State of the Union

The Internet & Parched Souls

What happens when we enter a world of constant connection—a world in which technology infiltrates nearly every moment of our waking existence? “We all feel the porcupine quill of constant contact, the irritant of ever presence, and long to escape, if only for a moment,” Rabbi David Wolpe writes for TIME Magazine. But Wolpe also believes that, in a sense, this new form of constant connection is just an echo of past forms:

People tired of living in villages, where everyone knew everyone’s business and where there was no privacy or space. So, we built large, anonymous cities with ample rooms and deliberate neglect of others. Finding that such space parched our souls, we began to devise technological ways to bring us closer, from texting to tinder. Now, back in the virtual village, we are too close, and long for the space that we had just two decades ago.

Wolpe is right to note the role that urban disconnect and division has played in driving people apart, and the way in which it’s led to increased technology use. Many Americans live in an extremely atomistic space: whether we commute to jobs far from home, live far from family and friends, rent space in an apartment complex full of people we don’t know, or go to a mega-church filled with unfamiliar faces—many of us could report feelings of disconnected, loneliness, isolation.

But I think there’s a problem with comparing the closeness of the social media era with the community we might have seen in villages (or small-town communities) past.

First, one must note the obvious fact that real villages/towns are limited in time and space. They are necessarily small, while also being inescapably diverse: they hold people of different ages, interests, vocations, ideas, and values (while it is still worth noting that some communities are not diverse enough, and can fall into the sort of tribalism that is, in fact, deleterious to true community).

The “virtual village” that Wolpe describes, on the other hand, is a mass. It cannot be easily defined, and does not have limits. It is movement-driven and emotionally-oriented, a beast quick to react with passion instead of with reason—and thus, interestingly enough, prone to the same sort of tribalism that is so often condemned in real-world villages. On social media, you can choose and curate a “village” according to ideological or characteristic preference—by unfriending or following, you create the space and listen to the voices that you prefer, those that suit your own virtues and vices. This can lead members of the virtual village to become calloused or ignorant toward issues outside of their sphere of interest.

Second, while real villages/towns are often nosy and gossipy and contentious, the people within them live, work, worship, and rest together. Their lives are inexplicably intertwined, and cannot be turned off or logged off. Thus, people in a real village must learn to forgive, to work through differences, to heal hurts and find societal solutions to real-world dilemmas. The “virtual village,” on the other hand, gives us the opportunity to disconnect whenever we become offended or angry. It enables us to be as nasty, narcissistic, and demeaning as we please—with very few real-world consequences. And this creates a dangerous sort of atmosphere, one that is in fact poisonous to real community.

When we consider the amount of cynicism, anger, envy, and FOMO (fear of missing out) prevalent online, it is no wonder that our souls have become “parched,” as Wolpe puts it. But I don’t think it’s because we are too close—rather, I believe it is because we are slowly learning that communication cannot replace community.

We live in a world that runs on incessant communication. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, chatting, FaceTime spill together an endless pooling of words, pictures, audio clips, videos. The Economist reported Thursday that people ages 16 to 24 use their smartphones for nearly four hours a day. But the incessant nature of our communication does not necessarily turn dialogue into community rapport. Something more is required to build a real community. Wendell Berry, in a recent interview, told me this:

… Community is not made just by communication. It is a practical circumstance. It is composed of people who have a place in common. But it is made by people’s willingness to be neighbors, good and faithful servants, to one another. It survives by its members’ recognition of their need for one another, if only to keep the small children from getting lost or run over, or to keep their trash out of the streams and roads. My guess is that a healthy community would be indivisible from its own, its local, economy.

You don’t have to agree with Berry wholeheartedly to appreciate his conception of community: it’s more holistic and service-oriented than the “virtual village” described by Wolpe. I think the Internet can complement community—Facebook and Twitter are useful tools in fostering the networking and gathering of individuals—but it cannot replace it. Service, proximity, need: these cannot be cultivated, long-term, over a long distance. Friendship must have limits, like a real town does.

