called upon to tend to the physical and emotional needs of others grows weary of doing so to the extent that destructive patterns of behavior emerge in his or her own life.

… Thinking about compassion fatigue, I can’t help but wonder: is there such a thing as Current Events Fatigue? I think there is, and I think I’ve experienced it.

This fatigue seems to involve a level of dismay at tragedy, coupled with disappointment at political events and outcomes. It seems a particular temptation for conservatives, who have faced many political defeats in recent years, and Christians, who are facing the historic levels of international persecution. Yet Magness writes, “I know I can’t just stop caring. I owe it to my children and grandchildren to not stick my head in the sand. But how does one care without being completely swallowed up by it?”

Magness offers her five insights into handling current events fatigue, and they are worth reading. Her first point folds into a larger (conservative) consideration that has helped me navigate these feelings of fatigue in the past: namely, the importance of knowing your own limits.

This is twofold: knowing how much you can emotionally handle, and how much you can mentally and physically do in response to worldwide tragedies and crises.

We must consider how much we should read—how deeply we should immerse ourselves in issues that we cannot (because of time, resources, or emotional strength) confront. This may seem like a sort of forced ignorance; but I think, in a sense, it’s a healthy understanding of what we, as limited and finite human beings, can handle. There has been no other time in history when we could immerse ourselves so deeply and endlessly in the world’s problems. In times past, the limitations of knowledge and information gave us the freedom to focus on spheres in which we could make a tangible difference.

But now, there is an endless gamut of problems to confront. Constantly consuming news does not seem healthy or beneficial—indeed, it often seems incredibly counterproductive. Limiting our intake of information does not mean closing our eyes to the world—rather, it means putting strategic blinders on, so that we can focus on the things we can really help with. It is good, perhaps, to create a list of priorities—for domestic, foreign, and cultural news—that enables us to filter through the information, and find those pieces in which we can truly invest ourselves.

Additionally, in light of the global chaos we confront on a daily basis, we need an ethic of response—one that does not leave us faultless and ignorant, unaware of the needs in our world, but one that does not leave us completely overwhelmed and paralyzed, either. I have always been very passionate about human rights issues, worldwide persecution, gender issues, etc. But I’ve realized quickly that, considering my limited ability to impact such atrocities, it is easy to get burned out and exhausted by the enormity of these worldwide issues.

For this reason, I think we must start at home: concentrate on the spheres closest to us, and build out from there. There are needs in our homes, neighborhoods, churches, cities. They may not seem as enormous or horrific, but by starting here, we begin to build the communal muscle and rapport necessary to confront larger problems, to propel change outward from our local sphere. Rather than desperately seeking to confront every horror in a scattered and frenzied fashion, we can build an ethic and framework that enables us to bring about real change and hope.

As Magness puts it,

Martin Luther is said to have stated that if he knew the world was going to end tomorrow, he would still plant a tree today. I don’t know if he actually said that, but it is a message worth heeding. No one knows when the world is going to end; none of us knows what tomorrow is going to bring. So, somehow we must live in the moment, caring for our families, serving our neighbors, and making a difference in whatever small ways we can.

It is also vitally important, in handling current events fatigue, to read with respect. It seems much easier to get burned out and enraged—especially on political topics—when we cannot exercise any empathy or understanding for the person(s) involved in our news. It’s important to read the stuff that hurts, the stuff that angers, the stuff we strongly disagree with—along with the stuff that inspires, uplifts, encourages. It’s important to remember each story reflects a soul—and to be open to the nuggets of truth in every story.

We mustn’t forget to care. It is very easy to become cynical and desensitized after a while, when so constantly exposed to the news. How can we read without becoming bitter, indifferent?  Much depends on the above—remembering that each story reflects a soul(s), people who have unique hurts and opinions, people worth prizing. But it also is important that, despite the enormity of problems we confront on a daily basis, we never abandon our compassion for the “other,” those different from us. That we feel humbled by our own smallness, insignificance, neediness—as well as grateful for every blessing we’ve received. It seems easy to take these things for granted: our smallness, our blessedness. Yet a proper estimation of our own place in the world often becomes a vital ingredient to understanding and loving that world.

It is not easy to read and absorb news in this globalized, online world. It is often painful, overwhelming. But with careful consideration of our limits, our place in the world, and our estimation of those around us, it is indeed possible to consume media, and respond as we ought, without getting current events fatigue.

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How Raising the Minimum Wage Hurts Small Bookstores

A couple months ago, I wrote about a bookstore in San Francisco that was hoping to implement a membership program in order to save itself from financial collapse. The reasons for their imminent demise? California’s new minimum wage. The bookstore explained on its blog:

In November, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed a measure that will increase the minimum wage within the city to $15 per hour by 2018.  Although all of us at Borderlands support the concept of a living wage in principal and we believe that it’s possible that the new law will be good for San Francisco—Borderlands Books as it exists is not a financially viable business if subject to that minimum wage.

The memberships Borderland offers, at $100 a year, give bookstore members a number of special perks and VIP privileges.

At the time, I was skeptical. But then, I received an email from another bookstore owner in San Francisco: Brian Hibbs, owner of two comic book stores, both named Comix Experience. They’ve been in business (and profitable) for 26 years. But the new minimum wage “digs us a really deep hole,” Hibbs said. He estimated that, unless something changed, the bookstore would have an $80,000 dilemma on their hands by 2018.

And so Comix Experience decided to try out Borderlands’ method: they’ve started a “Graphic Novel of the Month Club.” Their website details the various elements of the membership, which can be set up monthly or annually:

Beginning in July 2015, every month the staff and I will use our passion and experience to choose the single best brand new graphic novel to give you. This book will always be either a stand-alone experience, or the first volume of a new series. As a member of the club, you’ll also be entitled to unique benefits that won’t be offered to anyone else:

● A curated selection of the best new graphic novel each month

● An invitation to a monthly live book club meeting and social event to discuss that book. We will record and stream the in-store meeting so club members all over the world can also participate.

● We will regularly have the writers and artists of each of our picks participate in our monthly club meetings, (e.g. in person, speaking and doing a live event, or a video chat to answer questions).

● For select in-person appearances at the store, you’ll receive an exclusive club-only invitation to attend a private after-hours event with the guest.

● We will create a social media group for members to discuss the book internationally

● Finally, we will provide you with nice swag (like posters or bookmarks) for the selected book wherever possible.

“Comix Experience would strongly prefer to figure out a way to let the market solve the problem rather than raw patronage,” Hibbs notes on his website. “While we have no problem with a fund-raising type approach, for us creating a way to generate new customers and provide our loyal patrons with added value is better.”

We discussed the membership system, and the problems presented by the minimum wage hike, via email. Here is our (lightly edited) conversation:

GO: You guys have been working in San Francisco for 26 years. In that time, have you experienced a lot of money troubles, or have you generally seen customer demand meet your needs as a business?

