State of the Union

Organic Before It Was Cool

photo by Molly Peterson

“Get big, or get out.” That’s the advice Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, gave farmers back in the 1970s—advice that has been predominantly followed over the past few decades.

But a growing number of farmers are defying that mantra, instead advocating through policy and practice for a sort of farming that many assumed was going extinct. These are what Forrest Pritchard calls “the unsung heroes of local, sustainable food”: the farmers who went organic before it was cool, who were “locavore” before the term existed.

A farmer himself, Forrest Pritchard runs a seventh-generation farm in the foothills of the Shenandoah mountains outside Washington, D.C. In a farm tour and interview I did with him two years ago, he mentioned a book he was working on: in it, he said, he wanted Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 12.25.05 PMto remind people that sustainable farming isn’t trendy, but rather, “ancient, multi-generational, and multi-ethnic.”

That vision shows in his finished book, Growing Tomorrow. The farmers Pritchard talks to hail from all corners of the U.S.—New Mexico and Massachusetts, Washington and Georgia. He interviews produce farmers, dairymen, bee keepers, and a fisherman. Some have roots in farming: like the fifth-generation berry farmer who’s taking over the farm from her father, or the produce farmer in New Mexico who works land along the Rio Grande that his grandfather bought nearly a century ago. But there are also the newcomers: a beekeeper who used to be a professional soccer player, an orchard farmer who moved here from Mexico, a transplant from England who’s built a mushroom habitat in the woods of Missouri.

Interspersed between the farmer profiles are a vast array of recipes, either shared or inspired by the different farmers interviewed. A (tested and true) recipe for egg noodles, fresh tomato sauce, homemade almond milk, chili con carne, mustard-braised pork shoulder, savory peach soup… there are enough recipes in here to keep me busy all summer. Many of the recipes, too, have the distinct flavor of the farmer’s regional roots: a South Carolinian shares with Pritchard the virtues of boiled peanuts, a New Mexico farmer describes the best way to prepare a traditional chili, a hog farmer from West Virginia shares the recipe for biscuits that Pritchard enjoyed when he visited the farm.

Some of these stories are as much about renewal and hope as they are about present success: Pritchard interviews Detroit-based produce, honey, and compost farmers who are cultivating an urban farm to fight the economic troubles that have plagued their city. Their goal is to fight the prevalence of food deserts throughout Detroit by providing a local alternative and offering “food self-reliance” to city natives. Their composting initiative is meant to build soil health back into abandoned city lots, many of which are “terribly polluted.”

Then there’s the Texas honeybee farmers who are striving to keep their bees alive—battling widespread fears of honeybee extinction and frustrations with the prevalence of insecticides and herbicides that kill bees, among other things. “There’s tremendous state pride here, you can see it everywhere you go,” notes Susan Pollard. “It’s just like the old saying: ‘Everything’s bigger in Texas.’ But when it comes to agriculture, we’re getting left behind. All the focus is on huge crops of monoculture: Corn, cotton, soybeans. But how can they ignore the pollinators, the ones that make most of our food possible?”

 photo by Molly Peterson

photo by Molly Peterson

Many of the farmers in this book have succeeded by doing a few things well: by trial and error, studying their crops or animals, expanding acre by acre. But more than this, what emanates from the pages of Growing Tomorrow is a deep and contagious passion for the art of farming. These aren’t just farmers. They’re “husbandmen,” dedicated to their vocation despite all its frustrations and difficulties. And their time, dedication, and passion have slowly paid off. We see this in the story of a goat farm that’s also a correctional facility, a place that teaches vocational skills alongside the virtues of cleanliness, diligence, and gentle care. It’s reflected in the story of Iowa farmer Steve Paul who—unlike the vast majority of his peers—is growing organic grains such as buckwheat, rye, and spelt.

These farmers face some significant challenges in today’s economy. Farmers like Paul are competing in a market that’s geared toward the big—those who’ve walked in Earl Butz’s footsteps, expanding and corporatizing. This is where the money has been, at least for the past several decades. But as hog farmer and former A&T State University professor Chuck Talbott puts it, “If we spent the same amount of money on sustainable farming that we do on big agriculture, all the R&D, and subsidies, then we wouldn’t have half the food problems we’ve got.” These farmers are advocating for a different model: one that may be more expensive, at least for a time, but one that promises long-term goods to consumers.

Part of Growing Tomorrow‘s appeal gives is that it helps readers connect with agricultural producers in their area: if I want to get produce from Washington, DC’s Potomac Vegetable Farms, profiled in the first chapter of the book, an index in the back points me to their website, the farmer’s markets they frequent, and information on their CSA program. This book is about connecting locals to the farmers who are trying to do things differently: it gives them a face, a voice, and a simple means to connect.

 photo by Molly Peterson

photo by Molly Peterson

It’s easy, Pritchard acknowledges, to be dissuaded from supporting such small local producers because of the cost—in time, money, and effort—to procure their goods. It’s not nearly as easy as going to the supermarket and picking up a package of conventionally-produced beef. We ask ourselves, “What’s in it for me? Doesn’t this just make everything harder?”

But this is asking the wrong question, argues Pritchard. These farmers, he notes, “are people who have looked skyward, earthward, and outward. In doing so, they guide us to greater, more important questions: What do we value? How can we participate? What more can we do? Questions like these must grow our tomorrows.”

Last Saturday, I went to the farmer’s market to purchase some eggs. Umbrella and baby in tow, I stopped by a vendor’s booth I’d seen the week before. He was having a special on eggs. I ducked under the tent canopy and grabbed a couple cartons, when I heard him tell another customer that they only accepted cash. I set the cartons down in disappointment, gathered up my things, and told him I’d need to go look for an ATM. He looked at me—wet hair, baby in one arm, purse and grocery bags stuffed under the other—and he said, “You could just pay me next week. It’s raining pretty hard out there.”

This is what the local farmer gives: a human connection, an opportunity to participate in a relationship that extends beyond dollars and profit margins, and slowly develops into a sense of community and belonging.

Farming is no easy task. Farming in a way that’s both sustainable and humane is even more challenging, especially in this economy. A farmer who is willing to defy his cultural voices and the legacy of Earl Butz—someone who’s willing to stay in, and stay small—is worth our notice, and our support.

Posted in , , , , , , , , . 3 comments

The Joy of Stuff

We’re all supposed to be “detoxing,” “cleansing,” or “decluttering” our lives these days. Gastronomically, the idea is that you pare down your diet to its most basic essentials, and thus cut away pounds, potential illnesses, or any lack of confidence you might feel. Mentally, we’re told to step away from the chaotic buzz of work, social media, television, and life obligations in order to clear out the clutter in our heads and become more “mindful.”

And then there’s the house-oriented version of these words, most recognized in the popular bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Author Marie Kondo tells her readers that the stuff in their homes needs paring down in order for them to really experience joy and peace in their lives. Thus, we’re advised, “If [an] item sparks joy, keep it; if not, dump it.”

In practice, this can be more extreme than it sounds; Kondo’s method involves a categorical purging of one’s possessions, winnowing things down piece by piece until only the most “joyous” items remain. And, she insists, we must do all our tidying in one attempt: no bit-by-bit cleaning, no slow and meticulous purging. Perfection is not just the ideal, it’s mandatory—and it’s demanded immediately.

I can understand what Kondo’s going for, and in a lot of ways, it makes sense. Our house is under 900 square feet, so there’s not a lot of room for “extra” stuff. Before we moved, we did a lot of paring down. But we have held onto things that give us joy: in each room of the house, there’s an object that doesn’t quite “fit.” It stands out, perhaps not comically, but with an air of eccentricity. The bulldog bottle opener in our kitchen (a favorite present from my parents), the bright green-and-pink-painted ceramic pot in our office (a gift from Mexico for our daughter, purchased by our wonderful neighbors), the “Dear America” books on our shelves (the ones my grandma read aloud to me when I was 10 years old, the Christmas before she passed away from cancer): I keep these things around not for their usefulness or efficiency, but for the sweet memories and sentiments they offer, every day.

But alongside these joyous objects, there’s also a bundle of things I hold onto not for memories past, but because of the promise of memories or joys that could be. And I wonder whether Kondo’s method leaves room for that sort of thing.

For instance: all the newborn baby clothes our daughter has already grown out of, I’ve stashed away—for baby number two, or a needy friend, or a future cousin. There’s a closet stuffed with extra pillows and bedding and blankets, because when company comes, I want to be ready. We have a huge pile of extra seeds stuffed in a pot under a shelf in the living room, because no matter how much we grow in the garden, we want to grow more. And the pantry shelves are overflowing with cans and bags and bins, because we love to eat—and we like variety.

There were similar shelves in my childhood home, piled high with canned peaches, pickled green beans, and cinnamon applesauce. My grandmother had whole closets dedicated to her treasured linens and china—things that belonged to her mother, things she had saved for special holidays and seasons. In my father’s office, I remember a wealth of papers and books piled on every imaginable space. It was a place dedicated to knowledge and diligence, study and insight. If that office had been conspicuously tidy, it wouldn’t have felt the same—nor would it have been as productive.

Whether it’s because we’re dedicated homesteaders with canned goods stashed here and there, or whether we’re avid bibliophiles with never-enough bookshelf space, we glory in little messes because they remind us why we’re alive. They help us to reminisce, or to look forward. They’re beautiful in their way, glorious in their careless grace. They offer us moments of joy, little though they may be, as we go about our daily lives.

The millennial generation is especially prone, apparently, to forsaking things for the appeal of experiences, and for the current popularity of minimalism. As Holly Ashby writes for Collective Evolution, status no longer involves amassing material possessions, but rather in projecting a certain type of lifestyle—one built around bohemian grace, virtuous minimalism, and ecological or personal mindfulness. “As technology continues to advance, conservation and ecological issues become ever more stark, and the real, material world loses favour to the one that can be found online, the concept of ownership could find itself becoming ever more irrelevant,” argues Ashby. “With Millennials gradually falling out of love with their possessions, it could be the generations that follow them will pioneer a new way of life, away from the consumerist mindset that has defined the past few decades.”

Consumerism has definitely developed a bad reputation. And for good reason: Americans are all too often obsessed with “stuff.” But it could also be that our embrace of minimalism is a sign of affluence, not a shunning of it: as Arielle Bernstein pointed out last month in The Atlantic, there are a lot of people who’ve gone through perilous circumstances or intense bouts of poverty—and for them, the concept of “minimalism” or “decluttering” is often careless, a sign of wealth and security:

Of course, in order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust. For a refugee, that trust has not yet been earned. The idea that going through items cheerfully evaluating whether or not objects inspire happiness is fraught for a family like mine, for whom cherished items have historically been taken away. For my grandparents, the question wasn’t whether an item sparked joy, but whether it was necessary for their survival. In America, that obsession transformed into a love for all items, whether or not they were valuable in a financial or emotional sense. If our life is made from the objects we collect over time, then surely our very sense of who we are is dependent upon the things we carry.

This reminded me of stories my parents told me about older relatives who had lived through the Great Depression. They became hoarders, with mountains of food stashed in their basement or piles of extra clothes and newspapers stuffed in their closets. They knew what it was to be empty and needy, to have minimalism forced upon them like an anxious cloud. And they never wanted to face that reality again. To them, ownership was a promise of wellbeing.

While we don’t want to become hoarders, there is an important role for physical things in our lives: we are, after all, physical beings. An embrace of the body and physical existence enables us to live productive, artistic, enjoyable lives. It’s what results in fruitful gardens and beautiful paintings, sumptuous meals and glorious music. If canned goods piled in the pantry, shelves stuffed with seed packets, and closets spilling over with extra blankets help you create—if they help foster fruitfulness, hospitality, art, and thriftiness—then they should be treasured and lauded, not discarded.

Sometimes I call myself a “neat freak,” but I have to admit it isn’t really true. Because I prefer a pile of dishes next to the sink, if it means there’s a homemade dinner in the oven. And I prefer a big mess of books and watercolors and sketch paper on the coffee table, to one immaculately clean but empty of curiosity and creativity. And I prefer a bed only halfway made, because it usually means we were too busy playing with our baby girl and making coffee to getting the bedspread perfectly straightened. These are the experiences that bring us joy, every day. And sometimes that joy necessitates—or at least excuses—a little clutter.

Posted in , , , . 13 comments

The Perils of Innovation

Over at Aeon mag, Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell write that “innovation” is something we’ve blown out of proportion:

… Contemporary discourse treats innovation as a positive value in itself, when it is not. Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end?

One consequence of our obsession with innovation is that we constantly create new things, rather than maintaining and treasuring old ones—and often become wrapped up in consumerism, rather than in care.

Take homeownership and home-building in America: on the street my husband and I live on, the little 850 to 1,000 square-foot houses of past decades are being torn down and replaced with massive, sprawling monstrosities. Area developers don’t care that the lot in question is tiny: yard and space to grow things doesn’t matter these days. What matters is square footage—because every extra piece of hardwood and granite squeezed into that house is extra money in the developers’ pockets, while grass gets them nothing.

Yet at the same time, as Felicia Rose writes for Mother Earth News, “Tiny houses, often defined as those under five-hundred square feet, have gained purchase in recent years. Their lure is apparent. In a society of architectural obesity, they represent a clean-limbed leanness (or gauntness).” How do we reconcile this cultural obsession with “obese” houses, alongside growing desire for houses winnowed down to almost nothing?

While one may be worse for the neighborhood, both reflect our societal obsession with the new, the progressive, the “innovative.” There are plenty of old tiny houses throughout America. But most tiny house owners want something that’s still new, exciting, adapted to the latest technologies, and—perhaps most importantly—rootless. Something on wheels. Something that doesn’t require putting down stakes.

A society in love with innovation is a society that, oftentimes, has rejected the idea of limits. There’s no end to our exploring, because we don’t believe that we should stop anywhere. We aren’t content with our old smartphones or computers—we want the latest, newest thing, and expect companies to keep innovating endlessly.

Additionally, we’ve gotten used to spending money to get something fixed, rather than fixing it ourselves. This cultivates ignorance, and can turn us into discarders, rather than maintainers. Cars and houses can always be replaced with newer cars and bigger houses. Old things require a lot of work, tinkering, and upkeep. New things present us with a degree leisure and ease that is difficult to pass up.

But craftsmen, mechanics, gardeners, cooks, and cleaners—each of these trades, simple though they seem, keeps the world ordered and beautiful. As Vinsel and Russell write, “focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going.”

The individual who dedicates his or her life to maintenance and repair is the one who “keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things,” they write. They are the husbandmen and housewives, plumbers and janitors, construction workers and electricians. “Brief reflection demonstrates that the vast majority of human labour, from laundry and trash removal to janitorial work and food preparation, is of this type: upkeep.”

Jobs that involve “upkeep” are not highly valued in today’s world. A farmer told me last year that most jobs—like his—that involve manual labor are viewed as blue collar and unintellectual, jobs for the high school dropouts and unambitious. Meanwhile, Capitol Hill and Wall Street and Silicon Valley receive the accolades, the geniuses, and the money. The former are, indeed, “ordinary” vocations in comparison, and rather quotidian forms of existence. But the job of maintaining—the earth, its infrastructure, and its people—is absolutely vital to our wellbeing and flourishing.

In The Unsettling of America, farmer and essayist Wendell Berry shares the memory of an interaction he once had with another farmer:

Several years ago I argued with a friend of mine that we might make money by marketing some inferior lambs. My friend thought for a minute and then he said, “I’m in the business of producing good lambs, and I’m not going to sell any other kind.” He also said that he kept the weeds out of his crops for the same reason that he washed his face. The human race has survived by that attitude. It can survive only by that attitude…  

Many people associate the word “innovation” with Republican sentiment, because the party prizes capitalism, free markets, and entrepreneurship. But to be a conservative is also, importantly, to desire to conserve things. To appreciate the quotidian labor that keeps our world going—and to join the maintainers in tending our little square of earth, keeping the weeds out of our gardens with the same diligence and zeal with which we wash our faces.

