State of the Union

The Beauty of Books

When we read, we take journeys—into a new world, back in time. We re-meet old selves, uncover new places and horizons. Books are often as much about our pasts as about the stories of the books themselves. They’re also about the relationships they remind us of, the people we loan them to, the readers who came before us.

There are a lot of old children’s books on my shelves: some old family heirlooms, some bought in used bookstores. Each tells a story. There’s a late 19th-century illustrated paperback of The Gingerbread Man: the cover is sewn together with thread, the edges are tattered, a child’s signature is scrawled across the first page. The pictures bear riveting poppy reds and mustard yellows. On the bookshelf beside it is a 1960s copy of Now We Are Six, a collection of nursery rhymes from A.A. Milne that used to belong to my cousins. Beside that sits a pop-up version of The Little Prince: newer, but already laced with memories. I read it aloud to my little brother and fiancé (now husband) one Christmas eve as we drove home in a snowstorm, navigating perilous roads. The book kept us awake, aware, and cheerful.

It’s amazing how the old hardback novels on the shelf blend so beautifully together: their covers were often moss green, navy, cinnamon brown—the letters gilded in rich metallic. The older typography was often simple and scholarly, traditional serif fonts with delicate forms. The Victorian-era books have greater title flourishes, more feminine scripts. But if you stack them side-by-side on a shelf, they all blend in lovely harmony. There’s a stately grace to them.

Books today have a different character: rather than complementing each other, they often seem to be at war with each other, a clashing and clamoring of colors, fonts, and styles. There’s often a great creativity and artistry to their covers, but they can also seem as riotous and mentally-assaulting as a bunch of tv commercials. Their diversity—one of the beauties of the print book—can also be their greatest aesthetic turn-off.

Yet e-books are in an entirely separate world: they all have covers, certainly, but they’re glimpsed rarely by the reader, as the book automatically saves its place and opens to the last page you left. The pages’ fonts are particular to the tablet and its owner, not the book: ones you pick and customize according to your taste. Even the font size will change according to your preferences. E-books aren’t things you buy “used”—each is a new digital edition, particular to you, stripped of history. All of these things make the reading experience easier—but do they make it memorable, endearing?

Reading Craig Mod’s recent piece in Aeon Magazine about the future of reading makes all these questions come to mind. He writes about his embrace of digital reading, and then his abdication of it—an abdication spurred on largely by aesthetics and the limits of the digital vs. the physical (as backwards as that may at first sound):

As a consumer of digital books I feel delighted, but as a reader, I feel crestfallen. All of the consumption parts of the Kindle experience are pitch-perfect: a boundless catalogue, instant distribution, reasonable prices (perhaps once too reasonable, now less so with recently updated contracts). … But after a book has made its way through the plumbing and onto the devices, the once-fresh experience now feels neglected.

… [When] opening a Kindle book … there is no procession, and often no cover. You are sometimes thrown into the first chapter, sometimes into the middle of the front matter. … Often, you have to swipe or tap back a dozen pages to be sure you haven’t missed anything. … Titles that fall off the first-page listing on a Kindle cease to exist. Compare that with standing in front of a physical bookshelf: the eye takes in hundreds of spines or covers at once, all equally at arm’s length. I’ve found that it’s much more effortless to dip back into my physical library – for inspiration or reference – than my digital library. The books are there. They’re obvious. They welcome me back.

The pile of unread books we have on our bedside tables is often referred to as a graveyard of good intentions. The list of unread books on our Kindles is more of a black hole of fleeting intentions.

He thinks innovation could solve many of these problems, however:

Kindles could remind us of past purchases – books either bought but left unread, or books we read passionately and should reread. And, in doing so, trump the unnetworked isolation of physical books. Thanks to our in-app reading statistics, Kindle knows when we can’t put a book down, when we plunge ourselves into an author’s world far too late into the night, on a weeknight, when the next day is most definitely not a holiday. Kindle knows when we are hypnotised, possessed, gluttonous; knows when we consume an entire feast of words in a single sitting. Knows that others haven’t been so ravenous with a particular story, but we were, and so Kindle can intuit our special relationship with the text. It certainly knows enough to meaningfully resurface books of that ilk. It could be as simple as an email. Kindle could help foster that act of returning, of rereading. It could bring a book back from the periphery of our working library into the core, ‘into the bloodstream’, as Susan Sontag put it. And yet it doesn’t.

… The potential power of digital is that it can take the ponderous and isolated nature of physical things and make them light and movable. Physical things are difficult to copy at scale, while digital things in open environments can replicate effortlessly. Physical is largely immutable, digital can be malleable. Physical is isolated, digital is networked. This is where digital rights management (DRM) – a closed, proprietary layer of many digital reading stacks – hurts books most and undermines almost all that latent value proposition in digital. It artificially imposes the heaviness and isolation of physical books on their digital counterparts, which should be loose, networked objects. DRM constraints over our rights as readers make it feel like we’re renting our digital books, not owning them.

To overcome the digital book’s drawbacks in the way Mod describes, however, would require an intervention into the life of the reader that is akin to a nanny’s meddling interventions. To have a Kindle or iPad reminding me of past purchases, prodding me to read old books over again, or collecting data on my preferences would not be a welcome feature. It would be an intrusion. The relationship between reader and book is not one that should be controlled by digital algorithms. To describe the unmonitored relationship between reader and physical book as “unnetworked isolation” is to miss the whole point: that the closest relationships, even between a reader and book, often involve intimacy and privacy, a sense of aloneness in space with the other, an undistracted focus.

Neither does the mutability of e-books seem to be a boon, necessarily. Their mobility is most definitely useful—but it’s a limited usefulness for the reader. They’re about efficiency and ease: making your bag lighter as you travel and commute, perhaps, or eliminating the need for a night light when you want to read a couple chapters before bed.

But in this way, e-books remind me a lot of smoothies: they’re an efficient way to get sustenance. They often taste good and are enjoyable. They’re especially nice when you’re on a tight schedule and need to eat on the run. But to live on smoothies is to turn away from the multitudinous pleasures of the edible world: to neglect the delights of French or Thai cuisine, wine-soaked dishes, freshly-baked bread, steaming stews. To live on smoothies is possible, and definitely efficient. But it’s a rather sorry way to eat.

To neglect the world of physical books is to miss out on a constant adventure and journey: to discover the beauties that come from the relationship between reader and book—as well as the fascinating tales of readers past, to miss the mark they left on their copies, the journeys they may tell in old and tattered pages. It’s to miss out on the beauties of shifting design, the fascinating progress of the written word through time and space, trends and innovations. It’s to take your relationship with a beloved work, and tie it forever to the all-knowing algorithms of the internet—while also abandoning any potential for sharing the book with your friends or family.

For example: I recently loaned my copy of The World Beyond Your Head to a friend. Because I’d reviewed it for TAC, the pages were dog-eared and underlined, little notes were in the margin. My friend actually loved this (thankfully). When he asked me whether he could also borrow my copy of Shop Class as Soul Craft, I realized with dismay that I had purchased the book on my iPad, and couldn’t loan it to him. Regardless, the book had been read with greater swiftness and less care, without those dog-eared pages and slowly thought-through comments. What did I lose by buying that book online? More than losing a deep connection to the book itself, I lost the opportunity to be generous to a friend.

None of this means digital books can’t be enjoyed. But it means that they are, as Mod writes, limited by their medium, and limited in a way physical books are not. It means that as much as we should enjoy the former, we shouldn’t forsake the latter. Unless you really do prefer drinking literary smoothies all the time.


Post a comment

Friendliness and Focus in the Internet Age

How does the internet affect our ability to be fully present? In his review of Changing the Subject, a book by Sven Birkerts, Jeff Nunokawa writes in The New Republic that

… It’s much harder to be “here and now”, here and now, what with all the bells and whistles, the bright lights and ring-tones of modern technology—“technology stains the moment with its disconcerting transmission of elsewhere.” “[T]he digital realm” doesn’t “foster”, even  “allow” “calm, linear, reflective thinking”. … We all know the state of distraction that Birkerts illuminates here, the listless march of the eye dictated by “our devices”, those screens that ceaselessly draw us away from the faces and pages right in front of us, and from the depths that those faces and pages contain; march us away from the more arduous adventures involving the long arcs of attentiveness required by the novels of Tolstoy and Joyce; call us away from what will come only if we allow ourselves to linger over a line without any thought of clicking on to the next link.

Nunokawa and Birkerts both are considering the importance of presence: of fully embedding oneself in a given moment, without allowing the mind to stray or wander to other things. If we consider our daily habits, many of us will find that the internet has affected our ability to do just this (though for many of us, it could be that awareness and focus have always been struggles). We’ve become so used to interruptions, eye-catching distractions, the ability to just click through to another thing when we grow bored. Cultivating awareness requires a level of intentionality and focus that seem hard to muster in our present circumstances.

But the detriments of distraction aren’t confined to the realm of intellectual thought and personal focus—whether you can focus on the article you’re reading, or whether you’ve gotten into unhealthy multitasking habits. Love itself, community and friendship, require focus: the ability to see the “other,” and be completely centered in our appreciation of them.

Later on in his review, Nunokawa suggests that the internet has given us greater connectivity and opportunity for “real” friendships. But I don’t think this is entirely true. Because deep and sustained friendship requires both intentionality and exclusivity: a limiting of our time, interests, and contacts in order to fully invest ourselves in the people who matter. If we are living with increasingly short attention spans, are we going to be able to truly be attentive when it matters most?

Additionally, social media (and the internet in general) is heavily “me”-centered. It’s through posting our own thoughts, feelings, pictures, and updates that we interact with the outside world. It’s not a place where we associate as equals, but rather where we associate with our friends as a plural crowd—a giant audience, to whom we direct our thoughts and passions. As Nunokawa puts it,

The friends that I am trying to reach … gather together and converge within a single someone else, a person addressed by a single pronoun—the second person plural. Thus grammatically (but not merely so) I am usually concentrating on just one person when I write, a pronominal Prince who represents the princely multitudes I just mentioned, as well as people I may know now or sometime in the future.

The internet is a field in which we can experience a sense of heightened importance and renown, depending on the popularity of our published thoughts and life updates. But when you write something on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, how often is it written to the second person singular—to a focused soul?

I would argue that one of the ways (and perhaps one of the most dangerous ways) the internet and social media encourage distractibility and short attention spans is the way in which they encourage us to look at the world as a large, abstract mass—rather than as a set of unique persons, places, or things. We get used to thinking in collective rhetoric, in stereotypical statements, in soundbite solutions. All of this runs counter to true charity and love, which require a focused and gracious gaze: one that sees flaws, but seeks to overlook evil and overwhelm instead with good. The sort of gaze and aim that ignores inflammatory rhetoric and “outrage porn,” and instead turns to the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Compare Nunokawa’s definition of online “friends” and audience with these words on love and friendship from Thérèse of Lisieux:

I have noticed (and this is very natural) that the most saintly Sisters are the most loved. We seek their company; we render them services without their asking; finally, these souls so capable of bearing the lack of respect and consideration of others see themselves surrounded with everyone’s affection…

This seems a fitting description of the online world, in which we are always seeking the attention of the most beautiful, popular, prestigious, or funny—in which we rate someone’s importance by their algorithmic, numerical success. (The Facebook friend who has 15 followers and gets 3 likes on their statuses is not as important as the person with 1,500 friends and 200 likes.) Thérèse continues,

On the other hand, imperfect souls are not sought out. No doubt we remain within the limits of religious politeness in their regard, but we generally avoid them, fearing lest we say something which isn’t too amiable. When I speak of imperfect souls, I don’t want to speak of spiritual imperfections since most holy souls will be perfect in heaven; but I want to speak of a lack of judgment, good manners, touchiness in certain characters; all these things which don’t make life agreeable. I know very well that these moral infirmities are chronic, that there is no hope of a cure, but I also know that my Mother would not cease to take care of me, to try to console me, if I remained sick all my life. This is the conclusion I draw from this: I must seek out in recreation, on free days, the company of Sisters who are the least agreeable to me in order to carry out with regard to these wounded souls the office of the Good Samaritan. A word, an amiable smile, often suffice to make a sad soul bloom…I want to be friendly with everybody (and especially with the least amiable Sisters) to give joy to Jesus.