BH: In the last 26 years, we’ve been profitable for 24 of those—failing only in year one (because ever small business is in the red in year one!), and 2008 during the Great Recession (where, again, we were hardly alone).

GOWhat has the response been to your club thus far? Have you found, in general, that people are wary or receptive to the idea of a sponsorship model?

BH: In a month we’ve hit about 40 percent of our funding goal of www.graphicnovelclub.com, and we’re covered for the first increase in Minimum Wage that goes into effect on 5/1 … . People generally seem supportive of the model, though obviously, what our retention rates are after year one may be the more important stat.  I do think, however, that this kind of patronage and crowd-funding probably has a pretty hard limit—the first few businesses in are likely to have the easiest time convincing people to participate, and it will get harder for each one following afterwards.

I do very much think that comics are in a true Golden Age of creative output right now, and that it is really trivially easy to come up with an excellent, compelling and self-contained graphic novel each month that will really turn people’s heads about what the medium is capable of, so I’m very hopeful that our retention rates will be very strong.

GOIs it primarily the minimum wage that seems to be driving this need amongst small businesses in your area?

BH: I can really only speak for myself, or other people who have made public statements—I have been consistently profitable year-over-year for almost all of my 26 years; our rents are not “too high”, we’ve not seen any other kind of left-field increase in expenses—the hole in our budget is purely from the mandated rise in the cost of labor: a 43 percent increase due to this law.

Alan Beatts at Borderlands says the same thing, and while I’ve never looked at his books, I’ve no reason to suspect him of lying when I see just how similar of a position we are in. I know a Seattle-based publisher who says they’re looking at a six figure rise in costs due to this—and again, they don’t make enough extra profit to cover that by natural growth rates.

… A number of my customers have said to me “Ugh, sorry, I voted for this, but I had NO idea it would impact a business like yours”—I think that they thought that they were standing up against multinational corporations who were exploiting their workers, rather than small community-centered local businesses who value art curation over raw profit.

Most small businesses I know work incredibly long hours for relatively little pay, because they do it for love and passion first and foremost.

Finally, I do think that the wishes of the employees should be taken into consideration as well—I have staff who work this job as an adjunct to their education, or as a way of helping support themselves as they build their art careers; I have other employees who quit higher paying jobs to come work here because we actually give them agency and respect, and because it is their passion as well. As long as no one is being exploited, shouldn’t people be able to choose any wage they are happy with?

♦♦♦

Hibbs casts new light on the troubles of small independent bookstores: even if they’re making ends meet, garnering strong customer support, and providing great service, they can still run into frustrating dilemmas. A minimum wage hike doesn’t just affect people working at big-box stores: it can deal a fatal blow to small stores, run by people who are happy with less pay.

Although it would be better if Borderlands and Comix Experience could simply return to the way things were before, they are harnessing community support and consumer demand to inventively keep their businesses alive. They aren’t just asking for handouts: they’re creating a permanent service that will continue to feed their small companies, and keep customers happy. It seems that this model could be one of the best ways to keep small bookstores operating in the future.

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Have Conservatives Lost Their Compassion?

Watching events unfold in Baltimore over the past several days has been dismaying, saddening—but so, too, has been the response of many conservatives to these events. Perhaps no post illustrates this response better than this one by Matt Walsh. Walsh’s contempt pervades this piece. It’s indicative of the supposed “conservatism” he believes in, the conservatism many people seem to have been espousing as of late:

This is not a movement, it’s just crime. Cops are in hospital beds today. Businesses are destroyed. Homes are in ashes. This town — my town, our town — is reeling because of what these vicious sociopaths have done, and are continuing to do. … Freddie Gray was a known drug dealer with 18 arrests on his record, yet people have the nerve to complain that we was profiled. Of course he was profiled. He was a thug. A perpetual problem. … The point is, you can’t convince the world that cops are out to exterminate black citizens when your most prominent case studies are men like Brown, Garner and Gray. If they prove anything, it’s that cops tend to get rough with guys who demonstrate a disregard for the law.

… These are individuals making violent and terrible choices. Emphasis on choices. And they’re making these choices largely because they’re mad about the state of their communities — but it’s their choices that turned their communities into hellholes in the first place. … The black community in Baltimore, and in every other city, can stop “protesting” some external boogeyman, and start taking charge of itself.

You want to lash out against what’s happening in your neighborhood? Good. You should. So get a job. Get an education. Get married before you have kids, and then stay and raise them. Move forward. Work for something better. Work.

Walsh is writing dogmatically about a situation in which he has little to no authority. Perhaps he grew up in Baltimore, but it sounds like his growing up years were not all that difficult. His greatest personal complaint in the article is that his wife and kids were unable to go to the zoo on Monday, due to the riots, and that he had to stop frequenting the mall growing up, because of gang activity. Those tribulations seem relatively mild.

But the two excerpts above prove what is perhaps most frustrating about many Republicans’ response to the riots in Baltimore, and to the police brutality situation as a whole: many use the crimes of the rioters to excuse the crimes of the cops. And this is an atrocious double standard.

As Bonnie Kristian pointed out in an article for TAC last year, police brutality in America is systemic—and the punishments dealt out for police misconduct are minimal. The city of Baltimore payed $5.7 million to victims of brutality between 2011 and 2014, and “more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil-rights violations.” Here is a list of some of these victims of police brutality:

A 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson. … Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones — jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles — head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement.

Then we have Freddie Gray’s story—which, no matter his crime or lack thereof, should demonstrate why protesters have been angry and upset. The Baltimore Sun reports:

When a handcuffed Freddie Gray was placed in a Baltimore police van on April 12, he was talking and breathing. When the 25-year-old emerged, “he could not talk and he could not breathe,” according to one police official, and he died a week later of a spinal injury.

But Gray is not the first person to come out of a Baltimore police wagon with serious injuries. Relatives of Dondi Johnson Sr., who was left a paraplegic after a 2005 police van ride, won a $7.4 million verdict against police officers. A year earlier, Jeffrey Alston was awarded $39 million by a jury after he became paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a van ride.

… For some, such injuries have been inflicted by what is known as a “rough ride” — an “unsanctioned technique” in which police vans are driven to cause “injury or pain” to unbuckled, handcuffed detainees, former city police officer Charles J. Key testified as an expert five years ago in a lawsuit over Johnson’s subsequent death.

Baltimore’s protesters have demonstrated a just anger: anger over the fact that police brutality has not been identified, punished, and rooted out. They have expressed anger over the deaths and grievances that their communities have experienced. While it is true that violence and crime are deserving of punishment, it is also true that the rule of law must prevail. Because brutality does nothing but encourage fear, anger, and loathing. As Matthew Loftus put it Tuesday,  ”The police still resemble an ‘occupying force’ to many, and the frequency with which the power of the badge appears to corrupt officers is disturbing. … When Joe Crystal, a Baltimore police officer, tried to report a beating that his fellow officer gave, he found a dead rat on his car, showing that the departmental culture is interested more in self-preservation than self-improvement.”