It involves an appreciation for the work of creating, but also an acknowledgment that “new” isn’t always better—that there should be a limit and end (both literally and teleologically) to our innovation, because we already have good things worth tending. And even though we won’t make millions doing it, it is the simple task of maintaining that lifts us out of empty consumerism and into the realm of stewardship and care.

6 comments

Your Friends Are Not an App

Waiting in line, stuck in traffic, aboard the subway: at moments such as these, we pull out our phones. We text, check Facebook, scroll through pictures on Instagram, post something on Twitter. It’s not uncommon to see a couple sitting across from each other at a restaurant, engrossed in their phones.

New technology has in many ways served as a boon to connection. All of a sudden, we can communicate with loved ones on the other side of the country—or on the other side of the world. We have an instantaneous method for discovering important life news and alerting one another to personal emergencies. Our phones and social media accounts act like leashes, keeping us tethered to each other at all times.

But are we truly caring for and understanding one another through these devices? Are these connections—mediated and interposed as they are through technology—really leading to full and flourishing human relationships?

This is the question considered by Sherry Turkle—a psychologist and the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT—in Reclaiming Conversation. Turkle began studying technology’s effects on society back in the 1980s, when she wrote her first book considering the computer’s impact on the self. Since then she has written three books on the subject, including 2011’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

Why revisit the subject again only four years later? Turkle argues that her observations in Alone Together have only been confirmed in recent years, as social media have built an increasingly important place in the average person’s life. Beyond that, she believes we are finally beginning to see a bit of protest and backlash against the technological craze. In Alone Together, she now writes, “I knew I was describing complications that most people did not want to see.” And today “we are ready to reconsider the too-simple enthusiasm of ‘the more connected we are, the better off we are.’”

Because of our increasing reliance on technology, we have descended from conversation “to the efficiencies of mere connection,” Turkle argues. Technology promises we will be always heard, never alone, and never bored, yet the informal and virtual nature of its connections has encouraged looser familial and romantic bonds. Many young people struggle to conduct interviews, discuss their emotions, or even spend time with their friends without the assistance of technology.  

Henry David Thoreau says in Walden that all of life should be set around three “chairs”: one for solitude and contemplation; two for friendship, which we share with kith and kin; and three for society. Turkle believes our relationship with these three chairs has been drastically reshaped by technology. It should be obvious that our ability to enjoy one chair—solitude—has been deeply inhibited, if not often demolished, by our new online lives. For many, it is nearly impossible to sit alone or wait patiently in line without turning to the ever-present phone. There’s a nagging feeling that comes over us in such moments of pause, an almost frenzied desire not to be without entertainment or distraction.

Some argue that we are hiding, on such occasions, from our fears and uncertainties about life: from the sorts of deep thoughts that creep up on us when we are alone. Others believe that we have developed a deep repugnance to boredom—one that is mentally debilitating. Turkle contends that we need moments of solitude in order to develop emotionally, mentally, and relationally: solitude allows us to daydream, discover new ideas, and build a true sense of self based on self-knowledge rather than on the opinions of others. When social media such as Facebook become our go-to in moments of quiet, “we risk building a false self,” while also damaging our creative capabilities.

Turkle considers friendship—Thoreau’s two chairs—in two parts. She first considers ways in which social media and smartphones have damaged our familial relationships, and her thoughts are particularly poignant when discussing the modern family’s inability to negotiate conflict or spend meaningful time together. There’s been an abdication of conversation on both sides in today’s family: while parents complain that their children are addicted to technology and out of touch, children now claim that they can’t pull their parents away from their own smartphones. We often see technological obsession as a young man’s pursuit, but it’s an addiction all generations are susceptible to.

Even though many young people Turkle talks to have a hard time envisioning life without modern communications technology, they’re also quick to admit that something is wrong with their relationships. They want to communicate better with their loved ones but feel they’ve lost both the means and opportunity to do so. The phone and computer, while prompting greater connection across the nation and globe, have failed to foster relationships between people at the most basic and important level: within the home.

Solving this problem will require intentionality, a conscious choice to put away our devices when we are together and carve out precious time for conversation. Turkle suggests designating “sacred spaces” in the home and in relationships: appointing places and times in which technology is banned. This can be a difficult decision for parents to make—indeed, it requires as much from them as it does from their children—but Turkle believes it is necessary to foster lasting relationships between family members.

Turkle’s discussion of the social and romantic lives of young people is saddening, even if what she reports is not altogether surprising. Many young adults find that, even when spending one-on-one time with their peers, their attention is constantly bombarded by the “other”: other friends, other places one could be, other potential partners one could be dating. One girl notes that following a sexual encounter with a young man she liked, she found herself checking the hookup site Tinder while he was in the bathroom. Another girl named Kati tells Turkle that “wherever she and her friends are, they strategize about where they could be. With so much choice, says Kati, it becomes harder to choose … and nothing feels like the right choice. Nothing Kati and her friends decide seems to measure up to their fantasy of what they might have done.”

Beyond the temporality and discontent this can develop among friends, technology’s mediating nature can also instill a sense of separation between its users, shielding them from vulnerability and the rawness of physical connection. The resulting interactions can have deleterious consequences. When she turns her attention to work and school—Thoreau’s three chairs—Turkle finds that much of the cyber-bullying we’re seeing today is a result of this technological connectivity. One schoolteacher told Turkle she believes “children are treating other children as ‘apps,’ as means to an end.” They see their social and romantic interactions through a utilitarian lens, and they aren’t as afraid to hurt each other because they often can’t see the immediate results of their words.

In the workplace, technology has created a barrier to interactions that formerly fostered relationships between employees, clients, and bosses. New hires, some executives complain, are unwilling to make client phone calls or to interact with their fellow employees. They sit at their desks with their headphones on and argue that this insulation actually enables them to work more effectively. But just as in personal relationships, this inability to connect meaningfully in real time begins to weigh on workplace interactions.

Some may wonder whether the progressions we’re seeing in the smartphone and Internet age are any different from those we saw at the dawn of the television age. Older generations complained then, too, of the changes such media would bring and the dangers they posed for youngsters. Such protests were, and often still are, dismissed as Luddite or old-fashioned. The arguments Turkle presents might seem to have a similarly backwards air to them.

thisarticleappearsBut Turkle’s book shows that while the changes we see may not be unprecedented in kind or quality, they are unusual in scope and depth. It’s true that the television changed the way people interacted in the neighborhoods and in the home: as Wendell Berry has pointed out, the television shifted our social lives from the front porch into the living room, prompting us to greater solitude and separation. Today’s technology often fosters the same individualism, but it is more consistently present. Whereas the television inhabits a fixed and limited space, the Internet and smartphone are almost continually present in our lives. Whether at work or at home—even in the car, airplane, bus, or train—the digital world is there, beckoning to us.

While we should not neglect the goods that technology can provide, we should not embrace them without a thought to the possible consequences, either. With each stage of technological development, we’re encouraged to separate ourselves more from the physical space we inhabit. We’re encouraged to live in a virtual reality in which we can distance ourselves from both the blessings and curses of real presence. Yet technology is at its best when it facilitates instead of replaces physical interaction.

The challenges we face in the digital age have grown in scale, prompting new sorts of addiction and disconnection, but many of the underlying problems that Turkle cites are ones we have always struggled with: the fear of being alone, discontent with our lot in life, the desire to be ever entertained, reluctance to commit or be vulnerable. A human relationship has always required virtues such as gratitude, selflessness, diligence, honesty. Technology prompts an ease of interaction that can undermine such virtues, but it doesn’t have to. We must exercise caution and understand that even the most convenient technology requires limits and prudence. Turkle’s book contributes to a discussion that, while as old as human nature, must continue to resurface as our new contraptions, and new ways of spending time, threaten to shift our perception of old truths and virtues.

Gracy Olmstead is TAC’s senior writer.

Of Citizens and Covenants

Our society is characterized by great freedom: by ever-growing personal autonomy, a loosening of social and civic bonds, and a diminishing of cultural and religious value systems. But have these things made us more free, more enlightened? Perhaps not. As David Brooks writes in a Wednesday column,

The liberation of the individual was supposed to lead to mass empowerment. But it turns out that people can effectively pursue their goals only when they know who they are — when they have firm identities.

Strong identities can come only when people are embedded in a rich social fabric. They can come only when we have defined social roles — father, plumber, Little League coach. They can come only when we are seen and admired by our neighbors and loved ones in a certain way. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds.”

You take away a rich social fabric and what you are left with is people who are uncertain about who they really are. It’s hard to live daringly when your very foundation is fluid and at risk.

Brooks explores the importance of “separability amid situatedness”: the ability to have independence and room to grow, within the supporting framework of a loving community and undergirding system of values. This sort of situatedness, he argues, requires a “covenant” rather than a contract. “People in a contract provide one another services, but people in a covenant delight in offering gifts,” he writes. “Out of love of country, soldiers offer the gift of their service. Out of love of their craft, teachers offer students the gift of their attention.”

Brooks’s observations reminded me of an essay Marilynne Robinson wrote for Harper’s Magazine in defense of the public university. In it, she describes the difference between the “citizen” and the “taxpayer”—and the significance of the fact that the former is used less often than the latter:

There has been a fundamental shift in the American consciousness. The Citizen has become the Taxpayer. In consequence of the shift, public assets have become public burdens. … While the Citizen can entertain aspirations for the society as a whole and take pride in its achievements, the Taxpayer, as presently imagined, simply does not want to pay taxes. The societal consequences of this aversion—failing infrastructure, for example—are to be preferred to any inroad on his or her monetary fiefdom, however large or small.

… Citizenship, which once implied obligation, is now deflated. It is treated as a limited good that ought to be limited further. Of course, the degree to which the Citizen and the Taxpayer ever existed, exist now, or can be set apart as distinct types is a question complicated by the fact that they are imposed on public consciousness by interest groups, by politicians playing to constituencies, and by journalism that repeats and reinforces unreflectingly whatever gimmicky notion is in the air. It can be said, however, that whenever the Taxpayer is invoked as the protagonist in the public drama, a stalwart defender of his own, and a past and potential martyr to a culture of dependency and governmental overreach, we need not look for generosity, imagination, wit, poetry, or eloquence. We certainly need not look for the humanism Tocqueville saw as the moving force behind democracy.


… The Citizen had a country, a community, children and grandchildren, even—a word we no longer hear—posterity. The Taxpayer has a 401(k). It is no mystery that the former could be glad to endow monumental libraries, excellent laboratories, concert halls, arboretums, and baseball fields, while the latter simply can’t see the profit in it for himself.

In The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet wrote that the family, religious association, and local community “are essentially prior to the individual and are the indispensable supports of belief and conduct.” These associations are what make us not only “taxpayers”—autonomous individuals in a singular relationship to the state—but rather “citizens,” with a sense of civic duty and a passion for the local sphere. Without community, “you get not freedom and rights but intolerable aloneness and subjection to demonic fears and passions.” One is reminded of the sort of fear-mongering that dominates our politics these days—on the radio, the television, in many partisan publications.  

Brooks believes our separation and hostility must be “repaired by hundreds of millions of people making local covenants—widening their circles of attachment across income, social and racial divides. But it will probably also require leaders drawing upon American history to revive patriotism.”

Sadly, we’ve seen some faulty conceptions of patriotism displayed in our politics in recent months; the word seems tainted and frayed by current political discourse and debates, bloated by discussions of American exceptionalism and suspicious, nationalistic belligerence. Perhaps this tendency has grown in part because patriotism without strong local covenants isn’t patriotism at all: it’s loyalty to an intangible, amorphous conception of country—one that isn’t tied to anything concrete or specific. Ian Corbin pointed this out in a thoughtful Independence Day piece last year, arguing that our patriotism must latch onto a local sphere before it can (healthily) blossom into any sort of national allegiance: “I believe we should shamelessly embrace our cultural balkanization, or to put it more gently, our cultural federalism,” he wrote. “It is nowhere written that a person ought to feel equally at home in every nook and cranny of the state she calls home. If there is a deep sense of patriotism available to us Americans, it will have to be based in local soil.”

As Nisbet wrote, if we don’t have a sense of belonging—if we’re divorced from any sort of situatedness—we fall prey to “deeply disquieting states of nostalgia and vague longing. These may transform themselves into innumerable emotions ranging from simple discontent to bitter alienation.” This words seem to perfectly describe the malaise and bitterness that currently plague our politics, pushing voters to choose anti-establishment candidates and their Us vs. Them rhetoric. “It is not merely that an orderly, predictable world of values has been replaced by the unpredictabilities and moral voids of civic life,” writes Nisbet. “Fundamentally it is the loss of a sense of belonging, of a close identification with other human beings.”

This loss leads us not only into callous individualism—it can also lead us into coarseness, into a bitter and vengeful expression of uncensored emotion: “Moral conscience, the sense of civilized decency, will not long survive separation from the associative ties that normally reinforce and give means of expression to the imperatives of conscience,” writes Nisbet. Do we not see this in the often crude and offensive banter between presidential candidates, between their adherents on Twitter or other social media platforms?

Our autonomy—the breakdown of family, community, and church—has not led to greater freedom. Instead, it’s led to a sort of slavery: to the state and its powers, to the self and its lusts, to the emotion and its excesses. “Genuine freedom is not based upon the negative psychology of release,” writes Nisbet. “Its roots are in positive acts of dedication to ends and values. Freedom presupposes the autonomous existence of values that men wish to be free to follow and live up to.”

Thus we return to Robinson’s Citizen vs. Taxpayer. They are concrete examples of what our freedom ought to be characterized by: not a complete freedom from social obligation or allegiance, but rather a freedom to give of ourselves in a larger cause, in a community and/or covenant that has deep and lasting meaning. Robinson’s example of worthy citizenship is an allegiance to American higher education, appreciation for the patronage necessary to keep the liberal arts alive. Unless we’re willing to give a little of our paychecks and our allegiances to the higher education and what it stands for, she argues, we are refusing to display the sort of civic spirit that has traditionally been the bedrock of American patriotism, of American society. Being a “citizen” requires—it does not just entitle. It involves a sort of noble attentiveness to duty and obligation. Some might argue that it would be better if, instead of paying our dues to public universities, we demonstrated greater generosity to the private university. But either way, Robinson’s point still stands: our citizenship should involve a sense of belonging: a devotedness to family, community, and posterity.

Perhaps such attitudes of love and allegiance can be a solution, at least in part, to the fragmented autonomy that Brooks is describing. Perhaps they can animate our patriotism, and save it from frenzied dogma or hostile belligerence. Because being a citizen reminds us that before we can claim anything for ourselves, we must give of ourselves in local covenant.

Posted in , , , , . 14 comments

Don’t Forget Lahore

When the Brussels attacks happened, media coverage and popular outrage filled the days after—like the Paris terror attacks the year before, they dominated the news. And rightly so.

But what of the terrorist bombing in Pakistan on Easter Sunday? The coverage has slowly started to trickle in; the frustration is slowly building. The Vatican Insider shares some details on the bombing:

Many of them were faithful who had attended the Easter liturgy in the two nearby churches of the Assemblies of God,  a Pentecostal community that also runs a student college in Lahore. Christian families with children, who simply wanted to spend a peaceful Easter day at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park. Nature, picnics and children playing. This green space is frequented by students attending the nearby University of the Punjab, the region’s biggest and most important educational institution.

It was easy for the Taliban suicide bomber to take up his position by the park’s exit and carry out a massacre using 20 kg of explosives, that claimed the lives of 72 confirmed victims and left 350 injured. The death toll looks to rise given the number of people – especially women and children – currently in a critical condition.

But the response to this horrific bombing was much smaller than what we saw in response to Brussels. Coverage has been slow and sporadic. There hasn’t been any sort of statement from the White House or President; celebrities’ response has been muted in comparison. Vox is actually one of the publications that has taken note of the discrepancy in coverage, noting that a Dallas hotel’s tribute is one small exception to an overall quiet response.