Notice the difference here: between being friends with everybody, vs. being friendly with everybody. The former requires only the proper platform (the internet), along with enough wit and sparkle to draw accolades. The latter requires something entirely different: a quiet, gentle spirit, an openness to the ignored, a willingness to be humble, a gift for focus and mindfulness.

It’s true that we can be kind online: by dropping a note on a friend’s profile telling them how much they mean to us, by liking friends’ pictures, and/or putting affirmative comments on their status updates. But all of this is done publicly, and thus often prompts our egos to creep in and invade the kind sentiments we may be trying to express. 

In contrast, the sort of quiet and humble friendship that Thérèse advocates for is one shorn of public accolades, but full of quiet grandeur—and lasting meaningfulness. It’s one that will be harder to cultivate online, but that may have more permanent rewards.


The Importance of Conserving Food

If you went and looked at your fridge right now, what would you see? For at least some of us, there would be moldy salsa or pasta sauce in the back of the fridge, wilted carrots in the drawer, or milk that’s gone sour.

It’s a common tale in the U.S.—and sadly, much of the food in our fridges end up getting trashed: Americans waste around 133 billion pounds of useable food every year, according to the USDA.

In The Walrus, Canadian writer Sasha Chapman chronicled her own experience with food waste—as well as her investigation into why we throw out as much as we do. She shares the insights of Martin Gooch of Value Chain Management International, who tells her:

“Volume is king,” he continues. “There is a desire to reduce the cost of food by selling more, and a consumer desire to buy more for less. We’ve made price a key factor in whether we buy one food over another.” We may be able to buy more for less, but if we’re throwing out more of that food, we’re wasting more dollars, too.

It’s not just how much we buy that’s a problem—it’s what we buy, too. Consumers have come to expect their produce to be pristine: unblemished, perfectly round tomatoes with just the right sheen, or long straight carrots (better yet, “baby carrots” that have been hewn to a fun and easy-to-eat shape). Yet our cosmetic standards for produce mean that much of what’s grown never makes it to the supermarket: it’s rejected simply because it looks ugly, has a few blemishes, or may be a bit too old. NPR also notes that many times, things are discarded because they wouldn’t last the cross-country journey from farm to store.

Once we get that food from the supermarket to our fridges, many Americans don’t make it through everything they’ve bought before things begin to “go bad.” Yet what does it really mean for something to be “spoiled”? Most of us don’t have a clue—we live religiously by the sell-by or use-by dates stamped on packagings. But those dates are often misleading; as Dana Gunders, author of “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40% of its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill,” told the Wall Street Journal in August, “They are meant to suggest peak quality. It’s not necessarily that the food will make you sick if you eat it after the date, but it’s come to be interpreted that way.”

Yesterday, NPR Food shared a variety of food-saving tips and ideas from Gunders. Many of her comments are surprising—for instance, she says eggs are good for three to five weeks after their expiration date. Wilted veggies can often be crisped up by submerging them in ice water. And you can use sour milk as a substitute for buttermilk in things like pancakes or biscuits.

A lot of chefs and food bloggers are striving to re-educate people on food, teaching us how to use things even when they may appear inedible. New York City’s WastED is one such endeavor. Food sites like Food52 are increasingly sharing recipes that use up kitchen scraps, or tips on how to store food better.

But it’s also true that we probably need to rethink the way we shop, and the sheer volume we usually consider acceptable. When should we buy in bulk—and when should we steer clear of Costco-sized containers? It’s a question that obviously varies from family to family. But it shouldn’t be too difficult to start calculating how much we spend, how much gets eaten, and to reconsider our budget and buying practices accordingly. Change may be as simple as serving smaller portions at the dinner table, and freezing leftovers when necessary. Buying less overall makes it easier to see what’s in our fridge, and may thus help prevent us from overlooking that bundle of radishes or container of tomatoes that otherwise gets buried in a corner.

Food waste is, some would argue, a woeful example of Western extravagance. And it can be, definitely. There are many people around the world who would stare in horror at the sheer lavishness and waste exemplified in the typical American fridge. But I also think there’s something to Chapman’s words: we’re obsessed with buying cheap, even when it means buying more than we need. And sometimes we forget that more is not better: that buying $40 worth of bulk groceries on sale may be a greater waste of our resources than using $25 to buy less overall—but to buy stuff we’re guaranteed to use.

When it comes to food, our tendency has been not to conserve or steward resources, but rather to act in a wasteful and thoughtless manner. Sadly, the consequences stretches far beyond our pocketbooks—and could affect the wellbeing of our planet as a whole. As we look toward autumn and the upcoming holiday season, it’s worth considering how we can begin to overturn some of those bad habits, and become better conservers of our food supply.


Husbands, Wives, and Work

We’ve created a “toxic” workplace environment, writes Anne-Marie Slaughter over at the New York Times:

[W]e are losing women. America has unlocked the talent of its women in a way that few nations can match; girls are outpacing boys in high schools, universities and graduate schools and are now entering the work force at higher salaries. But the ranks of those women still thin significantly as they rise toward the top, from more than 50 percent at entry level to 10 to 20 percent in senior management. Far too many discover that what was once a manageable and enjoyable work-family balance can no longer be sustained — regardless of ambition, confidence or even a partner who shares tasks equally.

… This looks like a “women’s problem,” but it’s not. It’s a work problem — the problem of an antiquated and broken system. When law firms and corporations lose talented women who reject lock-step career paths and question promotion systems that elevate quantity of hours worked over quality of the work itself, the problem is not with the women. When an abundance of overly rigid workplaces causes 42 million American citizens to live day to day in fear that just one single setback will prevent them from being able to care for their children, it’s not their problem, but ours.

THE problem is with the workplace, or more precisely, with a workplace designed for the “Mad Men” era, for “Leave It to Beaver” families in which one partner does all the work of earning an income and the other partner does all the work of turning that income into care — the care that is indispensable for our children, our sick and disabled, our elderly. Our families and our responsibilities don’t look like that anymore, but our workplaces do not fit the realities of our lives.

She calls on businesses to “support care just as we support competition”—to have a wider range of parental leave policies, affordable and high-quality childcare services, more flexible work-from-home or part-time options, and even “reform of elementary and secondary school schedules to meet the needs of a digital rather than an agricultural economy” (I’m curious as to what these hours/schedules would look like).

Slaughter wrote a similar article for The Atlantic three years ago, in which she argued that “having it all” (the perfect work-life balance) was impossible for women—and that it’s society’s fault that they can’t.

Interestingly, her husband Andrew Moravscik just wrote a piece for The Atlantic last week describing his own experience as a stay-at-home dad, while his wife served as primary breadwinner during the years described in her earlier story. His perspective seems slightly different—perhaps slightly less political—than his wife’s: for while he acknowledges that the workforce has little room for either man or woman to build a prestigious, successful career while also serving as a highly-involved parent, he seems to indicate that this is more an issue of time and resources than a societal conspiracy or flaw.

[My wife and I] had bought into the prevailing wisdom among other dual-career families we knew: 50–50 parenting was not just desirable, but doable.

While our boys were young, it was. But then we hit a few obstacles that other two-career couples will likely find familiar. For one thing, taking turns was easier said than done. One spouse’s job responsibilities do not conveniently contract just as the other spouse’s duties expand. Nor are all careers created equal. From the beginning, Anne-Marie’s jobs at Harvard and Princeton imposed greater demands than mine, because she entered the university-administration track early on; she also accepted more outside leadership roles. And, as we learned, intense jobs tend to beget even more intense jobs—a phenomenon that, in Anne-Marie’s case, led to a deanship at Princeton, followed by one of the highest positions at the State Department, followed by the leadership of a major nonprofit.

… Confronted with such realities, most two-career families sooner or later find that one person falls into the role of lead parent. In our family, I assumed that role. To be sure, Anne-Marie was actively involved with our boys, taking responsibility for specific chunks of their lives, like dealing with teachers and planning college trips. … But none of this is lead parenting. Lead parenting is being on the front lines of everyday life. In my years as lead parent, I have gotten the kids out of the house in the morning; enforced bedtimes at night; monitored computer and TV use; attempted to ensure that homework got done right; encouraged involvement in sports and music; attended the baseball games, piano lessons, plays, and concerts that resulted; and kept tabs on social lives. To this day, I am listed first on emergency forms; I am the parent who drops everything in the event of a crisis.

… Among those mothers who are beating the grim odds and succeeding in the most-demanding jobs, a startling number have a lead dad in the wings. As Anne-Marie puts it in her new book, Unfinished Business, “This is the dirty little secret that women leaders who come together in places like Fortune magazine’s annual Most Powerful Women Summit don’t talk about: the necessity of a primary caregiver spouse.” A female business executive willing to do what it takes to get to the top—go on every trip, meet every client, accept every promotion, even pick up and move to a new location when asked—needs what male CEOs have always had: a spouse who bears most of the burden at home.

What Moravscik’s experience seems to indicate is that certain jobs are high on involvement and low on flexibility, and that parents who pursue these jobs will need to be the lead worker. They will not be able to “have it all” simply because of the nature of their job. Others will be able to pursue lower-commitment jobs with greater flexibility. Or, if their spouse makes enough, they can choose to stay at home and focus on kid-raising full time.

We need better parental leave policies, absolutely—they help promote the longevity of a person’s involvement in the workforce, foster the physical, psychological, and emotional wellbeing of employees, and serve as an important encouragement of family life. Some may not see this latter point as necessary for a business to encourage. But our current policy of encouraging a single sort of worker—young, tie-less, career-centric—is both unsustainable and unhealthy. Moreover, our lack of pro-family policies in the U.S. can often lead to larger problems—they can foster an environment antithetical to the health and flourishing of the poor, an environment in which abortion is a more viable option for many women.

But we also need to consider the argument that Moravscik puts forth in his Atlantic piece: that there will always need to be a “lead parent,” and husband and wife will need to determine who will be primary worker, and who will be primary caregiver (unless they have the monetary resources available to outsource most of their childcare). In cases where childcare is expensive, difficult to procure, or unwanted by the parents for whatever reason, parents will have to decide who is best suited to work in a part-time or stay-at-home capacity—and who should remain more involved in the workforce. Slaughter’s right that we’re not likely to return to an age in which women are usually, if not always, the “lead parent.” We still need to provide space in society for those women—because they’re out there, they do work hard, and are providing an important service. But we also need to consider how best to create a healthy workforce environment for people who choose to, or have to, live in a dual-income household.

We also need to consider how best to foster a healthy work environment for single parents—be they single moms or dads. Though I think this is also a larger social and cultural issue, and we need to consider what societal/familial supports these parents have at their disposal, it’s also true that pro-family policies can help these single parents continue working and providing for their families.

Regardless, we confront a working world in which it seems impossible for any one parent to “have it all”—to achieve that mysterious yet longed for “work-life balance.” Yet perhaps with the right spouse, and/or with the right community, we can build a work culture in which lead parenting and pro-family policies help us be content—even happy—with what we have.

 Tagged , , , , . 12 comments

Not Your Average ‘Faith-Based Film’

Evan Klanfer - © 2015 Paramount Pictures
Evan Klanfer - © 2015 Paramount Pictures

Ten years ago, Ashley Smith was held hostage in her Atlanta, Georgia apartment by Brian Nichols—an escaped convict who had just shot and killed four people.

She was a struggling meth addict and widow, who had lost custody of her daughter due to her drug addiction. When Nichols showed up at her apartment, they found they had more in common than one might think: Nichols had just recently found out he had a son—one he feared he would never meet. At one point in the evening, Nichols asked Smith if she had any drugs. When she admitted she had crystal meth, he asked for some. Though he demanded she also take some, she refused. In that moment, she knew she wouldn’t take the drug again.

She began to read excerpts from The Purpose Driven Life to him. They talked about God and forgiveness. By the end of the seven hours, Nichols let Smith go—and decided to turn himself in.

