Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.
The past two years have shattered Mark Zuckerberg’s faith in social media, or humanity, or both.
At least, that’s one of the primary takeaways from Wired magazine’s feature last week on Facebook and fake news, written by Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein. In it, Thompson and Vogelstein consider Facebook’s many slip-ups and struggles in publishing and curating news stories over the past two years—from allegedly disfavoring conservative coverage to allowing Russian bots to influence news feeds during the 2016 presidential election.
Throughout the story, one theme remains strong: Facebook’s employees and CEO are only now beginning to understand their responsibility to the world and the dangerous power of the platform they’ve created. Zuckerberg, like many in our enlightened and progressive age, believes in human perfectibility. He believes in circumstantial error, not sin. He believes (or at least believed) in humankind’s ability to craft the perfect scenarios and platforms in which to break down all malice and misunderstanding, while not necessarily believing that evil is endemic to the human condition.
Which means that, when Facebook came under fire for the spread of misinformation and fake news in early 2017, he didn’t respond by noting the flaws of his global empire or in its users; he doubled down on the hopeful perfectibility of his platform and its users:
Amid sweeping remarks about “building a global community,” [Zuckerberg] emphasized the need to keep people informed and to knock out false news and clickbait. Brown and others at Facebook saw the manifesto as a sign that Zuckerberg understood the company’s profound civic responsibilities. Others saw the document as blandly grandiose, showcasing Zuckerberg’s tendency to suggest that the answer to nearly any problem is for people to use Facebook more.
Of course, Zuckerberg’s hopes for his creation are understandable—none of us want to acknowledge the inherent flaws in something we’ve dedicated our lives to curating and crafting. And it’s understandable—even laudable, in a way—that Zuckerberg would refuse to let the confusion and vitriol of the 2016 general election impact his faith in humanity.
But Facebook-as-global-community isn’t working. Since creating the social media network, Zuckerberg has always emphasized his hope that it would foster greater empathy and understanding around the world: that it would enable us to understand each other better, to bridge racial and partisan divides, and to instill our interactions with greater temperance.
Instead, the opposite has happened: Facebook, via human choice and algorithmic tendency, has fostered ideological and political bubbles amongst its users, not global community and rapport. We join groups filled with like-minded people, like pages that give us the news we want to hear, unfollow or unfriend those who annoy us or make us uncomfortable. Based on the posts we spend the most time liking, commenting, and watching, Facebook gives us more of the same, rather than encouraging us to expand our ideological repertoires.
These tendencies are extremely difficult to circumvent. We can follow accounts that challenge our beliefs, keep listening to the friends who annoy us (and engage them via comments and messages when we find it appropriate)—but there remains a degree of disconnection between us and this virtual content. That disconnection makes it easy to tune out, or to respond with more anger or bombast than we might employ in personal conversation. Additionally, we too often indulge in clickbait on Facebook or other online sites rather than forcing ourselves to absorb more thoughtful, well-crafted content. Facebook’s algorithm recognizes this tendency—and passively fosters it. Thompson and Vogelstein write:
People like Alex Hardiman, the head of Facebook news products and an alum of The New York Times, started to recognize that Facebook had long helped to create an economic system that rewarded publishers for sensationalism, not accuracy or depth. “If we just reward content based on raw clicks and engagement, we might actually see content that is increasingly sensationalist, clickbaity, polarizing, and divisive,” she says. A social network that rewards only clicks, not subscriptions, is like a dating service that encourages one-night stands but not marriages.
To some extent, Facebook cannot control or circumvent this tendency. It is the result of our sinful natures, our ability to shape a product according to our own flawed image. Facebook isn’t innocent in the way it curates and shapes our news feeds, but its creators and curators will always find it hard to balance between excess and defect in their attempts to foster a virtuous online community. Do too much, and they risk playing an alarmingly intrusive role in people’s lives and mental formation. Do too little, and they encourage an anarchic atmosphere of disinformation, vitriol, and offensive content.
Besides, many will ask (and rightfully so) what right Facebook has to determine what is and isn’t propagated on its site. It is meant to be a platform for connection, not a social policeman. Facebook didn’t force its users to absorb the Russian-propagated fake news of 2016. “Sure, you could put stories into people’s feeds that contradicted their political viewpoints, but people would turn away from them,” note Thompson and Vogelstein. “The problem, as Anker puts it, ‘is not Facebook. It’s humans.’”
Michael Brendan Dougherty pointed this out in an article for National Review last week, one that astutely contrasted Thompson’s and Vogelstein’s piece with an op-ed Ross Douthat just wrote for The New York Times in which he argued that we should ban pornography. While the first (well-received) article suggests that Facebook (and we ourselves) can and should curate an online atmosphere of virtue and respect, the second was received with anger and disdain, as even many who respected the Wired article argued that—at least when it comes to porn—we should be able to do what we want. This ironic contradiction, Dougherty argues, stems from the same fantastical attitude toward online life:
Our culture-makers seem to believe in a neatly cleaved human nature. In one realm, we can expect ourselves to act as angels, and do the disinterested thing. In another, perhaps to let off some steam, we must give the Devil his due.
But perhaps the defenders of porn should consider that the common purveyors and sharers of fake news across social media are also engaged in a form of self-abuse, combined with titillation, and fantasy life. They no more believe that Barack Obama is running guns to ISIS than that the surgically enhanced 30-year-old woman in a plaid skirt is a very bad Catholic-school girl. It’s just a reality they prefer to envision. One where they can gaze into a backlit screen, click around, and imagine they aren’t wasting their lives clicking around on a backlit screen.
We love the internet because it enables us to craft the world we want, instead of forcing us to confront the world as it is. We can doctor our Instagram selfies, visit news sites that foster our less temperate and virtuous passions, follow the Facebook users who will puff up our self-esteem, dabble in the darker delights of the internet—all without ever asking ourselves whether it’s “right” or “wrong.”
But at some point, we must confront the world we’ve made online—because whether we like it or not, it will infect and alter our physical reality.
Zuckerberg has been immersed in that world longer (and on a deeper level) than most of us—which means he’s reached this moment of crisis and self-confrontation earlier than most of us. Thompson and Vogelstein write that “people who know him say that Zuckerberg has truly been altered in the crucible of the past several months. …‘This whole year has massively changed his personal techno-optimism,’ says an executive at the company. ‘It has made him much more paranoid about the ways that people could abuse the thing that he built.’”
In recent months, the authors write, Facebook has decided it’s “putting a car in reverse that had been driving at full speed in one direction for 14 years.” Although Zuckerberg has always intended “to create another internet, or perhaps another world, inside of Facebook, and to get people to use it as much as possible,” he’s now encouraging changes to the platform, which, he believes, will make people use Facebook less. Perhaps he’s realizing he needs to design for fallibility, addiction, and bombast—not for perfectibility, innocence, and self-control.
But Zuckerberg cannot edit human sin out of Facebook’s algorithms. We are ultimately responsible for our own choices, online and off, which means we all need to have our own Zuckerberg moments in coming days. That means we must realize that the internet does not, in fact, bring out our best selves, and must be approached with temperance and caution. We must confront the beasts we’ve created online: our own miniaturized Facebook Frankenstein monsters, whether they be unkind profile posts, ruined friendships, malicious blog posts, or toxic news feeds. If we don’t, we risk deeper consequences than fake news and nasty election cycles. We risk giving up real community and real virtue for fantastical and fake counterfeits.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and the Washington Times, among others.
Despite the unexpected political events of the last year, conservative historian and scholar Lee Edwards isn’t afraid for the future of conservatism. He has worked in Washington, D.C. for decades, observing the highs and lows within the movement, and he assures me: we’ve seen worse.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the Republican Party was run by eastern elites, and conservatism was an intellectual movement without much clout or voice in the halls of the nation’s capital. Communist fervor was overtaking Europe, eating into the policies and rhetoric of many within Washington. And, although Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind was published in 1953 and National Review’s founding followed two years later, conservatism’s revival in the political and popular sphere was just beginning to gather steam.
It was at this pivotal moment that Edwards began lending his voice and talents to the fledgling conservative cause. The son of Willard Edwards, a noted political reporter for the Chicago Tribune, young Edwards grew up surrounded by political powerhouses in Washington, D.C. Richard Nixon and Senator Joe McCarthy were frequent guests in his childhood home.
“My first impression of Joe—he encouraged you to call him by his first name—was that of a shoulder-squeezing, joke-telling politician who drank but not any more than the average Irishman,” Edwards writes in his new book, Just Right: A Life In Pursuit of Liberty. “He was serious about one thing—communism.”
So was Edwards’s father: from the late 1940s through the mid-’50s, Willard Edwards worked extensively with ex-communists and anticommunists in Washington. Through this network, he met Freda Utley, author of The China Story, who escaped from the Soviet Union with her son Jon in 1936. Jon’s father, Arcadi Berdichevsky, was arrested and executed during the Soviet purges of the 1930s.
Jon Utley remembers meeting Edwards when Utley was still a teenager, long before he began his own career within Washington’s conservative world. Now publisher of The American Conservative and a commentator for various publications, Utley remembers that era as foreboding and frustrating for conservatives. When he finished college, Utley feared the communists would win the Cold War. He left for South America, where he worked in insurance and finance before becoming a foreign correspondent. “When I came back in 1970, people like Lee Edwards had stayed and fought,” he recalled, adding that anticommunist prospects seemed brighter with the emergence of Ronald Reagan and other likeminded conservatives.
For Edwards, the anticommunism of his father’s generation became real in Europe in 1956, with the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet yoke and the plight of young anticommunists in Budapest. He had gravitated to Europe after graduating from Duke University and was living in Paris, where he hoped to pen the next great American novel. Instead, the events in Hungary pulled him back to his father’s cause.
Edwards heard the pleas of freedom fighters on his Paris radio, begging for help from America and its allies, and he was infuriated by the passivity of the Eisenhower administration. “As the number of fallen freedom fighters passed two thousand and tens of thousands of Hungarians fled their once-again-communist country, I took an oath,” he writes. “I resolved that for the rest of my life, wherever I was, whatever I was, I would help those who resisted communism however I could.”
Edwards abandoned his novel-writing dream and moved back to Washington, D.C. There he joined the D.C. Young Republicans and became press secretary for Maryland Senator John Marshall Butler.
In 1960, Edwards helped found Young Americans for Freedom, a group that embraced the fusionism of the burgeoning New Right. Its members incorporated libertarian and anticommunist themes into their determinations, building a platform that emphasized economist Friedrich Hayek’s philosophy and a strong foreign policy alongside traditional conservative values. “We were rebels against the zeitgeist,” Edwards recalls with a smile.
He served as editor for YAF’s monthly magazine, New Guard, for the next few years, and acquired a new job with a Washington public relations firm. In 1963, he became news director for the National Draft Goldwater Committee, which emerged in anticipation of Senator Barry Goldwater’s expected presidential run the following year.
Goldwater’s rise in the Republican Party was deeply important to the New Right, and his book The Conscience of a Conservative (ghostwritten by Brent Bozell) had a considerable impact on Edwards. In those early years, before JFK’s assassination, there was a good deal of excitement amongst Goldwater’s followers. He had, after all, a strong populist following with grassroots conservatives across the nation. His principled conservatism and staunch anticommunism appealed to many.
But with President Kennedy’s assassination, Goldwater knew he couldn’t win the presidency. Friends and advisers urged him to run anyway—not to win but to galvanize conservatives, especially young conservatives such as Edwards, who had been inspired and encouraged by Goldwater for years.
It was not an easy campaign for Goldwater—or for Edwards. While their populist following was passionate, the GOP candidate encontered vehement media hostility. Due to his strong foreign policy messaging, many suggested that Goldwater was dangerously belligerent. Lyndon Johnson described him as a “ranting raving demagogue who wants to tear down society.” Fact magazine published a special edition just before the election arguing that the senator was mentally unfit to be president.
Edwards looks back on many of these events with a sense of déjà vu, especially following the events of last year’s presidential election. While Goldwater and Donald Trump aren’t at all similar—“Barry Goldwater was the product of a movement,” notes Edwards, “whereas Trump isn’t that, he’s a businessman”—both tapped into the populist fervor of the “forgotten America” many eastern elites disdain or forget about. Goldwater’s “Forgotten American,” Ronald Reagan’s 1980 “Moral Majority,” and the Tea Party all had one thing in common: they were grassroots movements, galvanized by rhetoric that was anti-establishment in many ways.
“To our amazement, Trump understood and applied that, and won an impossible victory,” Edwards says. “I believe the populist movement is always there and engaged in this debate. They will be there in 2020 and beyond.”
Goldwater’s loss brought dark days to the conservative movement in Washington and throughout the country. “It would’ve been easy to give up,” Edwards says. “Our ideas were defeated.” Writer and intellectual Frank Meyer brought hope to Goldwater’s supporters, however, by writing in National Review that 27 million voters—those who had supported Goldwater in the presidential election—could form a solid conservative coalition.
From that hope, Edwards says, the movement struggled on, forming new alliances and organizations, working to tap into the grassroots fervor that Goldwater had encouraged. “Liberals were saying that was the end [for conservatives],” Edwards says. But in reality, as Utley noted during our interview, “Goldwater’s campaign led to the conservative resurgence. It was the start.”
Edwards went on to work with Bill Buckley, Milton Friedman, Richard Viguerie, and other prominent figures of the New Right. He started his own public relations firm and wrote for Readers Digest and Conservative Digest. But perhaps most notably, Edwards began chronicling the lives of the many renowned conservatives he had worked with, including Reagan, Buckley, and Goldwater. Through this body of work, he became known as a leading historian of American conservatism.
Edwards did not stop working within the anticommunist movement. But whereas many of his fellow anticommunists dedicated their energies to fighting terrorism after 9/11, he worked to create Washington’s Victims of Communism Memorial, which he cites as the greatest accomplishment of his career. After years of fundraising and bureaucratic red tape, the 10-foot Goddess of Democracy statue was dedicated by President George W. Bush in 2007, surrounded by champions of the anticommunist cause and survivors of communism. Edwards saw it as the fulfillment of his Paris vow, made so many years before.
Utley sees Edwards’s anticommunist work as the most important of his career. “My son asks me, ‘What was the big deal? The communists collapsed like a house of cards,’” he says. “But it didn’t look that way in those days.”
That isn’t to say that times aren’t still challenging, albeit in different ways. Edwards is troubled by a Millennial generation that, according to a poll conducted by his memorial foundation, are 50 percent more comfortable with socialism than with capitalism. He has also seen, as a professor at Catholic University, an uptick in the distractibility and shortening attention spans of his students. America’s youth have grown up in a different culture, one that encourages attitudes of entitlement and instant gratification. Trump’s tweets, he suggests, are the perfect symbol of this culture. Such an environment can make it difficult to instill the ideals of Russell Kirk and Edmund Burke, to revive and renew a movement inspired as much by virtue and philosophy as it is by history and policy.
Yet despite this, Edwards remains hopeful. “I’m an optimist. That’s how I’ve managed to survive in this town,” he says. Edwards sees many “young, brilliant, charismatic politicians” in the political arena, citing Mike Lee, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, and Ben Sasse. He’s observed the healthy activity of groups such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Fund for American Studies, YAF, and Students for Liberty, all working to bolster conservatism’s future. He’s also observed the birth and growth of conservative colleges such as Hillsdale College, The King’s College, and others. All in all, he says, conservatism is “not a dying movement, but a clamoring one.”
Edwards’s new autobiography serves to highlight both the perils and excitements of the New Right’s early years—chronicling the frustrations of the Goldwater campaign, the fears and struggles of the Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter years, and the exhilarating hope of Reagan’s presidency. But perhaps most of all, Just Right encapsulates the tenacity of a movement that has refused to die, despite adversity—largely due to the work of men such as Edwards, who have remained faithful even in those inevitable times of hardship and defeat.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and the Washington Times, among others.
Our world is full of wrath and bombast: bickering politicians, Facebook quarrels, tempestuous wars, cultural schisms. Amid this vitriol, it can be easy to lose hope, to look for peace and find none.
Fortunately, history can offer comfort and conviction. It reminds us that we’ve been here before: experienced similar fractures and divisions, committed comparable sins against humanity. History, too, can show us shining examples of hope in turmoil, proffering up individuals and communities that stand out like beacons amidst the pitch-black darkness of their time.
Philip Britts was one such beacon. He was a farmer, pastor, and poet during World War II, a steward of place and soil, a caring father and husband, and a zealous advocate for peace and community. Born in 1917 in Devon, England, Philip felt an early calling to the earth and its stewardship—a calling that stands out in one of his earliest poems, penned when he was 20 years old:
I stood in flowers, knee high,
Dreaming of gentleness,
Dreams, in the promise of a shining sky
That I should make a garden from a wilderness;
I would subdue the soil and make it chaste,
Making the desert bear, the useless good,
With my own strength I would redeem the waste,
Would grow the lily where the thistle stood.
…Had I not dreamed so long,
Not dreamed of so much beauty, or such grace,
Mayhap I could have trod a quieter path,
With other men, in a green, quieter place.