People have noted this in the past: it often seems that the U.S. does not respond with the same gravity to atrocities that happen in non-Western countries. We change our profile pictures and update our statuses for Paris, but it barely registers in our news feed reading when similar—or worse—things happen in other countries.

Yet it also seems that some particular details from the Sunday blast should have caught the attention of the media with greater speed and alarm than they did: the people killed in Pakistan on Sunday were mainly women and children, and mainly Christian. They were celebrating Easter together. The bomb was set off near a playground area. At least 29 children were killedalmost equal to the entire death toll of the Brussels attacks.

Honestly, I wonder whether I would have even noticed the news headlines about the bombing, if it wasn’t for Facebook’s mistaken safety check that it sent to my phone. When it said I was near the “Lahore bombing” and asked me if “I was okay,” I Googled those words. When Facebook later issued an apology to those who received mistaken safety checks, I wanted to say, “No, don’t—if it weren’t for you, we all would’ve ignored Pakistan and gone about our Easter festivities without a thought.”

It’s difficult to imagine what the response in the U.S. might be if some terrorist or vigilante planted a bomb near a playground area—if our children were similarly targeted and killed. The president would surely issue a statement. Interviews with parents and family members would dominate the evening news. Outrage would spill over on Twitter and Facebook. Hashtags would help us all show our solidarity and sadness for the victims.

But perhaps this bombing has not been as talked about because it wasn’t an ISIS attack—it was a Taliban suicide bomber. And ISIS has been our main focus when it comes to covering terrorist activity as of late, especially considering media coverage of the 2016 presidential election.

Or perhaps the quiet coverage is a result of the fact that the event happened on a holiday. Yet the fact that those targeted were Easter celebrants, it seems this would only draw attention to the bombing. On a day when millions celebrated Holy Week and Easter in peace and comfort, one group of rejoicing people were struck down.

Perhaps it hasn’t been covered much here in the U.S. because U.S. Christians are often seen as entitled, bigoted, or intolerant. (The support of Trump among American “evangelicals” has only drawn further support to this stereotype.) Pakistani Christians targeted by an extremist don’t fit with this narrative. The media is more likely to report on the lone wolf who shoots an abortion doctor, the Christian who slams homosexuals, or the church with a misogynistic pastor. Persecuted Christians—or little children killed at a park playground on Easter—don’t quite fit that overarching narrative of the entitled, bigoted, intolerant Christian. It’s difficult for many Americans to comprehend that in a country like Pakistan, Christians are a persecuted minority.

To be fair, some publications did finally start writing about the attacks in Pakistan. The Daily Beast got out a story—a fantastic one, actuallyon Monday afternoon. Writes (Muslim) author Maajid Nawaz,

Yesterday’s heartbreaking blasts made this the third time this month alone that Pakistan has been attacked by jihadists. All this just in Pakistan, just in March. And this needs to be understood in the context of the global jihadist insurgency that is upon us: unprecedented in its scale, pluralistic in its leadership, fractured in its strategy, nevertheless inspiring in its central message, and popular enough in its appeal that it is able to move masses.

… Many still deny this insurgency exists, and it is true that these countries have locally specific factors that contribute to their respective insurgent conditions. Yes, the groups behind these attacks are not under one central leadership, rather they are either affiliates or offshoots of competing jihadist groups. But they all share one cause.

They are all—including ISIS—derived from, or affiliated to just two jihadist groupings: al Qaeda and the Taliban. In turn, jihadists all drink from the same doctrinal well of widespread, rigid Wahhabism. And they share the ideological aims of popular non-terrorist Islamists. They are all unified behind a theocratic desire to enforce a version of Sharia as law over society.

… Our failure to recognize this as a civilizational struggle—one centered around values—has allowed the fundamentalist problem of Wahhabism, and the political problem of Islamism, to fester and metastasize. This struggle is an ideological one before it is a military or legal one. Vague platitudes that this has nothing to do with Islam—my own religion—are as unhelpful as saying that this is the essence of Islam. Extremism certainly has something to do with Islam. Not nothing, not everything, but something.

The Lahore bombing underscores the very religious character of the jihadists’ fanaticism. This was not about alienation in a European ghetto, or revenge for American and European airstrikes in the Middle East— the secular-sounding explanations offered as the motivations of people like those who carried out the Paris and Brussels attacks. Lahore was about pure, vicious religious intolerance, killing Christians—including Christian children—on Easter Sunday because they were Christians and not the kind of Muslims the murderers claim to be.

… So, let there be no doubt. We are in the middle of a struggle against theocracy, and for secular liberal democratic values. Muslims and non-Muslims respectively must join together in that fight. This is why Trump’s divisive rhetoric is so unhelpful. Everyone must stand together to discredit Islamism, and to support a reform in Islamic discourse. All of us together are responsible for challenging intolerant, theocratic thinking before it spills over to violence. All of us together are responsible for refusing to allow religion to become the primary bond that divides us from “the other.”

In the midst of my frustration about coverage (or lack thereof) of the Easter bombing in Pakistan, this story appeared. And it reminded me of what makes journalism great.

It rejects stereotype and embraces the complex, harrowing stories that plagues our world. It demonstrates nuance and thoughtfulness, avoids vitriol and assumption. While the author could have been on the defense, he chose instead to look carefully at both sides and present an argument that unites, rather than drives apart. When we write thus—thoughtfully, carefully, truthfully—we do the world an important service. We help bring light to tragedy, and give support to the weak and vulnerable. We fight injustice, abuse, and the horrors of extremism, like what we saw in Pakistan on Sunday, or in Brussels last Tuesday.

Perhaps this is one way we can use “weapons of love” to fight violent extremism, as Pope Francis put it in his Sunday Easter message. “May he [the risen Jesus] draw us closer on this Easter feast to the victims of terrorism, that blind and brutal form of violence which continues to shed blood in different parts of the world,” he said. “With the weapons of love, God has defeated selfishness and death.”

Last week, Rod Dreher wrote about a Muslim who was murdered by another Muslim believer for saying he loved Christians. His piece demonstrated the important truth that not all Muslims are terrorists or intolerant extremists, as some have touted. But it also shows that that intolerance is out there. Similarly, the stories about misogynistic pastors or lone-wolf gunmen are important. They need to be told, condemned. But so too must we tell the stories of those wrongfully killed, tortured, even crucified for their faith.

It’s easy to get caught up in the push and pull of presidential politics—especially when they’re as sensationalistic and dramatic as they have been this time around. But let’s not forget, in the midst of the entertaining, to pray for the heartbreaking and the heartbroken: to remember lives lost in countries beyond our customary notice or concern, and to use “weapons of love” to fight such injustice, whenever we get the chance.

Posted in , , , . 10 comments

What Parents Might Not Be Telling You

When you are about to have a baby, the floodgates of warnings and omens break forth. I’ve never heard so many “just you wait”’s in my life. Have trouble sleeping around your pregnant belly? “Just you wait till you have a cluster feeding baby.” Struggle getting dinner together on a regular basis? “Just you wait till you’ve got a clingy little one who wants all your attention.”

Even when you do finally experience these things for the first time, you still haven’t arrived. That’s when all the one-upmanship begins. “Your labor was six hours? Wow, that’s nothing. Mine was 24 hours.” Or—“Your baby only sleeps in 3 hour stretches? Mine would barely make it two.” Or— “Your baby is a fitful napper? Just wait till she’s a toddler and refuses to nap at all.”

Alongside these conversations, I began noticing all the Facebook statuses: “Toddler destroyed the bathroom today…” “Haven’t slept in days…” “Husband finally rescued me so I could get away from these monsters…” There’s often a note of sarcasm and playfulness in these statements, but oy. It’s still discouraging. It made me wonder what I had gotten myself into. I struggled not to envision years of frustration, stress, and sleeplessness, stretching before me like a brooding dark cloud.

Where was the joy?

Well, that’s the secret—the secret all the voices on social media or in-person conversations weren’t offering me. It’s the secret that you may not have realized just yet, because those are the voices you’ve been listening to.

So I want to be the one to announce loudly, for all to hear: HAVING A KID IS FUN. PARENTING IS FUN. BABIES ARE FUN.

I’ll explain: yes, there is pain and discomfort. Labor isn’t the easiest thing in the world (to put it very, very nicely). And when that little newborn enters the world screaming, life changes forever. That baby will demand time and attention you didn’t know you had. He or she will take away hours of sleep that you previously enjoyed, fill your arms and prevent you from getting “important things” done. He or she will cry when least convenient, refuse to nap, learn to do obnoxious things to get your attention. There may be health scares, temper tantrums, moments of distress, fear, or frustration.

But parenting is still fun. Because those are just the negative moments in a whole world of sweet, positive things. When that little newborn enters the world, they love you with their whole heart—depend on you, love you, enjoy spending time with you. That little one will want to nestle in your arms and cuddle. He or she will smile their first smile into your face, utter their first word in an effort to communicate with you. Selfishly, it’s an incredible thing. That baby means you won’t be alone. You have a companion: someone to go on walks with, someone to watch the evening news with, someone to sing songs to. And unselfishly—the fact that your life can help produce life, that you can help bring into the world and nurture a new, life-bearing, creative, unique soul, is an unspeakable gift.

I know many grown parents who have cultivated strong relationships with their children through the years. And when these parents speak of their children, it isn’t with annoyance or frustration. When their children are grown, they become friends and enjoy their time together. The strength of these relationships seems to stem from the fact that over the years, the parents developed a healthy understanding of 1) their responsibility to their children—to serve and to discipline them—and 2) of their children’s autonomy and personhood.

It’s a fragile dance, one that often seems to difficult to balance. These parents know that, from the moment a child is born (or even before), their life will be one of service and sacrifice toward that child, helping them grow into a responsible and kind human being. But these parents also know that this does not involve bowing to a child’s every whim and fancy; they understand that a child’s raw material requires careful nurturing—and that requires discipline. We must help inculcate habits of virtue by developing incentives that draw a child toward the Good, teaching them the right reaction to various pains and pleasures. This is part of our service toward our children—not just giving them a candy to get them to stop whining, not just turning on the TV every time they bother us; but rather, teaching them to love what is good, to exercise self-control, to know what is prudent and right. This involves work. But the result is often a relationship strengthened by love and a desire to do what is best for the child, even when it’s troublesome and frustrating.

The balancing side of this is that these parents don’t see their children as playthings or passive objects. They care less about their children’s grades or extracurricular achievements than they do about their character. When their child expresses a desire to try something new, they’re encouraging—but they don’t pressure him or her into some pursuit that they will not enjoy. These parents see their children as creative, exciting, unique human beings, and enjoy watching them grow in their own way, in their own time. When their children are young, they don’t worry about what others think, about whether their child is “advanced” or not, about whether they’ll be a straight-A student. They don’t try to cover up the imperfect moments, or wish their kids would finally be old enough for daycare, old enough to go to school, old enough to finally move out. On the flip side, they don’t “vent” about their children constantly in public forums, complaining about their problems and issues. They recognize the fact that—just as it isn’t appropriate to do that in regards to their husbands, or sisters, or parents-in-law—it’s not appropriate to do with their children, who are also people with feelings and dignity. As their children grow into adulthood, they show deference and respect to the maturing person before them. They see that their children do not belong to them—rather, they see each child as a gift, one to be tended, but also respected.

My grandmother once told my mother that “we raise our firstborns for other people”; it’s a statement I now think about constantly, hoping and praying that I don’t fall prey to this temptation. But when we’re constantly posting about our lives online, it’s difficult not to feel this temptation. I want to share moments from my daughter’s life with her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins; what I don’t want is to use her to get accolades, praise, or sympathy from any or all of the above. Often—as with all things in life—it’s difficult to separate my motivations as I’m hitting “post.”

But I am trying, every day, to enjoy moments with her in all their sweetness before I even think about “sharing” them. To savor the times my daughter laughs or coos or starts to roll over. To talk to her when we go on walks, to read books with her, to cuddle with her—to see her little personality develop, her little will and opinions get stronger and more evident. To start praying for the days ahead when she’ll need discipline, encouragement, admonition. To be grateful that I get to be present for these sweet days—grateful that I get to be her mother, grateful that we get to spend life together from here on out. As I sink into each moment, I find myself having more fun than I ever thought I would. When she grins at me, I grin back. We laugh together—or more often at this point, I laugh at her, especially as she grows more opinionated and animated.

And despite all the negative social media posts, all the warnings, all the “just you wait”’s, I’m discovering that life with this baby girl is wonderfully fun. I am filled with awe at the fact that I got to help create a new life, and now get to watch that life develop and grow. I get to spend time with her, get to see her pursue her dreams and help her reach them.

The greatest challenge of the days ahead will be learning to strike a good balance between the above two things: between service and deference, love and respect, discipline and freedom. But I suspect—and hope—that if I continue to see this baby girl as a living breathing wonder, as a gift, it will help turn my heart towards that correct balance, and bring joy in the days to come.

Posted in . 9 comments

March Madness: A Family Affair

My dad introduced me to March Madness when I was about six or seven years old. I watched him swirl little pieces of paper around in a baseball cap, each holding the name of a basketball team. All four of us kids took turns drawing team names out of the hat, and he helped us read the names aloud—team names like Wake Forest, Butler, Xavier, and Duke. I thought “Wake Forest” was a beautiful name.

Dad would color code our different teams, and we kept track of their progress through the championship. The child with the winning team got to pick a nice restaurant for a celebratory family dinner. We always hoped the baby of the family, Johnny, wouldn’t win—he always picked McDonald’s.

All of us, from age four on up, watched our teams compete with rapt attention. My younger brother told me recently that this was one of his earliest (and favorite) memories. Even though I previously had little to no interest in sports, I suddenly became a sincere basketball fan. And after years of watching March Madness, it’s become one of the highlights of my spring. Though my family loves football, baseball, and even golf, this is the one game that unites us and fosters camaraderie in a unique way—indeed, I think it’s American sports at their finest.

The March Madness tournament usually takes about a couple weeks—two days each for the rounds of 64, 32, 16, and eight, and then two days for the semi-final and final games of the competition. Each day brings new surprises and upsets. American sports are all about the Cinderella stories: we all love a good underdog. And that’s one of the primary reasons we love March Madness—you never know what might happen.

In the heat of the tournament, teams don’t always follow with their statistical chances. Each game is only 40 minutes: as the buzzer winds down and enthusiasm escalates, one or two players can change the entire outcome of a game. All it takes is the right matchup, the right pass, the right defensive moves.

Back in 2008, no. 10 seed Davidson surpassed everyone’s expectations and made it to the Elite Eight in tournament play. Watching Davidson smash my (and everyone else’s) bracket was an irksome yet exciting experience. Most of us had dismal scores by the end of the tournament, but we couldn’t help loving Davidson for their brilliant Cinderella story. Even last year, No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast beat No. 2 Georgetown—and became the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16. I’m still waiting for the day a No. 16 takes the whole championship by storm. You never know.

Unlike the Super Bowl, which experiences a lot of buildup and then is over in a day, March Madness is a multiple-week affair, jam-packed with basketball games. There’s always a new surprise around the corner, and fans constantly share their results and disappointments with each other. In college, fellow March Madness fans watched the matchups with me while doing homework and writing papers. Some of us (ahem, maybe me, but I’m not admitting to anything) watched the live games on our computers during Physics class. At work, fellow employees talked about their alma maters’ prospects for the championships, and competed with each other for gift cards and prizes.

Though there’s always commercialism involved in today’s sports, this tournament is about the teams: their tenacity, their togetherness, and their ability to transcend circumstance. Professional sports often fixate on one or two all-star players—Peyton Manning, LeBron James, Derek Jeter—rather than cheering for a team as a whole. While college sports still highlights a few players who rise to the top, the game is primarily focused on teams as a whole, and their ability to work in cohesion. Basketball is a fluid and fast-paced sport. The players’ pace, intuition, and ability to communicate always rise to the forefront in the tournament.