While it is of course true that arson and destruction of public property are crimes, it is also true that the death of Freddie Gray could have been an even worse crime, one that as of yet has not been solved. Brushing over that fact merely fans the flames of outrage that rioters are demonstrating. As one friend put it on Facebook, people aren’t just rioting because Gray was killed—”they’re rioting because the punishment for the men responsible for killing Gray has thus far been constrained,” despite incriminating evidence released by the police department thus far, and “no significant action has been taken by the authorities. That’s why people are angry.”

But here’s the second point about Walsh’s article: he is certain that, merely by showing some initiative ( “Get a job. Get a vacation.”), the communities of Baltimore can quickly and easily fix themselves. This seems to demonstrate an incredible lack of empathy and ignorance of life’s difficulties. True, it’s incredibly important for individuals to exercise initiative, diligence, and perseverance—and people demonstrating such things can bring about amazing stories of reformation and progress. But we shouldn’t expect such stories to be the norm: we are deeply influenced and guided by our community, our home environment, the atmosphere in which we grow up. As Loftis writes, Baltimore’s poor communities “want to feel safe and don’t want to live in fear of the violence that drug dealing brings. … Violent perpetrators aren’t rats in a cage who kill less often when they’re less poor; they’re human beings who are part and parcel of the structural injustice that other community members experience even as they often fall victim to it.”

It would be easy for people like Walsh and me, who grew up outside such communities, to wonder and shake our heads at the unemployment and crime, the “lack of initiative” demonstrated by its inhabitants. But we really, honestly don’t know where we would be if we were in their shoes. We cannot imagine the personal difficulties and pains experienced by people like Freddie Gray, his family, and the people in his neighborhood, unless we have experienced them ourselves—or  can exercise the moral imagination necessary to put ourselves in their shoes, and try to exhibit a little empathy.

Conservatives have been called, in the past, “compassionate conservatives.” But during weeks such as this, sometimes it’s difficult to find the compassion. We seem eager enough to exhibit such compassion overseas, when condemning human rights abuses and other governments’ atrocities. We seem eager enough to reach out domestically via aid and charity, through church efforts and short-term mission trips.

But it seems that, despite all this, we often lack the imagination and compassion necessary to understand why people in our own backyard may riot in anger, why injustices may in fact be taking place next door, why people in our towns and cities may struggle to procure jobs or finish high school. We don’t seek to understand the difficulties that arise when strong communities deteriorate, when justice is obstructed, when violence is brushed over and ignored. We don’t seek to understand what it would be like to see a police officer and instinctively feel—not safety and comfort—but sheer terror.

Without seeking to understand, we will be left to condemn and vilify, like Walsh and his commenters. We will not seek to solve the problem, or help the people of Baltimore—instead, we will merely mount our pedestals and shout at them. We will see them merely as subjects of our wrath, senseless people without virtue or logic. We will ignore the countless local volunteers who spent yesterday cleaning Baltimore’s streets, handing out pizza and bottled water—people who truly did show initiative, who do care about their community. People who actually showed compassion.

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What the Teachers Know

Can you imagine going to school in a museum? At Ascend Learning, a public charter school in New York City, students walk past works by Georgia O’Keeffe and Van Gogh on their way to class. They discuss Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” in literature class, Shakespeare’s Tempest in discussions of “family struggles, slavery, and colonialism.” In her profile of the school in The Atlantic, Sara Neufeld credits Common Core with incentivizing this new emphasis on the arts and humanities:

Amid budget cuts and long hours of drills in reading and math, the arts have been decimated in the many of the classrooms serving the nation’s neediest students. Advocates for arts education are hopeful that the Common Core education standards adopted by more than 40 states will soon change that, as the standards and new exams that go with them emphasize critical thinking and analytical skills, which they say go hand in hand with artistic expression. … The Common Core standards mention the arts frequently: approximately 75 times, according to Sandra Ruppert, who directs the nonprofit Arts Education Partnership.

But can the standards really bring about this artistic revolution in America’s classrooms? Many have noticed that Common Core emphasizes test results to a fault, putting immense pressure on both students and teachers to get quantitative results for their academic efforts—regardless of the diversity of their classrooms, quality of their teaching, or specific frustrations of their school. Despite the standards’ best intentions, many worry that Common Core will only further entrench a broken system.

In City Journal, Mary Grabar argues that our system in fact needs to look to teacher education in order to make improvements. We need to make sure teachers understand the content they are teaching, and have the knowledge and experience necessary to share that material with their students:

An entrenched education bureaucracy remains a formidable obstacle to meaningful educational reform, particularly in the area of standards. Many state education commissioners and staff “are influenced,” Stotsky says, “by the education schools they attended, teacher unions, school administrators’ needs, the interests of professional education organizations, and the pressure of political groups (especially think tanks, institutes, and policy-oriented organizations that claim expertise on educational matters).” Testing companies, educational entrepreneurs, diversity advocates, accreditation agencies, and political ideologues also have a vested interest in keeping standards low.

… Stotsky calls on legislators and their constituents to revamp the system. To ensure teacher competency, she proposes raising college-admission standards and abolishing credits for undergraduate education coursework, replacing it with four years of academic coursework for core-subject teachers. Educationally high-achieving countries, such as Finland, South Korea, and Singapore, already take such measures. Extensive studies show that a teacher’s subject-matter knowledge is the best predictor of a student’s achievement, in line with the common-sense notion that “teachers cannot teach what they do not know,” as Stotsky puts it.

And one must concede that teachers will teach best what they love. Despite the 75 times that “art” is spoken of in the Common Core standards, it seems that this infectious love is what actually has brought the arts to Ascend Learning:

The network’s CEO, Steven F. Wilson, who founded the network in 2007, studied sociology at Harvard. He wants his students reading great literature in the context of a broad liberal arts education, just like he had. He said too many public schools have a singular focus on test scores. “I don’t in any way discount that, but our purpose is much deeper,” he said. “It’s to equip our students with the broad capacities that can take them anywhere in life, whatever they want to do and whatever a changing world brings them.” Those capacities include the ability to separate fact from opinion, to think rationally, and to have an aesthetic sensitivity. “These are the hallmarks of an educated person,” said Wilson, 55.

In 2010, when Ascend was just a tiny network poised for expansion, Wilson hired a consultant named Elizabeth Hun Schmidt, a literary critic with a doctorate in American literature who’s taught at various colleges. To develop a humanities program for Ascend, Schmidt sought inspiration from elite private academies, high-performing public schools, and her undergraduate alma mater, Wesleyan University.

Wilson and Schmidt are sharing what they know and love. As well-trained academics, they are bringing the classical liberal arts to students who can now benefit deeply from that training. They know that education is about more than 4.0 GPAs and good test scores: it’s about the training of the mind and soul, the equipping of an entire person.