Those final lines are practically prophetic: Philip Britts would go on to live a life of exile and hardship, one that would send him to an early grave at age 31. Water at the Roots, a short new book from Plough Quarterly (the publishing community of the Bruderhof), stands as a testament to his remarkable life, the fruit of his mere three decades on the earth, and the vision that his poetry, essays, and sermons inspired.
Philip graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in horticulture in 1939, and became a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society. He married his childhood sweetheart, Joan, shortly thereafter. Philip was a staunch pacifist, and believed that his Christian faith barred him from military action. But as German troops marched into Poland that September and Winston Churchill called his countrymen to action, pacifism became an increasingly unpopular position in the United Kingdom.
It was around this time that Philip and his wife learned of the Bruderhof, a community of Christian believers founded in Germany in 1920, who dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount and to the example of the early church in Acts. They held property in common, and worked together to provide for all members of the community. Hitler had exiled the community from Germany in 1937, and they had fled to Cotswold, England, resuming their communal life there.
After journeying to meet the Bruderhof and observe their work, Philip and Joan were determined to join them. They sold their house, left behind family and friends, and moved to Cotswold in 1939, becoming official members of the Bruderhof the following year. Philip worked with the other Bruderhof men in the fields and vegetable gardens: ploughing, harrowing, seeding, and harvesting. The poetry he wrote at the time contains a tangible joy and zeal, a sense of calling found and fulfilled.
But this period of tranquility was short-lived. As World War II progressed, the English government declared that Germans and Austrians age 16 and older had to appear before special tribunals, and many were placed in internment camps. If the Bruderhof wanted to remain together, they could not stay in England. They began searching for a new home country, one that would allow them exemption from military service and freedom of religion. Through the help of local Mennonites, the Bruderhof found an abandoned farm in Primavera, Paraguay, and were granted exit permits to leave England. They sailed across the Atlantic and toward an unknown future.
Their transplanting was not easy. The community struggled to find the best and most adaptable plants to grow in this new soil and climate, and suffered from malnourishment and insufficient food at various times. Under such circumstances, Philip’s knowledge of horticulture became invaluable. He determined new crops for their community, working in both field and the lab to help provide for the Bruderhof. During this time, Philip also wrote a couple pieces for agricultural magazines overseas. In “How Shall We Farm?” he observed that a large gap existed “between what the farmer knows to be right, and what a competitive economy forces him to do”:
…Organic farming, by itself, as an isolated factor, can never reach its full significance. It stands for the great truth that agriculture can never be stable and permanent until man learns and obeys the laws of fertility, the cycle that includes the decay of the old and the release of the new, or, to put it biblically, to “subdue and replenish.”
But it can only realize its full meaning in the context of an organic life. Man’s relationship to the land must be true and just, but this is only possible when his relationship to his fellow man is true and just and organic. This includes the relationship of all the activities of man—of industry within agriculture, of science with art, between the sexes, and above all between man’s life and his spiritual life.
Philip didn’t stop writing poetry, despite the adversity and frenzied activities of his days. Many of these poems reflect an inner stillness and poise, a deep spiritual undercurrent, that navigated his actions and thoughts throughout this time—and that give rise to the title of this book, Water at the Roots. “We are like plants in the tropical sunlight,” he writes in one sermon. “The fierceness of the sun is like the judgment of God, revealing everything, burning, purifying. Here faith is like water at the roots. If we have faith, we can face the sun, we can turn the heat and the light into life-giving fruits, into love.”
In many ways, Philip’s writings remind me of Wendell Berry’s: so observant of nature and its rhythms, full of awe and gratitude at creation’s mysteries and intricacies. He, too, warns of the dangers of machine and humanity’s belief in inevitable, perfect progress (“Is not this the poison of the age, the belief of man in man?” he writes in one essay). He urges all of humanity towards deeper communion with land, plant, and animal—a sort of spiritual or virtual farming, a stewardship of the soul, that draws us into reconciliation with man and earth. It’s remarkable that these two men, divided by time, place, and circumstance, could draw such similar inspiration from the created world. It’s also true that their vocation calls forth awe and aspiration more than most, wedded as it is with nature’s rhythms and a sort of intentional gentleness.
Philip’s fiery faith—passionate, even radical, in its disposition—also reminded me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who died in Nazi Germany. Bonhoeffer drew similar allusions in his writings—especially The Cost of Discipleship—to the personal and material costs of our faith, arguing that it calls us to extreme devotion and surrender. Bonhoeffer’s Life Together lays out a similar vision of Christian community and hospitality, one that complements the Bruderhof’s profound devotion to each other.
It is hard, in modern America, to imagine such extreme devotion to community. Our capitalistic society lauds charity and philanthropy, but looks askance at the Bruderhof’s radical sharing of wealth. It promotes farming—but old-fashioned rhythms of agriculture, such as those employed by the Amish or the Bruderhof, are viewed as reactionary, if not silly. We’re constantly marching forward, at least in our own minds, toward greater wealth, knowledge, innovation, and power. We have no time to look backwards and to consider what we might have lost along the way.
Philip travelled to Brazil in 1945 with a group of horticulturists to find new crop possibilities for the Bruderhof community. There, he contracted a fungal infection that spread throughout his body, and caused his death two years later. He was only 31 years old, and left behind a wife and four children (one still in the womb). He’d just recently been chosen to serve as a new pastor within the Primavera community, and everyone was stunned and devastated by his loss. His wife wrote at the time that “one must not go down under a flood of sorrow. Ever since we have known each other, we always felt that we had been led together by God.”
Philip had hoped to write a book about agriculture for his son called Written in the Soil, which he never got to complete. But Water at the Roots compiles his poetry, essays, and sermons for the rest of us. It’s a welcome retreat from the frenetic writings of our time, the constant invitations to anger and despair. A few lines of poetry, in particular, stick in my head:
There are so many songs that need to be sung.
There are so many beautiful things that await
The sensitive hand to pick them up
From this strange din of busy living.
(Philip wrote that when he was 19 years old.)
Not all of us will join a Christian community like Philip’s. And not all of us will work the land, as he did. But thankfully, Philip’s writing contains nuggets of wisdom and conviction for all of us: reminders to be still, to love others, to steward our possessions well. We may not be members of the Bruderhof, but perhaps we can all strive to live a little more like Philip Britts. The world would be better for it.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and the Washington Times, among others.
Are some towns better off dead?
That’s the argument National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson and Reason’s Nick Gillespie have made in the past, after considering rural blight and the devastating dearth of jobs for poorer Americans in those areas.
But a new report, recently released by the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, responds with a more holistic diagnosis. The partnership was formed a year and a half ago with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and aims to find new ways for the government and philanthropy to assist the poor.
In their report, the partnership suggests that many poor people are “stuck”—geographically, economically, and socially. And geography is the main factor behind the latter two forms of stasis, as City Lab’s Michael Anft notes in his analysis of the report: “When it comes to being poor in America, geography is still destiny. Regions of chronic intergenerational poverty, shaped by the structural inequities that are part of the nation’s history, have remained stubbornly resistant to change.”
“Place matters,” the report authors write. “The community where a child grows up greatly influences her or his opportunities for upward mobility. Comparing children in the same family who move from a low-opportunity to a high-opportunity area makes this clear. Children who move at age 12 fare significantly better than their older siblings. Children who move at age 6 or younger fare the best.”
Thus, the report aims to provide the poor with avenues out of geographically destitute areas and into “opportunity communities”—a strategy that hearkens back to Williamson’s and Gillespie’s urging that stagnant towns be allowed to die.
But thankfully, the report adds some nuance that is absent from those other diagnoses. Its authors don’t believe struggling towns and cities should be left to crumble and rot: while we should prioritize the needs of those stuck within their borders, we ought to try and revitalize these places if we can.
“For every person to live in a safe community that offers the opportunities fundamental to mobility, we must revitalize historically distressed communities, preserve and increase affordable housing in newly restored communities, and expand access to opportunity-rich communities and institutions for people living in low-mobility areas,” they write. “We must pursue all three approaches together.”
The authors call for an “intensive place-conscious” strategy that combines revitalization and affordable housing with access to the aforementioned “opportunity communities.” While we want to renew and reinvigorate struggling areas, it’s also important to acknowledge the toll a broken neighborhood takes on its youngest members. Thus, the report suggests prioritizing safe and stable housing for high-need, low-income families with young children.
This balance matters because we cannot only consider the needs of the mobile. We must also acknowledge the impact their out-migration has on those left behind. Much of rural America, especially, is growing “older, poorer, and less educated,” as Sarah Jones recently put it at the New Republic.
In her article, Jones talks to Pennsylvania State University professor Ann Tickamyer about the idea that geography is destiny, that poverty is an inescapable condition within certain regions of the United States. And while Tickamyer agrees with the statement to some extent, she adds this important caveat: “Any time you make descriptions about what the problems in rural places are, and what people should do, you’re generalizing way beyond what is reasonable. The Mississippi Delta is really different from central Appalachia and the Texas borderlands.”
Tickamyer also points out that what we leave behind may not be all bad, as we go out in search of greater gains:
The poorer you are the more you depend on a safety net that is more likely to be made up of your relatives and friends, family, community than of whatever the official safety net is. So if you are poor, sporadically employed or unemployed with kids, who provides the child care? Who helps out when you run out of money to purchase groceries or need an emergency car repair or whatever? It’s going to be the people who you are connected to in your community and in your family.
Some movers will find new forms of support within opportunity communities. Others will leave it behind. A D.C. drug store clerk once told a friend of mine that he had to help a mother who had come in with her obviously sick and unhappy child because she didn’t have anyone to watch the baby while she picked up her prescription. This is the reality for many in isolating and stratified cities: while these areas may offer financial boons, they make connection and rapport much more difficult to establish.
Leaving isn’t always the answer. So how do we help those who choose to stay, who choose familial and communal support over economic relief? This is where it becomes incredibly important to build “strong towns” and revitalize neighborhoods, to not just urge people to leave, but to take up the vital work of placemaking. Comparing this concept to that of “homemaking” makes the vision clear: we must foster an ordered place, steward its resources wisely, and ensure that it is safe and comfortable for all those who reside within it. It’s a vision that cannot be achieved without determined placemakers: community and civic leaders, philanthropists, businesspeople, and politicians who are ready and willing to dedicate themselves to their place.
This vision already exists, to some extent, in many of America’s struggling communities: I know an MIT graduate who left his job with Microsoft to return home to small-town Oregon—to one of the poorest counties in the United States—in order to “give back.” He’s helped develop STEM programs at the local community college, worked to develop greater, more affordable broadband connectivity in the community, and provided a multitude of jobs to local workers through his farm. I’ve also met a mayor who is determined to revitalize his small town and bring in new businesses. He’s rescuing it from stasis and decline through his dedicated volunteerism and work on urban revitalization. And there are a multitude of young college graduates I’ve met who have turned down D.C.’s appealing paychecks and glamor and instead returned to their hometowns—to family farm jobs, ministry work, non-profit initiatives, small-town law offices, and more.
I’m beginning to see that there’s a lot of promise in the returners: those who go out from their hometowns, learn vital skills (and perhaps earn what they can’t at home), and then return with a mind to give back, to grow, and to steward. It isn’t a perfect or a full answer. But for many of America’s struggling towns, it may be a start.
Why has cooking become so hard? Some would say it’s not: throwing together paninis or spaghetti for a weeknight dinner isn’t all that complicated. But our world increasingly sees cooking as a nigh-impossible feat of time and skill. We’re surrounded by takeout eateries, “fast casual” restaurants, and grocery stores packed with frozen meals. Blue Apron and HelloFresh promise gourmet dinners without the fuss. Rachael Ray offers her readers 30-minute meals, while Pioneer Woman promises to get the job done in 16 minutes. We want to magically transmogrify the vegetables on our cutting boards into something tantalizing—but if there’s chopping, measuring, seasoning, and (perhaps above all) waiting to be done, we quickly become disillusioned with the whole idea of from-scratch cooking.
Speed and ease define our world—a world in which people often spend hours commuting to and from work, juggling multiple jobs, or ushering kids from house to daycare to school to sports practice. In such a rushed place, there is very little room for cooking, traditionally understood.
Considering all this, Elizabeth G. Dunn is tired of chefs and cookbook authors promising “easy” from-scratch cooking to the harried, the worn out, and the stressed. While many recipes promise simplicity and speed, most of them are far from effortless, she argues in The Atlantic:
… [N]one of this actually easy. Not the one-minute pie dough or the quick kale chips or the idiot-proof Massaman curry, every last ounce of which is made from scratch, from ingredients that are sourced and bought and lugged home and washed, peeled, chopped, mixed, and cooked. Meanwhile, technology has made appetizing, affordable cooking alternatives easier and easier to come by. …[T]onight, I can order excellent pad thai from my phone in under a minute. Or, I can find a recipe for “easy” pad thai, run—literally, run—to the grocery store at lunch, hope that grocery store sells fish sauce, then spend 40 minutes making the dish and 20 minutes cleaning up. The decision to cook from scratch may have many virtues, but ease is not one of them. Despite what we’re told, cooking the way so many Americans aspire to do it today is never fast, and rarely easy compared to all the other options available for feeding ourselves.
Dunn quickly clarifies—she likes cooking from scratch. But with a full-time job and a young son, there rarely (if ever) seems time to make the sorts of meals she sees in Bon Appetit. “It’s not that the best way to feed yourself is always the fastest one—it almost always isn’t,” she writes. “…But I think we should talk more realistically about what’s involved in from-scratch cooking, the sacrifices it entails, and the fact that little of the complexity offered by today’s published recipes is really essential to cooking a delicious meal.”
Cooking is hard when you don’t have time for it and carving out that time does indeed require sacrifices. But the question is: are we really too busy to cook? Dunn is right to some extent: meals rarely (if ever) take a mere 15 minutes to put together. But when one considers the breadth and length of a 12-hour day, it seems a bit silly to think we should be putting less than half an hour into the sustenance of our minds and bodies. It makes sense that cooking food—creating the nutrients that nourish and sustain us through all the commutes, work tasks, classes, and soccer practices we might face in a day—should require some time and effort.
Food experts have had similar complaints over Americans’ meal budgets: we spend less than 10 percent of our budget on food, and of that 10 percent, only 5.5 percent is allotted for cooking at home. We spend less of our cash on food than any other country—about half as much as French households do. Cooking is not a priority to us where money or time are concerned. We’ve put cooking on the back burner (excuse the pun), replacing it with other concerns.
And yet the average U.S. adult spends over an hour on his phone, and checks it about 80 times throughout the day. That average adult also spends four and a half hours watching shows and movies. All in all, we spend about 10 hours a day staring at screens.
Surely we have time to chop and sauté some vegetables. We could boil some rice and pan-fry some chicken, even while an episode of that must-watch Netflix show plays in the background. The biggest drawback to cooking in our modern world often arises from long commutes, when workers arrive home frazzled and exhausted, with big appetites and little inspiration. But even here, there is room to cook: my mother-in-law taught me to make omelets and toast for dinner when it’s late and everybody is tired. It’s not a fancy solution by any means, but it gets the job done—and it’s much cheaper than takeout. Another solution I learned growing up was to make freezer meals: cooking a huge batch of soup or chili on the weekend, freezing half, and then pulling it out during a busy week.
From-scratch cooking isn’t impossible in our world, but its rhythms and processes are slower and harder than we’ve been conditioned to appreciate. We don’t like waiting for things. We don’t like 10 steps where one might do. And we don’t like undue labor when someone else could do the “hard” stuff for us.
But perhaps this is why we need cooking: not because it fits perfectly with our frantic and frenzied lives, but because it is so contrary to the other rhythms and patterns that characterize our days. Cooking is the perfect time-consuming ritual to remind us of what’s real: the hunger in our bellies, the crisp clack of a knife as it slices through a potato, the sizzle of olive oil in a pan. It’s a communal activity that enables us to spend time together, to draw even young persons into the kitchen and teach them important skills. My two-year-old can’t do much in the kitchen, but she can help me peel garlic, squeeze limes, or stir cornbread batter. She loves sitting on the kitchen counter, listening to music, and watching as I cook.
Today’s Americans may need easier recipes and culinary methods in order to cook from home. But perhaps the problem is not that we need these things, but rather that we’ve been conditioned to expect them in our instant-gratification culture. The answer to our cooking dilemma might not be a new five-minute meal cookbook or Grub Hub app. It might instead be a deepening encouragement to slow things down, to embrace a little difficulty in the kitchen, and to set aside the distractions (technological and otherwise) that prevent us from feeding our bodies as we ought.
Ever since Donald Trump first announced he was running for president, we haven’t been able to look away. He dominated headlines that week in June 2015, and has dominated them every week since.
At first, reports on the Trump campaign were half-humorous, half-incredulous. Some writers disapproved of his proposals; some found his rhetoric alarming. Some responded enthusiastically to his apparent outsider status and populist platform. But his dominance seemed so unlikely that many regarded him with bemusement rather than consternation.
As time went on, and Trump continued to dominate the national conversation, the media stories veered into the realm of the alarmed, astonished, and panicked. Trump’s eminence in the national conversation never dimmed, but rather morphed. Like looking into a funhouse mirror, the way in which reporters and newspapers perceived Trump mutated from fascinating and silly to frightening and grotesque. The amused stories of summer 2015 became the fearful articles of post-election 2016.