Team players change with every year—it’s harder to follow a specific player, but in a sense, seems to help convey the overall spirit and ethos of a team. My sister always cheers for Duke, no matter their place in the tournament. They’re her team. In March Madness, almost everyone has a team they’ve followed and cheered for throughout the years. Like other college sports, this championship encourages a fierce loyalty.

Though coordinating bracket pools and game-watching parties around the frenzy of work and commutes also requires some teamwork, fans flock together every year for March Madness. In this sense, too, the tournament is a team event. We band together, and wait excitedly for history to be made.

Now grown up, married, and living on the opposite side of the country, I still participate in tournament competitions with my family. My husband may have been a bit puzzled when he saw my growing enthusiasm through February (and even before), as we counted down to March Madness. I signed us up for two separate bracket competitions—and then, if that wasn’t enough, I began slicing up team names into little strips of paper, and sticking them into his Green Bay Packers baseball cap.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I was carrying on a tradition, one I’ve proudly participated in for the past 17 years. We drew our teams—I got Villanova, another one of my favorite names. When we have children someday, they’re going to join in the fun, too. Because March Madness, for me, isn’t really about winning—it’s about family, Cinderella stories, and the joy of a wonderful tradition.

Gracy Olmstead is TAC‘s senior writer.

Posted in , . 3 comments

Don’t Hate Trump’s Supporters

Who’s voting for Trump? It seems every publication has asked this question—from The Week to the Wall Street Journal to GQBut when we read these articles, we—along with the authors—are usually asking this underlying question: why in the world would anyone vote for Donald Trump?

Because these two questions, who and why, have dominated the media over the past few months, I’ve really appreciated Rod Dreher’s commentary on Trump voters as of late—especially his post Monday about the ethics of the working class, particularly those in the older generation. Rod notes the virtuous kindness of his father, the way he reached out to everyone in his community—yet adds that many of his father’s political inclinations would put him in sympathy with Trump supporters.

Rod’s blogpost reminded me of a conversation I had with my grandfather back in Idaho, on my last visit home. He said he was voting for Trump. When I asked why, he said many things I’ve heard repeated by others regarding Trump’s political incorrectness, the fact “he says it like it is,” is “not afraid to stand up to the establishment,” the fact he cares about American jobs, et cetera. I recognize in my grandfather many of the attributes Rod saw in his father, attributes that push him toward Trump’s message. My grandpa doesn’t really use social media; I doubt he has seen Trump’s controversial Twitter posts and retweets, hasn’t been fully exposed to the most controversial comments he’s made.

My grandpa is an incredibly hard worker. He grew up on a farm, started his own dairy, helped open a local bank. Since his wife died, he’s spent quite some time connecting with others who’ve experienced loss, letting his sociability and warmth minister to others. He’s the sort of man who knows everyone, loves deeply, and feels a strong loyalty to place. He’s also the kind of person who speaks his mind unashamedly, and is not afraid to express politically incorrect opinions.

Of course, we disagree on quite a few issues. He’s a Fox News fan, and with that, taps into some of the more belligerent voices of the Republican movement than those I would care to identify with. But when it comes to the local sphere of government, culture, and community, we agree on most things. We have the same vision: for a land well-tended, a vibrant local economy, limited and accountable government, healthy churches and schools.

Even though I share the concerns of many others regarding Trump’s candidacy, I have grown frustrated and saddened by the belligerence this discussion has caused between groups of people. I appreciate, so much, the thoughtful commenters here at TAC—who even when they disagree, present thoughtful and honest opinions without maliciousness. When Trump supporters have commented on my anti-Trump stories, they’ve been thoughtful and respectful. I owe them the same deference.

But the #NeverTrump movement has often encouraged attitudes of disdain, scorn, and contempt not just for Trump, but also for Trump voters. When Donald Trump’s Chicago rally erupted in violence last week, I felt indignation and frustration: indignation at Trump, because he’s garnered tremendous power over the past several months, and it’s a power he seems to wield thoughtlessly. When he encourages violence at his rallies, he’s not the one who ultimately suffers the dangerous consequences: it’s the elderly, the families, the children in attendance who then become targets of violence by angry protesters. But I also felt frustration with those protestors—who “call candidates’ supporters names like ‘racist’ and interrupt their speeches … [who] have climbed onstage uninvited in order to promote their own political causes or, in at least one instance, possibly to assault an office-seeker,” as Newsweek notes. I read this account of the Chicago rally protests, in which the writer describes some of the particular violent instances he observed:

  • A single white Trump supporter who held up a sign and stood quietly as three dozen people surrounded him, smiling and screaming, snatching and pushing at him until he had to run for police cover. Someone grabbed his American flag and threw it on the ground and he fought to recover it. The police escorted him away.
  • Two young men, perhaps 17-19, standing quietly as they waited for a ride home. They were wearing their MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hats, looking terrified as people cursed and swore at them, and occasionally threw furious challenges for debate. The two young men held their ground. Only once did one of those hats come down, and it quickly went back on again.

Reading this, I had a picture of my grandpa in that crowd. I could see him proudly sporting a “Make America Great Again” hat. I could see his troubled face, looking out at a sea of angry young people, none of them willing to listen to his side of the story—none willing to consider the point of view of a man who’s dedicated his entire life to place, family, community, and feels as if his world is slipping away.

I don’t want to make presumptions about my grandfather’s allegiance to Trump. I don’t really think he’d be the sort to go to a rally—but there are many people out there who have, and I don’t think all of them are bad people. I don’t think all of them are misogynists, or racists. So the anti-Trump stories, memes, and videos in the media have started to frustrate me—not because I like Trump, by any means, but because I do love some of his supporters. And while I intend to keep noting my many concerns about him as a presidential candidate, I don’t want to join in the jeering. This is why Michael Brendan Dougherty’s writing about Trump has been so refreshing—he’s not a fan, but he’s thoughtful and sympathetic toward the candidate’s supporters.

The world we grow up in, the political context we’re surrounded by, helps form our characters and opinions. Each generation seems to have its weaknesses and vices: mine (the millennial generation) is often prone to attitudes of entitlement, laziness, skepticism, moral ambiguity. But we’re also more likely to exercise a certain set of virtues: mercy, empathy, kindness, tolerance. Many of us support Bernie Sanders, it seems, because his political platform complements both our virtues and our vices.

My grandfather’s generation has a different set of virtues, a different set of vices. Donald Trump’s platform and political rhetoric sits well with some of their natural inclinations. When I get angry and frustrated with the Trump voter, I have to remember that the world I live in is very different from the one known to many of them. I am called to show them tolerance and empathy, to try to understand them, despite our differences.

This could be my millennial leaning toward “softness” and “tolerance” coming out. But it’s also, at root, my love of community—and desire that, in the end, our presidential election won’t destroy opportunities for important political discourse. Because there are many other things worth talking about, many other important battles worth fighting—and if the Republican party as we know it is going to be forever changed by this 2016 election (as some believe it will be), it seems best to consider how best to harness this change in a productive fashion. How to work with those who are different than us, so that—whether some or all of us are disappointed by the results of the election—we can use that disappointment to foster a conversation, cohesion, understanding, rather than letting it foment into bitterness and anger, as it has this time around.

Posted in , . 29 comments

Through Wendell Berry’s Looking Glass

Wendell Berry /  photo courtesy of www.theseerfilm.com
photo via www.theseerfilm.com

What is the purpose of film?

For some, it is to entertain: to draw moviegoers with humor and sex, intrigue and violence. The meaning and meat of a film matters less than the money it draws. For others, films are meant to inform and transform: to convince watchers that some piece of knowledge should change their lives.

But for Austin-based filmmaker Laura Dunn, filmmaking is primarily about telling a story. And while stories can transform, convict, and entertain, none of these things matter to her as much as being true to the story itself.

Dunn made her first film when she was an undergraduate at Yale University. She used to tackle film projects as an activist, she said in an interview, with an aim to change people’s way of thinking. “That’s when I was 19, and I’m 40 now,” she says. “I see things differently. I definitely make films to connect with people, to bring light to things that need to be seen and heard—but I don’t set out self-righteously to change people. …You want to represent people who are good, kind, and generous to trust you with their stories. You want to do that respectfully.”

And that is precisely what she has done with The Seer, a new documentary about writer Wendell Berry, set to be released at Austin’s South by Southwest Festival on Saturday. The film is co-produced and directed with her husband, Jef Sewell, and backed by executive producers Terrence Malick and Robert Redford, as well as several co-producers including Nick Offerman (fondly known as Ron Swanson on the TV comedy series “Parks and Rec”).

Berry is a Kentucky-born farmer and philosopher, essayist and poet, environmental activist and localist. He’s written fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and has been the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the National Humanities Medal, and the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. Those familiar with Berry’s work know that he is an outspoken advocate for “flyover country”—for towns and communities, farmers and farms neglected or even maltreated by modern politics and culture. His nonfiction work lauds a loyalty to place, to family, and to community that we’ve largely forgotten. His poetry exudes a reverence for the created world, for the glory of quotidian rituals and objects. His novels combine both these things in characters that love their towns and land. Through this immense body of work, Berry has appealed to a wide range of readers, transcending political and personal biases.

Dunn’s documentary opens on a cityscape—flashing lights, blurred movement, darkness. Then it cuts to an aerial view of the woods, as Berry recites his poetry: “I saw the forest reduced to stumps and gulleys, I saw the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley, I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked like every other city.”

This opening reminded me of Berry’s novella “Remembering,” in which protagonist Andy Catlett goes to the city and feels its lack of community, of membership, and then decides to return home to the place he loves and the people he knows. The documentary gives action and picture to Berry’s words, tells the narrative through shots of city and cubicle, forest and demolished hillside.

After a long pause, it then cuts to the soft footfalls of an unpictured person through Kentucky woods, a black and white-spotted dog trotting gracefully ahead. The music is gone, and all we hear is the wind, the lowing of cattle, the rustle of leaves, the tread of footsteps, the sound of birdsong. “I have lived nearly all my life in a place I can’t remember not knowing,” we hear Berry say. “I was born to people who knew this place intimately, and I grew up knowing it intimately.”

While Dunn’s film could have focused on the man and his accomplishments, The Seer does something quite different. It looks at Berry’s community in Henry County, Kentucky—and thus gives us a glimpse through Berry’s own lens, helping us see the heart of Wendell Berry by showing us what he loves: the people and place he has devoted himself to.

photo via www.theseerfilm.com

photo via www.theseerfilm.com

The title of the film itself indicates this: a “seer” is not just one with a prophetic vision. It is also someone with a particularized vision—a person who sees through a glass, looking at something specific.

One of the key moments in Dunn’s film is when she shares a quote from an NPR interview with Berry from 1998. He had built a 40-pane window in his Kentucky farmhouse, and he always wrote by the light of that window. “When I set out, the idea of that 40-pane window was always important thematically,” Dunn said. “It was really provocative to me. He talks about looking through a frame, holding up an artifact through which you can see. There’s a beautiful contrast he draws between the frame of the window as a manmade construct, and the natural world that doesn’t behave how you’d expect it to.” This became Dunn’s inspiration for The Seer—it never shows footage of Berry himself, but rather gives us a view into his glass: letting us see what “the seer” himself sees. The closest we get to an actual glimpse of Berry is seeing him type with his old typewriter.

Part of the reason for this decision not to show Berry is, as I suspected, due to the fact that he himself did not want to be filmed. Berry’s work is very cognizant of the damages that machines—be they automobile and tractor, or television and computer—have had on human relationships. While this may not be the reason he asked not to be filmed, it fits his personality and body of work to hide his face from the camera.

Dunn could have laced together bits of footage of Berry to remedy this dilemma. But she didn’t. “This was the ultimate challenge: but for me, it was the ultimate opportunity, too,” she said. “He is such a distinct voice. To make a film, but not film him—it reflected something essential about him.” So she embraced Berry’s own reticence of the camera, and decided to paint this unique picture of his world and the people he loves.

“If you draw a portrait of someone, artistically, you don’t just take a photograph or draw the literal lines of their face,” Dunn notes. “That doesn’t express who that person is. This film was an inspiring challenge—how not to draw a picture of [Berry’s] face, but reflect who he is.”

The film is full of black and white photos of Berry and his family, taken by his close friend James Baker Hall over the years—photos that very few people have seen before. Dunn and her team used these pictures to shape a “creative composite,” showing Berry’s life journey frame by frame.

But The Seer primarily focuses on a series of inhabitants from Berry’s own Henry County, Kentucky. The film is a tribute to farmers—their hard work, love of land, and traditional values. It’s a memoir to a sort of farming that’s dwindling and dying out, as industrialized agriculture takes its place. And it’s a collection of Berry’s own calls to halt such “progress,” to ponder the dangers of our ways, to preserve the old ways and the beauty of their rhythms.

“The farm is a beautiful way of understanding relationship of ourselves to land, to each other, to God,” Dunn says. “Wendell doesn’t just isolate an environmental issue—he helps us see how interconnected these pieces are, helps us see what our culture denigrates, at such high cost to our families.”

photo via www.theseerfilm.com

photo via www.theseerfilm.com

The Seer is gentle in its message about agriculture. Berry’s work lauds the small, the sustainable, the organic; and so, too, does the film. But when Dunn interviews farmers who do not fit this model, she does not paint them as greedy villains. Rather, she shows their goodness, their love of farming, and their utter helplessness in an economic and regulatory environment that is often working against them. They all obviously love their trade and their land, their homes and families: but they don’t know how to make ends meet. They’ve adopted the famous adage, “Get big or get out.” And it’s betrayed them. This is the root of much of Wendell Berry’s writing about agriculture, and The Seer brilliantly interweaves clips from Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s famed calls to expand and industrialize in the 1970s, alongside Berry’s own poignant rebuttals. It also features interviews with Berry’s daughter Mary, who serves as executive director of the Berry Center, which aims to help encourage sustainable farming, land conservation, and “healthy regional economies.” 

In an early section of the film, Mary Berry talks about how her parents taught her to “look and see”—every time they went on a walk, they would point out the beautiful and the ugly, the well-kept and the neglected, the forgotten and the precious. This, too, reminds us of Berry’s calling as a seer. Dunn notes that in a nonfiction piece called “The Unforeseen Wilderness,” Berry wrote that “before you can be a seer, you have to be a looker.” To Dunn and her husband Jeff, “when everyone is looking at screens and phones, iPhones and computers,” this reminder to “look and see” is vital.

The Seer is a graceful piece. You can tell it took time to make—it reflects the age of something that has been well considered, aged like a good wine. It has layers of flavor and depth. The interviews are interspersed with black and white photos of Berry’s early work in Kentucky, shots of rustling trees in the woods, children playing in fields and gardens, abandoned farms. Each piece reflects an aspect of Berry’s work and vision, building a sense of longing for a home, for a place that is being abandoned. Composer Kerry Muzzey has constructed a lovely score, one that fits the quiet, thoughtful nature of The Seer. The combination of strings and soft piano, occasionally punctuated by moments of stillness, give the film a sense of reminiscence. It’s at times melancholy, thoughtful, serious, and sweet.

Despite the haunting sense of loss we might experience when seeing the helplessness of aging farmers, the shots of dilapidated barns and deserted farmhouses, there is also beauty reflected throughout the film. Much of this comes from the hope reflected in the face of younger generations, people picking up Berry’s call and embracing it. There are those who stay—and this film is also about those who stay: like Tanya Berry, who chose to follow her husband back to Kentucky, even though it was not her home, at least not at the time.