Wolpe does not seem to consider that, while the virtual village does indeed leave us feeling “parched”—at once lonely and overwhelmed by clamor—the real village has a rhythm and cadence of community and rest. While every village is imperfect, it can preserve individual spheres and private spaces. It can complement the individual’s desire to come apart and be alone. The virtual village, on the other hand, will alway clamor for more status updates and pictures, for ever-greater involvement and immersion. It is, as Wolpe says, increasingly difficult to ignore that “tug”—to turn off one’s phone, or iPad, or laptop, and ignore the virtual “village.” It will not leave us alone.

Once again, the Internet isn’t evil. Social media isn’t useless. But if we view it as an end, rather than as a means, we can in fact lose our chance for real community. The presentation of village life that Wolpe presents—always prickly and discomforting, ever too little or too much—may point to the imperfection of our natures, our inability to ever perfectly satiate each other’s need for community. But it is in delving deeper, growing to know each other, and cultivating virtue that we slowly begin to build proper bonds—to understand each other’s needs, both for camaraderie and for privacy. Such knowledge can’t be fostered online: it requires time spent in each other’s company, frank acknowledgement and honest forgiveness. It requires the sort of living together, side-by-side, that a virtual village cannot provide.

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Raising Babies in Adult-Land

Laura June wrote for The Awl Wednesday about the hesitation and fear she often feels when she brings her child out in public:

I once hated other people’s babies, and, truth be told, I can still get a little judgy at the sight of a particularly awful baby specimen. But, now that I’m a parent of an actual, tiny, barbaric human, I see that it’s my duty to take her out, daily, into society, in order to cull her of her worst impulses. To teach her that sometimes the people sitting just one airplane seat over don’t want to talk, or that the lady reading her New Yorker five feet away isn’t her best friend. This is the social contract: we must raise our young to be human people with manners and dignity. And you, the adult humans of the world, must tolerate us while we embark on our excursion.

Many of us have felt exasperated when sitting next to a screaming baby on an airplane, or encountering a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. It’s difficult to be gracious when you feel that your eardrums are about to explode. And it’s true that some parents don’t discipline their children appropriately. As one friend put it, an increasing amount of toddlers “are not closely attended or watched in public places, which creates a nuisance for those trying to shop for groceries or read quietly in a Starbucks. In some cases, it’s a cry (sometimes quite literally) for attention, and other times it’s just spoiled behavior that isn’t kept in check.”

But sometimes, babies are just tired, or hungry, or upset—and we have no right to be frustrated with the parent or the child over what’s an inevitable part of growing up. In these situations, we seem to have grown unaccustomed to the very frank, untidy, often loud realities of childhood. We’ve created for ourselves, within our commutes and careers, clubs and churches, a plethora of kid-free zones. And when a child enters that zone, we often are clueless as to how to cope with their presence.

This reminded me of an older article by Saman Sad for The Telegraph, describing ways in which London is turning into a kid-free city:

Most big cities seem to be gearing themselves towards being kid-free zones, or at least heavily segregated zones. As the old adage goes, children should be seen and not heard. These days, it seems we not only want children to not be heard, but also to remain unseen. If it’s not the café in Berlin barring strollers from its premises, it’s the restaurant in America, barring all patrons under the age of six. This policy is not only being taken up by cafes and restaurants, but by airlines, too: they are now setting up kid-free zones.

Do we as a society really hate kids so much that we want them erased from public life altogether?

Sad compares this attitude with the kid-inclusion common in Dubai:

Kids are very much a part of public life in Dubai – everywhere and at all hours. I was shocked to see children in restaurants well past 10pm. They were loud and noisy, and probably a bit tired, but they were there because in Dubai, especially for Arab families, there is no exclusion of children from social situations. If you’re going to dinner, so are they. If you’re going to the mall at 11pm, so are they. … When my friends turned up with their baby and toddler at a posh new restaurant, rather than being turned away, the staff offered them the chef’s table, so the children would be entertained.

… I wouldn’t necessarily encourage bringing babies to bars, but I am all for keeping an open mind to including all members of society – no matter how small – in social situations. Children bring life to a place like no adult can. Yes, they whinge and cry and can be a pain. But they have a verve for life, a curiosity about things, a knack for finding humour in the ordinary, all of which provide a breath of fresh air in the adult world.

It’s that latter dynamic that some Americans seem to have forgotten: in the midst of our annoyance over the bouts of crying, the short attention spans, and the extra baggage that comes with having babies, we’ve also forgotten the joy, sweetness, enthusiasm, and curiosity that they bring to life. We’ve forgotten that, as June puts it, “we were all babies once. I didn’t spring into life, fully grown, an Athena in our midst. I once was an awful member of society.”