While Common Core actually tends in the direction that Wilson finds so dangerous—with its rather “singular focus on test scores”—he has founded a school that (while still working with the national standards) benefits students in a deeper, longer-lasting way. This demonstrates the fact that while Common Core has particular tendencies—weaknesses and strengths that should not be ignored—the standards’ actual implementation can be very diverse, can achieve good or ill. Whether the implementation of Common Core is done well depends largely on those in charge: the teachers and administrators who run our schools. Thus, we must focus on what we are teaching the teachers, what passions we are instilling them. This will determine whether kids go to school to take tests—or to read Shakespeare and study Bruegel.

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Lessons in Ownership From Hobbes

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For clarification: this post is not about Hobbes, the philosopher. It’s about Hobbes the puppy—our puppy—introduced into our household on March 21st.

Since we got him, Hobbes has already grown 12 pounds. He’s learned to sit, lie down, fetch, go to bed, and stay (though staying proves a difficult task oftentimes). He’s got a pet fox and a myriad of tennis balls, but finds himself particularly attracted to shoes, especially the shoes being worn by visiting guests (alas, we have yet to break him of this fixation). Hobbes loves people, with a passion, and is rather clingy at times: not getting to cuddle up on the couch next to my husband and me is tantamount to tragedy. Any one walking out the front door without him results in an outpouring of grief.

Yet his expressive eyebrows, profuse “talking,” and evident delight make every day enjoyable. We’ve learned much from him, little sprite that he is. Along with the frustrations and challenges—the limits on our schedule that necessarily come from having a puppy, the endless repetitions of “drop the shoe”—we’ve found that Hobbes brings his own presence and liveliness to our home, to our lives. The empty hours of solitude I’ve felt when my husband is away for work are now filled to abundance. I rarely have time to sit down.

I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons of ownership as of late: the difficulties that come when we build ties to a particular place. These thoughts were especially present in my mind as I planted my herb and vegetable gardens: I realized that, with every plant I rooted in the ground, I was also rooting myself to this property. Every little budding life beckoned me to be present and aware: to be a steward. I cannot gallivant endlessly, in work or play, far from home. I now have a garden to tend. Vacations must be carefully considered, neighbors asked (with plate of cookies in tow) to water the beds.

I looked over at Hobbes, digging gleefully in a corner, watching neighbors walk past with excitement and an expectantly wagging tail. He too must be considered. I cannot—do not want to—leave him for too long. He’s not a dog made to be cooped up inside: he’s an Irish Setter, an athletic and graceful hunting dog, a gallant and loyal beast who clings to his owners with deep affection. He cannot be deserted or left alone, as I hunt for personal adventures or career acclaim. He, too, ties me.

This is what ownership does: it chains us. It limits us. It forces us to stay put, as much as possible, because we are now stewards responsible for our possessions. We can no longer view ourselves as atomized individuals: a whole web of life surrounds us, relies on us for sustenance. Ownership transforms us into members of a platoon.

Some find this extremely distasteful. When my husband and I told people we were seeking to buy a puppy, they warned us of the personal dangers: the adventures that would be left unexplored, the personal liberties that would be lost. “Dogs really limit you,” they said.

Oh, they were right. Limitations, indeed: feeding the dog comes before feeding myself, playing fetch often happens when I would’ve preferred curling up with a book or a favorite TV show. Returning exhausted from work, I face an exuberant three-month-old who is the opposite of exhausted.

In the garden, too, I’m dealing with frustrations and limitations: squirrels have decimated my cucumbers and basil, so I am employing various deterrents to hopefully keep them at bay, and meanwhile will have to buy new plants. Insects have riddled my cauliflower and broccoli with their bites, and thus I must find a repellent that is organic and safe.

Sacrifice, limits, frustrations. They’re part of the journey.

But the joys: the joys of ownership are so much greater than the sacrifices. Like when Hobbes gallops through the grass, proudly holding aloft a Frisbee. When I’m reading on the couch, and he rests his head on my lap. When I see a line of radishes popping up boisterously, the kale close behind. When I smell sweet soft lavender, and see the hardy mint branching out.

These moments remind me what ownership is about: it’s about so much more than obtaining valuable objects, about more than the monetary worth they may return to us. Ownership can often give us a sense of belonging, purpose, and meaning. These feelings of affection can be expressed in our relationships to inanimate things, especially if they are well-tended: to houses, cars, bicycles, and boats (even books). People can develop strong relationships to such things, as they tend them.

But there are a particular set of blessings and relationships that accompany the tending of living things. There is a deep love and pride that can grow as we bind ourselves to them. And even now, as I peek across the living room and see that Hobbes has (again) grabbed one of my TOMS, I feel blessed to have such a happy, loving puppy to call my own.

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When Good Samaritans Get Ticketed

Feeding the homeless is more difficult than you may think. San Antonio chef Joan Cheever, despite donating meals to the poor every Tuesday for a decade, is now facing a $2,000 citation—though she meets all health codes, she does not have a special permit necessary to give food away free of charge. Conor Friedersdorf reports for The Atlantic:

All over the United States, local governments are coercing individuals and organizations to stop helping their least-well-off neighbors. The National Coalition for the Homeless reported last year that at least 31 cities had restricted or banned food-sharing. The Washington Post offers examples: ‘Late last year, police in Fort Lauderdale busted a 90-year-old World War II veteran named Arnold Abbott twice in one week for feeding the homeless. In Raleigh, N.C., a church group said the cops threatened to arrest them if they served food to the homeless. And in Daytona Beach, Fla., authorities unsuccessfully levied $2000 in fines against six people for feeding the homeless at a park.’

This seems an obvious example of licensing and permitting requirements gone too far. Why would the government stop a woman from performing a charitable act, merely because she didn’t have the correct permit? Especially when she passes all health codes, and is known for providing excellent, consistent service to people who need it?

As Friedersdorf points out, cities often face the anger or complaints of local residents when these free-food spots pop up: “the presence of homeless people [means] … the discovery of human waste in your back alley several times a month, petty drug dealers who scare parents with young kids away from the local playground, meth addicts who aggressively yell obscenities at women on the street…”

When a local neighborhood resident begins trying to serve the homeless, there is likely to be some local pushback. But Friedersdorf adds, “The complaints of residents ought to spur efforts to better address the needs of the neediest, not crackdowns against the moral heroes trying to make up for collective failures.”

It seems that such an attitude demonstrates a tendency to treat our neighborhoods as passive consumers: we expect them to be always immaculate, safe, nice. And granted, I can understand why parents of children would be especially anxious for such things. But it also seems that this attitude can create a false facade, one that enables us to ignore the problems going on in our backyards. If we push the needy away from our immediate attention, brushing discomforting objects from our environment, will we ever remember to help them? And by sterilizing our environments of poverty and need, are we in fact lying to ourselves about the deeper needs of our local community?  The needy we don’t see are the ones we do not help. How many people, rather than complaining about the homeless food service in their neighborhood, would decide to volunteer there once or twice a week?