Regardless of tone or outlet, however, one thing has been constant: Trump has controlled our headlines and our public discourse for a few years now, and we have to give him credit for that dominance, at least to some extent. He’s given us flashy quotes, crazy tweets, and meme-able expressions. In 2016, he made the debates funnier, the headlines punchier, the boring business of politics flashier. From insulting Mika Brzezinski last year to recently declaring his nuclear button bigger than North Korea’s, Trump has always managed to give voice to the ludicrous and offensive, something that keeps him front and center.
Of course, he’s also kept the national conversation infantile, brutish, and nasty. He’s distracted from real policy issues, as well as from the presidency’s true meaning and intended role. But for Trump, media dominance seems like a largely successful strategy. Even if he becomes one of the most disliked presidents in American history, no one can deny that he’ll also become one of the most notorious.
Kevin Williamson recently described the second year of Trump’s presidency as “Trump: Season 2.” And if you think about it, Trump’s time in the spotlight has been much like a reality TV show: characterized by addictive controversy, incendiary rhetoric on all sides, and our own inability to look away from the spectacle. Anyone who’s watched an episode of “The Bachelor,” “Survivor,” or “Top Chef” knows that drama and intrigue keep viewers glued. If we think something crazy and ridiculous is on the immediate horizon, we won’t look away or turn the channel. In the same way, the palace intrigue style of journalism that’s been common throughout Trump’s first year—a style that seems to dominate Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury—focuses on feeding our appetites for gossip and outrage, keeping viewers tuned in until next week.
Of course, when it comes to “The Bachelor” and “The Apprentice,” we can choose to ignore the spectacle. We can choose not to turn on the TV in the first place. But what do we do when Trump’s belligerence threatens nuclear war and diplomatic relations with key allies abroad? What’s the wise and measured stance to take in the face of a presidential sitcom that never seems to end—but rather seems to dangerously escalate?
As a wealthy and prominent New Yorker and as a reality TV star, Trump is used to shock and attention. He craves the latter, it seems, above all else. This, to some extent, is what we get for making such a person president.
But much of this reality TV drama is also the fault of our media and its methodology. Our 24/7 news cycle challenges journalists to garner clicks, to keep people fixated, to always be on top of the “next thing.” A news story back in the day would take at least 24 hours to go to press—and could dominate discourse for weeks afterwards. Now, news breaks in mere minutes, and the hot takes are expected instantaneously. We never want to slow down the cycle too much, lest we lose the attention of the ever-distracted public, give up their eyeballs and clicks via slow reads or uninteresting story angles.
Trump fascinates all Americans, it seems: we hate him or love him, fear him or idolize him. That encourages journalists to make every story Trump-centric, to feed the love or hate or fear via their reporting. Some of this reporting is a bit self-conscious or self-aggrandizing—“Trump versus the media” has become a navel-gazing war that most journalistic outlets are all too happy to fixate on, and it’s been profitable for many of them. But amid the back and forth, the endless and breathless coverage of Trump’s latest sensational comment (or two or five), we often forget to step back and consider the bigger picture. We forget, to some extent, what’s real. The tax bill is real. Congress’s inability to get health care reform passed is real. Trump’s incendiary tweets regarding North Korea are, unfortunately, all too real. But Michael Wolff’s collection of gossipy intra-White House drama? That’s “Trump: Season Two.” And it’s a distraction from the issues we should really be focussing on.
It’s perhaps telling that, in America today, we are making our presidencies into sitcoms rather than making sitcoms about our presidencies. It’s a trend that cannot possibly lead to ethical, wise, or prudent governance. So while it’s impossible to entirely look away, to refuse to read anything about Trump’s latest action or tweet, perhaps we can be more mindful of what we look at or click on. Who writes these stories, how, and what sort of tone they strike: all these things serve to encourage or dissuade our real-life reality TV drama. We’re the viewers and the voters, after all: we should be able to tell our media, and our president, what we want to watch.
January can be a dark and depressing month. As we move our Christmas trees to the curb and pack up glistening ornaments, the sparkle and enchantment of December slowly disappears before us. The darkness and cold are no longer transformed by favorite nostalgic holiday tunes or foods. Everything feels a bit more bone-chilling, a bit less cheery. A lot of folks struggle with seasonal depression this time of year: we’re not getting the vitamin D and fresh air we so often need. And with the sudden December-to-January transformation of our social schedules—from frenzied to sparse—loneliness can seep into our lives like an icy draft.
How to combat these things, and keep the joy in our Januarys? As the eastern U.S. has been hit by a “bomb cyclone,” with threats of a polar vortex to come, the question is on more than a few people’s minds. Living in an old house prone to frozen pipes and chilly drafts has made it even more of a challenge for our family of late. It’s prompted me to recall the ways our childhood winters remained cozy and warm, despite Idaho’s sub-zero wintry temperatures.
So here are some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned from friends and family to brighten those dark January days.
Lately, we’ve been enjoying the seeping cold of a 19th-century farmhouse, with all its antique glass windows and non-insulated walls. Let’s just say it’s not the ideal atmosphere for frozen or chilled dishes, like smoothies or ice cream. Thankfully, I’ve been blessed with a mother, grandmother, and mother-in-law who all love to cook—and who know how to cook well in the wintertime. They taught me how to make cinnamon rolls, homemade bread, oatmeal scones, biscuits, homemade mac and cheese, beef stew, and a myriad of chowders and soups. Many of those foods fill our kitchen—and our stomachs—on a weekly basis. We make waffles or crepes on the weekend, oatmeal or omelets on the weekdays. I’ll put a roast in the oven sometime in the afternoon (this is a favorite recipe), then roast or mash potatoes around dinnertime. We love making chili, avgolemono, chicken stew with potatoes, carrots, kale, and rosemary—or sweet potato black bean burrito bowls for a hearty vegetarian meal.
Winter is also a fun time to experiment with new dishes and cuisines. We’ve learned to make gnocchi, challah bread, and bulgogi. I’m hoping to work on some French dishes this winter, and to master cooking with venison.
Beyond weekend coffee with Bailey’s or a hot toddy, there’s a plethora of fun, nonalcoholic, warming drinks worth enjoying at wintertime. I like trying to recreate favorite lattes and coffee shop drinks on weekends. A “London Fog latte” requires earl grey tea, a generous dollop of honey, a splash of vanilla, and some milk. You can make homemade chai concentrate by simmering black tea bags with cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and star anise, then adding sugar or honey and milk. When nasty colds hit our house, we make homemade ginger tea with tons of freshly grated ginger and a slice of lemon, or honey thyme tea (just simmer thyme with water on the stovetop, then add honey).
Reading and watching
The Christmas season is bright and homey for a myriad of reasons—but nostalgia certainly helps spread happiness throughout December. We listen to songs we’ve heard since childhood, watch beloved films, and read our favorite books. But there’s no reason we have to cut ourselves off from that warm remembrance of the past after the holidays end. Often, January is an ideal time to indulge in favorite books and movies, to enjoy the treasures of the past. I love to reread old favorites by Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, and John Steinbeck. We re-watch our favorite TV shows, like Agatha Christie’s “Hercules Poirot” murder mysteries and Jane Austen adaptations.
Just as January is a fun time to discover new recipes, it’s also afforded us opportunities to discover new film genres: one goal of mine for this month (and probably next) is to watch some classic Oscar winners, and catch up on famed movies I’ve never seen due to busyness or ignorance.
And although January is a bit early, I love to start garden planning in February. We re-read old garden manuals or pick up new ones, and plot out our hopes and plans for the summer. Spring fever has usually hit by this time, and we can begin with tomatoes and peppers in the house about midway through the month. Seeing little green seedlings sprout below the kitchen window brings a little extra cheer to the dark winter days.
A warm home
Many have talked or written about hygge: the Danish word defined as “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” People associate hygge with mulled wine, warm blankets, hot stew, and brisk snowy walks—as well as with a more abstract conception of personal joy and hospitality, warmth and openness. The word and its meaning have grown in popularity here in the States, as many have realized the role such cozy rituals can play in cheering long winters.
Atlantic reporter Kari Leibowitz spent a year in the Norwegian town of Tromsø, where the sun doesn’t rise between November and January. Despite the bleakness, she learned that the people of Tromsø have lower rates of seasonal depression than those in less dark and less cold climes. How is that possible? She traveled there to find out—and quickly realized that her assumptions surrounding winter were entirely incongruent with what she saw:
[I]n New Jersey, where I grew up, almost no one looked forward to winter, myself included (I even chose to attend college in Atlanta to escape the cold). In my experience, people simply got through the wintertime darkness on the way to a brighter, happier season. But in Tromsø, the Polar Night seemed to hold its own unique opportunities for mental and emotional flourishing. …
I found myself the happy victim of mindset contagion after Fern told me she refused to call the Polar Night the mørketid, or “dark time,” preferring instead to use its alternative name, the “Blue Time” to emphasize all the color present during this period. … After hearing this, I couldn’t help but pay more attention to the soft blue haze that settled over everything, and I consciously worked to think of this light as cozy rather than dark. And rather than greeting each other with complaints about the cold and snow, a common shared grumble in the U.S., my Norwegian friends would walk or ski to our meet-ups, arriving alert and refreshed from being outdoors, inspiring me to bundle up and spend some time outside on even the coldest days.
Much of this same positivity and coziness filled my childhood winters, winters that otherwise might have felt cold and dreary. We did our homework next to the fireplace in the evenings, and bundled up to play in the snow on weekends (and then enjoyed cups of hot cocoa when we came inside). We made wintry desserts like gingerbread and nutmeg-sprinkled sugar cookies. My grandmother mastered the art of hygge: the steaming cider and soups and pies that filled our holiday season, the soft hum of a football game in the living room, created a texture that enveloped our spirits with warmth. There were pictures of my father and his siblings proudly lining her walls, rose-embellished china on her counters and in her cabinets. Her bedrooms abounded with pillows and stuffed animals, beckoning to grandchildren with their comfort.
Home can be a haven in January. It requires very little: a blanket, a candle, a warm cup of tea, a well-worn favorite book. But these little touches of comfort can help banish the emotional and physical cold we can otherwise feel throughout the winter.
Ritual and Hospitality
I recently talked to a friend whose family always held a “post-Christmas” party growing up. They often (like most of us) felt saddened after Christmas was over. So her parents counteracted that by having friends over during the week after Christmas.
Though my friend’s family did this in December, this sort of tradition seems especially helpful during January. After New Year’s Eve, our lives settle back into normal rhythms—often with a little less color or excitement. February has Valentine’s Day’s romance and flowers, as well as Super Bowl festivities for football fans; March has St. Patrick’s Day’s brightness and sometimes Easter’s beauty. But January is relatively empty. Perhaps that emptiness provides the perfect opportunity to plan and foster exciting new traditions, rituals, and gatherings for the new year.
A group of friends has started planning early-morning diner breakfasts once every few weeks, as an opportunity to connect and laugh over coffee before everyone heads out for their morning commutes. It’s a simple tradition that’s helped brighten our weekday routines. We’re also trying to make board game nights a regular thing, if not weekly then bi-weekly.
Last fall, a friend of mine also started a bi-weekly book club. Our evening conversations over cookies and tea have become an incredible blessing, an opportunity for encouragement and intellectual stimulation. We take turns picking out books, and put together a Facebook group to help prompt discussion and connection throughout the in-between weeks.
There are also familial, personal traditions we’re working on cultivating this January. As the mom of a toddler, I’m trying to improvise ways to get out and have fun when the temperatures are too cold to spend extensive amounts of time outside or at the park. We’ve started a weekly library date (or two), and take turns visiting friends’ houses for playdates. My daughter got a little tent for Christmas, and so we’ve moved our regular reading time into the cozy confines of her tiny den. In Sally and Sarah Clarkson’s lovely book The Lifegiving Home, they recommend lighting candles at the dinner table, which makes even a simple dinner of eggs and toast feel fun and special. Sally Clarkson also shares her ritual of Sunday afternoon tea and magazine reading with her daughters, and of board game playing and reading books aloud around the fireplace on weekday evenings.
None of these rituals are elaborate or expensive. They’re simple pleasures that help create cadence and brightness: sparks of life amidst dull routine. My tea drawer isn’t full of fancy brands, we don’t own fine china or linen tablecloths, and most of our throw pillows and stuffed animals have been well-loved and cuddled. But despite the age and quality of our possessions, each item has helped make life a bit sweeter—and has helped turn the “dark time,” as Leibowitz puts it, into a “blue time”: full of gorgeous shades and textures, cozy in its quietness.
We still have much to learn about braving winter’s darkness and cold. But I’m hoping that, if we take our cod liver oil regularly and keep the soup simmering, we’ll make it through this polar vortex with our spirits high. Keep the candles burning, friends.
Reading is harder than it used to be. To some extent, that’s just part of being an adult. Determining what to read, carving out the time to do it, and sticking to a book inevitably grows more difficult as one gets older. There’s always something else to do, some chore to complete or task to finish. Our time also offers plenty of unique distractions: there’s always a new Netflix show to binge watch, a text or Facebook message beckoning from our phones, another news feed to scroll through.
In high school, I often read 20 books in a summer. In college, I would read four or five over Christmas break. Once “real life” began post-college, I still endeavored to get through between 30 to 40 books a year. But I also found it harder to attend to and finish books. When my brain felt tired, it was easier to watch TV or scroll mindlessly through Facebook. Like many readers, I’ve had to push back against my worst distractive tendencies in order to keep my passion for reading alive. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes less so.
That said, having a child has changed my reading habits—and not necessarily for the worse. I read less “grownup” books, and spend a lot more time with A.A. Milne, Tasha Tudor, and Dr. Seuss. These authors, their wit and serendipity, have kept the joy and beauty of the written word alive, amidst a tiring and stressful journalistic year. Among the nursery rhymes and endless repetitions of Go Dog Go, I was able to squeeze in some other interesting—even delightful—reads. All these books are at least relatively new—if not new this year, then published in the past few years. At the end, I’ll also share a few books I re-read for their relevance and timelessness. Hopefully this list will prove both enjoyable and insightful for some of you.
This Blessed Earth, Ted Genoways
The world of farming has changed drastically over the past 50 years. But has it changed for the better or are we headed for another farm crisis?
This is a question journalist Ted Genoways considers in this work of narrative nonfiction, which I reviewed for The Federalist earlier this year. In it, he tells the story of one particular farming family through whose eyes he considers larger patterns of stress and success, peril and promise. The book is perhaps a bit dense and dry for those who are not deeply interested in agriculture. But for those curious about food and farming, I’d recommend it.
The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs, Joel Salatin
To Christians interested in questions of ethical eating and food buying, I cannot recommend Salatin’s new book enough. Farmer and author Joel Salatin has long lived at the intersection of two worlds: that of passionate, often left-leaning environmentalists, and that of conservative Christianity. In this book, he strives to explain to a Christian audience why they should care about their food and how it’s produced—and why they should show greater concern and stewardship for their planet.
While Salatin’s vision for eating and living may seem radical to some, the ethic and philosophy behind it is approachable and applicable to a diversity of backgrounds and geographies. You can listen to my radio interview with Salatin and discussion of his book here.
Wendell Berry and Higher Education, Jack Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro
As I read Bilbro’s and Baker’s book this summer, it quickly became clear that Wendell Berry and Higher Education was about much more than the state of our universities and college students. Through their thoughtful consideration of home and community, ambition and place, Baker and Bilbro grapple with problems and questions that extend beyond college to the very heart of American society. As small rural communities suffer brain drain and post-industrial towns slowly succumb to collapse, this book, unlike so many others, suggests that the answer lies not in exodus, but in rootedness. Through their thoughtful and expert references to Wendell Berry’s work, the authors also help introduce their audience to timeless truths and poetic works on this subject. It’s well worth the read. (You can read my full review for TAC here.)
The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher
American Christians are living in an increasingly secular—and even, some would argue, hostile—culture. How then ought we to live? The Benedict Option considers this question in great depth, offering a clear-eyed look at the trends and philosophies that brought us to this moment and at the paths forward for thoughtful and devout believers.
Rod’s book generated a lot of interesting debate this summer—and considering the contentious and difficult conversations we’ve had of late regarding the fate of the Republican Party and the pro-life movement, I’d say this conversation is far from over. While some have argued that Dreher’s vision of America too apocalyptic, or that his prescription is either too exclusive or too cultish, it seems to me that the rule for living he presents in his work is both thoughtful and inspiring, and his warnings—especially those surrounding the decay and breakdown of evangelicalism and the church—are vital for today’s Christians to consider.
The Revenge of the Analog, David Sax
For years, we’ve been told that bookstores and print books are going extinct, that augmented and virtual reality are the future, that digitalized records and digitalized music are the only things that will exist 10 or 15 years from now.
But is that what people really want? This is the primary question that David Sax considers in The Revenge of the Analog, and his refreshing answer is no. From the revival of vinyl to a rebirth of Polaroid cameras, a board game renaissance to Moleskine dominance, Sax considers our widespread embrace of outdated, old, and analog items. He argues, respectfully, that perhaps the old and “real” will always be with us—not because there aren’t virtual alternatives, but because we as humans like to use our five senses. The book will be a fascinating read for most, but especially for those who have fallen in love with old analog items, who have bought a turntable or Polaroid camera, who have developed an affinity for board games or insist on taking notes by hand (despite the naysayers). You can read my full review of Sax’s book here.