It’s an amazing story, and a very Christian one in many respects. Few are probably surprised that a movie (“Captive“) based on the story is being released this weekend.

But many do seem to be surprised that, despite its ethical content, the film is nuanced, poignant, and well-acted. It stars Kate Mara and David Oyelowo, two Hollywood stars at the top of their game. The tension stays high throughout the film, and the script does a good job avoiding corny or fake moments.

And sadly, when many people think “faith-based film,” that’s what they expect. The Atlantic‘s Emma Green uses the terms “religious flops” and “Christian spin” to describe your average faith-based film. Oyelowo admits that they’re often “substandard” and “heavy-handed.”

The problem usually lies in form: most “faith-based films” are ones that tell (or rather, cram the moral argument down the audience’s throats) instead of showing. Of course, some of the forced feeling may come from inexperienced or mediocre acting; it does help to have fantastic actors and actresses like Mara and Oyelowo, who communicate best through unspoken moments, and have a fantastic ability to keep dialogue appropriately tense and meaningful. But even more so, it seems that many Christian films struggle with the fear that subtlety will prevent their message from being heard—or will prevent them from being appropriately “Christian.”

Oyelowo and the film’s screenwriter, Brian Bird, seem to have the opposite attitude. Bird told Green, “I don’t think evangelistic filmmaking is either good evangelism or good filmmaking. I think it’s actually pretty bad propaganda most of the time.”

“If the film only appeals to Christians, then to me, personally, the film has failed,” Oyelowo said. “I’m not interested in a film that suffers from myopia because it only appeals to a certain subset of society.”

It seems certain that Oyelowo’s performance will not let that happen. His portrayal of Nichols is subtle, complex, and thoughtful. It takes in the whole character of a person, his hurts and anguish and sins—rather than portraying a stereotypical villain. “I’m a big believer that the light shines brightest in the darkness, so you’ve got to be truthful about the darkness for the light to really shine through,” Oyelowo said in an interview.

As Green puts it,

There’s one scene at the end, when David Oyelowo’s character is emerging, hands up, from the apartment where he had taken Kate Mara’s character hostage. He locks eyes with her from across a police line, and in that moment, there’s unmistakable ambivalence. She recognizes that he has committed heinous acts, but he’s also human; she sees that he’s a sinner, just as she has been. This is the fundamental tension at the heart of Christianity, and of many religions: Humans are flawed, but there is also a possibility of redemption. It’s true that only incredible actors could pull off a look full of that much meaning, but it’s telling that this moment was captured in body language, rather than a preachy script. This is the fundamental difference between Captive and most faith-based films: It’s steeped in Christian themes, instead of being about Christianity.

Mara shines throughout the film, as well. She manages to seem vulnerable, lost, irritable at times—she conveys deep love for her daughter, terror at her imprisonment, growing compassion for her captor. The role must have been a hard one, but she conveys Smith’s character and struggle with great skill.

Sometimes it seems tough to tell true stories well. Especially, perhaps, when those stories have a religious component. But “Captive” illustrates what such storytelling can be, when done well. It has its slow moments; supporting actors and actresses are good, but don’t deliver as powerfully as the film’s two stars. Nevertheless, the film succeeds in relating a good and worthwhile story, without doctoring, sugar-coating, or sensationalizing it. And that’s something both Christian and non-Christian films could do better.


What Should the 21st-Century Library Look Like?

wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock

“What happens to libraries when books are no longer enough?”

That’s the question Dallas Observer reporter Lauren Smart asked last week, as she pondered a library under siege by the digital revolution. She talks to librarians of the Dallas library system, and shares some of the ways they’re staying afloat:

What you see when you walk into a library varies at each of the system’s 29 branches. Each location reflects its neighborhood or the interests of whoever runs the branch’s Friends chapter. At the Lakewood Branch Library, a knitting group meets at 2 p.m. Tuesdays, and the library hosts an annual neighborhood art show. At Hampton-Illinois, you’ll find kids gathered around the storytelling tree, or families tinkering with plastic blocks during Lego Club. But what you’ll see at all of the branches any hour of the day is that nearly every computer is in use, and only the occasional book is being thumbed through. The role of the library is evolving, or at least it should be.

Generations that have grown up in the midst of technological change are less likely to prize the public library than their forbears: according to a 2014 Pew poll, “college-aged adults (ages 18-24), were less likely to use public libraries than many other age groups, less likely to see libraries as vital for themselves or their community, less likely to have visited a library recently, and are more likely to purchase most of the books they read than borrow them from a library,” writes Stephanie Cohen for Acculturated. How are libraries to compete with the internet? After all, “with Amazon you don’t have to deal with parking and interlibrary loans; librarians also need to sleep and libraries close overnight, while Amazon fulfillment warehouses do not,” Cohen notes.

Adrienne LaFrance noted this week in The Atlantic that many libraries already offer a lot of technological services—the size and importance of these areas may just continue to grow in the future:

Today’s libraries are already community spaces with rooms full of books and machines—many libraries have printers, copiers, computers, and microfiche terminals. But if the trend in American libraries is toward relative booklessness, when—and how quickly—do print volumes become searchable or downloadable only online? Perhaps the library of the future will consist of five coffee-shop-sized locations spread across a town, instead of one larger, centralized building. These physical spaces would become the main draw of a library; the books people want to check out would all be available to download from anywhere with an Internet connection.

Smart’s story indicates that the communal role of neighborhoods may grow, and even replace books as the primary service offered by libraries. And it’s true that providing a shared, communal space can be a great and important offering for many neighborhoods—it’s something that libraries have done well for generations.

But are there other ways that libraries can draw in younger generations—without sacrificing or abandoning their print collections?


Powell’s Bookstore / Kristina D.C. Hoeppner

Reading these pieces reminded me of a recent visit to Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon. Though a bookstore, the five-story, full-city-block building functions much like a successful library might. The store is divided neatly into color-coded genre sections, with different offerings on each floor. There’s a special old and rare book section on the top floor, as well as a sitting area for visiting lecturers and authors. Helpful staff at info desks are scattered throughout, and there’s a bustling coffee shop on one of the floors. On the sides of shelves, around staircases, in front rooms, and near the cafe, the bookstore offers several featured shelves—showing you what’s on the bestseller’s list, what’s popular, staff picks, regional picks, award winners, etc. (Barnes & Noble is similar, but doesn’t have quite the amount of helpful tips and featured shelves that Powell’s does.)


Powell’s Bookstore Cafe / Sean Munson

Aesthetically, the bookstore is simple—but appealing. The coffee shop is cozy, the shelves are kept neat, all the rooms are well-lit, and the children’s area has colorful rugs and chairs. The bookstore is in the heart of Portland—extremely accessible to walkers, bikers, and public-transportation users. Considering its location, it is bustling—but there’s still spaces of calm and quiet tucked within it. It’s got the perfect combination of stillness and white noise.

All of these are reasons why I’ve always been more likely to visit the Powells and Barnes and Nobles of the worlds, instead of the libraries. I’ve always wanted to love libraries and frequent them. But when you study, read, and write best with white noise and a good cup of coffee (thank you, college), it can be difficult to feel at home in the library’s hushed, hallowed halls.

This is why LaFrance’s idea for “five coffee-shop-sized locations spread across a town, instead of one larger, centralized building” is fascinating to me. Especially if—perhaps possibly?—one or two branches could actually have an attached coffee shop or similar cafe-like sitting area. As in Dallas, the multiple small locations could offer an interesting opportunity to have different offerings / focuses at different locations.

One branch could have more of a community vibe—with a coffee shop, more meeting rooms, etc. Another location could have an art focus, perhaps, and have a couple rotating exhibits—with art shows and musical performances on the weekends. Another might be especially family-friendly, with regular readings, activity rooms for children, and a more extensive children’s / YA collection. Another might be more traditionally scholarly and quiet, offering a getaway for students and scholars. This method could offer the opportunity to particularize without losing, but rather emphasizing, the library’s book collection. It could give the library an opportunity to showcase different facets of its collection, while also expanding its communal offerings. If there’s anything that keeps me from a library, it’s the hush and feeling of sterility—a place too little frequented, a little too hushed. Having more busy, bustling locations could help combat this feeling.

I want to love, and frequent, the library. To help keep it in circulation, so to speak. And I think many other young people do, too: as LaFrance puts it, “Americans love the idea that they love libraries”—even if they don’t actually act on that feeling.

But by combatting feelings of deadness and by expanding its communal offerings, the library may continue to grow and flourish in the 21st century—even while keeping its books. Let’s hope so.

 Tagged , , , . 3 comments

What Televised Debates Wrought

On September 26, 1960 (almost exactly 55 years ago), John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon participated in the country’s first televised presidential debate.

The two candidates sat on a simple stage, without audience. Their statements were not punctuated by applause or cheers. There were no commercial breaks. Yet this first debate was a crucial moment in U.S. politics, and propelled us toward the entertainment-focused political atmosphere we have today.

If you read accounts of the debate, it becomes clear how powerful the novel medium of television and its accompanying appearance focus was. Those who watched the debate were certain that JFK won—but according to 60 Minutes founder Don Hewitt, and those who listened to the debate, Nixon won: his words were the more persuasive. But while Kennedy looked “tan and fit…this guy was a matinee idol,” Nixon looked “like death warmed over”:

Don also attributed Kennedy’s debate victory to his greater preparation. “Kennedy took it seriously,” Don recalled in a 1997 interview with the Archive of American Television. “Kennedy knew it was going to be important. He rested that afternoon. Nixon made a speech to the Carpenters Union that day in Chicago — thought this was just another campaign appearance that night — was ill. Arrived at the studio, banged his knee when he got out of the car, was in pain, looked green, sallow, needed a shave.”

“Should a presidential election turn on makeup? No, but this one did,” Don said, because by refusing makeup, Nixon looked pale and unhealthy compared to Kennedy. With the increasing power and pervasiveness of television in America, both appearances and preparation were never again ignored whenever a television camera came within range of a candidate.

This began a pivotal change in the nature of political presidential campaigns: increasingly, we became drawn to the persuasiveness of appearance, the charisma of personality, the appeal of a dynamic, celebrity personality. JFK was young, good-looking, and smooth in the delivery of his points. He crossed his legs and leaned back in his chair, giving a look of comfort and coolness. His speech was full of rhetorical phrases and flourish. The frowning seriousness, and data-laden points of Nixon paled by comparison.

Our politics have since been dominated by charisma and charm: with politicians like Ronald Reagan—originally a Hollywood actor, who obviously had a natural ease with the camera—and Bill Clinton, who’s said to captivate a room almost as soon as he walks into it. These smooth, friendly personalities may also be good, thoughtful politicians. But their electability often relies more on the former than on the latter.

It’s funny to think that the Nixon-Kennedy debate could have been as election-changing as it was. When you compare it to the debates we have now, it’s exceedingly sober and serious. The candidates actually get into gritty details about the economy, and how best to help the American populace. Compare this to the regularity with which our modern debates focus on larger, more rhetorically-promising speeches about American exceptionalism, opportunity, and the “American Dream.”

Not to mention the stadium-like atmosphere, the epic background music, and the media personalities who push for controversial questions and sensational answers. There’s a cheering crowd, flashing lights, belligerent back-and-forth exchanges between debaters. And I’m pretty sure all of them wear makeup.

There are several benefits to televised debates: they help politicians connect with voters who maybe don’t pick up a newspaper on a regular basis. Debates force candidates to enunciate their ideas in high-stakes situations, occasionally revealing important flaws and logical breaks in their thinking or platforms. And they give us all the opportunity to live-tweet snarky comments to each other, which has to be one of the greatest of journalistic enjoyments.

But when we see the polls come out after televised debates, showing who people think “won” in the dynamic exchange of opinions, one can’t help wondering whether the results would be the same if people had just listened to the debates—if they were unswayed by the outfits of some, the comical or angry expressions of others. Would we pay more attention to their ideas, and less to their makeup?

Tonight’s debate will likely be another exciting show—but it will be just that, a show. And it’s important not to forget that, amidst the lights and colors and charisma, real (and dangerous) ideas still lurk.