This isn’t just an issue of civic neighborliness. It is also an issue that should speak to the religious members of such communities. Friedersdorf calls upon Christians to rally behind this woman, and his words carry a justifiable sting:

Throughout America, Christians have spoken out and raised more than a million dollars to defend the freedom of co-religionists to decline to serve food at same-sex-wedding receptions. While there has been heated debate about whether or not their faith truly requires such abstentions, there can be no doubt that the Christian imperative to feed the hungry is both explicit in the Gospel and central to Jesus’ teachings.

Conservatives are often accused of only talking about what they’re against, not about what they are for. Friedersdorf makes a similar point here. If Christians believe that caring for the poor is a real necessity, we shouldn’t be pushing the homeless from our doorsteps—and we should be helping people like Cheever continue to serve their communities.

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Long Live the Personal Library

Why won’t physical books die? Because “like the bicycle, the book is a perfect invention, and perfection dies very, very hard,” writes William Giraldi for The New Republic. “The car hasn’t murdered the bike, and the Web won’t murder the book.” Yet Giraldi’s excellent article is about much more than technology’s effects on physical books. It is more like a love letter to the personal library:

What does it mean when what you own is essential to who you are? In our everyday grasp of owning things, we tag it materialism, consumerism, consumption. But I trust you’ll agree that the possession of books is not identical to the possession of shoes: Someone with a thousand books is someone you want to talk to; someone with a thousand shoes is someone you suspect of belonging to the Kardashian clan. Books are not objects in the same way that shoes are objects. This is what Milton means in his sublime “Areopagitica,” as necessary now as it was in 1644, when he asserted that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”

For many of us, our book collections are, in at least one major way, tantamount to our children—they are manifestations of our identity, embodiments of our selfhood; they are a dynamic interior heftily externalized, a sensibility, a worldview defined and objectified. For readers, what they read is where they’ve been, and their collections are evidence of the trek.

This idea of deeply personal ownership and pride reminded me of a piece by James Poulos in The New Atlantis, in which he laments our slow abandonment of ownership. Instead of seeking to procure things, he writes, we increasingly emphasize “experience” and “access.”

Yet owning books—physical books—provides us with experiential comforts that are not available in short-term borrowing. These experiences are only gained through the (oft obsessive) work of long-term collecting, careful repetitive reading, and the accompanying growth of personal pride. And though we speak of a “sharing economy” having been opened up via the web, sharing is much more meaningfully done when performed personally with physical objects such as books. When we loan out our beloved copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, all covered in the comments and markings we’ve made, we are giving away a piece of ourselves. I would not feel nearly so bereft if lending someone an e-copy of the same book. This makes sharing a more personal and meaningful act.

“Access,” meanwhile, can be altogether overwhelming in the virtual world of reading: a bookshelf is necessarily finite and digestible, but the web’s cacophony of reads is mind-numbingly paralyzing in its breadth. We face unlimited possibilities as readers today: an almost eternal outpouring of books, new ones published constantly, old ones decaying on shelves in endless succession, words being typed by journalists and authors every day, ever adding to the astonishing volume of work.

We see this mad mayhem of books, and face burnout: the dismay and horror that comes with our own finitude—with knowing that we will never reach our five-thousandth volume (if we can even reach a couple thousand). Yet Giraldi writes,

Since bibliophiles are happy to acknowledge the absurdity, the obese impracticality of gathering more books than there are days to read them, one’s collection must be about more than remembering—it must be about expectation also. Your personal library, swollen and hulking about you, is the promise of betterment and pleasure to come, a giddy anticipation, a reminder of the joyous work left to do, a prompt for those places to which your intellect and imagination want to roam. This is how the nonreader’s question Have you read all these books? manages to miss the point. The tense is all wrong: Not have you read all, but will you read all, to which, by the way, the bibliophile’s answer must still be no. Agonizingly aware of the human lifespan, 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.

The physicality of real books sets us free from the imprisonment presented by virtual infinitude. We do not look at an interminable cloud of lifeless volumes—but rather, at our own finite collection, and understand with humility that they are still too much for us. We cannot ever read them all, yet we still develop a love for them. We collect them out of love, and out of hope: we seek to read as many of them as we can in our lifetimes. The others, we will store up for future generations. I buy books for my own enjoyment—I also, however, buy them for my children.

Buying books ties us: to our physical place, true enough, but also to the past and future. We invest in books that we hope to read in the future, and by buying them, give ourselves an incentive to keep the ember of reading alive in our lives, no matter the distractions and difficulties. We treasure old books, because of past memories and deeply cherished joys they conjure up, merely by their touch. When Jonathan Crombie, the actor who played Gilbert Blythe in the movie adaptation of “Anne of Green Gables,” passed away this past week, a world of readers and movie-watchers were moved to tears and grief. It may seem strange, this deep connection to a person never met. But for me, Gilbert and Anne and Diana were indeed “bosom friends.” I grew up with them, their maturation mingled with my own. Whenever I see a copy of Ivanhoe, as well, I think of the days I spent engrossed in it, saturating my brain in the medieval romanticism and chivalry of it. I read it aloud to my little brothers, translating the English into simpler terms so that they could understand it, and hopefully cherish it as I did. These books still bear the dog-eared pages, water stains, underlines, and tattered covers of love. They are part of me—their covers, pages, and illustrations stand out to me in a way that no replacement could, whereas my iPad version of Middlemarch holds no such special ties.

What we are anxious for, when we bibliophiles become anxious for the physical book, is more than a “sensory experience.” It’s more than the smell, more than the aesthetics, more than the thump of a heavy book being closed, or the flutter of pages flipped quickly by eager fingers.

We fear the death of physical books because they are our past and present, and we desperately hope they will be our future. They are more than objects: they have become our memories, and losing them would constitute losing a piece of ourselves.

It may sound melodramatic. But when I gaze at the volumes on my shelf, consider the hours poured into them, I cannot imagine the loss that would be felt by their destruction. Like Giraldi, I believe “Books, like love, make life worth living.”

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Five Ways to Run Away From Marriage

“Marriages today just don’t work,” says relationship columnist Anthony D’Ambrosio. Why not? He gives five specific reasons for the increasing societal demise of marriage: three of them largely relying on the premise that technology has irrevocably changed our lives, and makes relationships harder than they’ve ever been.

Our incredible online connectedness leads to real-time disconnect, argues D’Ambrosio. We’re fixated on the desire for attention, rather than on a more wholesome desire for love (this ties into some thoughts expressed yesterday about online loneliness). He believes that by throwing privacy out the window, in favor of the exposure and accolades provided by social media, we’ve cheapened our marital intimacy. He also complains that marital sex is nearly nonexistent, and that today’s financial landscape takes an incredible toll on marriage.