“I started this film thinking so much about Wendell and what a hero he is,” says Dunn. “But as a stay-at-home mom, as a woman, a homeschooler—the person who really stays with me, who I think about day in and day out, is his wife Tanya. She changed my way of thinking in this film. She elevates the domestic realm.”

photo via www.theseerfilm.com

photo via www.theseerfilm.com

Tanya grew up mostly in Northern California in a family of artists, notes Dunn. Her father was the Head of the University of Kentucky’s Art Department, where she also attended college as a music major. But when Wendell Berry decided to travel back home to Kentucky, Tanya followed: “I had no clue what I was getting into, but I’ve been lucky because of him, because he’s the kind of person he was, and he’s been lucky because of me, because I believe in the continuity of the home and the family.” She notes that growing up she’d lived all over the country, “moved and moved and moved,” and she had an intense desire to have a home—a place where her children could belong.

And this is a desire that many of Berry’s readers have: a yearning for a place of their own, for a home and community. His writing often draws people back to the land, to the places they’ve forgotten or neglected. This is one of the reasons why Dunn is planning to show the film at South by Southwest: Austin is her home.

“A lot of the same forces of development, change, and money that are destroying farms in Kentucky are destroying our home here,” she says. “It’s really meaningful to be able to show it at home, since it’s largely about finding your home in a world that feels so despairing a lot of times, where so many of the things you love are being destroyed. This is our home, and we’re going to start here.”

She hopes to show the film in smaller, local communities, because this would reflect the heart of Berry’s work. “If you do something trying to reflect spirit of Wendell Berry, you’re not just going to show it at big festivals and theatres, but also embrace the small, meaningful scale,” she says. “What we’re most interested in is bringing film to communities where it might inspire people, while celebrating [farmers] and their important good work.”

Wendell Berry decided that returning home and caring for his place mattered more than prestige and urban splendor; and it would seem that he’s been blessed for this decision. While he’s not a household name, recognition of his work is steadily growing. The unforeseen consequences of our agricultural and cultural developments that he warned about in the 1970s are becoming widely recognized and worried over today. Yet he’s refused to embrace a party or public movement, choosing instead to walk his own path. This means he’s angered people on both left and right—but it’s also enabled him to bridge ideological barriers and appeal to a large set of people. He’s tapped into a yearning that lies in the heart of so many: a love of home, of place, of traditions that are worth preserving and communities that are worth celebrating. We don’t want to lose these things, and Berry helps explain why.

The Seer perfectly embodies that message, entreating us not to forget or step away from our homes and our communities, but rather to restore and love them—to “look and see.” This, if any, is the transformative message that Dunn brings to her film. It’s a piece that she hopes might urge watchers “to turn away from the film, and turn into their own lives … to turn the television off and go outside.”

Posted in , , , . 5 comments

Why #NeverTrump Isn’t Working

a katz / Shutterstock.com

In the days leading up to Super Tuesday, Republicans were out in full force on social media, doing everything in their power to stop Trump. Their slogan? #NeverTrump: an insignia on the end of almost every post, a battle cry to other voters to stop his rise in its tracks.

Never have hashtags had such a huge role to play in a presidential race. There’s the popular and catchy #feeltheBern, which has become a chant at Bernie Sanders rallies. There’s #CruzCrew, #StandwithRand, #TeamMarco, and others.

But this has also been a week of negative hashtags: most importantly, #NeverTrump. Following John Oliver’s incredibly popular Trump takedown on Last Week Tonight, #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain has also been immensely popular. Another I saw—presumably based on a Marco Rubio quote—was #FriendsDon’tLetFriendsVoteforConArtists. Long, yes. But effective? Most definitely. And perhaps most telling: practically everyone in my online friend group has been posting anti-Trump statuses, videos, memes, and articles over the past week. It’s as if they collectively realized that yes, indeed, he was succeeding in his run for president—and they wanted to exert whatever social pressure they could on their friends to prevent this from becoming reality. Thus—#FriendsDon’tLetFriendsVoteforConArtists.

That statement—and its online medium—is very important in 2016. It seems obvious that Facebook (and other social media) will be playing an ever greater part in our political discourse, and may have an increasingly civic role in the days to come. The past week has demonstrated that these platforms will not only urge people to vote, but will also pressure people to vote for a specific candidate.

Facebook’s increasing civic role could be a good thing—in communities where we no longer know our neighbors, we get less political and social input from our local arenas. When we walk (or drive) around our local communities, many of us do not run into familiar faces with the regularity that we used to; we’re less likely to talk politics with the people we see at local coffee shops or grocery stores. Facebook could fill that hole in an important way: by opening up a place for political discourse, in a country where we increasingly feel awkward doing it in the physical neighborhoods we inhabit. 

But it’s also true that Facebook (and other social media) could become a political bubble of peer pressure, in which we have a distorted sense of who we should vote for or how we should react to political events. The clamorous shouting of our friend groups—many of whom share political alliances and sentiments—could deafen us to the voice of reason, prudence, or caution. It could make us less sensitive to those who have differing opinions or views. 

There are two reasons this seems likely to happen: first, because we don’t know exactly how Facebook’s own algorithms could be influencing what we see and when? Is there a reason #NeverTrump was dominating my newsfeed this week? Was it as popular a movement as I thought it was—or did Facebook already know that I was not a Trump voter, and thus began feeding me the content it associated with my political inclinations? Could it be that pro-Trump people saw less—or even no—#NeverTrump content? Facebook has been known in the past to skew its newsfeed items toward the positive. And it uses a “rich get richer”-style algorithm to determine what ends up in your feed. This would mean that, if you don’t like Trump, the #NeverTrump content would bolster your mood, spread through your friend base, and dominate your news feed. If you were a fan of Trump, you would be less likely to see such posts—partly because your friend base was likely more pro-Trump, but also because the negative nature of the posts would be less suited to a “happy” newsfeed.

As one person put it, it would be interesting to see a Venn diagram of how Trump support overlapped in our friend groups. Because if my Facebook friends’ statements were any indication, Trump should have suffered a serious blow on Tuesday night. Yet as results poured in, he continued to stand as the frontrunner. So something—whether it was algorithms or friend circles, indignation or stubbornness—prevented my friends from reaching the voters they meant to reach. Based on the results of Super Tuesday, the voters #NeverTrump posts were meant to reach were either offended by them and voted for him anyway, or didn’t see them much or at all.

And that has very interesting implications going forward: it seems to indicate that certain voter cliques could whip each other into a frenzy, while others could foment their own sentiments and interests, without any real transformation or change happening. This could result in less and less understanding, but rather in increasing levels of anger and disgust. Whereas standing outside your local voting place with a “Don’t vote for Trump” sign would definitely result in an opportunity to reach some with differing opinions, it would appear that doing so on Facebook will only have a limited effect.

Posted in , , , . 21 comments

Why Cooking Matters

"Cooked" / Courtesy of Netflix
"Cooked" / Courtesy of Netflix

How does the food we eat affect us as people? Michael Pollan’s books—The Omnivore’s DilemmaCookedIn Defense of Food, and others—consider the history and science behind the way we eat, and how our eating habits have changed over time. His books often lead us on a sort of journey: in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he spends a few weeks farming with Joel Salatin, then goes on to learn how to forage for mushrooms and hunt wild boar. His journeys are usually structured around a question about food and our relationship to it: why do we farm this way? Is eating meat ethical? Is there a right—or better—way to eat than our current one?

Cooked,” a documentary just released on Netflix, takes Pollan’s book of the same name and gives it cinematic color and texture. It’s divide into four segments, each named after one of the four classical elements: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth (or, according to their primary subject matter: Meat, Soup, Bread, and Cheese). It’s a journey into our oldest traditions of cooking: from roasting meat on a spit, to preparing cheese in old wooden barrels, to making kimchi. Throughout, Pollan considers why cooking has developed in the way it has, and why the old traditions—baking bread from scratch, say, or fermenting our vegetables—are important and worth preserving. In this way, it’s a rather conservative piece.

“Cooked” crams a lot of material into four 50 to 58-minute segments. Parts feel a bit rushed. Additionally, crusader that he is, much of Pollan’s documentary levels a variety of attacks at big business and capitalism for all our current food woes; it’s the advertising industry, he believes, that have undermined our old traditions of cooking. And while there’s some truth to this, less considered are the ways in which the decline of private association and the family may have also affected our eating habits. After all, in a home where no one is ever at home, there isn’t really time to cultivate the cooking habits of yesteryear.

Pollan, in the documentary’s “Air” episode, targets food companies in the 1950s who convinced housewives they could do better buying canned goods and Wonder Bread than making meals from scratch. “The collapse of cooking can be interpreted as a byproduct of feminism, but it’s a lot more complicated and a lot more interesting than that,” Pollan said in an interview with Mother Jones. “Getting it right in the film took some time, but it was important to tell the story of the insinuation of industry into our kitchens, and show how the decline of cooking was a supply-driven phenomenon.”

To his credit, Pollan acknowledges the vital and under-appreciated work that homemaking consisted of up to this point. He implies (though carefully, considering how politically charged the subject is) that the work of women in the home contributed to the flourishing of the entire family, and that our lack of this presence has had consequences to our diet, and thus to our health and happiness. (For more insights on this subject, consider reading Shannon Hayes’ book Radical Homemakers.)

The New York Times‘s Neil Genzlinger finds fault with “Cooked” because he thinks it’s too gentrified—because only rich people can feasibly cook in the way Pollan demonstrates:

It would be great if all 7.4 billion of us could hunt our own lizards and cook them over an open fire, spend hours baking our own bread from grain milled on stone, and so on. But there’s a gentrification to Mr. Pollan’s brand of culinary advocacy.

The world’s poorest people — some seen in idyllic imagery here — have to devote long hours to basic subsistence, and the world’s relatively well off have the luxury to indulge in artisanal cooking. Yet applying his ideas across the whole range of human circumstances is a trickier subject than this pretty series wants to tackle.

Part of the appeal Pollan seems to be making, however, is that such cooking used to be common among people of all backgrounds and incomes—he suggests that, rather than being a meager and debilitating practice (as “devote long hours to basic subsistence” would imply), the work of creating food actually elevated the lives of those who created them. It lent grace, rhythm, beauty, and fellowship to their lives. It built up communal bonds, fostered traditions of hospitality, encouraged health and wellbeing. He shares the story of Moroccan communities who bake their bread in communal ovens. This is part of their heritage and culture—yet as Pollan’s documentary shows, this practice is growing rare as people turn to the ease of grocery store loaves.

I can see Genzlinger’s point—not because I think the barbecuing, soup-making, or bread-baking that Pollan describes are only for “rich people,” but rather, because we’ve largely lost the skills associated with this work. Many of the people throughout Pollan’s documentary refer to cooking traditions their mothers or grandmothers taught them: skills that were handed down through generations. It seems that we’ve lost a lot of these skills, and thus re-learning them presents a challenge of time and resources that many of us just don’t have. But baking a loaf of bread requires the cheapest of ingredients: flour, water, salt, a little yeast. Buying a whole chicken and roasting it with a few spices needn’t require an entire paycheck. Without an understanding of how to do these things, however, they become a costly endeavor.

There’s also a sense in which we think we don’t have time or money, because we apportion our resources differently; as San Francisco Chronicle reporter Tara Duggan notes in her “Cooked” review, “If we shouldn’t let corporations make our food, as Pollan argues, should each of us rise before dawn to bake loaves of bread and homemade granola bars for our children’s lunch each morning? There’s something about his idea of cooking as a moral imperative that feels insensitive to the realities of modern life.” But when she asked Pollan about this, he reminded her that, while it’s true we often work longer hours and spend more time commuting, we also spend more time in front of the television and computer than we used to.

Each segment of the series features a person, family, or tribe who complete a culinary ritual because this is how it has been done for generations. Making beer out of yucca root, cheese in old wooden barrels, Indian food with homemade coconut milk: these things have scientific reasons for being good, but that’s not usually why we embrace or enjoy them. They emanate from a sense of worship, a desire to nourish loved ones, an enjoyment of ritual, an eagerness to show hospitality. This is what cooking traditionally does: it brings us together, and fosters a sense of belonging. It involves a very conservative respect and reverence for the past, for the rituals and traditions of our forbears. Pollan’s documentary helps us remember the “why” behind our cooking, the human love and fellowship at the heart of it all.

Posted in , , . 13 comments

Amazon and the Power of Print

Amazon is slowly killing the bookstore—or so we have thought, up to this point. After Borders closed, as Barnes & Noble has struggled to make a profit, many bibliophiles anxiously feared the day when their favorite pastime—perusing shelves loaded with actual physical books—would vanish. Even though the e-book has not yet conquered the codex, we’ve wondered whether it was merely a matter of time. Recently-published works such as Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore depict the physical bookstore as something ancient and quaint, unnecessary and easily replaced by the wonders of modern technology.

So it comes as something of a shock to hear that Amazon may open as many as 400 brick-and-mortar bookstores in the coming years. Why this move “backwards,” away from the progressive pull of technology and the digital world?

David Sax argues in The New Yorker that e-commerce isn’t as financially lucrative as we think it is. Amazon may in fact benefit from opening some physical locations: “online retailers rely heavily on offering the lowest possible price. And competition on price is intense, because a better offer is always just a click away,” he writes. Additionally, though we get amazing deals on shipping via Amazon, there really is no such thing as “free” shipping: “The U.P.S. driver doesn’t work for free, and the gas in the truck isn’t free, either. Amazon and other online retailers must absorb these costs, cutting into their potential profits and placing further stress on their pricing strategies.” But those aren’t the only reasons he believes such a move could be good for Amazon:

The move from e-commerce to physical retail makes sense for deeply human reasons, too. Shopping has never been purely a transactional exchange of cash for goods. It’s also what we do on vacation, on weekends, and when we walk down a street. We shop to be with people, to have a place to go, to touch things, to indulge our consumption fantasies. Online shopping can offer a kind of digital mimesis of these things, but it doesn’t reward consumers in the same way as a physical store. Right now, Amazon might be the best place to find any book on Earth and purchase it at the lowest possible price, but the experience of shopping there remains impoverished.

… The report of new Amazon stores comes at a time when independent bookstores are experiencing a surprisingly robust resurgence. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of new bookstores in the U.S. has grown by more than twenty-five per cent in the past six years, while in-store sales have also grown. … Aware of the advantages of physical space, some e-commerce companies are already opening stores or deepening their investments.

It’s interesting to ponder the way physical presences still influence our desire to buy goods. Companies do well when they are able to foster a brand with a particular ethos and appeal. This is more easily done, one might argue, in a physical space. Barnes & Noble, with its dark bookshelves and hunter green accents, its café with artistic portraits of famous authors, its carefree and bright children’s section, all contributed to its brand. Anthropologie is a store that works hard to curate its own image, with window displays created by local artists, the ever-present scent of candles, and piles of beautiful fabrics and textures. As Chavie Lieber writes for Racked, “Everything about Anthropologie’s stores is meticulously calculated. In an age where companies are closing brick-and-mortar stores and spending money on perfecting the e-commerce experience, Anthro has its eyes focused on its retail settings and the sensory components that attract legions of dedicated shoppers.” There’s no doubt that Anthropologie’s strong physical brand has contributed to its success in all venues of retail, both on and off the web. It has cultivated a following because people enjoy the experience and aesthetic of shopping at the store.

It’s also worth noting that social media such as Instagram and Snapchat—visually-based mediums that prompt us to share beautiful things we are experiencing in a given moment—have spurred on a return to the aesthetic sale. Most companies who advertise their goods on Instagram are trying to sell an experience, something that is lovely and envy-inducing. It would be hard to market an Kindle on Instagram—but a pile of aged volumes, their tattered covers made mysterious with pools of shadow and the perfect backdrop? And what if you added a young hipster in the corner, her eyes framed with glasses, clutching a perfectly poured latte?

One could easily see how physical bookstores could develop this aesthetic appeal, and how such an appeal might help an increasingly amorphous company such as Amazon cultivate an aesthetic, a face, that customers can connect with.