Why Words Matter

Will Facebook eventually evolve to offer its users telepathic forms of communication? That’s founder Mark Zuckerberg’s hope, according to a Q&A session he hosted with Facebook users earlier this year. “One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full, rich thoughts to each other directly using technology,” he told them. “You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too if you’d like. This would be the ultimate communication technology.”

William Davies responded to Zuckerberg’s words over at The Atlantic on Friday, and offered some thoughts of his own on the subject:

“Brain-to-brain” communication may still be confined to university labs for the time being, but workplaces are filling up with other forms of physiological monitoring that accomplish roughly the same thing.

Lurking beneath the push toward these technologies is a relentless attack on language as unreliable and misleading. The boom in affective computing and wearables—and the various “smart” infrastructures that interface with these technologies—is driven by the promise of access “real” emotions and“real” desires, accompanied by ways of transmitting these via non-verbal codes.

Alan Jacobs added some comments of his own yesterday, first sharing a Jaron Lanier quote: “You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart. If you can have a conversation with a simulated person presented by an AI program, can you tell how far you’ve let your sense of personhood degrade in order to make the illusion work for you?”

Jacobs adds, “In this sense, the degradation of personhood is one of Facebook’s explicit goals, and Facebook will increasingly require its users to cooperate in lowering their standards of intelligence and personhood.”

Both Davies and Jacobs’s comments indicate that there is a fundamental understanding of human nature as being caught up in and intertwined with logos—the spoken and written word. Without the use of words to communicate or express ourselves, we lose something very fundamental to our natures, replacing it with a counterfeit and potentially dangerous mechanism of communication.

But why does logos matter?

First, it allows for serendipitous, individual, original expression. If you compare the writings of Joseph Conrad to those of Ernest Hemingway, or the sonnets of Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, this should be abundantly clear. These are “messy” forms of language, Nicholas Carr writes at Rough Type in response to Davies, whereas online social media “encourage people to express themselves not through messy assemblages of fuzzily defined words but through neat, formal symbols — emoticons or emoji, for instance, or Like buttons.” Yet the messy is also incalculably diverse, personal, and beautiful. It’s what culture is built upon. Its unpredictability is arguably one of its main attractive features.

Additionally, words allow for intimacy—both inner privacy, and interpersonal specificity. In the most obvious way, it allows the self to keep some thoughts private. Zuckerberg’s new mode of communication would destroy that inner barrier, and with it, an important layer of self-awareness and quiet that is integral to privacy and self knowledge.

In the realm of spoken communication, words also allow us a layer of specificity and privacy that online communication often does not. We have slowly learned that what we put on the internet is there pretty much forever. So there’s a layer of privacy removed by mere form. But even the words (or lack of words) we now use have removed layers of personal connection.  The poem gave us endless layers of depth and particularity. The sonnet, for instance, is a particular form of romantic communication. Synonyms, allegory, insides jokes, puns—all of them can actually be ways to personalize and cater your language to fit the circumstances or person you’re addressing.

Now, with emojis and emails, it seems we’ve cut a layer of intimacy and privacy out from beneath us. We use hashtags in order to make our messages as shareable, general, and popular as possible. We use acronyms and emoticons to generalize and simplify—rather than clarify and deepen—our communication. It may seem old-fashioned, but you’ll never be able to convince me that an email is as soul-touching as a handwritten letter. Emoji Dick will never be able to replace Herman Melville’s stunning lines,  “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.”

Which leads to the final point: logos allows for truth and beauty. Humans long for these things. It’s part of who we are. We are always striving for the true, the good, the beautiful. Words are uniquely suited to help us discover all three, through their combination of communication, logic, and form. Their ability to connect us obviously offers opportunity for important closeness and community—goods that we would be miserable and bereft without. But they also enable us to discover new thoughts and navigate difficult truths. Our minds are often emotional, fraught with chaos and insecurity. Words bring light to our inner doubts. They often bring comfort and solace. Through lovely, intricate, and heartfelt expression, they give us a taste of lasting beauty.

Facebook’s telepathic future (if it ever comes to pass) will never be able to replace those moments of heartfelt debate with one’s closest friends, that first time a lover is able to muster up the words “I love you,” the quiet hours with family interrupted by bursts of laughter over old, well-known jokes and memories. Words are an integral part of who we are. Why would we ever choose to stop using them?


The Humor and Candor of Stephen Colbert

There’s been a lot of fanfare over Stephen Colbert’s new “Late Show” on CBS. Many old fans of “The Colbert Report” have enthusiastically looked forward to his new show—and have wondered how different this new Colbert would be from his snarky, conservative former self.

Before the show started, Colbert gave some deeper insights into his character via a must-read interview with GQ, as well as an interesting article in the New York Times. Additionally, the Daily Beast released a preview of a video interview Colbert did with Father Thomas Rosica (media attaché to the Holy See Press Office), in which he talks more about his Catholic faith.

These glimpses have offered some important insights into the comedian, as we watch this new incarnation of the Late Show. There’s a lot of history and depth to Colbert that he seems eager to bring to the show. While his humor is still there, and it’s good, this is a much deeper, more thoughtful show than many were expecting. He has shown himself to be a thinker, someone who believes humor has a larger philosophical meaning and purpose than mere entertainment. He’s also shown himself to be someone who dislikes political stereotypes, who wants to bridge divides and bring new opportunities for conversation and connection.

The Late Show, at least thus far, has followed these themes: from its opening song, to themes of togetherness and hope scattered throughout the show. It is upbeat, perhaps even on the sappy side at times, but it’s also much deeper and more thoughtful than your average late show.

This thoughtfulness was pretty obvious in Colbert’s opening night interview with Jeb Bush: he asked interesting questions, in an occasionally-funny-but-mostly-serious way. He got Bush to talk about the differences between him and his brother, asked him what unique talents he’d be able to bring to the White House. The mentions of Trump later in their interview were obviously on the more silly side—and they actually were some of the few moments in which Bush seemed to break out of his shell and become more interesting. But overall, Colbert was serious. He had a purpose. As many have been saying, he’s establishing himself as an important voice for 2016.

The nuance, depth, and thoughtfulness continued with Colbert’s Thursday night interview with Vice President Joe Biden. They spent much of the time talking about Biden’s relationship with his son Beau, who passed away earlier this year. They then discussed Biden’s Catholic faith, and how it has comforted him in his grief. A discussion of whether Biden might run for president was included, but it was thoughtful and discrete. Biden told Colbert,

I don’t think any man or woman should run for president unless, number one, they know exactly why they would want to be president. Two, they can look at the folks out there and say, ‘I promise you have my whole heart, my whole soul, energy, and my passion to do this.’ And I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there. I’m being completely honest.

Colbert replied, “I know it’s an emotional decision for you to make, but it’s going to be an emotional decision for a lot of people if you don’t run. And sir, I just want to say that I think your experience and your example of suffering and service is something that would be sorely missed in the race.”

Then, on Friday evening, Jimmy Fallon interviewed Donald Trump.

Now, Fallon is younger than Colbert, and incredibly goofy. His silly and good-natured personality really drives the spirit of his show. To start the night, Jimmy Fallon dressed up as Trump—complete with wig, red tie, pin, the duck lips, a bit of a spray tan. “I’m like a Greek god that just took a bath in a pumpkin spice latte,” he noted.

He and Trump sat on either side of a fake mirror, and had a conversation with each other—or, supposedly, Trump was having a conversation with himself.

“How are you going to create jobs in this country?” Fallon-as-Trump asked.

“I’m just going to do it.”

“Right—but how?”

“By doing it. It just happens.”

“Genius,” said Fallon. “You, and therefore me, are geniuses.”

Later on, the two sat down more seriously—Fallon behind his desk, Trump on his left, and talked about politics. Fallon noted that, despite the laughter and disbelief that characterized early days of Trump’s campaign, he’s now the Republican frontrunner. “When did it become real—was it always real?” Fallon asked.

“My wife always said to me, ‘If you run, you will win,'” Trump replied. “People in this country are tired of getting ripped off. … I’m an efficient guy, I’ve built a great company … and this is the kind of mindset we need in this country. We need to become rich again, and we need to become great again.”

Fallon seemed to have a hard time with Trump—he was fair and friendly, kept the conversation light and funny, but at times also seemed confused about how to react to or speak with the charismatic businessman. After asking Trump, “What do you think you’re doing that they’re [other GOP candidates] aren’t doing?” Trump began talking about how people thought he’d do a better job… that there was a “movement” going on… that he was regularly filling arenas and speaking to sold-out crowds… by the time he finished, Fallon laughed and said he couldn’t even remember what question he’d asked.

“Have you ever apologized? Ever? In your lifetime?” Fallon asked. “When you were little Donny Trump, did you ever apologize?”

“I think apologizing is a great thing, but you have to be wrong,” Trump replied. He noted his comments on illegal immigration earlier this year, and the upheaval caused by that—and added, “eventually it turned out I was right.” The audience responded with confused, embarrassed laughter… what sounded like a “boo” on the part of some, perhaps.

But Trump was completely in control for the entire interview. He dominated. Fallon seemed like he wanted to perhaps take the conversation deeper, but it was difficult for him to do so. Trump is just as much an entertainer as Fallon. He’s used to the camera, and used to dominating it.

Watching this right after Biden’s conversation with Colbert was fascinating. Because it revealed two ways of doing late night television, and the four different personalities reflected in the two interviews. Fallon is incredibly talented, but he doesn’t have Colbert’s maturity or political seriousness. His show is entirely focused on making people laugh, and he’s good at it—whereas, at least thus far, Colbert is trying to do something a little different. Still funny, but different.

Yet it’s difficult to know whether Colbert would have had more success with Trump. I can’t help but hope that—as we get closer to 2016—he will talk to Trump, and if he can, bring to that conversation the same seriousness and intentionality that has characterized his show thus far. Because the conversation he had with Biden was rare in today’s political climate: it delved deep. And while much of that had to do with Biden’s willingness to be vulnerable and honest, it also speaks to the skill and care Colbert will bring to his new job.

 Tagged , , , , , , . 15 comments

Looking for Calvin Coolidge

I’m currently reading Garland Tucker’s book Conservative Heroesrecently reviewed for TAC by Thomas Woods—and happened upon this interesting thought in the chapter on Calvin Coolidge’s conservative legacy:

Coolidge began his political career in the waning days of Lord Salisbury’s career and developed a philosophy of government similar to that of the British prime minister. Salisbury often compared the English nation to a boat being carried downriver, with the function of a wise government being “merely to put out an oar when there is any danger of its drifting into the bank.” Paul Johnson has noted that Coolidge practiced a policy of “masterly inaction.” The historian Amity Shlaes agrees, writing in her Coolidge biography: “Most presidents place faith in action; the modern presidency is perpetual motion. Coolidge made virtue of inaction.”

Many contemporaries underestimated Coolidge as a politician and a president. They mistook his restraint and inaction for weakness. Coolidge realized: “The people know the difference between pretense and reality. They want to be told the truth. They want to be trusted. They want a chance to work out their own material and spiritual salvation. The people want a government of common sense.”

Walter Lippman, a leading political commentator of the day, wrote perceptively during Coolidge’s presidency: “Mr. Coolidge’s genius for inactivity is developed to a very high point. It is far from being an indolent activity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity which keeps Mr. Coolidge occupied constantly.” A key to understanding Coolidge’s philosophy of intentional inaction lies in the advice he once gave to Herbert Hoover: “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you, and you have to battle with only one of them.” Coolidge was consistently a minimalist, very much in line with Jefferson’s and Madison’s early writings on limited government and strict constructionism.

It seems that we’ve abandoned this idea of cautious executive power—or at least, it seems that the majority of the American populace has. We’ve lost an appreciation for prudence, and the accompanying slowness of movement that it necessitates. People complain constantly (and often rightly) about Washington gridlock—but forget to look with alarm on the growing consolidation and centralization of our various branches of government, particularly the executive branch. They call constantly upon their favorite brand of politicians to “do something,” to “bring change”—and seem open to the most radical of measures, if only those measures swing the pendulum in the direction they desire. They forget that Russell Kirk once wrote the following in his 10 conservative principles:

Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.