Some thoughts on the last two points first: D’Ambrosio suggests that the cost of living puts a strain on marriages today. But it seems that a shared income could in fact relieve some of the difficulties caused by expenses in today’s world: living in the Washington, D.C. / NOVA area is egregiously expensive, and I could not afford housing in this area if I were not married. Because my husband and I pool our resources, we are able to afford housing, pay off student loans, etc. Without that support and help, my financial situation would indeed be dire. It seems the most important factor here is being a smart and savvy spender: considering what sort of housing you can afford, where you should be buying groceries, what kind of car you can reasonably keep, etc., etc. This is often harder to coordinate with a spouse, one who may have more expensive (or cheaper) tastes than you. But marriage is, in many ways, the art of compromise: seeking a golden mean that is both practically and relationally beneficial.

As to a lack of marital sex, D’Ambrosio blames it on a combination of boredom and the temptations of outside media: “Everywhere you look, there’s pictures of men and women we know half naked — some look better than your husband or wife. So it becomes desirable. It’s in your face every single day and changes your mindset.”

But does it have to?

In this section, and the other sections about social media, D’Ambrosio paints us as passive puppets in a technologically-orchestrated dance of disconnection. We have no control over our marriages, because we’re so caught up in this social media stupor. “You want to know why your grandmother and grandfather just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary?” he asks. “Because they weren’t scrolling through Instagram worrying about what John ate for dinner. They weren’t on Facebook criticizing others. They weren’t on vacation sending Snapchats to their friends.”

But it’s so much more complicated than that. Divorce, affairs, infidelity—all of these things have happened throughout history. Marriages have failed, time and time again. Temptation has always existed. Boredom, exhaustion, bad finances: none of these things are new. While technology is more prevalent and incessant than it’s ever been, the vices that it can encourage—jealousy, worry, lust, narcissism—are also not new.

It is true that social mores have changed, giving us greater leniency in marital relationships today. There is no longer a strong social stigma associated with divorce—at least nothing compared to the stigma that would have existed 60 years ago. This often gives people greater mental freedom to consider divorce. Additionally, the legal restraints and repercussions of divorce have changed significantly, with the rise of no-fault divorce. But even so, how did our grandparents do it? How did they make marriage last? How do 50th, even 60th, anniversaries even happen?

D’Ambrosio presents five reasons that “we can’t handle marriage anymore.” But his five reasons really seem to boil down to one big reason, expressed at the beginning of the piece:

Marriages today just don’t work.

The million dollar question? Why not?

It’s a pretty simple concept — fall in love and share your life together. Our great grandparents did it, our grandparents followed suit, and for many of us, our parents did it as well. Why the hell can’t we?

Because marriage does not just involve “falling in love and sharing your life together.” This is perhaps one of the most passive definitions of marriage one could come up with. It involves no effort, no choice, no purposeful decision-making or selflessness. It involves “falling in love,” rather than loving. It suggests “sharing your life together,” rather than building a life together. Yet marriage must involve the latter, not the former, if it is to survive.

I’m not speaking from my own, still young, experience of marriage. I’m thinking about my grandparents, both sets, who celebrated 50+ years of marriage together. They were purposeful, careful, respectful. They made time for each other, honored each other. They were jealous of each other (in a healthy way), seeking to preserve intimacy and closeness to the exclusion of the outside world. They were romantic—nurturing the spark of love with gifts, flowers, acts of service, words of affection.

I’m also thinking of my parents and parents-in-law, who have celebrated 30 and 30+ years of marriage: both of whom have carefully set aside date nights since the beginning of their marriage, taking time to nurture intimacy despite the chaos of life and kids. They’ve conducted arguments behind closed doors, keeping their disagreements private from even their children. They’ve helped each other with everyday tasks, not dividing their lives into “his” and “her” portions. They take the time for kisses and compliments, no matter how busy the season. And they pray for each other—which seems to have given them a deeper compassion, empathy, and humility.

All of these couples have lived within, and before, our age of social media. Some of them have social media accounts; others do not. While they did not grow up in the wake of its affluence, but they must be cognizant of its various temptations nonetheless. Yet the virtues they have cultivated help them counter its poisoning effects: they are able to use Facebook or Instagram, and appreciate them, without getting sucked into their marriage-destroying vices.

All of this comes down to choice: actively seeking to thrive, even in a hostile environment. Life will always be tough on marriage. But the resilience with which you approach it strengthens your chances of succeeding. Finances are worrisome? Create a budget, and consider how best to use your resources. Don’t feel like having sex? Actively seek to cultivate romance with your married partner. Don’t just complain about it—seek to solve the problem. Instagram or Facebook distracting you from your spouse? Turn the damn phone off.

D’Ambrosio says at the end of his article that he believes “Marriage is sacred. It is the most beautiful sacrament and has tremendous promise for those fortunate enough to experience it. Divorced or not, I am a believer in true love and building a beautiful life with someone.”

But the religious language he employs (sacred, sacrament) speaks to an act rooted in and founded on grace. Grace is not a passive thing: it is a blessing given to us at great cost. If we believe that grace is indeed the foundation of marriage, we must expect to be called to the same virtue, and the same cost, in order to make it work.

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Finding a Cure For Loneliness

Olivia Laing wrote a fascinating piece on the “future of loneliness” for the Guardian. In it, she suggests that “loneliness centres on the act of being seen”—

When a person is lonely, they long to be witnessed, accepted, desired, at the same time as becoming intensely wary of exposure. According to research carried out over the past decade at the University of Chicago, the feeling of loneliness triggers what psychologists call hypervigilance for social threat. In this state … the individual becomes hyperalert to rejection, growing increasingly inclined to perceive social interactions as tinged with hostility or scorn. The result is a vicious circle of withdrawal, in which the lonely person becomes increasingly suspicious, intensifying their sense of isolation. …

This is where online engagement seems to exercise its special charm. Hidden behind a computer screen, the lonely person has control. They can search for company without the danger of being revealed or found wanting. They can reach out or they can hide; they can lurk and they can show themselves, safe from the humiliation of face-to-face rejection. The screen acts as a kind of protective membrane, a scrim that allows invisibility and transformation. You can filter your image, concealing unattractive elements, and you can emerge enhanced: an online avatar designed to attract likes. But now a problem arises, for the contact this produces is not the same thing as intimacy. Curating a perfected self might win followers or Facebook friends, but it will not necessarily cure loneliness, since the cure for loneliness is not being looked at, but being seen and accepted as a whole person – ugly, unhappy and awkward, as well as radiant and selfie-ready.

I think her definition of loneliness online is correct. It reminds me of the times I’ve anxiously checked status updates or tweets, to see if anyone has responded with a like or a favorite. We crave this sort of acknowledgement: to know that our presence is felt in the online world.

But does this present a full picture of what “loneliness” is? When I’m feeling lonely in reality, it’s usually because I’m seeking a friend to spend time with—I’m looking for someone to come over and watch a movie, grab coffee or go hiking with me. Loneliness in the real world is less about “being seen,” and more about seeking “withness”—seeking a comrade, a compatriot, to spend time with. We don’t want to experience or see things by ourselves: even watching Netflix becomes more enjoyable with someone to laugh with.