Whether Amazon can compete with the appeal of smaller, indie bookstores remains to be seen—many of them have done remarkably well in recent years, and the used bookstores have an advantage that many larger stores such as Barnes & Noble do not. Or at least, so suggests The Awl‘s Drew Nelles, in his profile of a brick-and-mortar bookstore in Queens:

Topos is a snug place to spend the day drinking coffee and talking to strangers. Offering coffee and books at the same place is not a novel idea, but it is one way for booksellers to pay the bills, even if nobody likes to read anymore. … One of Topos’s other founders, Benjamin Friedman, helped start the shop after fleeing St. Mark’s, the East Village landmark, which is tens of thousands of dollars in debt to its landlord, and has been perennially on the verge of closure. Other shops have shuttered, or fled Manhattan in search of cheaper rents. But this has not necessarily been the case for used bookstores, many of which are thriving. “Strangely enough, it’s the big chain bookstores that are more of an anachronism,” Björkenheim said. “Even Strand is having to do a lot more of what Barnes & Noble was desperately doing for the last ten years. I don’t even know what they’re selling now—more tchotchkes and t-shirts and tote bags. Which is something a used bookstore doesn’t necessarily have to resort to.” The whole industry was probably heading in this direction, he added: “smaller used bookstores, rather than enormous megastores.”

… Friedman, a cheerful, loquacious man who worked in new bookselling for many years, talked about why used bookstores are still a viable venture.“The not very glamorous economic answer is that it’s a lot easier to make money selling used books,” he said. “On the whole, the problem with new books is that there’s a list price set by the publisher and a discount price that’s also set by the publisher. So, as a new bookseller, you have no control over what the book sells for or what you pay for it. With used books, if you’re smart, you find ways to get them cheap, and you decide what you price them at. As a general rule, on any book, a used bookseller is probably making twice as much profit as a new bookseller. And that’s the difference between making it and not making it, because the profit margins on new books are razor-thin. At a used bookstore, no one is getting rich, but you can make enough to stay alive.”

It makes sense: bookstore owners who are able to get their books at estate sales and auctions are going to make more than those who have to negotiate prices with publishers. They have more flexibility and independence, and thus are more likely to make a profit.

But one of Topos’s customers also hints at another reason the used bookstore is often more successful, and it goes back to the aesthetic element a physical store can cultivate: “My favorite thing is the smell of used books,” a customer, Jeff Freer, told Nelles. “It’s the smell of, ‘We have something here.’ The smell of, ‘It’s not going to disappear.’ The digital can be gone in an instant. But smell has to come from time.”

We are sensory creatures. Our participation in the world is not just prompted by information and digital connection, but also by things such as feel, taste, touch. You can buy a copy of The Brothers Karamazov on your Kindle—or you can stroll over to the nearest bookstore on a rainy day. You can wander through the shelves, pick up a hardback copy, and flip through the pages. You can buy a latte from the café, settle into a shadowy corner, and begin reading with the quiet buzz of other readers around you. For some, the former option will always sound more palatable, because of the ease of the sale. But for others of us—the dogged bibliophiles who love reading for its aesthetic, as well as for its information—we’ll always go back to the bookstore.

But many of my book-loving friends feel almost offended at Amazon’s latest move. After the online retailer “killed” off several of their favorite bookstores, will they now replace them, opening up locations in old Borders buildings? (Probably not literally, but the image is a powerful one.) As Gizmodo put it, Amazon’s move “particularly amusing given how [they] spent the past two decades driving booksellers like B. Dalton, Borders, and Waldenbooks out of business by undercutting their prices. … We can’t wait to see Netflix open up laserdisc rental shops next.”

My guess is that Amazon, if its move pays off, will begin to compete with stores such as Barnes & Noble: larger bookstore franchises that sell mostly new copies. But the little indie bookstores, such as Washington, DC’s Capitol Hill Books or Politics & Prose, will continue to flourish. Because their customer base is seeking something that only they can provide: the appeal of the little, the local, and the old.

Posted in , , . 4 comments

What Babbitt Says About 2016

“In the long run democracy will be judged, no less than other forms of government, by the quality of its leaders, a quality that will depend in turn on the quality of their vision. Where there is no vision, we are told, the people perish; but where there is sham vision, they perish even faster.” – Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership

Throughout the 2016 presidential race thus far, there have been interesting rhetorical parallels in the language of anti-establishment frontrunners such as Trump, Cruz, and Sanders. But the New Hampshire primaries made it evident that winners Trump and Sanders had, as the New York Times put it, “harnessed working-class fury to surge to commanding victories,” dealing “a remarkable rebuke to the political establishment, and [leaving] the race deeply unsettled.”

Throughout debates and across the campaign trail, Trump and Sanders have criticized the leaders or elites who currently “run the show”—be it economic or political—in Washington or on Wall Street. They employ “us versus them” language that pits voters against Washington insiders and their ilk. As Scott McConnell put it on Tuesday, “both campaigns are criticizing the same thing, in divergent but essentially parallel ways. I don’t think this has a precedent in American history, the leading candidates of both parties running essentially class-based campaigns against a financial elite.”

They have a good deal to criticize. Crony capitalism is rampant in our political system. Many working-class Americans on the right believe they are largely disrespected, ignored, or disdained by those elected to represent them. As Faith Whittlesey—former ambassador to Switzerland and head of public liaison for President Ronald Reagan—wrote in a Daily Caller story last week, “We have seen grave threats rise to religious liberty, the wild abuse of Constitutional guarantees and authority by activist judges and the Executive Branch. … The leading candidate of the Democratic party declares that Americans who belong to the Republican party are her “enemies,” while the president issues lawless amnesties for illegal aliens, and rewards leftist mayors of “sanctuary” cities who flout the very immigration laws which he once swore to uphold.”

Many similar sentiments are shared by those on the left: Bernie Sanders appeals to those who believe these “backroom elites” are governing Wall Street, that the big banks are taking advantage of the average American, and that the American dream is increasingly illusory for an entire generation of young people, who are graduating with mountains of student debt and struggling to find employment.

Trump, meanwhile, speaks of a ruling class that has betrayed the American dream and the American worker. He’s denounced “‘stupid’ leaders weakening America,” while railing against illegal immigrants and preying on the resentment felt by many who believe they’ve been unfairly granted amnesty. His audience in New Hampshire and beyond belong to a group that F.H. Buckley calls the “right wing Marxists”:

All that was solid has melted into air, and what begins to take its place is a right-wing Marxism scornful of Washington powerbrokers and repelled by the US’s immobile, class-ridden society. Voters across the spectrum demand radical change, and yet a bien rangé Republican elite seems content with minimal goals at a time of maximal crisis. The right-wing Marxist might hope for less conservative heart and more conservative spleen. … He has all the passion of a Bernie Sanders, but with this difference: the right-wing Marxist pursues socialist ends through capitalist means.

Interestingly, Irving Babbitt predicted many of these dynamics in his classic work, Democracy and Leadership. He warned that because of our turn away from traditional humanism, a victimhood mentality would prevail in our politics. This turn, he believed, was significantly influenced by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who introduced a new philosophy of human nature into Western culture:

“The old dualism put the conflict between good and evil in the breast of the individual, with evil so predominant since the Fall that it behooves man to be humble; with Rousseau this conflict is transferred from the individual to society. … The guiding principle of his writings, he says, is to show that vice and error, strangers to man’s constitution, are introduced from without, that they are due in short to his institutions. … A small group at the top of the artificial hierarchy, kings and priests and capitalists, sit on the lid, as it were, keeping man’s native goodness from gushing forth torrentially. … the inevitable effect of the Rousseauistic evangel is to make the poor man proud, and at the same time to make him feel that he is the victim of a conspiracy.” [emphasis mine]

All these candidates, on left and right, present to their audiences a vision of America as a place of big versus little, elites versus working class, us versus them. Additionally, they all provide some vision of what a winning nation would look like: a place in which the little guy can succeed, the “American dream” might still be alive, might and power abroad might still prevail. While there are nuggets of truth to both their complaint and their vision, both sides have leant teeth to their cause by placing all current fault in our institutions, rather than calling their voters to responsibility, and by vesting the whole of their solution to the power of the executive—be he a wall-builder, or an advocate for free tuition.

This vision becomes appealing not only when we begin to separate as classes—into groups of urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, young vs. old, elites vs. working class. It also blossoms when community falls apart. A shining vision of American exceptionalism—and in Trump’s case, of a racism-tinged nationalism—is especially appealing when you don’t have a human-scale vision of flourishing to counter it with. Everything pools into nationalism, instead of into a sturdy localism. We have the individual and the state, without any mediating institutions or communities.

Once again, it isn’t that Americans have nothing to complain about. There are plenty of reasons for them to resent the establishment. But Rousseauistic dualism prompts us to pursue charismatic leaders such as Trump and Sanders, looking to them for a solution to our problems, rather than nurturing real accountability and change. We find ourselves promoting candidates who foment political hatred and anger: who draw people not because they have real solutions, but because they have the right rhetorical arguments.

It is obvious that Trump and Sanders are winning a lot of support because they say things in a “sincere” or “genuine” way. Babbitt believed this temptation was an outcome of Rousseau’s thought:  

It seems to be assumed in certain quarters that almost any opinion is justified provided it be held with sufficient emotional vehemence. … Sincerity is indeed only one of a whole class of virtues that are often taken to be primary when they are in fact only virtues with reference to something more fundamental. Many of our ‘liberals’ conceive that it is in itself a virtue to be forward-looking, whereas it may be a vice, if what one is looking forward to should turn out to be pernicious or chimerical.

One can’t help but be reminded of the long argument that filled last Thursday’s democratic debate, in which Sanders and Clinton fought over which of them was more “progressive.”

Many also applaud Trump because he “is not afraid to say it like it is,” as if his frank (or more often, rude and insulting) manner is in itself a virtue. Though I agree with Ms. Whittlesey on many things, and applaud her inestimable contributions to both the U.S. pro-life movement and to our diplomatic relations abroad, I disagree with her when she supports Trump because “America needs another man in the no-nonsense Jacksonian mold; a Patton, a bold and adventurous fighter. We need a man who can, as Reagan did, electrify the room when he walks in, a man toward whom all heads turn.” She calls for “someone with charisma, quick wit, and determination”—someone who “effortlessly outshines the very able but lesser men who join him on any stage … a leader of superior mental agility who doesn’t apologize…”

But our politics have always been populated with charismatic, entertaining men: Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have all been presidents in this vein. And their charisma, while appealing, did not necessarily make them better presidents. Nor did the bold, sweeping measures that many of them enacted necessarily help voters—at least not in the long term.

What we need instead is force of character, someone who is not afraid to do or say the unpopular thing—someone who is characterized by humility, prudence, and a moral imagination. Someone who sees inequality and injustice, and is willing to recognize that it affects all people: not just those within his or her special interest group. As Babbitt put it, “Where there is no vision, we are told, the people perish; but where there is sham vision, they perish even faster.” A lack of political correctness and willingness to “tell it like it is” does not necessarily translate into prudent policy.

We need a citizenry willing to turn away from bitter, angry rhetoric, and to instead embrace the possibility that real change must often start small; a citizenry willing to admit that sweeping solutions—whether they come in the form nationalism or socialism, Trump or Sanders—are unlikely to solve the problems that currently beset us. Instead, we must cultivate again an understanding of that “conflict between good and evil” that “behooves a man to be humble,” and that calls us all to rise above attitudes of victimhood, and urges us instead to embrace both prudence and charity.

Posted in , , , . 23 comments

What About Agriculture?

Agricultural policy may be one of the least talked about issues in the 2016 presidential race, at least when it comes to the debate stage. Though not as glamorous as discussions of immigration reform or fighting ISIS, it’s still a vitally important issue with significant ramifications for the federal budget and the broader economy. Thus far, it has gained some air time in Iowa, largely because of the state’s significant farming demographic. But even there, candidates largely focused on ethanol mandates, while neglecting the larger issues of a retiring farming workforce and rampant Big Ag cronyism.

So what do the 2016 frontrunners have to say about agriculture? And how many of them are really as principled about ag reform as they claim to be?

Take Ted Cruz, Iowa’s winner: he’s known for his principled, dogmatic stands on fiscal issues in the Senate. He opposed the Farm Bill back in 2013—though he primarily spoke against the food stamp elements of the bill, while ignoring what Jim Antle called the bill’s “welfare for the rich and politically connected.” Nonetheless, he’s been brave enough to express his opposition to ethanol mandates, even while campaigning in the land of King Corn. “I don’t think Washington should be picking winners and losers,” he told a crowd of Iowa farmers last March. “I have every bit of faith that businesses can continue to compete, can continue to do well without having to go on bended knee to Washington asking for subsidies, asking for special favors.”

But does Cruz really have the guts to fight ag cronyism when his potential presidency is on the line? Despite his transparent resolve in Iowa, in December, Cruz flipped his vote on an important crop insurance funding measure in a highway bill in December. Lori Sanders of the R Street Institute explains the bill’s importance:

Tucked neatly away in Sec. 32205, on Page 1,143 of the 1,301-page bill, is a repeal of Sec. 201 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, passed in early November. For taxpayer advocates, Sec. 201 was one of that bill’s strongest selling points. It ordered the Department of Agriculture to renegotiate the Standard Reinsurance Agreement the federal government has with private insurers who participate in the federal crop insurance program. It would push their taxpayer-guaranteed rate of return down from 14 percent to 8.9 percent.

This small reduction actually goes a long way. The agriculture portion of the farm bill is vastly over budget, to the tune of more than $5 billion in 2014 alone. Despite Big Ag’s cries that their programs deliver taxpayer savings, a large chunk of the supposed savings from the latest farm bill already have been squandered on higher-than-expected payouts from our overly generous farm programs.

That’s why free-market advocates from Citizens against Government Waste to FreedomWorks to the National Taxpayers Union came out in force to support renegotiation. The Heritage Foundation lauded the provision as real savings in a package they otherwise termed a “colossal step” away from fiscal restraint. Unfortunately, it seems Big Ag is about to win the day, and in the most backhanded way – by attaching a seven-line provision to a completely unrelated bill.

Politico reported that, while originally voting “no” on the measure, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts took Cruz aside and talked to him. After a brief visit to the Senate cloakroom, Cruz stepped back in and voted “yes” for the measure. Other fiscal conservatives such as Mike Lee of Utah, and Rand Paul voted against it.

Could this demonstrate that Cruz, in truth, would be willing to give up his fiscal conservatism when pressured? Perhaps not—but at the same time, it is curious that he would flip-flop on this issue so close to the Iowa caucuses.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s only stated positions on farming put him directly in the pocket of Big Ag—as Tim Carney puts it over at the Washington Examiner, “he confuses pro-business corporatism with pro-market free enterprise.” Carney reports that Trump has attacked Cruz for his stance against ethanol mandates and subsidies, while declaring his own support for the industry. “His full-throated support for the ethanol mandate puts no room between him and Hillary, who has never met a corporate handout she didn’t like,” notes Carney.

As the most successful establishment Republican in the race thus far, it seems unlikely that Marco Rubio would be willing to fight the Big Ag lobbyists on such measures as the Farm Bill; for one, he’s a huge supporter of sugar subsidies as a Florida senator. On the campaign trail in Iowa, he was reluctant to speak up against the ethanol mandate, and chose to do so in a limited fashion—seemingly in order to stay on the good side of Iowa voters. His website’s stated platform on agriculture includes repealing “burdensome regulations” on farmers in the energy and conservation realm, but doesn’t touch on the Farm Bill.