Of course, it’s difficult to see how any president could be successful at embracing a policy of prudence and watchful “inaction,” as Coolidge did, in today’s world: there is an entrenched Washington bureaucracy that acts with terrible swiftness and independence, a Congress fraught with schisms and belligerent battles. Any president that tried to stand still and push back the flood would be likely to drown, right? Could we ever have a modern Grover Cleveland—a man who vetoed 584 bills over his two terms as president (still a standing record for any eight-year presidency, according to Tucker)?

It seems unlikely, at least in part because our populace is unlikely to push for doggedly restrained reform. As mentioned above, the clamoring call of the day is for a president who will “do something”—though what, exactly, is often unclear. For Republicans, it seems they just want someone who will do the opposite of what Obama’s done, though they don’t have an articulate understanding of what that might be. In supporting a politician like Trump, many are choosing to replace one overreaching, energetic executive with another.  They can’t—or won’t—consider the importance of a prudent or minimalist president, a politician who makes a “virtue of inactivity” and a policy of “alert inaction.”

Coolidge wrote about an American populace who “want to be told the truth … The people want a government of common sense.” But do we still have that? Do we still have an electorate who want to be told the truth—or do they want to be told their truth, the version of reality that they find most compatible with their worldview? Do we still want common sense—or do we want entertainment, as Nicholas Carr argued for Politico?

It is, of course, a mixed bag. But it does seem that we’ve been wooed by the rhetoric of progressive, energetic presidents—and that we’ve forgotten there might be another way to be president: a more restrained, quiet way. A way that emphasizes what the president should not do, as well as what he ought to do.

The question is—what would that president even look like? And would he be successful in the Washington we have today? Could a modern Calvin Coolidge fight the Leviathan of centralized government we have today?


Looking for Mr. or Mrs. “Right”

When my future husband was in high school, a couple of his siblings asked him what sort of girl he liked. What hair color, eye color, height, or personality did he have in mind? What did he want his future girlfriend to be like?

He told them that he didn’t know, and didn’t really have a list of things in mind. When they kept prompting him, he finally admitted that he thought he might prefer a brunette. But that was it.

A lot of people have relationship checklists—but their long list of criteria can be a problem, according to Aziz Ansari’s new book Modern Romance. In her review of the book for Verily Magazine, Julia Hogan considers the pitfalls of Mr. or Mrs. “Right” list-making:

It’s easy to reduce potential dates to items on a checklist, and, when one criterion doesn’t match up, we move on to the next option. With so many options available through online dating and dating apps, it seems logical that if we keep looking long enough, we will find the absolute perfect match. … [But] passing on a relationship with someone who doesn’t meet all of your criteria could mean that you miss out on a great relationship. Cristina’s story is one of a woman with an extensive list of criteria for her “perfect” match: athletic, type A, overachiever, highly intellectual, disciplined, well-established in a career, family-oriented, and spiritual. So when she met her now-fiancé, Aaron, and he didn’t fulfill all of her criteria, she was forced to reevaluate. In fact, some of his qualities were different from the ones she had on her list, such as his laid-back personality and the fact that he was just getting started in his career.

She says, “I had a revelation when my mom said, ‘I think Aaron is great for you because he balances you out so well.’ It dawned on me that without realizing it, my characteristics for an ideal man were really a perfect description of myself.” With that realization, Cristina shifted from a checklist mentality to seeing how she and her fiancé complemented each other. She says, “If I had kept trying to check off all the qualities on my list, I’d probably still be out there searching.”

The story made me wonder how many people out there I knew (people who’d been married for decades, especially) had assembled “checklists” during their dating years. An informal Facebook poll revealed some interesting patterns: almost all of them had a “list” of sorts—but the lists were short, abstract, and flexible. They also followed parallel themes:

First, beliefs and virtues mattered. This was usually the first thing on their list. Was the person in question religious? If so, how sincere and committed were they to their faith? A lot of people I am friends with on Facebook are religious, but I would guess that secular people would have similar priorities—because belief systems, be they religious or secularized, inform our virtues, our characters, and our outlooks on life. Any specific virtues listed were usually along the lines of integrity / sincerity, loyalty, and gentleness / kindness. Basically—someone who would tell the truth, wouldn’t cheat, and would be nice to people. 

Second, looks mattered—though perhaps not in the way you may think. The people who responded didn’t have a specific physical “type,” or try to define one. A couple women said they wanted someone “goodlooking and strong,” or “tall and lanky.” One man said he wanted a woman with “good legs.” Physical attraction obviously mattered—but they knew better than to put together a checklist of physical attributes, trying to determine the perfect “look.” Ansari says that when he set up dummy online dating profiles for his writing project, he posted specifics on who he was looking for: someone “a little younger than me, small, with dark hair.” But then he realized that in reality, his girlfriend was “two years older, about my height—OKAY, SLIGHTLY TALLER—and blond. She wouldn’t have made it through the filters I placed in my online dating profile.”

Third, family mattered. For most people, though not all, this was an additional item on their “list”: they wanted a person who 1) respected their family and treated them well, 2) respected their date’s family and treated them well, and/or 3) someone who was ready to settle down and raise a family. These stipulations convey an important point: we are more ourselves—for good or ill—around our relatives. Additionally, the way we treat our own (and other’s) loved ones is often a good demonstration of the respect, kindness, and deference we’ll show to people in general. The third item is obviously more important to some than others—but if you’re dating seriously, with a future spouse in mind, it seems like a good thing to consider.

These people weren’t trying to find a chick flick hero or heroine. They didn’t have any stipulations or conditions re: someone’s quirks, income, hobbies, “life goals,” or intellectual finesse. Of course, I’m sure there were times when some uncompromisable annoyance or difference along these lines kept them from pursuing a relationship further. But it didn’t keep them from dating—and it didn’t keep them from eventually sticking with a married partner.

A final thought: when I was younger, I remember starting to think through my own checklist. But I only got halfway through before a thought struck me: “What if there’s a guy out there who I’m going to date—or marry—someday, and he’s making a list of qualifications for me?” It was a rather terrifying thought. I decided then and there that I should just worry about my own virtues and vices, annoying quirks and silly habits, rather than trying to judge someone else’s.

(And yes—I am a brunette.)


A Whole New News?

Nicholas Carr believes the internet is changing our political discourse—and for the worse. With news increasingly transmitted to us via social media, we’re beginning to prize the “bitty over the meaty, the cutting over the considered”:

Twice before in the last hundred years a new medium has transformed elections. In the 1920s, radio disembodied candidates, reducing them to voices. It also made national campaigns far more intimate. Politicians, used to bellowing at fairgrounds and train depots, found themselves talking to families in their homes. The blustery rhetoric that stirred big, partisan crowds came off as shrill and off-putting when piped into a living room or a kitchen. Gathered around their wireless sets, the public wanted an avuncular statesman, not a firebrand. With Franklin Roosevelt, master of the soothing fireside chat, the new medium found its ideal messenger.

In the 1960s, television gave candidates their bodies back, at least in two dimensions. With its jumpy cuts and pitiless close-ups, TV placed a stress on sound bites, good teeth and an easy manner. Image became everything, as the line between politician and celebrity blurred. John Kennedy was the first successful candidate of the TV era, but it was Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton who perfected the form. Born actors, they could project a down-home demeanor while also seeming bigger than life.

Today, with the public looking to smartphones for news and entertainment, we seem to be at the start of the third big technological makeover of modern electioneering. The presidential campaign is becoming just another social-media stream, its swift and shallow current intertwining with all the other streams that flow through people’s devices. This shift is changing the way politicians communicate with voters, altering the tone and content of political speech. But it’s doing more than that. It’s changing what the country wants and expects from its would-be leaders.

What’s important now is not so much image as personality. But, as the Trump phenomenon reveals, it’s only a particular kind of personality that works—one that’s big enough to grab the attention of the perpetually distracted but small enough to fit neatly into a thousand tiny media containers. It might best be described as a Snapchat personality. It bursts into focus at regular intervals without ever demanding steady concentration.

Noah Millman wrote along these lines yesterday for TAC, noting that his Facebook feed is often dominated by outrage porn and viral stories, rather than by serious reflection or political thought. “Outrage porn is clearly a very popular genre—and that popularity ensures that it will continue to proliferate,” he says.

Its popularity—and perhaps also its platform? Carr’s argument is very reminiscent of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, in that he clearly believes the medium is affecting the message (and the message’s recipients) to a transformational degree. It’s not just that social media users tend to share more sensational, click-baity sorts of stories—it’s that both our technology and its apps foster that sort of sharing.

Algorithms often put the sensational, short, and shareable at the forefront of our attention. Twitter and Facebook foster a desire amongst users for the collecting of shares and likes—it’s about quantity, not quality. Because posts are many, and news feed visibility is limited (especially on Twitter), users have to push the above three elements in order to get sustained attention.

Social media has also affected way in which we use language, David Auerbach argued for Slate Tuesday. He turns to philosopher Ludwig von Wittgenstein to demonstrate the crucial role context and place play in the way we speak and use language:

The shift to online communication, textual interactions separated from accompanying physical practices, has had a persistent and egregious warping effect on language, and one that most people don’t even understand. It has made linguistic practice more limited, more universal, and more ambiguous. More people interact with one another without even realizing they are following different rules for words’ usages. There is no time or space to clarify one’s self—especially on Twitter.

It is this phenomenon that has affected political and ethical discourse in particular. To take some hot-button issues, use of the words privilege and feminism and racism is so hopelessly contentious that it’s not even worth asking for a definition—even if you get one, no one else will agree with it. In situations where misuse can get you savaged on the Internet, I’ve simply stopped using a word. Let me know when everyone else has worked it out.

Auerbach’s observations fit well with Carr’s, as well as with Millman’s: all three see a modern political discourse that is broken by a lack of physicality and shared context, as well as by a focus on charisma and emotion over content. Social media encourages generalities and big-picture terms, rather than nitty-gritty considerations of data or thoughtful, prolonged discourse. The lack of shared context and clarity leads to a mess of confusion and indignation, furthering the outrage porn and rampant vitriol we find online. People want a Donald Trump vs. Megyn Kelly fight—not a sustained, complicated consideration of tax reform and immigration policy.

Is this what 2016 will look like—a mess of politicians bombarding their voters with Twitter battles, Instagram selfies, Snapchat updates, and Youtube videos? Everyone fighting to have the loudest voice and largest personality?

If Carr is right, our methods of reading and sharing news almost guarantee it. Millman, too, seems to convey a sense of inevitability: “outrage is a kind of drug,” he writes, one that fosters an addictive cycle. And during a presidential campaign, there’s usually plenty of things to get outraged about.

But it could be that a deeper understanding and wariness of the way our news works could help cut through the sensationalism and sound bites. Those who observe the way media works on their minds and emotions are better able to then cut through the nonsense, and fight for the thoughtful. Auerbach shares a pertinent Wittgenstein quote: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

In the age of Twitter tantrums and Facebook fear-mongering, it seems this is the very battle we will fight.


How to Keep the Millennials

Arlington has become the place to live, if you’re a millennial, reports Patricia Sullivan for the Washington Post. Census numbers show that young adults between 25 and 34 years of age make up more than a fourth of the city’s population.

What draws them to Arlington? There’s the luxury apartments, millennial-friendly Whole Foods, the city’s “yoga boom,” its plethora of local bars and restaurants. There’s also an abundance of trails and easy metro access into D.C. But as the millennials grow up and start having babies, all the consumer goods that drew them to Arlington may not be enough to keep them there:

As millennials have children, their priorities expand to include good schools and family-friendly neighborhoods. A condo or townhouse can suddenly seem too small, and a bigger place in the same neighborhood may be too pricey.

Six in 10 surveyed Arlington residents between the ages of 25 to 34 told the county’s affordable-housing study group last year that it’s somewhat likely or very likely that they will move out of the county within five years because of housing costs.

… Historically, young adults have moved into Arlington starting around age 20 and left for other suburbs in large numbers once they reach their early 30s.