Beartown, Fredrik Backman
Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove delighted many readers. But this new novel from the surprise bestselling author offers us something quite different. Beartown considers the tribalism that can tear us apart, the hope and despair that often hold us hostage to the past, and the corruption that can destroy our future. All this in a book about hockey.
Beartown is suffering from a rural decline that many here in the states will recognize. Backman uses its plight to ask challenging questions about home and hope—and along the way offers scathing and justified rebukes to the competitive sporting cultures that often dominate town identities. We want to win—but at what cost? “What is a community?” Backman asks at one point in the book, before immediately answering, “It is the sum total of our choices.”
You can read my review of Beartown here.
Idaho, Emily Ruskovich
This is perhaps the most beautiful book I read this year. Ruskovich’s writing mirrors Marilynne Robinson (one of her mentors) and Alice Munro—it is poignant, graceful, surprising, and layered. The book considers Ann and Wade, a husband and wife living in the rugged mountains of northern Idaho. Ruskovich weaves a beautiful picture of their life together, their love and compassion, while also offering us glimpses of the haunting pain in their past. Some years ago, Wade underwent a fearful tragedy in which he lost his first wife and daughters. Now, Ann is trying to piece together the puzzle of this personal tragedy before it’s too late.
Unlike so many popular novels of late—Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, Big Little Lies—Ruskovich doesn’t insert deep malevolence or darkness into her story. It’s a sign of her strength as a writer, perhaps, that she doesn’t have to: the novel considers darkness and pain without becoming dark and painful to read. Ruskovich portrays the whole of the human person, beauty and failure, without succumbing to sinister stereotype. I’d highly recommend Idaho, and look forward to reading more from Ruskovich in the future.
The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks
In some ways, The Shepherd’s Life reminded me of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: Rebanks’ memoir considers the life of a small community that has become increasingly rare, the stubborn survival of its inhabitants despite widespread change in their world. He tells the story of his community and family through the clear-eyed but loving gaze of a son.
But Rebanks’ book also offers more hope, and more poetry, than Elegy did: due to the beautiful persistence of his tribe—the shepherds of England’s Lake District—Rebanks’ community has not died out, and the vision of farming it represents is not on the verge of extinction. Though little, it is fierce. And the beautiful fierceness of that life shines through Rebanks’ book. This is another great “crunchy con” read for those interested in sustainable agriculture and small-town community, as well as a beautiful look at an increasingly rare sort of community, one that has stayed strong despite everything.
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
I was late to this book, which took America by storm when it came out in 2015, but I’m so glad I read it. Coates offers a deep and clear-eyed look at the world of West Baltimore where he grew up, and serves up some shattering and justified rebukes to the culture that helped curate the fear and loss he experienced as a boy and young man. It’s not just West Baltimore, he points out, that has suffered shootings, losses, unjust deaths: black communities have struggled against these things for centuries. And we as Americans have, more often than not, turned a blind eye, in order to preserve our vision of hope, our “American Dream.” While I don’t agree wholeheartedly with Coates on everything, I felt humbled by and thankful for this book’s discernment and clarity, its graceful storytelling and poignant observations. I consider it a must-read.
The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry
Last year marked the 40th anniversary of Berry’s classic book. It is always worth revisiting—not just because of its timeless truths, but because of its increasing relevance in today’s America. The trends Berry first predicted in the 1970s are coming to fruition in our time, which makes Berry’s work more enlightening (and perhaps even more frightening) with each year. But his beautiful observations—about hearth and home, land and community—are vital for today’s readers to consider.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
When Jane Jacobs wrote her classic work in 1961, America looked very different. Ours was a more analog, connected, communal country, and for this reason, Jacobs believed her observations and suggestions for urban planning were only necessary for cities, where most were strangers to those they passed on the street. But if Jacobs were to live in America today, she would see that same strangeness and separation played out on both a small and large scale. As we increasingly move from place to place, shirking our roots for novelties and career successes, our streets and towns have become increasingly strange and alien. Jacobs’s insights in Great American Cities are thus becoming more—not less—relevant to today’s America. We don’t just need them in New York City anymore. We need them on Main Street USA.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Following Donald Trump’s inauguration and the creation of a new Hulu television series based on Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale has been launched back into public discussion and prominence. Many (rather breathlessly) have associated Atwood’s fundamentalist society with Trump’s and Mike Pence’s right-leaning beliefs, and as a result, Handmaid’s Tale-inspired protests began to take place throughout the nation.
But Atwood’s classic novel is worth reading on its own merits, for its own thoughtful and incisive commentary. As I wrote in April, to associate Atwood’s vision of religious, political fundamentalism with right-leaning factions isn’t just a reduction of conservatism and the pro-life movement; it’s also a reduction of Atwood’s beautiful work. The Handmaid’s Tale is a worthy critique of fundamentalism and its reductive tendencies, but it doesn’t castigate Christianity so much as it castigates cultism, Gnosticism, and extremism. These are things that can skew and twist every religious and political movement (as Atwood herself seemed to agree on Twitter):
Totalitarianisms have gone by many names. Left, Right, and Other. https://t.co/lxHjbsmhi2
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) April 27, 2017
Atwood’s novel is sad and harrowing at points, but also beautifully written and poignant. I’d highly recommend it, along with Brave New World and 1984, as dystopian narratives that predict and portray our worst tendencies as humans, thus giving us clearer insights into who we are.
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Last Christmas Eve, I was in the ER.
My husband was deployed, and I’d been fighting a nasty illness for weeks. Things took a turn for the worse on Christmas Eve, and so my dad drove me to the hospital around 11 o’clock that evening.
“This isn’t how Christmas is supposed to be,” I remember thinking. The whole holiday season had been full of sickness and sleepless nights, eternal work and emails, family grief and trauma. Each day seemed submerged in a cloud that I couldn’t rise above. The happy moments—spent reading with my baby, baking Christmas treats, talking with old family and friends—all seemed bathed in a shadow of exhaustion and sadness.
That Christmas Eve, I felt completely empty of emotional and physical strength. But as I was tended to by the cheeriest of doctors and nurses, as well as by my kind father, I realized how deeply I’d bought into the modern lie of Christmastime: if you’ve been nice, not naughty, you’ll have a perfect holiday season. We adults pretend not to believe in Santa Claus, but we often act as if the month of December is graced by some sort of beneficent fairy: one who will prevent plans from going askew, relationships from being dashed. Nothing bad can happen at Christmastime, we assure ourselves—subconsciously if not consciously. I’d been “good for goodness sake.” So why had everything gone wrong?
The ease with which we buy into this mythical assurance has made me especially appreciative of Dr. Seuss’s classic tale How the Grinch Told Christmas. The story’s star is a nasty, conniving, and cartoonish Ebenezer Scrooge—one who is not content with merely avoiding Christmas cheer himself, but who instead fixates on ruining the entire day for everyone around him. The Grinch is one of the most sinister and unlikeable villains in literature: a curmudgeonly hermit who wants to deprive the world of joy, festivity, and community. His story is a fascinating yet dark caricature of our Christmas tales: the saint of beneficent joy and giving becomes a minister of destruction and deprivation, slinking down chimneys to ransack the homes of sleeping families, emptying their living rooms and refrigerators one by one. Reading the book with my daughter this year, I appreciated anew Dr. Seuss’s gift for rhyme and alliteration, the way he weaves so much color and detail into this short little book.
After the Grinch ransacks all the homes in Whoville, he drives his laden sleigh to the top of Mount Crumpit, where he intends to dump its contents. There, he waits for the sound of the traumatized, angry, distraught Whos, who are just waking up to their pillaged homes, barren of Christmas cheer.
But the Whos do not cry or bemoan their fate. They don’t grab torches and pitchforks, and run after the villainous Grinch. Instead, they gather in the town square—as they do every year—and they sing. Dr. Seuss tells us:
Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!
And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?
“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!”
We aren’t told what goes through the Whos’ minds when they wake up to ransacked houses on Christmas morning. Rather, the book shows us what Christmas is by depicting so clearly what it is not, hinting at the mystery behind the customs and traditions without ever fully revealing the mystery.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its omissions, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is one of the best Christmas fables for our time—not because we’re predisposed to the Grinch’s curmudgeonly and sinister loathing of the season, but because we are so unlike the Whos. Whereas we can distance ourselves from Ebenezer Scrooge, take the moral high ground over George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, and shake our heads at Charlie Brown’s capering cast in A Charlie Brown Christmas, none of us can deny that we’d respond with anger and depression to a plundered, empty house on Christmas day. On the Grinch’s trajectory toward redemption—from evil to good, shrunken heart to rebirthed soul—we often forget that it is the Whos’ persistent joy, their determination to sing in the face of material disaster, that makes his redemption possible.
We expect a certain degree of joy and material comfort during the Christmas season. We’ve watched enough movies to know what Christmas “should” look like: perfect tree, beautiful presents, immaculate feast. Even when these things fail us, we want to be assured of cheer and good health, familial wholeness and communal peace. “It’s [the] time of year when the world falls in love,” croons Frank Sinatra. Death, war, pain, discomfort: their dissonance prompts us to protest during the holiday season. They don’t belong.
But of course, when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, they had no comfortable room for the night. They camped out in a barn. Mary gave birth without midwives or doctors, clean home or comforting bed. She placed her newborn baby in an animal’s feeding trough; she had no cradle or bassinet. On that bleak night, who knows whether she felt confused by the adversity and pain of a moment so beautiful and sacred. But most of us probably would have felt cheated, aggrieved, and angered by the sparsity of the moment.
When we wake up to a Christmas morning devoid of the pleasures we expect—material or emotional, physical or spiritual—we are inclined to grab our pitchforks and protest the celestial unkindness that would force us to experience this adversity. We don’t want to deal with a broken Christmas. We don’t really believe that Christmas is meant to come without ribbons or tags, “packages, boxes, or bags.”
And yet, the Whos sang merrily, despite their barren homes and hungry stomachs. I know Dr. Seuss writes colorful cartoons, as devoid of realism as your average children’s book. But his stories—like most beloved fairy tales and novels—are meant to inspire, to instruct, to encourage. When Charles Dickens presents us with the meager blessings of Bob Cratchit’s family in A Christmas Carol, we’re not meant to passively applaud. We’re meant to aspire. Can we sing in the face of adversity? Can we be merry despite our brokenness?
This sort of joy is unlikely—nay, I’d suggest, impossible—without divine intervention. The Grinch who puzzles for three hours in the snow is unlikely to experience exponential heart growth and transformation without some sort of providential awakening. Christmas is “more” than presents and levity because it is really about redemption: about sparse beginnings that turn into happily ever afters, death that results in resurrection, poverty that ends in fullness of joy. Christmas offers us the sort of redemption that can make you sing in an empty house, the sort of joy that can transform a barren heart.
Last Christmas, I returned home from the ER in the wee hours of the morning, just in time for some sleep before the family festivities began. I cuddled with my daughter when she awoke, savoring her sweet and comforting touch. I realized that, despite the difficulty of the past few weeks, this was exactly how Christmas was supposed to be. My feeble, hurting heart could only receive renewal in something other than material comfort and circumstantial happiness. Stripping everything away revealed how much I needed something “a little bit more,” to quote the Grinch—something that only a Savior (one who experienced brokenness and pain himself) could offer.
I may not have all the resilient joy of the Whos. But this year—and every year after—I’ll aspire to their hope in the face of adversity. Because Christmas will come, whether our circumstances are flawless or shattered. And if we’re willing to sing with the Whos, through thick and thin, perhaps we too can help redeem the broken and heart-pinched people of the world.
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Republican nominee Roy Moore lost the vote in Alabama on Tuesday. To many, that defeat was comforting: Moore’s troubling background included lawlessness, extremism, and allegations of child molestation. He may not have lost by much—but with a tenfold increase in write-ins and a drop-off of 800,000 voters, it appears that Moore was too much for principled conservatives in Alabama.
Indeed, after crunching the numbers, economist Lyman Stone suggested that Moore had the lowest white evangelical support of any Alabama Republican in the 21st century:
Had Moore enjoyed the level of support of just the average off-cycle Alabama Republican, he would have gotten about 105,000 more votes, and won the election. If he had enjoyed passionate support from evangelicals, as the media tried to say he had, and matched the best off-cycle performance, he’d have gotten about 150,000 more votes. Heck, if he’d simply tied the worst-ever performance, he’d still have won, getting about 70,000 more votes. But instead, Moore’s election set a new low for the GOP’s share of the white evangelical electorate.
Jake Meador suggests over at Mere Orthodoxy that “This is the message to the GOP: Stop ignoring us. Stop pretending you can count on our votes. Stop thinking of us as useful idiots.”
But the question remains: where do principled conservative voters go from here? Because even though Moore lost, it’s important not to forget that he was supported by the president and the Republican Party. As Mikel Jollett (wincingly) put it on Twitter:
After Roy Moore said gay people should be put in jail,
After he said the country was better off under slavery,
After he said Muslims have no place in public life,
Even after he was outed as a serial pedophile,
The @GOP ENDORSED him and FUNDED his campaign.
— Mikel Jollett (@Mikel_Jollett) December 13, 2017
Considering Republicans’ recent losses in Virginia and New Jersey, a tide seems to be turning. Voter turnout amongst Republicans was low in Virginia and the rhetoric of GOP candidate for governor Ed Gillespie was offensive to some. The GOP now seems perilously close to losing some of its less populist Christian voters—especially those who are younger and perhaps less committed to the party and its messaging.
Roy Moore is not, after all, the first disagreeable character that the GOP has chosen to embrace and support in recent months: plenty of Christian conservative voters considered Donald Trump to be uncouth, brazen, offensive, and decidedly un-conservative in the traditional and philosophical understanding of the term. When push came to shove, many voted for him—but a substantial number chose to write in a different candidate, to vote for Hillary Clinton, or to stay at home.
At the time, frustration amongst young conservatives was high. I’ve talked to bright young people at Washington, D.C. think tanks and news organizations, nonprofits and businesses. I’ve read and heard the frustration of old church acquaintances and college friends across the country. Their voices have been loud and clear regarding Trump and Moore: these were not candidates they could support. How then could they still support the party that embraced and funded them?
It’s not that all these protesters are establishment conservatives. Not all belong to the National Review class of #NeverTrumpers, so often rejected and ridiculed by Trump’s acolytes. Many are just as wary of Washington’s stasis and elitism as the next person. They’re frustrated with congressional Republicans who have failed to get anything substantial done. Despite having majorities in the House and Senate—and a Republican president—Congress could not defund Planned Parenthood this year. Voices like Mike Lee and Marco Rubio—those who have pushed for a more pro-family agenda, one that might appeal to a broader circle of voters and complement the pro-life cause—have been cast aside by party leadership, which instead continues to placate its donor class.
The GOP seems to think they own Christian conservative voters because they have “nowhere else to go.” Most who ally themselves with the pro-life movement are not comfortable voting for vehemently pro-choice Democrats—even if they choose not to back Roy Moore, they’d rather write in a name or stay at home than vote for a politician like Doug Jones who dogmatically supports abortion. Many would be open to switching if the Democratic Party were to soften its stance on abortion, as Bernie Sanders and Nancy Pelosi have both suggested. But most Democrats have only doubled down on their decisions to be unabashedly and unequivocally pro-choice.
Faced, then, with this sickening choice—between character and principle, vulgarity and murder—many pro-life voters will choose to stay home. It’s all too difficult to determine which is the “lesser of two evils.”
That said, not having a party with which to vote is deeply frustrating and concerning: principled conservatives shouldn’t be rendered voiceless and representative-less by our political process. And yet, if the Moores and Trumps continue to receive the support of the GOP, we will be.
The Republican Party may change course in response to Gillespie’s and Moore’s high-profile defeats. Both candidates employed rhetoric that mirrored Donald Trump’s. Both were not enough to galvanize Republican turnout, while Democratic and African-American voters in Alabama did a commendable job of showing up to vote.
But in fact, Republican strategists believe that Moore and Trump are only the beginning of the GOP’s populist revolt. As McKay Coppins recently reported for The Atlantic, “Steve Bannon has already pledged to field challengers for every incumbent Republican senator up for reelection next year.…And even if Bannon fails to deliver on his threat, many in the GOP worry that experienced, fully-vetted candidates are going to struggle to beat back a wave of rough-edged Trump imitators who lean into the white identity politics that the president ran on in 2016.”
Depending on the state, conservatives can continue to vote for the Ben Sasses, Mike Lees, and Rand Pauls of the Republican Party, upholding the few vestiges of principled conservatism left amongst its ranks. But even here, the GOP seems to have deserted its worthy few: how are these politicians going to effect change when they meet obstruction and opposition at every turn?
Perhaps there are some young and principled conservatives who might seek to run for office and could complement and add to the ranks of those who are striving to do what’s right. And of course, it’s important to encourage those who might feel equipped and eager for such a task. We need better politicians in Washington.