Yet social media seems to encourage a more me-centered loneliness: perhaps because it is centered around “profiles” and status updates. “Withness” involves you experiencing the world, encountering and acknowledging it objectively, alongside someone else. “Being seen” involves the world encountering and acknowledging you. This is a very important difference, and I think the two types of loneliness must be differentiated from each other. Because the latter seems better suited to cultivating true intimacy.

Seeking to be seen is likely to encourage an anxiety that cannot be assuaged. A person fixated on “being seen” in the right light is rarely able to understand or see themselves truly, because we are all darker and more spotted with sin than we would like to admit, even to ourselves.

But to seek “withness”—a friend or fellow with whom to share life’s experiences—takes our selfish desire to be seen by the world, and instead transforms it into a seeking to see. The best way to achieve intimacy is to know and love a person well—and to let them know and love you. Such relationships can, perhaps, happen online: but in the midst of the self-curation that goes into our lonely anxiety, it seems doubtful that the self revealed will ever be fully real. Physical reality does not allow us so many masks.

Loneliness seems to have more than one guise or form—and the medium of communication or community that we use can, I would argue, influence the sort of loneliness we are experiencing. Perhaps a social media experience that steps away from posting statuses and profile pictures would be more wholesome, and dispel some of the anxious loneliness that we can feel online.

But there’s nothing better for curing loneliness, and cultivating intimacy, than to strike out into the real world—forging new roads, and seeking strong friendships along the way.

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Raising Babies With Apps

“Are parents relying too much on technology to occupy their infants’ attention?” asks the New York Times in a Monday symposium. It’s a particularly controversial question in this day and age: some parents swear by iPad apps and phone games that help their children develop certain skills (and keep them entertained); other parents fear that exposure to technology at too young an age can have serious consequences.

All four respondents in the symposium urge caution when it comes to television, since it’s a very passive medium. But two respondents believe that interactive games can have beneficial results: “When properly selected, [interactive] games get infants to slow down and think, thus making decisions and exercising the gears in their brains,” writes Dan D. Yang. “If you really have to cook your dinner while keeping your infant occupied, interactive games can be a healthy distraction.”

Yet psychologist Lucy Jo Palladino notes that the American Academy of Pediatrics advises that screens be avoided altogether for children under the age of two, and that parents instead read aloud to their kids—”Because it builds a better brain.”

Yet here we face a difficulty: all children mimic their parents. It’s how they learn. Most children find technology appealing because they see their parents using it—and the average U.S. adult spends about two days per month using their phone, according to a study conducted last year. We always have smartphones on hand, often checking email, Facebook, Twitter throughout the day. The question is whether—beyond our own personal and cognitive wellbeing—this extreme connectedness may have a deleterious effect on our children.

Anna Prushinskaya wrote a thoughtful piece for The Atlantic last week about her “quantified” pregnancy: amongst today’s technologically savvy mothers, there are a myriad of mobile apps that digitally track one’s pregnancy—and apps that track naps, diaper changes, and feedings after the baby is born. She writes,

My experience of the baby is mechanized. Always I feel like I am gathering data, observing, making decisions about how to properly record our interactions. He is starting to smile, and sometimes I miss the start of the smiles, find my way to them towards the end, because I am entering data. … From the day he was born, I’ve been using my phone to time breastfeeding sessions. The lactation specialist was strict with me: 15 minutes, each side. Which means that I have often been browsing the Internet, checking and re-checking email, while breastfeeding, instead of staring at the fine hairs on the side of his head, instead of checking out the wax accumulating in his tiny ears, or the little flakes of skin between his eyebrows and near the corner of his eye.

… There is plenty of talk and research about the importance of limiting screen time for babies and young children. … But should new parents aim to limit their own screen time as well? Childhood has changed (as it has each generation), but parenting has too.

Of course, apps and Google and pregnant mom forums are all good tools. They can help us feel connected and informed, especially if we don’t have a community of peers in a similar place in life. However, that said—what do we miss when we regularly use our phones around our children? And what habits do we teach them? We forget, perhaps because we’re always watching the phone, that they’re always watching us.

Both posts reminded me of a conversation I recently had with my pastor’s wife. Her children are older—between preschool and first grade. She would often pull out her phone while the kids were playing at the playground: they were entertained and busy, so she felt she could take a moment to check Instagram, or message a friend.

But the other day, she didn’t. She watched them as they played. And she was struck by how often they were looking over at her, to see if she was watching. Their faces lit up when they saw that, indeed, she was watching them, smiling, telling them “good job” when they made it across the monkey bars. “How much do we miss when we’re on our phones?” she asked. “How often are they looking to see if we care, if we’re watching them?”

It’s definitely a thought-provoking question: and one that seems to speak to the heart of the dilemma in our discussion of technology. There is no perfect rule as to when we should use phones or when we should turn them off—whether children should use iPads or watch television. But really, the most important question seems to be this: are we connecting with our children? Do they see that we see them? And do they know that we love spending time with them, apart from technological media? If we can answer those questions, it seems the technology stuff may sort itself out.

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Why We Should “Protect” Our Weekends

I’ve noticed several friends on social media hashtagging their Saturday and Sunday excursions #protectingweekends. Usually these pictures accompany a weekend adventure into the city, a picture of delightful-looking brunch food, a visit to mountain scenery or botanic gardens, resplendent paintings, lovely latte art. I was curious as to whether this was a new trend, and if so, what it meant. So I found the the Instagram account associated with the hashtag, @protectingweekends. Founder (and D.C. resident) Alexandra Transon puts it thus:

We live in a society where people are always rushing to the next thing; where value, worth, and success are measure by how many hours we work or how little sleep we get; where relationships and rest and joy are pushed to the wayside because we’re “just too busy.” Protectingweekends [sic] is about taking those moments back. It’s about … pursuing relationships, finding adventure, loving others, creating beautiful things, investing in community, enjoying hobbies, and choosing joy. It’s about finding a day during the week to slow down, unplug, and do something life-giving. It’s about embracing a new culture where people matter more than professional success, and where our lives are driven by joy more than climbing the career ladder or checking off that to-do list.

It’s an interesting idea—and an old one. One of the first societal practices of weekend protection that comes to mind is, of course, the Sabbath. Throughout religious history, there have been communal rituals of rest: times of work, and times of stillness. The Sabbath was dedicated to an absence of work: it was a time of contemplation and communion. It reinforced an ethic that has faded in some (more overworked) groups of American society: the idea that we are more than money, work, and accomplishments. The idea that a rejuvenation of soul, mind, body, and community are important to human flourishing.

But in the collapse of religious rituals such as the Sabbath, where do we turn for rest? No day of the week is holy or set apart: we run frenziedly through the hours of our lives. Weekends meld into weekdays—even if we’re not doing career “work” of some sort, we are often cramming our days full with social obligations, meal prep for the week ahead, lists of chores and gardening tasks that must be done. Our weekends may present different sorts of work—but it’s still a lot of work.