… Elizabeth Hardy, Arlington’s planner and demographer, said the county is planning a study of whether the out-migration of Arlington’s 30-somethings will continue. “Once we have an understanding of the factors that cause people to come or go, we could address how to keep them here,” she said.

This is a dilemma that the entire D.C. metro area seems to struggle with. The city is known for being transitory, a place whose political nature encourages a sort of temporary atmosphere. People come and go, and it’s difficult for any distinct culture to develop around anything excepting politics. Young people, especially, tend to migrate out of the city once they begin to develop a desire for roots. And who can blame them? Not only is housing exorbitantly expensive in the metro area—it is also difficult to build community in a place where people are so often moving and rootless.

Alexandria is perhaps one well-known exception to this rule: its history, rich local community, and vibrant urban fabric has helped to keep a distinctive—and permanent—culture alive. It is the second most millennial-populated city in the metro area, according to Sullivan’s article, yet it also boasts a diverse array of ages and ethnicities. The millennials I know who’ve come to Alexandria are determined to stay, if they can. Yet they face the same housing prices, the same tight-space issues, that those in Arlington face. What convinces them to stay?

The main difference between Alexandria and Arlington seems to be that the former has developed a community of stickers: people who love Alexandria for its own sake, and stay if it is at all in their power to do so. They’ll deal with the cramped spaces and high costs, because they love the city and believe it is a neighborhood and community worth treasuring.

Arlington, however, has developed a culture of boomers: people who circulate according to the jobs available, housing costs, and their time of life. While that isn’t necessarily bad in the short-term, it does create long-term consequences—it means that while Alexandria has rich local traditions and a strong fabric of community, Arlington struggles to develop these things. Its “culture” is a bit more commercial, reliant on trends and fashions. It’s built itself into a different sort of community hub, but it’s one almost exclusively for singles and young couples.

The difference between the two cities may also stem from the fact that Arlington is a bit more sprawling, without a defined historic center that draws community and commerce in the way Alexandria does. The heart of Alexandria still seems to draw people together: it’s not just a place for tourists, but also a hub for arts and commerce, community events and family outings. This helps people connect in a meaningful and lasting fashion. But Arlington’s downtown mainly consists of commercial areas: Clarendon, Courthouse, Rosslyn, as well as Pentagon City and Crystal City. These areas offer a variety of shops, restaurants, bakeries, a couple bookstores, some nice parks—but they are also populated with traffic-laden roads, imposing glass and concrete buildings, sterile sidewalks. They aren’t necessarily beautiful, walkable, or quiet, in the way Alexandria is.

It’s worth considering how to make the millennials stay in Arlington: both for the millennials’ sakes, and for Arlington’s. It is difficult to build a lasting community when you constantly have to uproot yourself and move to a more affordable place—and if that place is the suburbs, it may present other difficulties for these young people, as well. Meanwhile, cities like Arlington need to figure out ways to build this rich heritage and community fabric: it develops their commerce, gives them a more vibrant local culture, encourages a more diverse and connected populace. These are the sorts of things that help a city last.



Following in the Footsteps

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset
Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

On Wednesday morning, I woke up and started making coffee. I checked our website, and saw Rod’s beautiful blogpost about the passing of his father. You can see in his writing the love and joy, coupled with heart-melting grief, that makes the death of a Christian so beautifully painful. We hate their absence, yet are joyful for them. We know they are tasting better things than anything this world has given them.

As I smelled the coffee, took in the morning light, I remembered that it was this exact time last year when my grandmother was dying—when we were gathered around her bedside, spending our last days with her.

As I reflected on the year that has past, I could see that her death has in many ways changed me—encouraged me to make hard decisions, ones that are life-altering and even frightening. I’ve been trying to live in a way that would delight her and give her joy, if she were still here. It’s easier for me to live in a mode of independence—shirking all unnecessary commitments and relationships, sinking into work, spending my free hours in solitude—than it is for me to embrace family with open arms, make myself vulnerable, reach out to those I don’t know or understand as I ought, open my life to new loves, obligations.

It’s been a year of trying to emulate her virtues, and it’s been difficult. To be a hostess on an Elaine level is no easy task. I think it will take me a lifetime to learn her art, the effortless way in which she blessed through food and drink, beauty and rest. As of now, I often feel that I’m following the forms, without quite capturing the spirit. But this is, I’m reminded, how spiritual discipline often works, as well: we say the prayers, even when we don’t feel them or understand them with all the crispness and beauty and devotion that we ought. We start with form, and grow in grace. The virtues of comfort, grace, sweetness, and service threaded through her life. It seemed effortless, but I am sure it was not. After all, was she not also a quiet and independent person, oftentimes? Private and thoughtful, slow to share her feelings? I think she must have grown in it, too.

Earlier this week, I read David Brooks’s column about how we make big decisions—life-altering ones. How do we know whether something so transformative and challenging will give us joy? How do we decide to pursue it? At the end, he suggests a method:

We’re historical creatures. We have inherited certain life scripts from evolution and culture, and there’s often a lot of wisdom in following those life scripts. We’re social creatures. Often we undertake big transformational challenges not because it fulfills our desires, but because it is good for our kind.

… Most important, we’re moral creatures. When faced with a transformational choice the weakest question may be, What do I desire? Our desires change all the time. The strongest questions may be: Which path will make me a better person? Will joining the military give me more courage? Will becoming a parent make me more capable of selfless love?

… Which brings us to the core social point. These days we think of a lot of decisions as if they were shopping choices. When we’re shopping for something, we act as autonomous creatures who are looking for the product that will produce the most pleasure or utility. But choosing to have a child or selecting a spouse, faith or life course is not like that. It’s probably safer to ask “What do I admire?” than “What do I want?”

What do I admire? Or rather, who do I admire? When making tough life choices, I find myself reckoning by the history I know. I call to mind the lives that have guided and loved me. And when I begin to shake in my shoes with the enormity of commitments, potential failures, unknowable transformations, I think of those saints who’ve shaped and blessed me in the past. Motherhood, for instance, is a frightening thought: a whole new world of commitment, challenge, potential failure. But I think of my mother—the professional ballerina who hung up her pointe shoes and settled into family life without a regret. I think of my grandmother, resting back in her armchair, watching her living room swarm with children and children-in-law, myriads of grandchildren young and old, all the voices warm with laughter and conversation. And I remember the sweet, joyous smile on her face.

Life scripts. They guide us. Rod found himself beckoned home through the life script of his sister, Ruthie. Despite all the challenges, he has found opportunities to bless and grow in that community. In this year, I’ve found myself increasingly guided by the life script of my grandmother. Her absence has left a gaping hole in my heart, in many ways—a yearning for her, and a yearning for what lies beyond. But there’s also a new resolve in my heart, to follow in the footsteps of the giants who’ve come before me, to grow in grace, and to always ask that question: who do I admire, and how can I emulate them?

Post a comment

Beware the Crusaders

Frank Bruni wrote a forceful column against evangelical Christians voting for Trump on Monday. It’s worth reading the entire thing, but here’s an excerpt:

Let me get this straight. If I want the admiration and blessings of the most flamboyant, judgmental Christians in America, I should marry three times, do a queasy-making amount of sexual boasting, verbally degrade women, talk trash about pretty much everyone else while I’m at it, encourage gamblers to hemorrhage their savings in casinos bearing my name and crow incessantly about how much money I’ve amassed?

Seems to work for Donald Trump.

Polls show him to be the preferred candidate among not just all Republican voters but also the party’s vocal evangelical subset.

He’s more beloved than Mike Huckabee, a former evangelical pastor, or Ted Cruz, an evangelical pastor’s son, or Scott Walker, who said during the recent Republican debate: “It’s only by the blood of Jesus Christ that I’ve been redeemed.”

… What’s different and fascinating about the Trump worship is that he doesn’t even try that hard for a righteous facade — for Potemkin piety. Sure, he speaks of enthusiastic churchgoing, and he’s careful to curse Planned Parenthood and to insist that matrimony be reserved for heterosexuals as demonstrably inept at it as he is.

But beyond that? He just about runs the table on the seven deadly sins. He personifies greed, embodies pride, radiates lust. Wrath is covered by his anti-immigrant, anti-“losers” rants, and if we interpret gluttony to include big buildings and not just Big Macs, he’s a glutton through and through. That leaves envy and sloth. I’m betting that he harbors plenty of the former, though I’ll concede that he exhibits none of the latter.

… I must not be watching the same campaign that his evangelical fans are, because I don’t see someone interested in serving God. I see someone interested in being God.

Trump’s widespread and enthusiastic following, along with his near-incessant domination of the news lately, has baffled me as well—considering his record and bombastic comments. Yet if this article from the Daily Caller is correct, then nothing seems to be able to stand in Trump’s way… not even his very un-conservative past.

Seeking answers, I’ve been trying to pull the pattern together. Slowly, conversations and news interviews begin to reveal that pattern: I’ve heard and read that Trump is different, refreshingly so. He doesn’t deal in the regular political BS. He’s not perfect, but no politician is. He’s not right on a lot of things, but on the things he gets right, he would actually get stuff done. People just want someone who will be a “fighter.”

Yet these people may fall into the trap of supporting someone merely because he seems refreshing, straightforward, and different. In doing so, they forget that the devil is truly in the details. They get so captivated by the simplicity, they refuse to look for the snares.

The reasons for not supporting Trump have seemed obvious on the face of it—he’s not really a conservative, by any measure of the word. Yet I’ve learned that his lack of conservatism does not deter everyone—because he’s different, refreshing, promises to get things done. He promises to overturn the Washington gridlock that people so thoroughly detest. And it’s definitely a tempting thought, isn’t it? Everyone hates Washington stagnation, the way nothing gets done, the way reform constantly gets stalled. It’s maddening.

But we must consider what a president is supposed to be—and why Trump is not suited for that office. Beyond issues of gentlemanliness, decorum, and diplomacy—skills in which he’s sadly lacking—Trump also lacks a necessary humility and appreciation of limits. The executive branch of our government is not meant to be dictatorial; the president is not supposed to be able to initiate top-down reforms according to his every whim and fancy. We need a president who respects the balance of powers put in place. We need a president who understands what his constitutional constraints are, and respects them. Do we really think Trump would be that man? There are few constraints he seems willing to respect. He’s more of a steamroller than he is a preserver or upholder.

Sometimes I think we like crusaders a little too much. We like their charisma and power, the way they promise to make all things right. We may not agree with everything they say, but at least they say it well. At least they promise to move us in a direction, to prevent us from sinking into stasis—or into quicksand. But action and power should never be praised for their own sakes. When a character such as Trump avows that he has changed from his more liberal days—yet says and does nothing to explain such a substantial transformation—it seems best to distrust him. Especially when he’s running for the most powerful and precarious office in the nation.

I don’t think that Christians should just vote for a Christian because they’re Christian. Just because Trump isn’t a virtuous candidate doesn’t mean we need to vote for Ben Carson or Ted Cruz, both of whom have a more thoroughly Christian background. But neither do I think we should ignore the moral characteristics of the candidates, or dismiss that consideration lightly.

Additionally, we must consider how our desire for “simplicity” may, in fact, have damaging repercussions for our larger witness to a hurting and broken world. There are people out there who can’t skip over the details, who can’t ignore the everyday realities that Trump may dismiss with a wave of his hand. There are people for whom the mass deportation of illegal immigrants would have immediate, painful, even tragic results. This doesn’t mean that we don’t consider things from a careful policy perspective. It doesn’t mean that we reject important reforms just because they’re painful. But it does mean that we bring a needed seriousness, grace, and concern to the conversation. It means that we don’t just embrace the funny, charismatic, easy-solution candidate. Rather, it should urge us to seek out as much information as possible. It should force us to research deeply, talk with a diverse set of people, ponder carefully the possibilities set before us. It should in fact turn us away from sound bites, not toward them.


Is Our Curation Bad?