But where does that leave the rest of us who do not want to run for office, who do not have an upstanding conservative politician to support, and who feel deeply disillusioned by recent decisions of the GOP?
The only reasonable course of action at present, I would suggest, is for those voters to immerse themselves in local politics and private, grassroots conservative efforts—until one or both parties get(s) the picture or another party rises up (which is very unlikely).
Principled conservatism isn’t tied to the Republican party, after all: it exists beyond and above partisanship. The writings of 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke have undergirded and demarcated conservatism since its beginnings. Russell Kirk’s considerations of conservatism never prescribed specific political actions or partisanship affinities; rather Kirk suggested that conservatism is an underlying philosophy and moral framework, one that should never be chained to a specific political manifesto or tribe. Conservatism is various, prudent, and specific. In other words: conservatives don’t need a political party to complete them.
Don’t get me wrong: it would be nice to have some party or affiliation to ally with, to feel proud of. Many associate a sort of identity and patriotic affinity with their political party. To be party-less is to feel stranded and voiceless in America’s political system. But to choose a party despite alarming moral flaws in its candidates and platform will achieve little—in fact, it could do more harm than good.
Deserting the Republican Party would entirely change Christian conservatives’ relationship with their country. It would remove their voice almost entirely from the national political process, erasing the “moral majority” or “religious right” clout that many have grown to associate with modern evangelicalism in the United States. But it could save them from implosion—after all, in supporting candidates like Moore, Christians risk the indelible tarnishing of their witness.
It could be that quiet protest will serve a greater purpose than we can presently imagine, by re-focusing our efforts on the towns, communities, and neighborhoods that we have so long ignored or considered “less-than.” Perhaps this is exactly what Christian conservatives should have been doing all along: looking less to national movements and party affiliations, and more to neighbors and local needs. After all, we can still be the hands and feet of Christ without a Senate candidate to support.
In “Mad Men,” we saw 1960s New York City primarily from a man’s point of view. While the show featured the polish and sleek look of its era, it also showed us the grotesque and the damaged, the ugly imperfections underneath that façade of beauty.
With Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new Amazon Prime series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” we get to see the same New York City, this time through a woman’s eyes. And with Sherman-Palladino (creator of “Gilmore Girls” and “Bunheads”) at the helm, the vision is much more pink and sparkly.
Miriam Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), otherwise known as “Midge,” is the mother of two, wife of a supposedly successful businessman, and daughter of an eccentric math professor and gloriously meddlesome mother. Midge grew up in a wealthy Jewish family with a sparkling apartment on the Upper West Side. After marriage, she settled into an apartment just a few floors below her parents. She loves hosting parties, going on dates with her husband, and sharing gossip with friends and her mother. Her life appears seamlessly successful, full of witty banter and flirty friendships with everyone from the doorman to the local butcher. Midge isn’t a colorless and lonely Betty Draper, wasting away at home while her husband engages in important business and colorful affairs. She trots briskly from one meeting to another—always immaculately dressed, heels clacking, eyes bright. She’s in control, and she loves her life.
But when Midge’s husband Joel (Michael Zegen) unexpectedly announces that he’s been having an affair with his secretary and wants to leave her, the perfect rhythms of her life fall apart. After downing a bottle of kosher wine, Midge stumbles into a bar and spills out her troubles in a riotous (and scandalous) impromptu comedy act. Thus begins a new career—and a new life—for Midge.
The show’s biggest weakness lies at this crucial crux. Midge is sunny, sharp, and beautiful. She makes the perfect brisket, supports her husband in his work, sails through life effortlessly. He obviously adores her in the show’s many flashbacks to their early marriage and dating relationship. So why does Joel’s affair start in the first place? As Joel himself notes, he married the perfect woman. Why leave her for a witless secretary? This question is never fully answered, although Sherman-Palladino attempts an explanation. Midge’s hilarious father Abe Weissman (Tony Shalhoub) says that Joel was weak from the beginning—but as the show progresses, we see at least moments of kindness and character in Midge’s wayward husband. The entire breakup ends up feeling like a staged contrivance: the push Midge needs to emerge from her comfortable upper-class life, to descend into the bowels of New York City’s comedy world, and to bare her life’s story (and thus her funny comedic self) to a world of strangers beyond her doorman and butcher.
We never doubt, throughout the series’ eight episodes, that Midge will be fine on her own. She has a fierce self-sufficiency that persists despite all difficulties. Instead, the tension at the show’s core is whether Midge can square her growing comedic ambition with her desire to maintain her Upper West Side life. Her wealthy parents could hardly understand the appeal of her standup comedy acts, the crude humor and liberation of Midge’s new lifestyle. Thus, Midge attempts a precarious and secretive balancing act—one that makes her mother increasingly suspicious and saddened.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”—much like Netflix’s original productions—features a myriad of uncensored scenes. We see some flashes of nudity, hear lots of crude sexual humor, and are subjected to more F-words than I could count (along with other language). While many critics have heralded it as the next obsession of “Gilmore Girl” fanatics, I hardly think the show will appeal to the same audience: while the one has marathoned on ABC Family for ages, the other couldn’t appear even on cable television without some censorship. Such is the license afforded to shows in our online streaming era. And while “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” would probably be just fine without the extremities of language and coarseness, it seems to fit the contrarian ethos Sherman-Palladino is going for in this sparkly-yet-dirty period piece.
Which raises another important caveat: Sherman-Palladino is not shooting for perfect historical accuracy here. It’s doubtful a woman (or even a man, perhaps) could have stood up in the 1960s, given a performance so vulgar and uncensored, and still have received riotous applause. But Sherman-Palladino has never dealt in realism. That, more often than not, is her appeal. The show is, as Anna Silman put it for The Cut, a sort of post-breakup fantasy: “it’s the ultimate fantasy of ‘winning the breakup’: the idea that the most traumatic thing in one’s life might also turn out to be the most fruitful.”
Because Midge is so easy to love, we don’t begrudge her the fantastical success she receives. She’s is a fascinating protagonist, after all: she never apologizes for her privilege or for her femininity. As Sherman-Palladino put it in an interview with E News, Midge “sort of revels in her femininity and is proud of it and while not defined by it, it is a giant portion of who she is.” Her uncouth comedic critiques of motherhood and unfaithful husbands are countercultural (as is her dirty mouth)—but Midge doesn’t desert her children or family responsibilities, and she doesn’t set her makeup and heels aside. She keeps on attempting to be both comic and society woman, despite the disparity between her parents’ polished life and her irreverent comedic persona. In both these worlds, despite their differences, Midge excels: she is immaculately pristine, forges friendships with random strangers, and makes everybody laugh.
The show features stellar performances from Rachel Brosnahan, sidekick Alex Borstein, and best friend Bailey De Young. My favorite character, however, was Midge’s curmudgeonly father Abe: his coupling of mathematical principles and emotional breakdown during a Columbia University class was one of the few moments when I laughed out loud. I also must mention that Jane Jacobs makes a surprising appearance midway through the show—while short, her scene is also rather delightful.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is irreverent enough to occasion some pause. It’s pretty enough—in its costuming, shooting, and scenery—to appeal to a less artsy audience. It’s questioning enough (of the 60s, housewife culture, and custom) to appeal to feminist and critic alike. But perhaps most importantly, it’s unique enough to warrant conversation and critique for the next several months—and maybe even a few awards along the way.
What’s the goal of the pro-life movement?
Most would say its primary objective is to overturn Roe v. Wade. The court case has inspired and motivated pro-lifers for decades, urging them on into battle against Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and other organizations that fight for abortion.
I’ve been part of the pro-life movement since childhood: participating in Walks for Life, helping with bake sales, sorting baby clothing donations, and volunteering weekly at a local pregnancy resource center. During that time, I came to know the many faces of the pro-life movement: women with regrets over their past abortions, families who adopted and fostered children in need of homes, ladies who spent their days counseling and caring for moms and potential moms-to-be. The pro-lifers that pro-choicers hate—vehement and angry protesters at Planned Parenthood clinics, radicals who threaten or shoot abortion doctors—were never a part of this world. It was a deeply Christian, pacifist, and local cause, animated by compassion, not belligerence.
Nevertheless, the pro-life movement of my childhood was also deeply political. On a state and national level, pro-lifers always voted for pro-life candidates. Most described themselves as “one-issue voters,” for whom the sanctity of human life was and always would be their primary motivating force. If asked why, I’m guessing they would have responded in unison: they wanted these politicians to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Much, however, has changed this year. Pro-lifers have been forced to confront a deeply concerning dilemma within their cause. They’ve been forced to ask themselves: can they vote for a “pro-life” candidate who lacks chivalry and common decency? Can they vote for a politician whose record is pro-life, but whose personal life is characterized by corruption, harassment, and hypocrisy?
Roy Moore has made this question a particularly sharp and relevant topic for pro-lifers. Despite the “fake news” protests of some within the conservative movement, the evidence against Moore—evidence of child molestation and sexual misconduct—is strong. Many within the political, journalistic, and religious worlds have urged pro-lifers not to vote for Moore. Yet despite this, recent polls show him leading Democrat Doug Jones by five to six percentage points.
Why are so many Alabamans determined to vote for a man who allegedly harassed a 14-year-old girl? The simple—yet frightening—answer is this: Roy Moore votes pro-life. And if Moore were elected, as Pat Buchanan recently pointed out, there’s a chance (slim at best) that Roe v. Wade could be overturned. Other Republicans have urged conservatives not to let Moore’s bad character prevent them from voting—he’s not a moral leader, they argue, just a political pawn. To them, the ends justify the means.
But in this battle for an illusory Supreme Court victory, other vital components of our political and cultural moment are being set by the wayside. From a political perspective, as Georgi Boorman recently pointed out, voting for loathsome politicians will distance swing voters from the GOP—and, more importantly, from the pro-life cause most often associated with it.
“Independent voters hate hypocrisy a lot more than they hate abortion,” Boorman writes. “Conservatives of the party of ‘family values’ fall harder and farther when they sin than liberal Democrats do.” Roy Moore may win Alabama, but his unpopularity (as well as the widespread disapproval of Donald Trump) could result in a momentous swing to the left in future months and years, thus erasing any possibility of congressional victory for the pro-life cause.
But the problem with Moore is also cultural and social. It lies in the distrust and suspicion of pro-lifers that is likely to result from his election. Leaders in the pro-choice movement—particularly Planned Parenthood—have successfully billed themselves as the pro-woman side in the abortion fight. Imagine how much more clout and power their argument will have if men like Moore dominate the “pro-life” side. How can pro-lifers say they care more about women and their welfare when they vote for child molesters and sexual harassers?
Roy Moore isn’t the first of his kind, after all. There’s a very strong argument that Donald Trump—a man with a rather sketchy and offensive past when it comes to women—was supported by Christian conservatives primarily because his rival, Hillary Clinton, was vehemently pro-choice (even to the point of supporting legal late-term abortions). For most pro-lifers, backing such a candidate would be unconscionable.
But in practice, we’re seeing the impact a candidate like Trump has on the pro-life cause. Neil Gorsuch’s nomination was a considerable win for conservative and pro-life voters. But Trump himself is so odious to the left, and to many young people, that the possibility of conversion to their cause wanes with every month of his presidency. The image he paints—of a boorish, misogynistic party that wants to control women’s lives and futures—becomes more and more palatable to the left, as well as to swing voters on the abortion issue.
In October, we discovered that the supposedly pro-life Congressman Tim Murphy had tried to convince his girlfriend (with whom he was having an affair) to get an abortion. Yet despite the hypocrisy of this, many within the pro-life movement were reluctant to condemn his behavior outright—because of his on-the-record statements against abortion. One pro-life advocate called Murphy an “honorable” person, and said she was “not ready to cast a stone at him.” And as one can imagine, the hypocrisy of Murphy cast a shadow on the entire pro-life movement:
Tim Murphy proves that for many conservatives being pro-life isn't truly about abortion, it's about seeking control over women. Reject them.
— Jesse Belt (@MrJesseBelt) October 5, 2017
Oopsies, did Rep. Tim Murphy accidentally reveal that GOP's abortion stance isn't about morals but about controlling women's bodies?
— annalise (@annalisepasztor) October 5, 2017
What happens when the faces of the pro-life movement are hypocritical congressmen, sexual harassers, and men who brag about grabbing women’s bodies without permission? The recent spate of Handmaid’s Tale-inspired protests is one indication that the pro-choice movement can and will adopt increasingly passionate, morally superior language and rhetoric in response, gathering voters to their cause. Congress’s inability to defund Planned Parenthood—despite Republican majorities in the House and Senate—is another indication that, despite supposed political advances, conservatives are still losing the battle on a popular cultural level. And if pro-lifers lose there, political victory is impossible.
With men like Trump, Moore, and Murphy standing for the pro-life movement, it’s nearly impossible to overcome the loathsome picture pro-life adherents have painted for themselves. As David French recently put it at National Review, “‘Child-abusing senators against Roe’ strikes me as perhaps the worst possible message to a culture in desperate need of persuasion.”
What would happen if GOP congressmen were somehow able to nominate more conservative Supreme Court judges in the next few years, stating as their goal the overturning of Roe v. Wade? It’s not difficult to imagine the political uproar and fervor the left would conjure up—the anti-woman rhetoric they’d employ, the nightmarishly dictatorial and patriarchal picture they would paint of the pro-life movement. Pro-lifers’ political “win” would result in wholehearted animosity across the nation. The abortion-industrial complex is not going disappear overnight, after all, and the massive clout of Planned Parenthood—especially in Hollywood and the Democratic party—will not be easily dissolved.
In short, we cannot force a judicial, political victory that the country is not ready for culturally. Fighting abortion is more complex. It must involve local ministry and assistance, cultural persuasion, and social winsomeness. Political battles must be secondary to all this—not because they aren’t important, but because the deep polarization of our political parties is ill-suited to the complexity and potential bipartisanship of the pro-life cause. The pro-life movement has never belonged to the GOP. Its underlying motivations are spiritual, personal, and philosophical—and thus transcend politics and politicians. It’s inspired by compassion, a zeal for life, and a passion for the oppressed and vulnerable. Many progressives might understand and support the pro-life cause, were it not so often couched in specific political and partisan terms.
To overturn Roe v. Wade requires much more than a set number of conservative Supreme Court judges, or a majority of “pro-life” congressmen in the House and Senate. It requires pro-lifers to change the hearts and minds of voters—especially the nation’s young people. Because so long as there is demand and widespread support for Planned Parenthood and its ilk, illegalizing abortion will be next to impossible.
Of course, this does not readily answer the question of who pro-lifers should vote for. But supporting an oppressive and abusive politician contradicts the heart of the pro-life philosophy. Voting for Roy Moore shouldn’t even be an option.
There are some more progressive pro-lifers who have argued that until the movement begins supporting a more vigorous pro-family policy (with generous paid parental leave, support for poor single moms, etc.), it will gain little to no ground. For these pro-life advocates, a Democratic candidate with vigorous support for welfare and relief is more pro-life than a callously pro-big business Republican candidate.
It’s an interesting and worthwhile argument. But even this should be secondary to a resurgence and reinvigoration of the local sphere of the pro-life cause: supporting and volunteering at PRCs that help single moms, donating to local organizations that assist the poor and vulnerable, seeking ways to help and protect women within one’s community and neighborhood.
The politicization of the religious right has led to a dangerous cultural blindness, in which Christian conservatives often ignore societal and even moral warning signs in order to make tiny political gains. Many seem completely oblivious to the long-term ramifications of their actions. Unless and until pro-lifers realize their battle is first and foremost a cultural one, they will turn the entire nation against their cause—and likely lead to its doom, for at least the next few generations.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.
If Thanksgiving is America’s celebration of virtue, centered as it is around gratitude and hospitality, Black Friday is its evil twin. Originally given its bleak name in the 1950s by Philadelphia policemen dealing with post-holiday shoppers ahead of the big Army-Navy football game, the commercial extravaganza has always been characterized by chaos, greed, and confusion.
In 2009, a man was shot over a television he bought. A security guard was trampled to death by crowds in 2013. One woman injured 20 shoppers with pepper spray in 2011. Brawls, shoplifting, menacing words, mind-numbing traffic: this is what regularly characterizes our post-Thanksgiving day of gratitude.
What’s worse, Black Friday madness is increasingly encroaching upon Thanksgiving itself. Stores such as Macy’s and Walmart open around dinnertime on Thursday, no longer willing to set aside the holiday for rest and pumpkin pie. Many have tried to boycott such stores: Facebook groups such as “Boycott Black Thursday” urge consumers to put off their bargain hunting for a few more hours, in order to keep Thanksgiving sacred. Several retailers commit each year to stay closed on Thanksgiving on principle.
But their efforts don’t make a dent in retailers’ determination. Even though Thanksgiving openings haven’t been demonstrated to boost sales considerably over the holiday season, a plethora of stores fear their competition will take advantage of them; and even if only a small percentage of holiday shoppers show up, that still represents millions in sales. How do we argue with such a prospect?
Unfortunately, boycotting Thanksgiving openings is not enough; the only way to avoid Black Friday creep is to stay home from the mad rush altogether. Black Friday itself should become an afterthought during the Thanksgiving weekend—not because shopping can’t be fun, but because Black Friday itself offers only bleak pleasures to its celebrants. It presents holiday shopping at its worst: filled as it is with a mad glut of humans worried about discounts, charity and grace all too often fall by the wayside.