Rand Paul, one of the few Republicans willing to oppose Big Ag cronyism, just dropped out of the 2016 race. But this may prove beneficial for fiscal conservatives long-term, as it enables him to continue pushing for fiscal conservatism in the Senate. In 2012, reports BallotPedia, Paul introduced an amendment to limit farm subsidies to those whose income is more than $250,000. “My friends across the aisle are commonly saying why don’t those of means pay more or receive less? This amendment would do precisely that,” he said on the Senate floor. “Currently nine percent of farmers are receiving nearly a third of the benefits. … I think this should change and that the wealthy shouldn’t be receiving farm subsidies.” When he originally launched his campaign, Paul told supporters that “I will place common sense and reasonable limitations on a bureaucracy that seeks to target well-intentioned businesses with burdensome regulations.” This is needed for U.S. agriculture—and hopefully Paul will continue this work on the Hill, no matter who resides in the White House.

The two democrats contending for the presidency, meanwhile, carry two different views on the problems we have with agriculture, writes Grist’s Nathaniel Johnson. While Clinton holds what Johnson calls the “underinvestment theory” of farm failure, focusing more on spending money than on reigning in cronyism, Sanders adheres to “the ‘unfairness theory’ of farm failure,” arguing that small and midsize farms “are being held down by unfair competition from foreign trade, big agribusiness, and the government subsidies that support the largest farmers.” Unlike many in the 2016 race, Sanders recognizes the frustrating cronyism entrenched in our agricultural system—practices that prevent small and midsize farms from flourishing, while lending a hand to the market’s biggest players.

“It is unacceptable that just four corporations control 82% of the nation’s beef cattle market, 85% of soybean processing, and 63% of pork processing,” Sanders’s website states. “It is unacceptable that there are over 300,000 fewer farmers than there were 20 years ago. It is unacceptable that the top 10% of farms collect 75% of farm subsidies, while the bottom 62% do not receive any subsidies. We have to adopt policies that will turn this around. He also expresses support for local and regional food systems: “Farmers throughout the country are boosting their bottom line and reinvigorating their communities by selling directly to local consumers, institutions, and restaurants. Senator Sanders will invest in this movement, helping Americans support local farms.”

But it seems unlikely that Sanders’s support for regional food systems would result in support for local food freedom laws, which enable farmers to sell to informed consumers without being subject to the usual licensure, permitting, certification, inspection, packaging, or labeling requirements by state agencies. It’s the sort of thing libertarians rally around—but would a socialist like Sanders be willing to support such a movement away from the directive power of the state?

Additionally, Sanders’s stated goals as president are focused on reversing trade policies like NAFTA, enforcing antitrust laws, and increasing monetary supports to rural America—without addressing the Farm Bill’s bloated subsidies or crop insurance programs. Though he opposes government supports for the top 10 percent of farmers in theory, one wonders how he would practically fight such supports without tackling the overreaching arm of Washington. He has recognized the perils of Big Ag—but not the connected perils of big government.

Anti-establishment candidates such as Cruz and Sanders have shown a past willingness to shake up Washington with their opposition to cronyism. Cruz has demonstrated at least some loyalty to fiscal conservatism and fighting big government; Sanders is willing to fight corrupt big business interests and stand up for small farmers who need a voice. If one were to combine these two loyalties, we’d have the perfect candidate: but as it stands, U.S. agriculture seems likely to face the complications of corruption and excess oversight in 2016 and beyond.

Posted in , , , . 9 comments

Fighting Terrorism With Transcendence

What would induce a person to join the ranks of ISIS? More than you might think, Ross Douthat argues over at the New York Times: in a world that offers us temporal rather than eternal promises, the Islamic State is reminding young people that they have souls: as the New York Review of Books piece that Douthat quotes points out,

France’s Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Drift Related to Islam (CPDSI) estimates that 90 percent of French citizens who have radical Islamist beliefs have French grandparents and 80 percent come from non-religious families. In fact, most Europeans who are drawn into jihad are “born again” into radical religion by their social peers. … ISIS is a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that many of them will never live to enjoy …

This is something the West has a hard time understanding, says Douthat. In our largely materially and rationally focused society, we don’t understand why young people would join a group of beheading extremists. Yet in underestimating the force of ISIS’s message, we undermine our own ability to fight them:

The deep reality here (a reality not unlike the one that’s playing itself out on certain college campuses right now) is that many human beings, especially perhaps young human beings, still crave a transcendent purpose, even in a society that tells them they don’t really need one to live a comfortable, fulfilling life. And more than that, many people experience both a kind of liberation and a kind of joy in submission to these purposes, even — as is the case with ISIS — when that submission involves accepting forms of violence and cruelty that rightly shock the conscience of the world.

… “Nothing costs enough here,” Huxley’s Savage complains about the brave new world. If ISIS costs, a certain meaning-starved cohort in our world thinks, maybe that just means it’s real. That cohort is still mercifully small, and unless radical Islam acquires a lot more intellectual cachet it’s likely to remain so. But if the West’s official alternative to ISIS is the full Belgium (basically good food + bureaucracy + euthanasia), if Western society seems like it’s closed most of the paths that human beings have traditionally followed to find transcendence, if Western culture loses the ability to even imagine the joy that comes with full commitment, and not just the remissive joy of sloughing commitments off — well, then we’re going to be supplying at least some recruits to groups like ISIS for a very long to come.

“Nothing costs enough here.” It’s true of Western society in many ways—especially in the realm of the spiritual and philosophical. This is something Rod Dreher has pointed out in his columns about “moralistic therapeutic deism“: while ISIS has given people a story of transcendence, Western churches have settled for “rationalism and do-goodery.” We’ve cheapened our Gospel by cutting out the supernatural and the difficult—by making it primarily about this life, and about pleasing people, rather than refocusing on the eternal and on God.

While the fears and doubts expressed by many American Christians over the Syrian refugee crisis are understandable, I think they are often symptomatic of this refocusing on the temporal and rational, rather than the eternal and spiritual. On Friday, I argued for The Week that Christians should be encouraging the U.S. government to admit refugees. This argument could have focused on presenting a rational, data-driven discussion of the costs and benefits: whether refugees will pose a risk to national security, whether we have the means to both screen and house them properly, etc. And there are some excellent resources on this subject, giving intelligent arguments for why the risks are much lower than most Americans think.

But instead, I tried to focus primarily on biblical and ethical arguments for Christians to consider—primarily because of the argument Dreher and Douthat are making. We religious people in the West are far too quick to secularize our conversations, focusing on the material and not the spiritual. We focus on the societal, political, and personal implications: on the worries of this life. And in so doing, we sell our religion cheap. We cut the heart out of it, and only strengthen the Islamic State’s cause. We show that we are not as devout as they—that we offer no equal (or superior) path of devotion to follow. We offer only the comforts of this world, and in the process, cut off the lost and alone from both the temporal and supernatural comforts they are craving.

In his Lenten message in February, Pope Francis warned listeners to be wary of “globalized indifference.” He said,

The love of God breaks through that fatal withdrawal into ourselves which is indifference. The Church offers us this love of God by her teaching and especially by her witness. But we can only bear witness to what we ourselves have experienced. Christians are those who let God clothe them with goodness and mercy, with Christ, so as to become, like Christ, servants of God and others. This is clearly seen in the liturgy of Holy Thursday, with its rite of the washing of feet. Peter did not want Jesus to wash his feet, but he came to realize that Jesus does not wish to be just an example of how we should wash one another’s feet. Only those who have first allowed Jesus to wash their own feet can then offer this service to others.

Some may think that a deep focus on the transcendent would deaden our hearts and deafen our ears to the sufferings of this world. But as Pope Francis pointed out, it’s the exact opposite: a person transformed by the supernatural is uniquely able to serve those who live in this world. As C.S. Lewis once said, throughout history “the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.”

This is the joy that can fight “the joy of ISIS”—it’s one that offers healing, comfort, and peace, rather than a gospel of stealing, killing, and destroying. But in order for the searching to find it, someone must preach it.

8 comments

The End of All Our Efficiency

We’re all obsessed with productivity, Melissa Gregg writes for The Atlantic. A bevy of mobile and computer apps beckon to us with their promise that—through a magical concoction of distraction-defying settings—they can help us work smarter and save time. Why do we crave productivity so? She considers:

With names like “Self Control,” “Omnifocus,” “Rescue Time,” even “Freedom,” productivity solutions offer liberation from as much as consolation for everyday demands. In providing mastery over incidental matters (what time management manuals have long referred to as “trivia”), human failings can be overcome. … Productivity apps facilitate the pleasure of time management, which is ultimately the pleasure of control. Their various platforms offer strategies for closure and containment, from shutting down email and non-essential communication to identifying peak performance periods and ideal moments for efficiency.

Why do we desire this “control,” “closure,” and “containment”? Gregg thinks such longings are brought on by the nature of the modern working world:

The consumer appetite for productivity techniques reflects an environment in which work has spilled over from the office to the train, airplane, hotel room, even bed. Productivity tools offer to protect workers from the creep of jobs that lack clear beginnings and ends, whether in hours clocked or outputs produced.

I can’t help but wonder if the cause is deeper, though. Desire for control—to be overcome “human failings”—such things speak more to a discontent with our human condition than they do to a mere working environment. Even away from the desk and computer, humans seem increasingly governed by the pull of the clock—by an ever-present awareness of time and its passing. This obsession, I would argue, is guided by an undergirding awareness of finitude, and its repercussions. We grasp at control, because we are mortal. We fret over our failings, because we know they are our downfall. We obsess over time saved, because we know time is all too short.

I think of this when I pull up the GPS on my phone, and find myself obsessively checking the “ETA” throughout my drive. If I’m using Google Maps, it’ll quickly alert me when a faster route becomes available. I speed even when I’m not in a hurry, just to see the minutes disappear on my ETA—to see that I’ve saved precious time. The very idea that I’ve “saved time” can give a sensation of pleasure and satisfaction.

Meanwhile, commercials offer quick-and-easy alternatives to any and every cooking, housecleaning, or maintenance job. Dinners get hurriedly prepared in microwaves or crockpots, coffee in Keurigs or even instant packets. Because efficiency—time saved—beckons to us like sirens from every corner.

There’s nothing wrong with such desires. But when efficiency becomes an obsession, our lives become a constant, headlong rush. Our obsession with saving time results in no time—at least no time for the sorts of slowness that lead to bursts of intellectual creativity, physical health, and spiritual contemplation.

Over at Humane Pursuits, Emily Carde argues that our mad rushing about hampers our ability to see and appreciate beauty:

If there is one lesson you should pull from Homer’s Odyssey, it should be that the journey is just as important as the arrival (at least that’s what was emphasized in my freshman Western literature class). I took many insights from Homer’s story, but that particular lesson has strongly influenced my life.

I love adventuring, exploring, creating, and experiencing new things. But I have found that when you pursue any of these only for their destination or end goal, you miss half the beauty and joy. … There is a beauty in the journey itself that is often overlooked because we are so anxious about the destination.

Recent studies have shown that when we give ourselves time to be bored—time to daydream and let our minds wander—we become more creative. Our brains are able to ponder new ideas and questions. They can slip into a thoughtful laziness that “productivity” won’t allow. Productivity, in essence, can be a real danger to creativity.

Now, the good news is that productivity can set time free for the empty, unhindered, even boring moments in which creativity comes alive. But we have to be willingly, consciously seeking such time—and be willing to set aside all the to-do lists and frantic rushing in order to enjoy it.

It’s also true that free, “unproductive” time allows us to properly care for our bodies. One of the things busy people seem all too eager to sacrifice is sleep. Sleep is good for you—in fact, it’s necessary for us to be fully healthy. If you’re a runner and want to run faster, you have to get a good amount of sleep. If you’re struggling with sickness and want to be well, one of the first and best ways to fix it is to sleep. If you want to become more fit, making sure you sleep a healthy amount is vital. Yet we so often treat things like “sleep”—along with making healthy meals from scratch, or stretching tight muscles—as guilty pleasures, as things that truly busy and important people can’t indulge in too much. This attitude slowly eats away at our bodies, leaving us with less and less time to care for them.

I often wonder, too, if our obsession with productivity—with “filled time,” in essence—is stemming from a fear of free time. If we’re ever stuck in a moment of silence, we usually turn on the radio or television, grab our phones, or log onto our computers. We have to fill the empty space. But is this all about being “productive”?

Louis C.K. doesn’t think so—in 2013, he told Conan O’Brien on late-night television that he thinks we avoid such moments because we’re afraid:

… Underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty, forever empty. That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone. It’s down there. And sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching and you’re in your car and you start going, Ooh, here it comes that I’m alone, like it starts to visit on you just like this sadness. Life is tremendously sad. …

That’s why we text and drive. Pretty much 100 percent of people driving are texting. And they’re killing and murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking their life and ruining another because they don’t want to be alone for a second. … I was alone in my car and a Bruce Springsteen song came on … and I heard it and it gave me a kind of fall, back-to-school depression feeling and it made me feel really sad and so I went, “Okay, I’m getting really sad,” so I had to get the phone and write “Hi” to, like, fifty people. … Anyway, I started to get that sad feeling and reached for the phone and then I said, “You know what: Don’t. Just be sad. Just stand in the way of it and let it hit you like a truck.” So I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much and it was beautiful. … Sadness is poetic. … You are lucky to live sad moments.

Free time, or alone time, can be dangerous—because they lead to moments of thought. And they can lead us into thoughts that we like to suppress. Once again, that simmering fear of finitude is present. In moments of quiet, it can rear its ugly head. But it is in considering the deep questions that we are able to understand what it means to be human, and to participate in this flawed and frightening—and beautiful and blessed—human existence.

Productivity. Efficiency. Things I so often yearn for, so often spend every day obsessing over. Yet when I look back over the past year, my favorite memories are the empty moments—moments of unscheduled, unexpected quietness that led to real connection, revelation, or wholeness. The time my brother and I sat watching the sun set over the Oregon coast, talking about life and dreams and philosophy. The time my husband and I walked along a lake in West Virginia, and he told me to sit and be still, to stop making checklists and worrying about the next thing. The times of journaling, writing down thoughts, reading books in coffee shops and bookstores. Long walks with Hobbes the Irish Setter: watching him play in creeks and puddles, enjoying the sounds of nature.

I have a lot to learn about letting go. But if there’s one thing this year has taught me, it’s that productivity can buy you time—but it can’t bring you happiness.

 

4 comments

Embracing Emojispeak

Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year isn’t really a word at all. It’s an emoji. TIME magazine reports:

Caspar Grathwohl, the president of Oxford Dictionaries, explained that their choice reflects the walls-down world that we live in. “Emoji are becoming an increasingly rich form of communication, one that transcends linguistic borders,” he said in a statement. And their choice for the word of the year, he added, embodies the “playfulness and intimacy” that characterizes emoji-using culture.

It’s true that emojis have begun to dominate our national—and global—conversations over the past year. They’ve inspired a book. Some have tried to communicate entirely through their medium. I even found an “Emojisaurus.”

For the less practiced (or obsessed?) emoji user, the little symbols are a fun way to explain ourselves further when space and time are both short, and when we cannot see the face of the person communicating with us. Emojis help to further explain our mood, to add a touch of humor to a text or post, to bring a glimmer of creativity or personality to our online communication.

On the other hand, emojis can also quickly dominate our conversations, making it even more difficult to communicate. They may become a stand-in for details, feelings, or expressions that we could (or even perhaps should) use words to describe. They may become a crutch we use to display emotive feeling. And for those who do not use them, their absence may result in misunderstandings and hurt feelings: in her book Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle notes that her daughter thought her text messages were terse or angry, because they lacked the punctuation and emoticons she’d come to expect from her peers:

Why does my daughter think I am angry with her when I text? She explains: ‘Mom, your texts are always, like, “Great.” And I know it’s not great. What’s happening? What are you really thinking?’ There is no convincing her. When I texted her ‘Great,’ it was because that really was what I meant. If she were with me in person, that is what I would have said. But “Great” as a text message is cold. At the very least, it needs a lot of explanation points. … I add emojis to my iPhone. Emojis are little pictures of cats, hearts, buildings, lightning bolts, many hundreds of little things, and I feel ridiculous when I use them. I use them anyway. I ask my daughter if they are helping. She makes it clear that she knows I am trying.