Miya Tokumitsu explores the meaning and implications of curation in her new TNR article:

… The qualifier “curated,” begins to appear with increasing frequency in published books in the early 1970s, precisely during the era of post-war economic liberalization andThe ‘Me’ Decade, during which, according to Tom Wolfe, it became acceptable and good to spend time “…polishing one’s very self…and observing, studying, and doting on it.” (Indeed, in this passage, Wolfe describes the self as akin to a museum object.) The appearance of “curated” in print tracks steadily upward during the individualist, body-sculpting, self-improving, “no such thing as society” 1980s. The great value placed on the individual as the only valid social institution naturally elevated the consequence of previously quotidian things generated by the simple act of living, like lists and opinions. These things began to be worthy of the same white-gloved treatment and cultural esteem once reserved for fine art.

Essential to personalization is the aura of control. Curation of the commonplace not only elevates preference but also implies a sense of order that is determined by the individual. It imparts a sense of self-determination and dominant power much in the manner of 401-k investment portfolios and small-business entrepreneurship. Under neoliberalism, every individual is his own capitalist, his own world-maker. “Freedom” isn’t security in a just society, but the ability to shop—for a healthcare plan on market exchanges, for primary schooling, for stocks in your retirement plan (if you’re lucky enough to have one of those). We’re all masters of our tiny, curated realms.

Tokumitsu considers the ways in which self-curation have become incredibly commonplace on websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The curation of the common, meanwhile, can be easily seen on platforms such as Pinterest, Tumblr, and Spotify. You may pin great works of art to your Pinterest board, or listen to Bach on Spotify, but most users find these tools useful to collect blog recipes, home and garden decor ideas, or to discover new pop singles or indie hits.

As the above passage probably hints at, Tokumitsu does not look kindly on our modern patterns of curation—indeed, she writes that “In bestowing great importance to ‘just picking stuff,’ curation in its contemporary, ecumenical sense reinforces many of the personal values promoted by neoliberalism: atomized individualism, the thrall of personalization, aestheticized control, and, of course, consumption-as-authenticity.”

But people have always been curators of the common and quotidian. Before Pinterest, people put together scrapbooks in the 1800s and 1900s, cutting out their favorite images from magazines. Before Spotify, music book publishers put together favorite song collections for performance at social gatherings. Others compiled abridged renditions of classic or popular books for curious readers. And one can’t forget that the personal library is one of the oldest and most widespread methods of curation we’ve used over the centuries.

The main difference, of course, is that private curation used to be exactly that: private. Unless you were a celebrity, your favorite music, book, and style collections were not of interest to the general public. You may have had a wide collection of recipes, gathered from relatives, old friends, and cookbooks—but you wouldn’t have means (or usually desire) to share them with the world. What internet and social media have done are to take our private collections, and make them globally shareable. Tokumitsu writes,

The personalization and creativity connoted by today’s popular understanding of curation also relate to the projection of certain kind of authenticity [sic]—one that is publicly visible and determined by consumption. Hence the eager embrace of “curation” within the spheres of social media and retail shopping. These are the arenas in which we can most easily construct microcosms and publicly projected pastiches of our selves, structured entirely by our own preferences.

Despite the problems with widespread curation, there is also a real need for people to provide such services in the midst of massive creation. Every day, we face an incessant outpouring of news, music, books, and fashions. Within those categories, there are numerous genres, trends, beats, preferences. It is often necessary to help people navigate these swaths of information. The best way to do this, it would seem, would be to provide the populace with knowledgeable experts (and/or enthusiastic amateurs) who can choose worthwhile pieces of information for their attention.

This is what the news is supposed to do, although the growing popularity of preference-based news—picking and choosing who and what you read according to your own personal agenda—is rapidly changing the way in which we read and curate media. If you’re a staunch Tea Party Republican, you may watch Fox News. If you’re an east coast liberal city dweller, you may read Vox. But few will regularly get their news from both. (I should note that many TAC readers break such stereotypes, and enjoy reading what they don’t agree with. I’m always thankful for their input on this and other blogs.)

Tokumitsu makes an important point about the role our desire for control plays in modern curation. This would especially ring true in the obvious self-curation of such platforms as Facebook and Instagram—but it’s also true that all curation contributes to our public persona, the way people perceive us. The fashions and recipes you put on Pinterest, the bizarre tunes you may listen to on Spotify—people begin to see you according to your tastes. The stakes are higher when all curation is public. And this is why, it would seem, we begin curating ourselves: hiding the aspects of ourselves we fear won’t be accepted, ignoring the things we don’t like or agree with, filling our lives instead with all the pretty, affirmative, “nice” things that are most likely to garner support from the people in our social circles.

But truly objective curation can be a gift, when used not for the promulgation of the curator’s persona, but rather for the larger goal of promoting the beautiful, thoughtful, or good. If Tumblr isn’t just a place to make ourselves look cool or creative, but rather a place to conserve or share lovely and useful things, then it serves a good purpose. If Spotify isn’t just a place where you listen to music you want others to see you listening to, but rather a place where you savor treasures old and new, it avoids the pitfalls that Tokumitsu is identifying.

When we curate lists, Pinterest boards, playlists, or other things publicly, it would seem that at least one important question we should ask ourselves is this: are we more concerned about how this or that item makes us look, or about the item itself? Sometimes the best test of such a question is to make our curation completely private, and to see if we delight in it to the same extent that we did before.



The Scarlet Letter and Ashley Madison

Many people had no idea Ashley Madison, a “dating website marketed at would-be adulterers,” existed before this week. Now, they’re not likely to forget it. The site’s hacking has resulted in the release of information from 32 million users of the site. As these users’ emails—and thus, their identities—have come to light, a manhunt has begun.

The site’s very existence seems rather odd, at least at first glance: who would give their personal information to a website publicly set up to help you cheat on your spouse? It seems the risk is hardly worth taking. It seems some, at least, would fear that their membership would come back to haunt them.

But while it’s impossible to know exactly why so many signed up for Ashley Madison accounts—with their work emails, no less—one can imagine that there was an extent to which the website’s mere existence, its promise of a sheltering and complicit community, soothed many consciences.

Because that’s what Ashley Madison did: it organized and fostered a community around cheating. We speak of the importance of private associations, their ability to inculcate habits of virtue. But here, we see the opposite: we see an association fostering and even facilitating vice. And this is the dark side of community that we forget about: we forget that peer support and approval will motivate us to do things we may otherwise have avoided—or at least felt guilty about.

But in the past several days, in the massive manhunt for guilty parties, we see a social ethic of truth and moral indignation (tinged by revenge and a lust for sensationalism) engulf Ashley Madison’s community of complicity. Across the globe, people are searching for names they know. Journalists are seeking out the well-known, eager to bring them to justice. One such person is Josh Duggar—a lobbyist for the Family Research Council, whose conservative Christian family starred on TLC’s now-cancelled “19 Kids and Counting” show. It’s bad enough to see political and military emails starring with such frequency in the files hacked from Ashley Madison. But to see a man whose vocation was to defend and promote conservative family values amongst them is definitely saddening.

The whole episode reminds me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter—a book whose community may seem like the opposite of Ashley Madison’s. Yet they are not entirely different: Hawthorne’s Puritan town casts out Hester Prynne because she has a child out of wedlock—yet unbeknownst to them, the father of her child is the town minister. While Hester continues to live on the outskirts of town, viewed with disdain or suspicion, Dimmesdale is revered and loved by many. When the truth finally comes out, they are shocked. The New England town has its own comfortable vices, which it condones or overlooks because they’re held in common. Solidarity can foster vice, as well as virtue—in this case, the continued maltreatment and punishment of a single mother.

This week, I shared a Mere Orthodoxy blogpost from Alastair Roberts, in which he compares our online community to a Jane Austen village: both, he wrote, have a propensity to become echo chambers, affirming our vices and encouraging us in typical forms of behavior. Both urge us to pick up our pitchforks and castigate the unpopular or disliked, when the opportunity presents itself.

Here, too, we see the village venom brewing. The Puritan’s judgment of Hester and corresponding ignorance of Dimmesdale isn’t so far removed from our own eagerness to eschew Josh Duggar and his Ashley Madison compatriots, coupled with our desire to overlook other moral woes simmering beneath our societal surface. It’s always easier to pick out and publicly shame the cheaters and adulterers than it is to look at the vices within.

This isn’t to say that the Ashley Madison users shouldn’t receive some scrutiny—especially those who have put themselves in the public eye, and are therefore subject to public accountability.

But I can’t help but wonder what is spurring on this massive investigation into Ashley Madison users: is it a desire for justice, for public accountability? Is it a desire for sensationalism, for tawdry details to come to light? Or is it a desire for self-satisfaction, for an opportunity to shake our heads at those naughty and stupid people who used the dating website?

I’m sure all of the above feelings are involved in the exposures going on. And I can’t help but think of Dimmesdale, hiding beneath the surface of his town’s consternation. It makes me wonder—in the midst of our public outcry over the obvious and embarrassing, what hidden sins are we forgetting, or choosing to forget?


How to Escape the Echo Chamber

Ever felt a sense of nostalgia for the quiet country villages of yesteryear? Well you need not feel too deprived, argues Alastair Roberts in a Mere Orthodoxy blogpost: modern life, awash as it is with social media interactions, is quite similar to a Jane Austen’s Meryton—at least, similar in its pernicious effects.

The ‘density’ of [our social] environments and the closeness of the bonding within them produce a cosiness that is welcome for many, but which is generally quite resistant to contradiction, conflict, criticism, and genuine difference. Such characteristics and behaviours as likeability, empathetic connection, mutual vulnerability and mutual affirmation, personal resonance, relatability, and inoffensiveness are essential to the operation of such environments, but these characteristics and behaviours largely preclude openness to criticism and challenge of the group and its conforming members. Those who make firm criticisms will readily be classed as ‘haters’ or enemies of the group and driven out with hostility, while the group reaffirms itself and its members of their rightness and the vicious character of all opponents, reinforcing all of their prejudices and steadily inuring all members to criticism.(4) Such communities will also often engage in rigorous ‘policing’ of deviant viewpoints and, like the stereotypical mediaeval villagers, will frequently enact swift and merciless mob justice upon those who do not conform as they ought.

… Austen insightfully recognized the manner in which our delight in tight-knit, pleasant, and agreeable communities—and in conversations marked by ‘mutual satisfaction’—renders us susceptible to deep distortions of communal discourse, knowledge, and judgment. When we are all so relationally cosy with each other, we will shrink back from criticizing people in the way that we ought, voluntarily muting disagreement … . In such contexts, a cloying closeness stifles the expression of difference and conversations take on a character akin to the ‘positive feedback loop’ that existed in Wickham and Elizabeth’s conversation, where affirmation and assent merely reinforced existing prejudices. In such contexts, communities become insular (a tendency that can be exacerbated by algorithms), echo chambers of accepted opinion, closed to opposing voices.

We can see these tendencies on social media today—in the quick spread of viral hashtag campaigns, in the way people congregate around (or against) major celebrities or politicians, and bully all who do not join them. How do we combat these tendencies?

In order to escape “social saturation,” Roberts calls for opposing voices (in the case of Elizabeth and Meryton, a Mr. Darcy who will speak the truth with ruthless persistence) and for a separation from the toxic influences of the village (Elizabeth’s journey to Charlotte Lucas becomes a crucial turning point in the novel, as she confronts her biases and prejudices for the first time). The first may be discoverable, even online. Much depends on the social media community that we curate. The second, however, is difficult to accomplish: “Our communities can follow us almost everywhere we go and, unless we are determined to escape them and to resist their encroachments, the privacy and solitude that we require for self-presence and introspection will no longer so naturally afford themselves to us.”

These words reminded me of a book review I read yesterday, one that addressed both a need for opposing voices, and for places of introspection and mental quiet. In his review of The Meaning of the Library, Brian Bethune specifically considers one librarian’s explanation for our continued (if not growing) need for the space:

[Libraries] had better survive, argues James Billington, who considers them crucial in the defence of global democracy, for the librarian-less Internet is no substitute. Billington, head of the world’s largest “foraging ground for the pursuit of truth,” the 158-million-item Library of Congress, writes that guidance through a knowledge jungle is invaluable. Even more important, online life resembles an echo chamber, while in a library, contradictory arguments sit side by side on a shelf. That makes the latter, Billington proclaims, the world’s best “antidotes to fanaticism.”