Should we really spend a day talking about what we’re grateful for, sacrificing time and money to set a bounteous table for kith and kin, only to spend the following day in a greedy and chaotic race for things? How can virtuous celebrants of family and harvest turn into clutching consumers in less than 24 hours?
The simple answer is they can’t. If we turn into marauding discount monsters as soon as the clock strikes midnight, we haven’t taken Thanksgiving seriously. The holiday is an empty one for us, more about the comforts of sweet potato casserole and football games than about gratitude and contentment. The alarming violence and rancor of Black Friday should prompt us to ask who we really are: grateful celebrants or voracious shoppers.
It could be that less of the blame for Black Friday lies with Thanksgiving than with Christmas. After all, the consumerist Christmas we’ve built up for ourselves here in the United States is focused more on presents, immaculate trees, and glorious light displays than it is on joy or peace. We’re often so worried about getting our son or daughter the perfect gift—that toy they’ve been wanting, or the latest iPad—that we lose perspective. Homemade gifts have become faux pas, small gifts (or no gifts) taboo. Advertisers convince us that we need the big, the flashy, and the expensive in order to make Christmas “special.” Their rhetoric is hard to resist, no matter the price tag. Thus, Black Friday offers us the opportunity to buy all the things, even when we don’t have the funds for them.
And there’s no denying that the discounts Black Friday presents are appealing. Not all Black Friday shoppers are greedy or belligerent. Many simply want to get affordable Christmas presents. For some families, the day has even resulted in its own set of fun traditions.
But the question remains: are these appeals enough? Black Friday isn’t our only opportunity to accomplish gift buying, after all. We still have Small Business Saturday, an excellent opportunity to particularize our shopping and root our dollars in the communities we care about. Small Business Saturday also provides shoppers with greater accountability: while some may be willing to wrestle over a new iPhone at a Best Buy 45 minutes away, they’re unlikely to exercise such belligerence at the local bookstore or gift shop where familiar faces surround them.
It would be wrong not to mention Cyber Monday, as well: while it’s the opposite of Small Business Saturday due to its displaced and isolated nature, it does offers shoppers the opportunity to do the dirty work of Christmas shopping without exhausting crowds or traffic. In the comfort of one’s own home, with a cup of coffee and a slice of leftover pumpkin pie, Christmas shopping can be finished in a single afternoon. For the frugal, the time-crunched, and the introverted, online shopping can provide a pleasing solution to Black Friday’s madness.
The best shopping options, of course, are less isolated—and less fixed to a single weekend. They extend beyond Thanksgiving into coming weeks: when Christmas lights cheer up downtowns, little children visit toy shops with their parents, and steaming cups of cider warm shoppers who stroll from store to store.
But it’s desperately important to remember what makes Thanksgiving so special: it’s not about giving gifts, or receiving them. It’s about a meal, about family, and about celebrating the gifts we’ve already been given. It’s about exercising gratitude and grace, regardless of the money in our accounts or the gadgetry in our homes. That sort of thankfulness and mindfulness deserves more than one meal, or one day. It should supersede Black Friday, and all the days that follow.
So this year, don’t worry about that new flatscreen TV. Go raid the fridge for Thanksgiving leftovers. Listen to some Christmas music, or play a board game with your family. And have a happy Friday.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.
Agatha Christie’s novels have become classics in the mystery canon—perhaps not for perfect literary prose, but most likely for the eccentricity and endearing manner of her detective protagonists, especially Hercule Poirot. He’s a stodgy, somewhat annoying little man, with habits and tics that hint at a struggle with OCD. But he’s also warm, thoughtful, friendly, and virtuous. He strives to bring order and peace to hurting people and broken situations.
David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot has rightfully dominated screens for decades: his mustache and mannerisms were always immaculate, his combined scrutiny and compassion perfectly blended. It’s hard to set aside Suchet’s masterpiece for a new Christie adaptation—even one as star-studded as Kenneth Branagh’s new production of Murder on the Orient Express.
This new film features Branagh himself as the beloved Hercule Poirot, here a double-mustachioed version of his classic self, with a little more fitness and flair than Suchet’s older, starchier Poirot. The film begins not in Syria, as the book does, but instead in Jerusalem, where Poirot tackles a rather public and theatrical mystery before plunging into the film’s main storyline. The question of why the storytellers insert this fictional, fantastical beginning is rather interesting; one can only suppose that they are trying to give some meat and character to Poirot, explaining his eccentricities and talents to an audience that may have never read Christie’s books. There’s something to be said, however, for Christie’s more muted revelations. She likes to slowly unfurl the talents of her protagonist—not flaunt them before a crowd of thousands.
But Murder on the Orient Express isn’t a typical Christie mystery. The novel takes place on a stranded train amid snow-laden mountains, with characters whose pedigrees and backstories are both elaborate and confounding. The victim, Mr. Ratchett, is here played by Johnny Depp with a touch of gangster. Judi Dench is the indomitable Princess Dragomiroff, Michelle Pfeiffer the gossipy husband hunter Caroline Hubbard (a slightly different iteration of her character than Christie wrote in the book—here more glamorous). Daisy Ridley (protagonist of the newest Star Wars films) plays a quiet, clever governess, Josh Gad a troubled, talented accountant and secretary to Ratchett. The entire ensemble is impressive, and brings a combined bleakness and savvy to their parts. Pair that with sweeping views of mountainous vistas and ancient cities, and you get a truly lovely film.
But Branagh’s Orient Express doesn’t feel like Agatha Christie—not really. It’s something I’ve been trying to puzzle out since watching the film. Despite the film’s rather elaborate beginning, the movie stays pretty true to the original novel (although it does insert some 2017-esque references to racism and injustice that are perhaps incongruous with the time). But even though it doesn’t splinter off severely from Christie’s original storyline, it does have a widely dissimilar thematic lens: mainly because Branagh’s film has all the splendor and pomp of a Shakespearean drama.
This isn’t surprising, considering Branagh’s past body of work. But Christie just isn’t Shakespeare (bless her heart). She wrote good old mystery novels. She wasn’t a literary genius. Her novels were cozy and solid. Her other beloved crime solver, after all, was Miss Marple: a quiet old lady who lived in the English countryside and loved to knit. Christie’s whodunits offered, for the most part, quiet family affairs and countryside intrigue—not the heroic antics of Sherlockian mysteries. That isn’t to say she couldn’t acquaint us with chilling, horrid personifications of evil—And Then There Were None is an unnerving, menacing book. But for the most part, especially in her detective works, the worst aspects of her antagonists were somewhat cushioned or softened by her crime-solvers’ sensibilities. Good overcame evil, tragedy was softened by justice; there were no Macbeths or Hamlets to be grappled with.
But in his Orient Express, Branagh inserts gilded splendor and sweeping considerations of good and evil. He offers us a grand set of characters, full of pathos and tragedy. And because Christie’s story is neither as grand nor as penetrating as Shakespeare, the staging feels slightly affected and over-the-top. Perhaps, having read and loved older versions of Poirot, it’s just too difficult to imagine the pompous detective dashing along a perilous mountain pass in chase of a suspect, clambering down a precipitous bridge in the effort. One suspects the prospect of such exertion and peril would cause the old Hercule Poirot to have a fit.
But all that said, the film is enjoyable and well-acted. It may not be a classic Christie, but it has its own flavor and polish. Perhaps this is a Christie for 2017 audiences, who are all enamored with Sherlockian stories and plots—thus we here receive a more dapper and athletic detective, a newer set of cinematic stars, and higher, more dramatic stakes.
Murder on the Orient Express is an enjoyable weekend movie to see in theaters—it will definitely offer food for thought, as the film grapples with the sordid and sad, as well as the dramatic and sentimental. It may not, however, be the movie you settle in to watch on a blustery winter’s night with a good cup of tea. For that, I will still turn to David Suchet.
In the aftermath of a shooting, there’s always a heated debate about guns in our country—one often fraught with bombast and vitriol. The high tension and emotion make sense: shooter Devin Kelley’s attack on congregants at Sutherland Springs’ First Baptist Church this past Sunday ended with 26 dead and 20 wounded. But all too often, our debates following such carnage result in little other than deeper division and venom between left and right.
Much of this vitriol stems from widely differing perceptions of the gun between these two circles. On the right, a gun is not always viewed as just another weapon. It’s often seen as a symbol: of resistance to tyranny, of autonomy and self-sufficiency, and even of traditionalism or groundedness. A plethora of pro-gun, Second Amendment-touting bumper stickers abound on the internet, as well as t-shirts, hats, and mugs. All of them hint at a libertarian individualism, a savvy self-determination that transcends what’s popular or “safe.”
On the left, of course, such sentiments aren’t usually just confounding—they’re offensive. Guns are weapons of murder. They are lethal, dangerous, and uncontrollable. For most Democrats, the gun isn’t a symbol of liberty; it’s a toxic emblem of death. And people who oppose gun control with such arguments or appeals to the gun-as-symbol aren’t just being reckless; they’re putting countless lives on the line in order to perpetuate their Second Amendment fantasies.
It is true that the right can be reactionary, rather than reasonable, when it comes to guns. In recent years, the anti-government and anti-left rhetoric of the right has reached a fever pitch. One need only watch an NRA ad from earlier this year to see this potent, poisonous “us vs. them” oratory in real time. In practice, talking points like this don’t further debate or good governance. They foment hysteria, anger, and division. Instead of a pearl-clutching society, they’ve fostered a gun-clutching one.
This seems hardly beneficial, even to someone like me who supports gun ownership. Because while a gun can be an exceedingly useful tool (for hunting and providing food for one’s family, for instance), it is also an exceedingly dangerous one. People fear guns because they have a profound capability for slaughter. A gun is, in its very being, exponentially more deadly than a knife or bow and arrow.
I grew up in the incredibly pro-gun state of Idaho. Being pro-Second Amendment and pro-gun was part of being a conservative in this hunting and fishing state. Shrewd gun ownership and use was part of many families’ lives: fathers were proud of their ability to provide food for their families, and of their ability to protect them (whether from potential break-ins, from coyotes, or from dangerous wildlife while out camping). Teenagers practiced marksmanship shooting, helped hunt in the fall, and learned to cook with venison.
For these families, perhaps guns were a symbol of liberty and autonomy, but they were also a profoundly practical tool. Meat doesn’t just come from a grocery store. You don’t call the cops when a fox gets into your henhouse.
But these gun owners were also savvy and prudent. They knew just how dangerous these weapons were. Guns were locked away. They were never allowed around children. Pre-teens and teenagers learned how to use them only with the expert care and caution of their parents. There was never a scenario or time in which a gun was presented without extreme gravity, solemnity, or care.
It’s important to highlight such instances, because it’s easy for anti-gun advocates to see all gun owners through stereotypical lenses: perhaps they picture an apocalyptic prepper who has built up an arsenal of weapons in his basement, and is determined to stand his ground when the federal government comes for him and his property. Or perhaps they picture Instagram star Dan Bilzerian: a man for whom weaponry is more about macho manliness than it is about safety or sustenance. It’s important to remember that, while these people exist, they are not the average gun owner.
That said, many gun owners are careless. I have heard too many stories of toddlers who innocently plucked guns from their parents’ bedside table or car console, only to turn them toward their face or chest and accidentally pull the trigger. According to the CDC, 19 children die from or are treated for gunshot wounds every day. It’s difficult to know why such things happen—why gun owners so often forget the inherent lethality in their weapons. But perhaps it does not help that, when we turn tools into symbols, we can forget what they’re truly capable of.
Thus, even while I understand the gun-as-symbol argument, I believe guns are a rather inappropriate item to be touted, clutched, or worshiped. Any human construct—from a truck to a house, a guitar to a toolbox—can be beloved by its owner. We can attach an air of dignity or pride to these things, especially when we develop some skill and proficiency in their use. But these objects weren’t made to kill. Their chief end isn’t death. Even if we only use guns for target practice or shooting clay pigeons, we cannot ignore what a gun was made to do—what it is, in its very essence. Guns are not righteous objects to be protected at all costs, but rather (as many Democrats rightly point out) incredibly dangerous machines.
Those who view guns as symbols of resistance—to the state, to the left, to the “them” so menacingly described in that NRA ad—can no longer sympathize with those who look at a gun, and see only peril and death. They’ve cut themselves off from the other reality so many recognize when staring at a gun: the homicides of young men. Domestic violence that ends in murder. Thousands of suicides per year. The accidental deaths of children.
But we cannot cut ourselves off from this other reality. And we should not scoff at liberals who call for gun control, even if their hoped-for measures cannot drastically change gun violence in this country. Because the plain, simple truth that they point out is both unavoidable and important: without a gun, Kelley could not have sprayed the side of First Baptist Church with bullets. Without a gun, he could not have killed so many in so little time. Without a gun, the life of an 18-month-old baby might have been saved.
In our hesitancy to endorse exhaustive gun control measures, we must not negate or ignore the lethality of the gun. Because some tools are too deadly to be taken lightly.
“Learning made a boy leave the farm to live in the city—to consider himself better than his father.”
John Steinbeck wrote these words 65 years ago, in his classic work East of Eden. Even then, he sensed the deep schism growing between rural America and the elite, urban enclaves that housed many of the nation’s universities and colleges.
But if such things were true in Steinbeck’s day, they are only more common now. Our nation’s top universities have embraced a detached, globalized approach to education—one in which youths are unlikely to be sent home, and rather encouraged to join a larger sphere of success and influence.
On its website, Yale assures visitors that it is training “the next generation of world leaders.” Harvard boasts that it develops leaders “who make a difference globally.” The University of Virginia, meanwhile, promises to foster “illimitable minds,” and “endless pursuit.”
In his classic consideration of American society, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the United States contained an “innumerable multitude of those who seek to get out of their original condition …. There are no Americans who do not show that they are devoured by the desire to rise.”
But the consequences of such attitudes have been staggering. In America’s rural towns and communities, “brain drain” is sucking away talented youth, leaving an economic and social hole in its wake. According to a 2008 Pew poll, college graduates are far less likely to live in their birth state, and most young people still living in their hometown want to move in the next five years. Seventy-seven percent of college graduates change communities at least once.
Few in the world of higher education are taking a stand against this tide of exodus and globalization. But in their new book, Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place, Jack Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro explain the dangers of a higher education that is placeless and, in the words of UVA, “illimitable.”
Baker and Bilbro work in the English Department at Michigan’s Spring Arbor University. Both professors have long studied the life and work of Wendell Berry, and his writing and thought serve as primary inspiration for this book.
Berry himself, via both his fiction and essays, has considered the deleterious impact of higher education on small farming communities. As his protagonist Hannah Coulter notes in a novel of the same name, “After each one of our children went away to the university, there always came a time when we would feel the distance opening to them, pulling them away.”
Higher education fosters what Wendell Berry has termed “boomers”: individuals who “are always on the lookout for better career opportunities in better places.” He contrasts this group to “stickers”: those who root themselves in a place, and dedicate themselves to its wellbeing. Wallace Stegner first used these terms to describe the pioneers who settled in the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries; but our universities have long fostered boomers instead of stickers.
Coulter’s children, like most American youths, bought into “the destructive ideology of the university as part of an industrial economy—an economy in which schools bring in customers and send out displaced individuals with immense debts, having taught those individuals that the good life can be found anywhere but at home,” write Baker and Bilbro.
Many in and outside America’s universities don’t see a problem with this sort of displacement. Upward mobility, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, has always been a present and accepted part of the American psyche. We increasingly strive to be cosmopolitans, global citizens, people who exist outside of place and its tribalistic ties. Today, as never before, the virtues of contentment, gratitude, and loyalty have fallen into disrepute.
But resurrecting such virtues, Baker and Bilbro suggest, is critical for the health and happiness not just of America’s small towns and communities, but also of its young people—for although independence may appeal for a while, living as a “global citizen” and “world leader” can be rather lonely and alienating. Cultivating opportunities for homecoming is not just a romantic or reactionary notion. It is a recipe for holistic healing and reintegration, in a nation that sorely needs it.
To foster this sort of reintegration, Baker and Bilbro suggest, we need to tell different stories to our youth: stories that foster the aforementioned virtues of place, stories that suggest home is in fact a beautiful place worth preserving. Baker and Bilbro thus begin to lay out a vision for reforming higher education—for cultivating a university in which students are encouraged to love their place.
While education means “to lead out from,” Baker and Bilbro argue that the university’s direction in times past was more metaphysical and intellectual than it was geographical. Universities in Athens and Rome served the polis. After the rise of Christendom, universities sought to serve the church, and most of America’s first colleges were theological in both their education and ends. As American society has grown increasingly pluralistic, however, the purpose and end of the university has shifted once more—this time to focus on economic success.
“The institution that began with the purpose of leading students out of ignorance to better serve their communities and the church now primarily serves the nation-state’s industrial complex,” Baker and Bilbro write. “In the absence of any higher purpose, the multiversity defaults to serving the economy, to training students to be effective cogs in a capitalist machine.”