The anecdote is humorous, in part because probably all of us know someone who’s struggled to communicate their real emotions or mood via text. But in a larger sense, what does this move to the emoji exemplify? What does it communicate about our current state of communication?

My generation in particular seems to love emojis—along with other forms of image-based communication, such as the gif or meme. Such images often convey the color and wit we want to bring to our conversations. They encapsulate the feeling of a sitcom one-liner or Youtube video punch line—for the millennials, who grew up watching television and viral videos online, they’re a lingua franca of pop culture references and humor we can call upon.

But what happens when such image-based communication becomes a replacement for dialogue—when an emoji becomes the “word of the year” in 2015, even though it isn’t really a word at all?

This seems to be a further conquering of the image over the word—the typographic being subsumed into the visual. This isn’t a new trend, but it definitely has picked up steam in the internet and smartphone age. One of the greatest concerns Neil Postman had with this trend (as he explains in Amusing Ourselves to Death) was that it influenced not just the way we communicated, but also the content of our communication. He believed the television age was also, because of its medium, the age of entertainment. And it seems that the internet age hasn’t changed its focus all that much: the subject of all our emojis, memes, and gifs is usually humor and light-heartedness. They keep us in the realm of the happy or silly—turning the corner in a conversation that begins to grow “too serious,” offering a note of flippant humor in the midst of a debate.

There’s nothing wrong with humor or light-heartedness; but it is wrong if our conversations continue to stay there, ever at the simmering point, never allowed to boil. It’s when we convey deep emotions or strongly-held views through dialogue that we learn more about each other, and about ourselves. We need words in order to express the entirety of our character, souls, thoughts. Emojis are fun—but they can’t do that. Not in the same way, with the same depth.

I write all this as someone who enjoys using emoji. It’s fun and light-hearted. I send my running friend pictures of cheetahs and lightning bolts and flexed muscles before her marathons. But if emojis take over our conversations, we could lose something priceless: the ability to go deeper, past the (literally) cartoonish, and into the realm of the real—where earnest and meaningful conversations reside.

 

One comment

Empathy, Quantified

Since Friday, the media has been absorbed with reporting on the terrorist attacks that wreaked havoc on Paris. Twitter was abuzz with live updates on all the latest news, while Facebook focused on updating its users on the attacks, providing a “safety check” feature to those in Paris, and prompting users to support the French via special red, white, and blue profile picture filters, or with hashtags such as #Parisjetaime, #PrayforParis, or #Jesuisparis.

But these signs of solidarity, while well-meant, will all most likely disappear within a few more days. I don’t want to sound cynical or unkind. But even the profile picture filter is—as Facebook calls it—”temporary,” one that users can only put up for a short period of time. The feelings, while largely sincere, are also temporal. This should prompt us to consider how social media prompts us to respond to global catastrophes and tragedies—and whether the emotions it generates are truly sincere.

Take Rurik Bradbury’s story: after the Twitter user posted a sarcastic (and fallacious) tweet on Friday about the Eiffel Tower having its lights off “for the first time since 1889,” nearly 30,000 people—including news organizations—retweeted his message. People finally started to call him out on the tweet, criticizing either the error or his sarcasm. But the point of his tweet was to demonstrate “why the rapid sharing of anything vaguely inspiration-shaped after a tragedy was so unsettling,” says the Washington Post‘s David Weigel. Bradbury wrote in an email to Weigel, “The part that feels the most useless to me is people’s vicarious participation in the event, which on the ground is a horrible tragedy, but in cyberspace is flattened to a meme like any other.” He continued,

Millions of people with no connection to Paris or the victims mindlessly throw in their two cents: performative signaling purely for their own selfish benefit, spreading information that is often false and which they have not vetted at all, simply for the sake of making noise … Instead of silence or helpfulness, social media pukes out stupidity, virtue-signaling and vicarious “enjoyment” (in a psychoanalytic sense) of a terrible tragedy by people thousands of miles away, for whom the event is just a meme they will participate in for a couple of days, then let fade into their timeline.

The Atlantic’s Megan Garber disagrees with Bradbury: she argues that social media’s response to the Paris terrorist attacks “‘is an act of mass compassion,” or more specifically, “compassion that has been converted, via the Internet’s alchemy, into political messaging. It is empathy, quantified.” She admits that this will change in the days to come,

just as all the “je suis Charlie” avatars reverted soon enough to human faces, just as all the marriage-equality rainbow filters dissipated, inevitably. The attention will also, as it were, flag. But, for now, all these expressions of solidarity with France are notable. Together, they treat the Internet not just as a commercial platform or a public square, but as an engine for empathy.

In her book Reclaiming Conversation, author Sherry Turkle considers the ways in which the media—and social media—have altered our reactions to news in the public square. She writes,

… The media supports a view of the world as a series of emergencies that we can take on, one by one. Events that have a long social and political history are presented as special, unusual, “unthinkable” events: massive oil spills, gun violence against elementary school children and their teachers, extreme weather—for the most part, all are represented as catastrophes. You know you are thinking in terms of catastrophe if your attention is riveted on the short term. In catastrophe culture, everyone feels part of a state of emergency but our agitation is channeled to donating money and affiliating with a website.

… Faced with a situation that you experience as an emergency, you want to use social media to huddle with your friends. A twenty-three year old who was in middle school during 9/11 says, “Most of the emergencies that are broadcast on the media, you can’t do anything about. There’s no action you know how to take that would improve the actual circumstances.” This does much to explain how the fretful self navigates the media stream of bad news: We learn about something, get anxious, and connect online.

There seem to be two especially popular ways to “connect online” in the wake of a catastrophe or disaster of the sort we’re seeing in Paris: the first is to show solidarity, through a #Kony2012 or #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, for instance. As I’ve written before for Acculturated, online social media campaigns generally make us feel good about ourselves, without forcing us beyond our spheres of comfort. Despite the collective voice our hashtag battles or profile pictures can amass, there is little practical worth in a tweet or a filter. This isn’t to condemn people’s efforts to show solidarity in this way—it is just to make sure that we don’t mistake such sympathy for real empathy: which I would argue is something that, when genuine, registers deeper and longer-lasting implications. “Empathy quantified” is not, I would argue, actual empathy.

The second way people “connect online” in response to catastrophe or disaster is to, unfortunately (yet inevitably), connect over controversy.

The controversy over Paris is starting to build now: one example of this is recent protest over the fact that Beirut’s terrorist attacks—suffered on the same day—have largely been ignored in social media and the press. What many of us did not realize was that Paris was the second area to be targeted by ISIS militants on Friday: as David A. Graham reports for The Atlantic,

Hours before the carnage in Paris on Friday, a double suicide bombing ripped through a working-class shopping district in Beirut. ISIS claimed responsibility for the explosions, which caused 43 deaths and hundreds of casualties in the worst bombing to strike the city in a quarter century. Then came ISIS’s attacks in France, which quickly subsumed much of the attention that might have been directed toward Lebanon.

… Viral articles on Facebook are demanding to know why the Beirut attacks have been overlooked. Lebanese have lamented the discrepancy. Many people are asking why Facebook didn’t allow people in Lebanon to check in as “safe” on the social network, as the company did for those in Paris.

There are some defensible reasons as to why the one attack got more attention than the other: as Graham points out, “There were three times more deaths in Paris than in Beirut.” Additionally, Graham notes that familiarity and proximity may have played a role: many Americans know people in Paris or have visited the country ourselves. We have a political history with France that dates back to our founding. Many feel some sort of connection to Paris via pop culture, as it’s been depicted in countless films, tv shows, and songs.

It could also be that the refugee crisis in Europe—a subject of debate and controversy for some time now—also caused people to pay greater attention to the situation in France. In recent weeks, some on the right have suggested that Europe’s massive wave of refugees could have security consequences. Regardless of whether they are right, that discussion has been percolating in the media long enough to lend this situation an air of political controversy for some, of political justification for others. And of course, in the responses we’ve seen in the media, many have been quick to use Paris as an opportunity to debate or discuss the refugee situation further.

None of this gives us reason to have ignored Beirut so blatantly—its situation in the Middle East is both unique and important, as Kevin A. Lees writes for The National Interest. But it does perhaps show our tendency to focus on the glamorous: the city of Paris, with all its cultural landmarks and sentimental ties, over a little-known or visited region of the Middle East that few in America feel a natural solidarity with.

But “solidarity” is a tricky feeling to muster. For countless people in Paris, a loved one is dead: a friend, family member, spouse, or child. Someone who went out innocently to enjoy their evening, and never came back.

The same happened in Beirut. As the New York Times notes, “Ali Awad, 14, was chopping vegetables when the first bomb struck. Adel Tormous, who would die tackling the second bomber, was sitting at a nearby coffee stand. Khodr Alaa Deen, a registered nurse, was on his way to work his night shift…”

Lives have been lost, mercilessly and needlessly. If we are to be honest, while we can try our best to empathize—to put ourselves in their shoes, or in the shoes of their loved ones—both emotional and physical distance will keep us apart.

So while there’s nothing wrong with the new (albeit temporary) profile pictures, with the memes, with the shows of “solidarity”—let us not mistake them for real, lasting empathy. And let’s not lose ourselves in the controversy and outrage porn that will likely continue to churn through the media in coming weeks. Hopefully the people of Beirut and Paris will experience true, immediate compassion in the days to come—not just the short, quick outbursts that social media is likely to foster.

7 comments

When a House Becomes “Home”

It always took work to get me out of the house growing up. There was no place I’d rather be than curled up beside our fireplace with a book and cup of tea in the winter—or outside on the swing (with that same book) on a summer’s evening. Home was my place of rest, my sanctuary.

And our home really felt like a magical place: Mom has always had a knack for creating cozy, beautiful spaces. It was surrounded by rosebushes, with old books on the shelves, brightly lit rooms, hot oatmeal and coffee for breakfast on cold winter mornings. A friend recently told me, “Your house always had a peace about it that I envied.” It’s a peace that I believe had a spiritual dimension to it, as well as a physical one—which makes it only harder to replicate.

Yet there came a point when I realized that my “home” was no longer the home I grew up in. Though I’ve been in Virginia for over six and a half years now, the transformation has been quite recent. There was a time when I would have still called my parents’ 1930s brick house in Idaho “home.” Not on purpose—it would just slip off my tongue. “I’m visiting home,” or “we’re going home for the holidays.”

My husband and I have now lived in Alexandria for two and a half years. In that time, we’ve found our favorite coffee shops, met neighbors, walked our dog along numerous trails and streets, frequented the local farmers’ market. We’ve planted a garden, painted the kitchen, decorated a little nursery that’s soon to be filled with a new life.

And as I sit in this quiet room—sunshine spilling across wood floors, breeze wafting through open windows—I know. This has become home, a place of rest and joyful living. So it makes me wonder: when does a place become a “home”? How does that transformation happen? There seem to be a few things that have built this change:

First, a home is a place where you build a rhythm. It’s a place in which you spend enough consistent time to build a presence, a pattern. The more you commute out of your place of residence, the less chance it has of becoming a home. You have to invest yourself—time and body—in it. You have to understand its seasons.

I always think of the passage in The Return of the King where Sam is reminiscing to Frodo about the Shire. He says, “It’ll be spring soon. And the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields… and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?” Sam knows the Shire, its patterns and rhythms, to the point where he can predict them without being present. There is always a piece of him there, embedded from years of service and love.

There have to be whole days where you seep in a place’s presence, bury yourself in its projects, take in its colors and character. It has to be a place whose ethos you come to know and love through regular living and investing. A place where you scrub the floors, fill the kitchen with smells of cooking and baking, spend hours poring over books or work projects. The more time spent in that space, the more you develop a sense of its character, its feel. You discover what it needs in order to more fully develop its potential, in order to reach its form (if it’s alright to use a Platonic idea to describe the decorating and building of a home).

Second, you have to seek the good of your home—and the good of the land surrounding it. This often means giving up something: time, energy, most often money. It means investing in your local community, discovering its cares and concerns. It means getting to know your neighbors, at least a little, and seeking to offer them community (and to accept that community in return). It means taking care of the leaky roof, shabby yard, dying plants. It means weekends of raking leaves and planting trees, repairing roofs and replacing windows. It means town hall meetings, sometimes, or researching the local elections before you go to the ballot box. It means cultivating a sense of pride and warmth toward your neighborhood, your town—along with a healthy understanding of its weaknesses and flaws.

It is, in a sense, the art of “husbandry”: an art described by Wendell Berry in one of his essays as “the name of all the practices that sustain life by connecting us conservingly to our places and our world; it is the art of keeping tied all the strands in the living network that sustains us.” It’s not just about productivity, fame, or profit—husbandry is about building a web of life within a place, cultivating it and helping it flourish.

Which connects to the third point or idea: that a home must be full of life and living things. A sterile house—wiped clean of earth and plant, animal and person—seems to be lacking a feeling of “home.” There’s something about the house that’s got dust bunnies in the corners, a cat or dog curled up in a spot of sunshine on the floor. Or the house that’s spotted all over with ivies and ferns, pots of herbs and grasses.

Yet even better is the house that nearly rattles with the sounds of laughter and joy—with the chaos and clamor of people, old and young. With the sound of people breaking bread together around the dinner table, reacting passionately to Sunday football games, punctuated with the sounds of children laughing (or screaming), the pitter-pat of their eager feet. It needn’t be a perfect house, or an immaculately kept house. The house that’s lived in, and full of life, reverberates with love and joy in a unique way. 

As Shauna Niequist puts it in her book Bread and Wine, “What people are craving isn’t perfection. People aren’t longing to be impressed; they’re longing to feel like they’re home. If you create a space full of love and character and creativity and soul, they’ll take off their shoes and curl up with gratitude and rest, no matter how small, no matter how undone, no matter how odd.”

Finally, a home must be filled with stories and memories. This goes back to the idea that time spent in a place is vital to building a sense of home. One of the reasons Idaho was “home” for so long was because it held my most deeply-cherished memories: my grandmother reading aloud to my sister and me until we fell asleep. Great-grandfather telling stories about his childhood, driving a four-horse team and digging ditches, of his wife’s beautiful singing voice and immaculate hospitality. Christmas evenings spent reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales by the crackling fire. Nighttime stargazing with my sister and father. Playing “Narnia” with my brothers, hiding in the big wardrobe in one of the spare rooms. Working on math homework in my dad’s office, or helping my mom can peaches late in the summer. Simple things that built a fabric of memories and belonging.

In Marilynne Robinson’s Home, protagonist Glory considers an important memory from her childhood—a ritual that characterized her early days:

How to announce the return of comfort and well-being except by cooking something fragrant. That is what her mother always did. After every calamity of any significance she would fill the atmosphere of the house with the smell of cinnamon rolls or brownies, with chicken and dumplings, and it would mean, This house has a soul that loves us all, no matter what. It would mean peace if they had fought and amnesty if they had been in trouble. It had meant, You can come down to dinner now, and no one will say a thing to bother you, unless you have forgotten to wash your hands. And her father would offer the grace, inevitable with minor variations, thanking the Lord for all the wonderful faces he saw around his table.

These are the memories that turn a house into home.

The memories are still being built here. It’s a new home, at least to us, and we have countless stories to uncover. But arriving home from work to the smell of my husband’s freshly baked bread or sweet rolls, to a happy puppy who covers my face in kisses, to flickering candles and a thick book full of mystery—these are the little things that have slowly built character and belonging here. Harvesting jalapeños and rosemary from the garden, hanging new pictures, growing a regular rhythm of guests and visitors: as we fill this place with new stories and new lives, I know it will continue to delve its roots deep into our hearts. It’s possible to have secondary homes, and Idaho will always be that for me—with its own sense of peace and joy, its own set of rhythms. But this place, too, has become home, and it’s where I feel my new stories and memories brewing.

4 comments
← Older posts