In the absence of a meaningful weekend ritual, we turn to new, secularized traditions for comfort or peace: we start brunching regularly with friends, going to concerts, visiting museums. And in the age of social media, we can connect these experiences with a sort of “community” by hashtagging them #protectingweekends. In this way, we mimic the religious rituals and communities of times past.

None of these new practices (brunch, museums) are bad, of course. They can still be full of meaning and community. They can still nurture peace in our souls. But perhaps they fall prey to consumerism in ways that older weekend “protections” did not: our modern traditions often seem more passive, more consumptive, more focused on things than on people or philosophical truths. Weekend brunches can be lovely—but they do they hold the meaning or communal intimacy of Sabbath meals or family gatherings past?

Additionally, the presence of social media throughout our weekends seems likely to hamper true rest: doing things for, or in the presence of, an online community makes it difficult to fully focus on the present moment. Rather than attending to what the present company might enjoy most, we begin catering to potential “likes” or “favorites.” Social media continues to put us in the box of performance, rather than enabling us to embrace the freedom of stillness, of privacy. Again, this is not always true. Social media isn’t inherently bad—it’s a tool. But obsession over people-pleasing is a tendency we are all susceptible to.

“Protecting” a weekend should incorporate both a communal and a personal element—reaching out, while also nourishing one’s own soul. Perhaps this could involve putting aside needless distractions: any technology that impedes rather than fosters your ability to be present and mindful. It could involve scheduling a meeting or two with just a few close friends—making a meal together, or going on a hike. Perhaps it could involve baking something, and making extra to give to a neighbor—or writing a few letters to faraway family members. These would be ways in which to reach out, give, cultivate community.

Personal rejuvenation might involve reading a book—one that isn’t for work, one that instead stretches or comforts your mind (depending on what you need). Extra sleep—something Americans already lack—could be incorporated into the day. Going to a concert, even by oneself, can be an enjoyable experience: music is always refreshing. Enjoying a long walk or bike ride (especially in the spring weather) could also help provide needed moments of solitude. Visiting church is the perfect element to incorporate into a “protected” weekend, because it is both personally and communally rejuvenating.

Protecting a weekend is about more than saving time for “fun stuff” (although fun is always important). It’s also about the deep need that every human has for silence, rest, and peace. It’s about the mental and physical exhaustion we face when we refuse to stop rushing about. It’s about seeking to find a quiet space in the midst of frenzied lives, in order to cultivate relationships and mindfulness. Though it is difficult to achieve, I think protecting weekends is an admirable goal. Even an admirable hashtag.

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What the Shut-In Economy Destroys

Grocery pickup, home cleaning, takeout, laundry, Amazon: there’s a delivery app for almost everything nowadays. But Lauren Smiley writes that our new “sharing economy” seems to be creating, in fact, a “shut-in economy”:

In 1998, Carnegie Mellon researchers warned that the internet could make us into hermits. They released a study monitoring the social behavior of 169 people making their first forays online. The web-surfers started talking less with family and friends, and grew more isolated and depressed. “We were surprised to find that what is a social technology has such anti-social consequences,” said one of the researchers at the time. “And these are the same people who, when asked, describe the Internet as a positive thing.”

We’re now deep into the bombastic buildout of the on-demand economy—with investment in the apps, platforms and services surging exponentially. Right now Americans buy nearly eight percent of all their retail goods online, though that seems a wild underestimate in the most congested, wired, time-strapped urban centers.

Many services promote themselves as life-expanding — there to free up your time so you can spend it connecting with the people you care about, not standing at the post office with strangers. … But plenty of the delivery companies are brutally honest that, actually, they never want you to leave home at all.

Home delivery isn’t necessarily detrimental to community or society. But the nature of today’s home delivery service is much broader in its reach, and less communal in its medium. As Smiley points out, the deliverymen in today’s shut-in economy (unlike the milkman of times past) are often invisible—like the “Alfred” who drops off your groceries and puts your clean laundry in its drawers. Today’s litany of service apps take care of all the tasks that we traditionally had to do—the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry and dusting—yet there is rarely a human face which we can connect to the work.

This reminded me of an excerpt from Matt Crawford’s fascinating new book, The World Beyond Your Head. In it, he speaks of the ways we have increasingly mitigated reality, consigning ourselves to a virtual world that is more manipulable and controllable, one without the hazards and frustrations of reality. He writes,

As the world becomes more confusing, seemingly controlled by vast impersonal forces … as the normative expectation becomes to land a cubicle job, in which the chain of cause and effect can be quite dispersed and opaque; as home life becomes deskilled (we outsource our cooking to corporations, our house repairs to immigrant guest workers); as the material basis of modern life becomes ever more obscured, and the occasions for skillful action are removed to sites overseas, where things are made; to sites nearby but socially invisible, where things are tended and repaired; and to sites unknown, where elites orchestrate commercial and political forces—when all of this is the case, the experience of individual agency becomes somewhat elusive. The very possibility of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world, and knowing that these actions are genuinely your own, may come to seem illusory.

Smiley’s article considers well the class divides and dilemmas that this new shut-in economy shows us. But it’s worth considering the philosophical dilemmas that this new reality presents us with, as well. As Crawford points out above, our tendency to virtualize our lives—to turn to computers, televisions, and apps for the bread and butter of vocation, recreation, and housework—has damaging repercussions for our mental and physical health. We delve into a mitigated reality, one in which we rarely see or experience the real-world consequences of our actions. We lose the ability to perform fundamental (yet meaningful) skills, like cooking or repairing our cars. We lose the camaraderie fostered through group activities and familial tasks. We also lose the virtues associated with conflict, failure, and imperfection—the traits of patience, perseverance, and wisdom that only come through commitment to a difficult skill.

It is also interesting that these services are all presented with the promise that they will save you time—yet the time that it saves us, according to Smiley’s research, is almost entirely dedicated to vocational tasks. As one young interviewee told Smiley, “I was talking to my father on Skype the other day. He asked, ‘Don’t you miss a casual stroll to the shop?’ Everything we do now is time-limited, and you do everything with intention. There’s not time to stroll anywhere.” Our delivery system isn’t freeing us up for more leisure time—but rather, for more work.

The peril in this, of course, exists in the fact that if our home spaces are increasingly dedicated to telecommuted work, rather than to communal activity or skilled labor of some sort, we will increasingly find ourselves departing from the physical world, and existing only within the pleasant yet tepid waters of virtual reality. “The world in which we acquire skill as embodied agents is precisely that world in which we are subject to the ‘negative affordances’ of material reality,” writes Crawford.

We are not just company employees, Dungeons & Dragons players, Netflix watchers: we are human beings with physical, corporeal selves—with hands and brains that grow sharp through even the most menial skills. A life that ignores the necessity of such skills will not just become physically “shut-in”—it will likely facilitate an intellectual and emotional closing, as well.

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