In contrast, Baker and Bilbro suggest that universities ought to work like a rooted tree,providing students with a “trunk of truth,” which is surrounded and informed by a geographical context. They suggest that a strong core curriculum—the classical liberal arts’ trivium and quadrivium—is the best such trunk.
The classical liberal arts do not dictate or specify success to students. Instead, they cultivate wisdom and understanding—and from these seeds, students can and must cultivate their own, particular vision of the good. Great, classic works of the past—such as Paradise Lost, The Odyssey, or newer works such as The Lord of the Rings—foster a “rooted imagination.” But they also prompt questions of application that students must answer for themselves.
“We have found that our students struggle with imaginative work because it doesn’t provide neat, tidy answers,” note Baker and Bilbro. “In fact, it acknowledges that some, perhaps many, of their questions will remain unanswered.” But this sort of learning fosters prudence: the ability to apply certain virtues and skills within a variety of disciplines and places. Whereas others forms of education spit out machine cogs, the rooted university fosters diverse and multifaceted human beings.
As Berry once wrote in his essay “The Loss of the University,” “Underlying the idea of the university—the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplines—is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of the making of a good—that is, a fully developed—human being.”
In the second part of their book, Baker and Bilbro consider the four key dimensions “in which humans ought to be placed”: tradition, hierarchy, geography, and community. They then detail the virtues which ought to be fostered within these dimensions: fidelity, love, gratitude, and memory. They turn here to Alasdair MacIntyre, who has argued in After Virtue that virtue is “an excellence or quality intelligible only within a community’s tradition and story, oriented toward a common good.” Without this orientation and context, virtues become mere “skills,” which may not in fact further the good.
Baker and Bilbro thus argue that love and service are contextual disciplines; abstract love, “empathy” without subject or context, is not the proper end of human existence. And in a world in which the placeless, roving humanitarianism of Angelina Jolie and George Clooney receive highest accolades and praise, such a vision is both unique and deeply needed.
“When professors tell their students the wrong stories, stories of heroic success rather than quotidian faithfulness, it reinforces the boomer mentality of the broader culture,” write Baker and Bilbro. Such narratives, according to Berry, convince “good young people … that if they have an ordinary job, if they work with their hands, if they are farmers or housewives or mechanics or carpenters, they are no good.”
Baker and Bilbro contrast the heady, aspirational virtues of modern academia with what they call “the sticker arts”: the arts of “right livelihood” that focus on stewardship, sustainability, specificity, and love. In so doing, they aren’t just trying to convince students to stay home—they are also encouraging them to make a home wherever they may land. After all, as both Baker and Bilbro acknowledge themselves, Spring Arbor is not their original hometown. Although their vision is to cultivate students who can remain rooted in place, they are also aware that many may move away. But the virtues they present here—stewardship, sustainability, love, loyalty—should not only be applied to our birthplaces. They are deeply needed everywhere. Anywhere boomers have ravaged a community, seeking only to consume and procure, stickers are needed to foster healing and wholeness.
As our country increasingly becomes a fractured republic, a nation divided and splintered, it is such virtues that are most likely to bring wholeness and healing back. “Berry remains convinced that genuine change begins locally rather than in the halls of centralized power,” note Baker and Bilbro. And it is only the sort of vision this volume provides that can bring such change back to the communities that so desperately need it.
This book is not just for college students or professors. It is for all those who toil within a specific vocation. The thoughtful wisdom of Baker and Bilbro convicted and inspired me, prompting me to consider whether my work is as place-centric, thoughtful, and prudential as it ought to be. These thoughts will likely occur to any who spend much of their time behind a computer, who commute to work, or otherwise engage in labor than can often feel divided and displaced. The authors also encouraged me to keep fostering the “sticker arts” in my own life: the quotidian labor of mending and repairing, gardening and canning, cooking and cleaning. This book is more than a treatise on higher education. It is also, at least to some extent, a manual for the place-centric life.
There is no easy way to turn the tide of youthful exodus plaguing America’s communities. But the seeds of change are here. Perhaps the first step, as Baker and Bilbro suggest, is to reconsider the stories we tell, and the visions we cast. Perhaps, instead of telling students they ought to be “world leaders,” we should encourage them to be good neighbors.
Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life. You can follow her on Twitter @gracyolmstead
I still remember learning Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E major. My violin teacher was a stickler for technique, especially when it came to playing Bach. She called this particular piece a “marathon”: it required careful pacing and a good deal of commitment. There are a lot of fast passages that, if learned too hastily, sound rushed and fitful. The key, she affirmed week after week, was to practice the piece slowly with a metronome, paying excruciating detail to rhythm and fingering. She assured me that once I grew intimately acquainted with the notes and bowings, the speed would come by itself. Like second nature.
She was right. And to my surprise, the more time I spent practicing that piece, the more I came to love it. Whereas at the beginning of my study I was only mildly interested in Bach, the more I played this and other pieces by him, the more I came to love his music, with all its delicacy and finesse.
Perhaps it’s this remembrance that helped me identify so deeply with James K.A. Smith’s new book You Are What You Love. Smith begins his book with a classic quotation from St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which Augustine declares that “You [God] have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” There is a teleological bent to human nature: we are dynamic beings in search of a specific end. And while philosophy since the Enlightenment has conditioned us to believe “we are what we think” (thanks in large part to René Descartes), Augustine’s statement positions the seat of human character and creaturehood in the heart, not the head, suggesting that our proper end is devotion, not cognition. “What if, instead of starting from the assumption that human beings are thinking things, we started from the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers?” Smith asks. Then, the question becomes not “whether you will love something as ultimate,” but rather, “what you will love as ultimate.”
We are in fact creatures most often shaped by our gut instincts and desires—governed by eros, not thought. Smith doesn’t use this term in a merely sexual sense: eros, for him, refers to the entire spectrum of human desires and loves that pervade our lives. But if our loves and motivations are governed by the heart or the gut, not the head, how do we know what we really love or want? Can’t we all too easily deceive ourselves?
Smith says yes—but adds a word of assurance. Our hearts are not unnavigable and unknowable: they bend to the tunes and rhythms we set for them. The key is to know that love is a habit, not merely a choice. In order to foster proper loves, we must consciously choose to immerse ourselves in the correct “liturgies”: defined here as daily rhythms, stories, and habits that shape us.
This is where that Bach Partita comes in: to foster virtuous love is “more like practicing scales on the piano than learning music theory,” writes Smith. “The goal is, in a sense, for your fingers to learn the scales so they can then play ‘naturally,’ as it were. Learning here isn’t just information acquisition; it’s more like inscribing something into the very fiber of your being.” Learning to love God is like learning to play Bach: it requires daily immersion in habits and practices that train the “muscles” of my heart to desire, and thus do, what it ought.
Smith points to the ancient liturgies of the Christian church as guiding voices that can sculpt our loves and pull us toward God. He pays careful attention here to the work that ancient musical worship, prayers, baptism, sacraments, and the liturgical calendar all do in shaping our loves. To take our faith beyond the realm of head knowledge requires “the recalibration of our heart-habits and the recapturing of our imagination”—something that happens when we regularly engage in “embodied, tangible, and visceral” practices. The order and cadence of a worship service begins to shape our imaginations, and thus our loves.
While he doesn’t unequivocally castigate modern churches, Smith strongly argues for a return to ancient ecclesiastical customs and traditions. He suggests that the disillusionment driving record numbers of young people from the church today has more to do with an abandonment of ancient liturgies than with “boring” tradition. Modern youth groups—offering doughnuts and grungy worship bands, hip youth pastors and foosball tables—tend not to reinforce the liturgies. Packaging a teaching in the trappings of pop culture treats young people like “thinking things” who just need the right verses and a few good allegories to stay in the church. But if Smith’s premise is correct, these ministries negate their message by reinforcing secular liturgies on a subconscious, gut level. Youth aren’t nourished by biblical arguments: instead, they walk away with stomachs sated by doughnuts, ears filled with popular music, and emotions fixated on the conversations and flirtations of their peers. This is not how we build ecclesiastical discipleship and community. This is how we lose young people to pop culture.
In contrast, the traditional liturgies of the church reveal to young people a depth that transcends cliché and a community “that is ancient, thereby connecting them to a body that is older than their youth pastor and wider than their youth group.” Indeed, Smith says his experience as a professor at Villanova University suggests that young people will be drawn and kept within the church by high church liturgy and ancient traditions—if the church is brave enough to embrace them once more.
But Smith’s examination doesn’t end with the ecclesiastical. If liturgy is to be defined as the habits and messages that undergird our lives and foster our loves, it cannot be confined to the four walls of the church. So he carries this examination onward: first to the family, calling parents to pay careful mind to the ethos they’re fostering in their homes. “Every household has a ‘hum,’ and that hum has a tune that is attuned to some end, some telos,” Smith writes. “We need to tune our homes, and thus our hearts, to sing his grace.” We can affirm the true, the good, and the beautiful through what we eat, watch, play, and pray.
A Christian home should be mindful of formative liturgies—“story, poetry, music, symbols, and images”—that foster children’s spiritual growth “under the hood” of consciousness. “Children are ritual animals,” he writes, “who absorb the gospel in practices that speak to their imaginations.” Participation in the liturgical calendar—using candles, colors, feasts, festivals, and stories—can help integrate our children into the family of faith.
But quotidian home practices matter, too: a family that regularly gathers around the dinner table is practicing a liturgy. So, too, the family in which gardening or other household chores are done together, bringing order and beauty to the home and its surroundings. Such practices help shape and cultivate the life within.
In education, there are also proper liturgies we can foster. Smith notes that from Sunday school to the university, there are stories of the good life, of what we ought to love, that are constantly propagated to our kids. He suggests fostering their moral imaginations at every opportunity, whether learning economics, U.S. history, or social studies. If we believe there’s a telos to human existence, and we want our children to recognize it, we should craft their education in such a way that they learn to trace its patterns throughout life. A “holistic, formative approach to education … is bound up with a teleological purview—embedding the tasks of teaching and learning in a bigger vision and ultimate Story that guide and govern learning.”
Smith warns that, if we do not tell such stories, we run the risk of our children tuning their hearts to culture’s alternative messages—to what he calls “rival liturgies.” These have their own vision of the good life and man’s telos and are often fostered in specific spaces: the shopping mall, for instance, fosters a worship of materialism and consumerism alongside deification of the self. One could also point to habits of worship fostered around the television, the soccer fields, or football stadiums, and the ever present smartphone. Pornography is a steadily more pervasive influence on American society, shaping views of sex and intimacy in adolescents and adults. This is an example of how a secular liturgy can shape our loves.
Because “our idolatries … are more liturgical than theological,” our daily habits and haunts reveal more about us than the statements of faith we might post on Facebook. Regardless of where you go, what you watch, what you listen to, there are liturgies to consume. And their messages—full of poignancy and life-driving potency—will direct your life goals and shape your character. If Smith is right, you become them because you are what you love.
Much like C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Smith’s book bridges denominational divides in order to urge a deeper appreciation and embrace of catholic, historic Christianity. He aims to foster practices that will encourage our faiths on an individual and church-wide level, without condemning a specific set of Christian believers. Such a project seems very timely, as legions of millennials leave the faith and an increasing number of American churches are shorn of their liturgical, theological splendor to become gyms and apartment complexes. American families, often driven apart by divorce, alienation, or generational division, are here reminded why they must hold fast the rituals and customs of their faith. We’re urged to keep on the lookout for secular, consumerist liturgies that might tempt us to improper loves.
It’s worth noting, too, that this book is palatable and engaging for those not sold on ancient church liturgies. I’ve spent the past couple months reading it aloud with my husband, who does not have a high church background and has expressed valid reservations in the past concerning its cadences of worship. This book helped him understand why I love liturgy and gave him a larger vision for the role liturgy can play in the church, regardless of one’s denomination.
Every night, as I tuck my baby girl into bed, I sing hymns and say the Lord’s prayer with her. If you think of her as just a tiny “thinking thing,” the ritual wouldn’t make sense. She’s too young to yet understand the words. But if we are indeed “first and foremost lovers,” creatures shaped by practice and liturgy, then every song and word has a purpose.
Gracy Olmstead is a senior writer for The American Conservative.
Dear Ms. Rowling,
I just read Harry Potter and The Cursed Child. And I was a little disappointed.
To start with, I do appreciate the format: plays are rather fun to read, and a nice change of pace from the novel. It’s not something we see every day, especially in YA or fantasy literature. It’s obvious that—with a careful and creative hand—this could be a really fun production to watch live (if one had the $10,000 necessary to buy a ticket at this point). And I’m sure that the production will inspire and excite those who did not grow up with Harry Potter, giving them new characters—such as the protagonists, Albus and Scorpius—to identify with.
Additionally, I should applaud you for continuing to set forth important virtues and thematic concepts in your work. Since the beginning of the Harry Potter series, you’ve talked about the importance of membership and friendship: suggesting that no one person, however talented, can (or should) ever act alone. The characters in your book are supporters of the idea that men are social animals, that “a cord of three strands is not easily broken,” that familial relationships are important, no matter how torn or fraught they might be. And these themes are refreshing in our increasingly solipsistic, solitary world.
But the praise ends there. Because this work is such a poor offering in contrast to the literary greatness and sparkling prose of your previous books, it’s really not worth mentioning in the same sentence.
To some degree, I understand why you’d want to keep proffering Harry Potter works to your fans. They’re loyal, dogged fans. When you created Hogwarts and the Harry Potter universe, you created something truly special and unique, and the millions who’ve read your books just don’t want to let go. You have continued to answer their questions and speak to their yearnings for Harry Potter creations over the past nine years, whether on Twitter or via Pottermore or in various interviews.
That said, I think you should stop—now.
I think your series will always be a classic, on the level of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But only if you cease and desist from publishing mediocre fiction to supplement the original greatness of the Harry Potter series. The seven volumes were unique, sparkling, creative, and endearing. They were about as perfect as a seven-volume children’s series could get: aging with their audience, developing complexity and thematic intensity as Harry, Ron, and Hermione grew. The books were engaging for old as well as young (my father-in-law just finished reading them, and loved them), and the characters therein grew to be as loved and admired as any in the classical canon.
But whether for love of fans or fame (or both), you’ve continued to spin tales associated with the original seven books—keeping yourself ever in the limelight, proffering viral comment after viral comment over the past nine years. There were your notes about Dumbledore’s sexuality, your suggestion that Harry should have wed Hermione, your prediction of the drama surrounding Draco’s wife, your discussion of the fate of the Longbottoms, your revelation that Ron almost died, etc. etc. Then you helped create a film about an American wizardry school (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, set to release in November), wrote a short story about the 2014 Quidditch World Cup, helped assemble this new play about Harry’s son Albus, and released three new books about the world of Harry Potter.
Here’s the problem: although it’s impossible to know how excellent Fantastic Beasts will or will not be, the rest of your revelations have been decidedly mediocre. They’ve done little to accent or highlight the best of your written work—instead, they’ve served mainly to provide you viral attention and literary limelight every few months. And that’s frustrating and saddening to those of us who truly love the work and world you’ve created in the Harry Potter books, and don’t want to see it cheapened or degraded in the name of pop-culture praise.
Perhaps you’re afraid of being a one-hit wonder. It’s true that The Casual Vacancy received decidedly lackluster praise—it was a decidedly lackluster book. The Cormoran Strike novels (written under the pen name Robert Galbraith) began to garner attention only once it was revealed that you were, in fact, the author. The books don’t come close to the greatness of others in their genre. The Harry Potter series alone remains excellent, memorable, enjoyable. It’s one of the most bestselling series of all time.
For that reason, I don’t think you’re necessarily doing it for the money—after the success of the first seven books, it doesn’t seem you’d be all that worried about producing more blockbuster hits. But surely, after bursting onto the literary and cinematic scene with such resounding, celebrity success, it must be difficult to let go.
But let go you must.
It would be one thing if the additional works you were creating were of the caliber of Tolkien’s accessory works to The Lord of the Rings. Some consider The Silmarillion to be as good as or even better than LOTR; some prefer the joyous, childlike wonder of The Hobbit to the darker, more intense nature of his other works (and to be clear and avoid the wrath of Tolkien fans, The Hobbit was published before LOTR). Regardless, one thing is certain: Tolkien was fastidiously careful in crafting these works. They’re masterpieces in their own right, interesting and detailed works with characters and plots that speak to the detailed genius of their author.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is no such work. As other countless fans have pointed out, the writing of the work is mediocre, at best—full of clichés and halfhearted character development, with a plot that is absolutely riddled with holes. Many of the original characters (especially Hermione) are not true to their original selves, serving as two-dimensional copycats.
So what does the book do? Well, it keeps the Harry Potter series alive and in the limelight. It serves to inspire new fans to return to the original books. And it definitively makes money—lots of it. But that’s the extent of its virtues.
I caution you, because I think there’s a point at which truly excellent authors know how to say “enough.” Their fans can content themselves with the simplicity and beauty of a finite offering (be it one book or seven). Limiting the scope of a fictional creation enables it to stay mysterious, enchanting, and delightful. Limiting the scope of Harry Potter serves to inspire and foster the imagination of its fans more than coughing up another 20 volumes ever would.