Both Billington and Roberts see online life as an echo chamber, a place of escalating conflict or social homogeneity, a place where it seems increasingly impossible to find or formulate objective, thoughtful, nuanced opinions. But Billington has at least a partial solution to Roberts’s problem: he sees the library, with its physicality, its volumes of Darcy-like truth-telling, and its quiet sense of presence, as an antidote to our problem.

The problem is, of course, that few people frequent libraries with any sort of regularity. But it seems that bookstores could in fact create a similar environment, and provide a similar antidote. The key elements to Billington’s solution seem to be the physicality of books, and their straightforward presentation of arguments or opinions that may be completely novel—and/or irksome—to the reader. This, coupled with an environment that encourages quiet reflection, may help prompt the visitor to overcome their social biases. They can spur the visitor to read and reflect.

This is something that television cannot do—saturated as it is with advertisements and entertainment. Even when we see opinion presented in the form of a documentary, it rarely comes in a form that is suited to thoughtful consideration. To keep the watcher engrossed, the filmmaker must use elements of sensationalism: emotive music, frightening or emotional images, hyperbolic statements, dazzling camera shots. All of these things impress the viewer, often beyond the actual subject matter of the argument itself. Moreover, television’s otherness encourages a sort of mental and physical separation on the part of the watcher. It fosters passivity and acceptance, perhaps even more so than the Internet.

This is also something that radio cannot do, though it encourages a greater degree of interaction than television. But radio also falls prey to the scare tactics and emotive sensationalism of television—along with some of the communal shaming tactics of the Internet. One need only listen to talk radio for a short amount of time to see these elements in action.

It seems that books—with their combination of physicality and otherness, quietness and intellectual confrontation—present the best way for us to combat the toxic echo chambers of social media. They pull us out, give us a place of escape, confront our intellectual and spiritual weaknesses, then send us back into the online community better than when we stepped out of it.


Does Dating Still Matter?

Is dating on the verge of extinction? In an article featured in their latest September magazine, Vanity Fair addresses the fearful world of Tinder—and the toll it’s taking on traditional sorts of courtship:

Hookup culture, which has been percolating for about a hundred years, has collided with dating apps, which have acted like a wayward meteor on the now dinosaur-like rituals of courtship. “We are in uncharted territory” when it comes to Tinder et al., says Justin Garcia, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. … People used to meet their partners through proximity, through family and friends, but now Internet meeting is surpassing every other form. “It’s changing so much about the way we act both romantically and sexually,” Garcia says. “It is unprecedented from an evolutionary standpoint.” As soon as people could go online they were using it as a way to find partners to date and have sex with. In the 90s it was Craigslist and AOL chat rooms, then and But the lengthy, heartfelt e-mails exchanged by the main characters in You’ve Got Mail (1998) seem positively Victorian in comparison to the messages sent on the average dating app today.

Linker writes at The Week that he’s fearful of what this means for his kids:

I want them to enjoy the fulfillment that can only come from devoting themselves to something that transcends the self — a spouse, a child, a family. I want them to experience falling in love and feel their hearts opened to hopes of a higher, more enduring form of happiness. I want them to experience the rarer and more precious goods that follow from the disciplining of their baser instincts (like the animal desire to copulate with a different sexual partner every night of the week) in order to reach an end that’s pursued for its own sake rather than for the instantaneous rewards it brings.

But The New Republic‘s Moira Weigel retorts that such responses are reactionary, and part of dating battles that we’ve had throughout history. After tracing the history of such dating wars from the 19th century through the present, she adds, “Even a short survey makes it clear that every generation has thought that the next generation was dating wrong. … The death of dating genre tends to treat each new form of courtship as a moral aberration. This is silly.”

Weigel doesn’t seem to appreciate the progressive edginess of the dating world, from the first examples she provides (like consternation over women meeting strangers in public), to the modern hookup-culture that Salon discusses. And she fails to understand why parents such as Linker aren’t merely exhibiting a merely reactionary horror, but rather a legitimate shock over how far we continue to progress in our sexual freedoms, as a culture.

Weigel does admit that we are progressing into new territory—she just doesn’t think the progression is an ethical one: “New practices like hooking up have less to do with a moral apocalypse than with the evolution of the economy,” she argues.

Young people today are told to be flexible and mobile in all other aspects of our lives; we are told to be eternal entrepreneurs of ourselves, and that we cannot count on steady gigs or fixed contracts or benefits. Why would this not apply to our love lives, too? Why shouldn’t Tinderellas use an Uber for romance and sex when they use one for everything else?

It is true that our mediums and environment influence us in powerful ways. Financial insecurity and unemployment are a couple factors that often dissuade young people from marriage. So is having experienced the divorce of one’s parents. Technology has, some argue, encouraged a short-term focus on immediate pleasures—it fosters a short attention span and an appetite for the immediate.

The question is, of course, whether Weigel is right: that these things are not ultimately moral issues, but merely a change in the way we as humans work. A stage in relational evolution, perhaps.

Linker seems to suggest that these are moral issues. He believes that, in the age of liberality, we’ve stripped young people of such moral language, and they are merely responding with the vocabulary we’ve given them: “God? Nature? Won’t the world be better off without those musty old ideas limiting our freedom, hovering over our heads, judging us, weighing on our conscience?” And Rod Dreher has responded to the Tinder story with moral arguments against this growing trend.

But many people concerned with the hookup culture are people who have glimpsed what dating could be, and what it can practically or relationally offer to young people: namely, something more than pure sexuality and momentary physical satisfaction. Dating offers the opportunity to appreciate the entirety of the human person: mind and soul, as well as body. Dating can be about getting to know a person, and learning to appreciate them in all their various virtues and defects. It can offer an opportunity to develop a friendship, one based on more than mere sentience.

And this is what we may lose, if we go from dating to merely hooking up. We lose that gift of appreciation for and friendship with one person, learning to know them in a full way that honors their personhood and individuality—in a way that sees and appreciates them for more than their physical anatomy.

Aside from the dated person themselves, there’s often a community that springs up when you date a person. Your friends mix and mingle, you meet new people and form new social bonds. As the Salon article notes, a principle of proximity often guides traditional dating relationships—a principle that not only helps cultivate closeness with the boyfriend or girlfriend in question, but also binds you to a people and place.

Losing this would be a sad thing. Dating, regardless of whether it ends in marriage, affords us an opportunity to know and appreciate other people in a unique way. It also helps us grow personally—forcing us to confront our own personal vices, teaching us to overlook annoyances and give up our own desires to serve someone else. Replacing that gift with the temporary yet exciting opportunities of hooking up may seem liberating, but one wonders whether eventually we’ll come to feel ourselves cheated out of something greater, and deeper.


The Way We Speak Now

When Megyn Kelly leveled her (I think good) question about women to Trump during Fox News’s presidential debate last Thursday, and received his disdainful response, my first thought was, “How ungentlemanly.” Regardless of Trump’s political views, churlish insults do not encourage a civil or thoughtful political discourse—they are designed only to enrage and insult.

Yet there are many who seem to revere Trump for his lack of political correctness—for the way in which he laughs in the face of the “PC” police. These Americans are tired of the way in which we spread a cloak of niceness over political discourse, and the resulting quagmire that we face.

You need look no further for evidence of this “niceness” promotion—and its resulting paralyzing effect—than The Atlantic’s recent article, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” In it, authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt consider the escalating crackdown on anything even remotely controversial on college campuses:

The thin argument “I’m offended” becomes an unbeatable trump card. This leads to what Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor at this magazine, calls the “offendedness sweepstakes,” in which opposing parties use claims of offense as cudgels. In the process, the bar for what we consider unacceptable speech is lowered further and further.

Since 2013, new pressure from the federal government has reinforced this trend. Federal antidiscrimination statutes regulate on-campus harassment and unequal treatment based on sex, race, religion, and national origin. Until recently, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights acknowledged that speech must be “objectively offensive” before it could be deemed actionable as sexual harassment—it would have to pass the “reasonable person” test.

… But in 2013, the Departments of Justice and Education greatly broadened the definition of sexual harassment to include verbal conduct that is simply “unwelcome.” Out of fear of federal investigations, universities are now applying that standard—defining unwelcome speech as harassment—not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well. Everyone is supposed to rely upon his or her own subjective feelings to decide whether a comment by a professor or a fellow student is unwelcome, and therefore grounds for a harassment claim. Emotional reasoning is now accepted as evidence.

If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons—or at least as evidence in administrative proceedings—then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond.

It is quite ironic to see reports of Donald Trump’s uncouth political tantrums interspersed with such talk of the “micro-agressions” and “trigger warnings” that pervade college campuses. But what may not be obvious on the face of it is that the boorishness of Trump and uber-sensitivity of the modern college student are related: they are derivatives of an age that has lost a standard for public discourse, an understanding of proper limits or behavior. This is something Mark Mitchell has discussed over at the Front Porch Republic—he argues that we’ve lost what Edmund Burke called “the spirit of the gentleman,” the architect and animator of “all the good things which are connected with manners and with civilization.” Mitchell writes,

Forms and limits are not welcomed in a culture that sees freedom as the highest good, a culture that fairly worships at the altar of individual choice. The history of the liberal project has been a steady and determined attempt to defy limits, to destroy forms, to expand the idea and practice of liberation to all spheres of existence. How can the idea of the gentleman, the essence of which necessarily depends on the propriety of limits, co-exist with the goals of liberalism? One admits of limits and finds nobility in respect for them; the other finds limits offensive and seeks to break down any hint of limitation, form, or residue of difference.

Ours is a culture that worships freedom, albeit in varying ways—both Trump and the college students discussed in Lukianoff and Haidt’s article are touting their version of freedom and individual choice. In Trump’s case, it’s a freedom from political correctness, a freedom to say or do whatever he pleases. In the students’ case, it’s freedom from critique or offense, a freedom to live in emotional security without fear of chastisement or judgment. The freedom of the one to say or do whatever he pleases will inevitably clash with the freedom of the others to live in a state of politically correct security. How do we police modern discourse when the righteous indignation of the one camp is so discordant with the fierce fury of the other?

This is what the “spirit of the gentleman” used to provide: a reasoned, courteous atmosphere in which public discourse could take place—where opinions could be stated without savagery, and received without rancor. The problem is that gentlemen are out of popularity on left and right—for reasons Mitchell makes clear in another FPR post.

The gentleman is unpopular with the left and “PC” crowd because, in Mitchell’s words, he “is one who is willing and able to judge well. He is discriminating in his judgments and does not shy away from making hard distinctions even when they cause him discomfort and even when he is forced to stand alone [emphasis added].” Such discriminatory value judgments will not be honored on the modern university campus, nor even in the larger political world. Yet there seems to be a right way in which to make judgments about problems, policies, and people—and the gentleman knows how to do it. The modern students shies away from those distinctions in the name of being inclusive or “PC,” but in fact, their ability to speak with any sort of moral clarity or purpose is compromised by their refusal to make such value judgments.

But this is not to say that the gentleman would applaud the brash tones of Trump or his followers. To the contrary—Mitchell states further on that the gentleman is characterized by decorum and propriety: “A sense of propriety, when properly formed and not merely a sense of personal dignity, requires an awareness of other people. A person with a well-developed sense of propriety makes other people feel at ease.” The gentleman is also amiable: “An amiable man is a good conversationalist who is interested in the people with whom he speaks. He is not self-absorbed nor is he so self-conscious that he refrains from engaging with others. … An amiable man is not a boor who cares only for the sound of his own voice.”

To suggest that Trump has any of the above qualities would indeed seem laughable. But one must be quick to note that his lack of gentlemanly virtues has won him accolades, attention, and poll approval. How are we to see and hear more of gentlemen in our public discourse, if we foster and encourage their very opposites?

The same is true of the attitudes we foster on college campuses: if good and thoughtful professors are afraid to speak up in their classrooms, how will we foster another generation of discriminatory (yet amiable) thinkers?

The sad truth is that we won’t. The reasoned voices in our media, politics, and academia will devolve into one of two camps: the shouters, or the mute.

 Tagged , , , . 10 comments
← Older posts