Some will disagree with me here: they’ll point to the world of Star Wars fan fiction, perhaps, and argue that these creations—while some are better than others—continue to inspire and delight fans of the universe that George Lucas created. And that could be true, to some extent. But Stars Wars isn’t on the level of The Lord of the Rings. And if you want your work to be more of a Star Wars, that’s great—I just think it could be something better, something more important and lasting in the literary canon. If you let it stand on its own, without any more additional works or Twitter revelations or viral interviews.
You keep saying that’s what you intend—and then you keep changing your mind. I would urge you to stick to your word on this one: for your own sake, and for the sake of Harry Potter’s lasting legacy. Because I’m a huge fan, and love the world you created in the Harry Potter series. And I want it to remain extraordinary and beloved for years to come.
Are today’s college students especially sensitive?
Debates over trigger warnings seem to indicate such a tendency, though it would be unfair to paint an entire generation of young adults as dainty, tremulous orchids. In a Tuesday New York Times column, David Brooks argues that—without stereotyping too much—a large number of today’s university-bound truly are not as resilient as their elders:
When I ask veteran college teachers and administrators to describe how college students have changed over the years, I often get an answer like this: “Today’s students are more accomplished than past generations, but they are also more emotionally fragile.”
That rings true to me. Today’s students are amazing, but they bathe one another in oceans of affirmation and praise, as if buttressing one another against some insecurity. Whatever one thinks of the campus protests, the desire for trigger warnings and safe spaces does seem to emanate from a place of emotional fragility.
Some have suggested that this fragility emanates from the excesses of helicopter parenting: a generation gone soft and thin-skinned from pampering. But Brooks thinks the trend has its roots in a deeper, more philosophical dimension:
[Emotional fragility] … is caused by anything that makes it harder for people to find their telos. It’s caused by the culture of modern psychology, which sometimes tries to talk about psychological traits in isolation from moral purposes. It’s caused by the ethos of the modern university, which in the name of “critical thinking” encourages students to be detached and corrosively skeptical. It’s caused by the status code of modern meritocracy, which encourages people to pursue success symbols that they don’t actually desire.
We are all fragile when we don’t know what our purpose is, when we haven’t thrown ourselves with abandon into a social role, when we haven’t committed ourselves to certain people, when we feel like a swimmer in an ocean with no edge.
If you really want people to be tough, make them idealistic for some cause, make them tender for some other person, make them committed to some worldview that puts today’s temporary pain in the context of a larger hope.
On the one hand, this is a rather sweeping generalization. Surely students can be sensitive and easily offended while still embracing some telos or larger purpose for their lives. And while the university tends to tiptoe around the personal, fostering various degrees of disillusionment and cynicism, it is also oftentimes ideological and optimistic to a fault. It all depends on the subject.
At the same time, Brooks’s argument—that a defining telos or purpose makes us strong and resilient—resonates with examples I’ve seen in my own life. My grandmother had a troubled childhood, but she responded to hardship with tenacity: she raised her siblings almost by herself, learning how to nurture safety, stability, and comfort in her wake. As she grew older, Grandma continued to foster these things in her own life, and in the lives of others. Her home was a place of security and stability, a “safe space” in which anyone could feel at home. It emanated comfort, beauty, and gentility. Hers was a story of overcoming—not just economic difficulty, but emotional and personal hardship.
Her life became focused around the cultivation and nurturing of family, and she fulfilled that vocation well until the very end. A tenacious love and loyalty directed her work ethic and private pursuits. It spilled into what she purchased, and into how she structured her schedule. Her telos was faith and family, and it showed in everything she did.
I recently read a book (review forthcoming) about a Cambodian Christian who survived the Khmer Rouge regime: barely eking out survival amidst the horror of prison camps, the devastating loss of almost his entire family, the constant shadow of starvation or violent death. What kept him going? A promised word, whispered in the lonely night: “I have a plan for you.” This was the telos that animated and inspired hope, despite all the challenges.
Christians are known for being tenacious despite persecution (and here I’m speaking not of cake-baking controversy or bathroom wars, but of torturing and beheading for one’s faith). Why is this? Because they have an animating purpose—a telos—that makes them, as Brooks writes, “strong like water”:
A blow might sink into them, and when it does they are profoundly affected by it. But they can absorb the blow because it’s short term while their natural shape is long term.
There are moments when they feel swallowed up by fear. They feel and live in the pain. But they work through it and their ardent yearning is still there, and they return to an altered wholeness.
Emotional fragility can result from a lack of confidence in who you are, or ignorance as to where you’re going. The one makes us debilitatingly vulnerable to the jabs and barbs of our world; the other leaves us despairing and forlorn when hostility tears away our societal, familial, or scholastic supports.
Christians have historically combatted these tendencies through a strong understanding of the self as loved and redeemed by God. The confidence of a Christian does not rely on moral superiority or self-righteousness—quite the contrary. The Christian views him or herself as already guilty of sin and insufficiency, but as loved, treasured, and redeemed anyway. So when the world accuses or makes fun or belittles, the Christian can stand firm. There’s no perfection in the self—but the self can still be perfectly loved. That gives stamina and endurance.
Christians also combat despair through believing they have an immortal purpose and end: communion with God. This gives a teleological direction to their life, as they seek to live in a manner worthy of this calling. It means that if their jobs dissipate, their families desert them, or their health fails, they still have a telos. There’s still a purpose worth pursuing.
That said—there’s another reason for emotional fragility that Brooks just doesn’t fully explain or acknowledge in his story: trauma. For some, emotional fragility is the result of a coddled childhood or lack of personal purpose. For others, it’s the result of a truly troubled past—one that fosters vulnerability and hurt in its wake. Not every member of the “orchid generation” is entitled or privileged. And for these people, our answers must lie beyond “tough it out,” or “make sure you have a telos.”
The solutions we present to such people must be different than the ones currently on offer. An elimination of controversial material or insensitive speech in the name of fostering a “safe space” surely won’t stretch or strengthen the modern student. It will, instead, prevent them from cultivating the necessary virtues and resiliency needed in the harsh and insensitive world that lies beyond the university.
I wish I could ask my grandmother how she conquered the fears and pains of her past. How did she build tenacity despite hardship? While it’s impossible to know what her step-by-step journey looked like, I do believe—through observation and reminiscence—that her faith did play a large role. It offered comfort and love, while also bolstering her and giving her a larger purpose to live for, to fight for.
The cultivation of confidence and common sense were also important: she had dignity and grace, a sense of poise and assuredness that lifted her above the petty and painful. She knew better than to take everything personally: she was more likely to say “oh for pitys’ sake” and move on than to reprimand or take offense.
As Brooks points out, the blows suffered by children in prior generations may have made them tougher—they may have also, however, made them more callous and susceptible to despair. Women like my grandmother, who emerged from the hardships of childhood with combined resiliency and delicacy, are quite rare. It’s hard to remain empathetic and open to others’ hardship, while still managing to steel ourselves against the suffering and disappointments this world is sure to throw at us. Compassionate courage: that’s what we need. But how do we foster it?
It is important to teach students to see the value they hold within themselves: to not consider their own worth too lightly (this is something I’ve explored in writing about sexual assault). But it’s also important to instill in them a love and charity that is willing to overlook and forgive: to show mercy, compassion, and care.
The university is a place where it’s all too easy to get focused on the self. Independent from family constraints or social responsibilities, young adults can throw themselves into personal concern and acclaim without thought. But if we strive to make our collegiate experiences about more than just the self, we can start fostering virtues—and start building a telos—that will give us hope and direction in days to come.
In order to do this, it’s important to seek holistic knowledge, not just a temporally satisfying GPA. College can all too easily become about vocational and career acclaim. And while it’s hard to deny the importance of these in times of economic hardship and instability, the sort of knowledge that will give us a telos extends beyond grade point averages and perfect exam scores. College should be about asking important philosophical questions, and finding the answers through diligent study and consideration. It should be about embarking on a quest for knowledge and discernment, striving to build a healthy understanding of the world—in all its horrors, as well as in all its goods. The university should, true enough, help us develop a vision of the true, the good, and the beautiful: but it should also confront the complexities of sin and suffering head-on, so that we can best consider how to fight them.
Second, it’s important that we do not become too solipsistic in our scholastic pursuits, but rather continue to dedicate time to fellowship and service: seeking to help others, whether through extracurricular pursuits, student life involvement, tutoring, or other forms of mentorship or voluntarism. These things will take our eyes off of ourselves, showing us that our own vulnerabilities or sensitivities may, in fact, be trivial things compared to the difficulties of others. It will give us perspective, and help us cultivate grace.
Finally, college is an ideal time to foster friendship—the sorts of friendships that last a lifetime, not just a semester. All too often, relationships during college fixate on the sexual. But there’s no better time to begin building a collective of soulmates who will foster accountability, camaraderie, and fellowship in days to come—helping provide the emotional and relational rapport necessary to direct and define your telos, helping remove some of that emotional vulnerability you’re likely to experience during college and beyond.
We don’t have to be a Corrie Ten Boom or Louis Zamperini to live tenaciously and well. But examples such as these show us that—even if we’re victims of intense trauma and hardship—it is possible to overcome. We need a telos to undergird our actions and pursuits: a purpose, a hope, that gives us strength despite difficulty. With this, emotional fragility is not eliminated, but instead finds its proper sphere.
TAC commenters are the best commenters. Thank you for all of you who offered thoughtful input and commentary on my last piece regarding the church and declining attendance.
Here are some responses to those comments—because they offered excellent food for thought, and I wanted to give some deeper thought to them. 1,000-or-so-word blog posts aren’t adequate to address the depth and complexity of the issues the U.S. church is facing, and it’s worth considering these issues in greater detail. So without further ado, here’s a look at some of the main objections I received Wednesday:
It’s About Catechesis, Not Community
This is true to some extent: don’t go to a heretical church, even if it’s just across the street. Don’t abandon doctrine or orthodoxy in your efforts to connect with a body of believers. When referring to “denominational difference” in the original piece, I was referring more to minor issues of worship or layout than core doctrinal considerations. If we’re considering two churches that are both Bible-preaching and doctrinally sound, then choosing between them becomes a matter of other, more gray issues: such as location, size, and communal integration.
Because we’re discussing this issue in the public sphere, and because logistics are what people pinpoint as keeping them from church on Sundays, I think it’s important not to simply say, “The right doctrine and sound preaching will keep people in the pews.” It should—that’s true. We would hope that, as one commenter points out, “the Church that preaches repentance and hope” would draw and keep a congregation. It’s about the Gospel, first and foremost.
But if people say that they are “too busy, have a crazy work schedule,” or are “too lazy” to attend church, it could also be that they need physical checks and balances (such as church proximity and member connectedness) to get them out the front door on Sundays. This isn’t unspiritual or belittling of doctrine: it’s an acknowledgment of the sinful proclivities of our nature, and the need for support and accountability.
In her book Got Religion?, Naomi Schaefer Riley considers millennials’ abdication of church (as well as the synagogue and mosque, which have also seen a decline in attendance). Many of the deterrents she pinpoints are social and communal: if a young person’s friends leave the church, they are likely to leave, as well. “When a group of friends who are coreligionists starts to dissipate, the religious observance starts to fall off,” writes Riley. “Practicing a faith does not, on its surface, seem like a team sport. There’s no reason you can’t go to synagogue or church alone. But people don’t.”
Thankfully, this isn’t a temptation for everyone. One commenter said, “We attend a Church that is 40+ miles from our home, passing roughly eight others on our way. It takes up approximately 4-5 hours of any Sunday. It’s where we feel the focus is where it should be and the liturgy is delivered in it’s purest form.”
When you have the conviction and church allegiance necessary to attend church 40 or 50 miles away, that becomes a salutary and acceptable practice. Geographic and logistical concerns are more important for people who find it difficult to “stick” with a church, and need some extra accountability.
This plays into the “communal” aspect of a church, as well. Fruit is important—as so many commenters pointed out, there are a lot of Christian churches out there that have produced bad fruit, and it’s debilitated or decimated the faith of many. But let’s not forget that church isn’t a social club or humanitarian nonprofit: it is, first and foremost, the church. We should not become so focused on the political or social (or geographical) facets of our faith, that we lose sight of the deeper philosophical and theological truths necessary for a church to thrive. “Church shopping” is symptomatic of someone looking for a laundry list of experiences or services that they think it ought to provide. But church is meant to be more serious, more metaphysical than this: church is meant to delve into the deepest subjects, the ones that have to do not just with this world, but with the next.
Don’t Pick On The Megachurches
One commenter said: “Many megachurches actually do the ‘personal, communal’ thing better that smaller churches by having really good small group ministry. Sunday morning becomes a kind of modern version of big, cathedral Christianity with small groups filling the need for smaller, communal groups (many of which are often geographically-centered) during the week.”
I hadn’t thought of it this way: perhaps the “megachurch” is the best evangelical response to an absence of the awe-inspiring beauty and reverent ethos offered by a cathedral. It gives members that sense of collective solidarity, along with an impression of towering greatness and beauty. That said, it seems that without the ancient, embodied rituals of the cathedral, a megachurch cannot offer the same depth and lasting reverence that a cathedral can. It may be able to foster some emotional goods via its inspiring service, but whether these responses will blossom into lasting devotion and discipleship is difficult to know.
It isn’t fair to disparage all megachurches. But there are some interesting findings worth considering for people who want to worship there: the Hartford Institute for Religious Research reports that people who attend megachurches are most often younger, single, wealthier, and have a higher level of education. Most attending a megachurch have been doing so for five years or less, and 45 percent of the church’s members never volunteer. While social and communal outreach programs exist, the Hartford Institute found that these are largely set up to help members “craft unique, customized spiritual experiences” by providing a “multitude of ministry choices and diverse avenues for involvement.”
These words—a “unique, customized spiritual experience”—are symptomatic of, I would argue, one of the biggest problems with modern Christianity. They’re indicative of a consumer church, one that’s set up more like a Build-a-Bear Workshop than as a body of united and serious believers. Members are likely to fall prey to what Rod Dreher has called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”: asking what their church will do for them, how it will appeal to their needs and wants and desires, and not really committing themselves to the truths of the Gospel or the demands of Christ.
In January, Jonathan Aigner shared some of his reasons for disliking megachurch worship services. Focused on the experiential and personal, he said, they do little to foster the unity of their congregants or the longevity of their faith. Worship, he argued, is “about unity, not choice. It’s about Holy Scripture, not self-help. It’s about theology, not experience. It’s about participation, not consumption. It’s about liturgy, not jesusy entertainment.”
A megachurch that accomplishes the former without falling prey to the latter is defying the stereotypes and tendencies of its brand, and will (hopefully) overcome the difficulties of size and potential alienation to build a strong, healthy membership.
The Damage of Scandal
As one commenter put it,
People who call themselves Christians and publicly proclaim their love for the Lamb of God and Prince of Peace and then treat defenseless kids with stern cruelty are not a good advertisement for their beliefs.
People who spend millions of dollars to make themselves more comfortable for an hour or so each Sunday and no money on local people who might need help are not a good advertisement for their beliefs.
People who act as church leaders and commit crimes or cover up for others who commit them are not a good advertisement for their beliefs. … These people either have never read the Sermon on the Mount or, if they have read it, they have rejected it.
This is so true, and such an enormous problem to face. Rod Dreher has written well on this subject before, as he spent a lot of time researching and writing about the Catholic church’s child sex abuse crisis. He knows firsthand how faith-crushing such horrific evil can be.
This is why I did emphasize a loving, serving church in my first post: because we need to see fruit. We need to know that the truth of the Gospel is being acted out, that loving service is happening in the body of Christ. The only way healing can come to those wounded and marred by poor doctrine and cruelty, is by the true, real Gospel being administered to the hurt and wounded.
However, there’s another important point worth mentioning here. No church is perfect, and it’s important that we differentiate between scandalous, evil behavior and the everyday pitfalls and weaknesses of a body that has yet to be sanctified. A worship service that is less than perfect, a message from the pulpit that rubs you the wrong way, a couple of congregants who gossip after church—these are issues that need to be sanctified, but are not necessarily grounds to run away from the church. Here are some thoughts from an article I wrote on this subject a couple years ago:
The truth is, the longer you are part of a church, the more you will begin to notice its dust and dimness, its fake smiles and half hugs. Many have memorized rituals that have no heart or purpose behind them. You will begin to see the church’s flaws, and they may frustrate or even disgust you. But if you seek church (or religious experience) somewhere else—reveling in all its polished “authenticity” and golden sheen—it will not take long before there, too, you will see the fatal flaws, the pretensions. And they may again drive you away, urging you into a “free range” faith that is ever seeking the authentic.
But you can choose to stay and to love this flawed and marred church, still so far from perfection. You can choose to walk amongst the faltering limbs of this body, this ailing bride, because you know that you too are a flawed limb. You know that you, too, have caked makeup over your raw sores, and have attempted to look “normal,” even perhaps “authentic.” You know that you’ve whitewashed your tombs.
Church is not about our perfection or authenticity. There are layers of sin and blindness that we have yet to uncover. But church is about Christ… . It’s about the Gospel. And that truth reaches out to us in our states of inauthenticity, giving us a chance to rise above the facades.