Some places are worse/better than others in their baby tolerance levels: as a mother of four noted to me on Facebook, suburbs and cities are much more likely to abound in dirty looks than rural areas and small towns, while she’s found adults in the South to be much nicer than those in the mid- or north-Atlantic region. This all makes sense, when you consider the increasing lack of children in urban areas: Governing notes in an article on gentrification that, due to the change in apartment costs and urban amenities, “Americans, already used to segregation by income and race, are seeing another type of geographic separation, with people living apart according to their stages of life.”

However, many moms I talked to on Facebook—moms from various regions of the country, with babies of different ages—said they’ve also been surprised at how much nicer adults have been than they expected them to be. “I was afraid to go out too much when my kiddo was born because I was afraid I’d get those annoyed looks, and I didn’t want to be a public nuisance,” one mother told me. “I was surprised to find that people still smiled at me and treated me well. Old ladies hold doors for me when I’m carrying the car seat, men stocking groceries comment on how sweet the baby is, and in general everyone loves to peek in the car seat or stroller to talk to the baby.” Other moms noted that they take their babies to grocery stores, post offices, coffee shops, bookstores, airports, and restaurants without much difficulty. Indeed, people are much more likely to say hello, to share stories or advice.

Perhaps these anecdotes will encourage parents to take their young children out in public more. There’s a need for this sort of integration—and it may even afford young parents the exact sort of community rapport they may be lacking.

There are certain virtues that kids seem especially gifted to grow in us: patience and longsuffering are perhaps the first two that spring to mind (and they’re two virtues our society often sorely lacks), but there’s also generosity, gentleness, compassion, creativity, and many others. Of course we can learn many of these in the workplace, amongst family and friends—but children challenge and foster these virtues through their specific strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps the reason parents seem so timid around non-parents is because they know their child will be demanding these strangers to display their hidden, perhaps rusty virtues.

One mom told me, “I think I get more looks now that [my daughter] is three than I ever have. She’s loud and blunt and colorful… but how else will she learn?” And, indeed, one could add: how else will we?


Should We Sponsor Bookstores?

It’s tough for many indie bookstores to make ends meet, competing as they are with the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But one bookstore, on the verge of closing, has made a last-ditch effort to save itself—and it appears they may succeed. How? The New Yorker reports

[On Thursday], the Borderlands staff made its own announcement—in the form of a blog post on the store’s Web site. … “Starting immediately we will be offering paid sponsorships of the store,” the staff wrote. Each sponsorship—Beatts and his staff opted for that name in lieu of “membership”—would cost a hundred dollars annually and would include a number of perks that wouldn’t cost anything for Borderlands: the ability to rent, at cost, the Borderlands café; invitations to exclusive events; access to preview sales of rare and collectible books; and so on. … Within a couple of hours after the blog post went up Thursday evening, more than sixty memberships had been sold; when I spoke to Beatts on Saturday morning, he reported that the figure had passed two hundred and thirty, and seemed on track to clear the goal of three hundred.

In a sense, the model merely restores the notion of a store “patron” to something closer to the word’s original meaning. But it appears to be a relatively unusual approach for a retail store—essentially putting a price tag on Borderlands’s continued existence, and the cultural and social benefits that come with it, rather than tying memberships to some monetary benefit like book discounts. It could prove instructive, though, to other cultural and social enterprises that have enthusiastic fan bases but whose business models are facing rising costs or other pressures.

It’s an interesting idea, in part because this idea of patronage has usually been associated with different “high culture” endeavors: usually a “patron of the arts” will support a local theatre, ballet troupe, or symphony orchestra—but not a bookstore. What this new plan seems to illustrate is that indie bookstores are now treated similarly to those “high culture” interests—as a distinctive pastime that ought to be enjoyed and kept alive, but also as a niche interest that a larger populace may not appreciate.

There’s been a steady decline in America’s patron class, one that now puts arts funding in jeopardy throughout the nation. Bookstore “patron” systems could suffer from similar dilemmas, though on a smaller scale, if they adopt this model: what happens when the life circumstances of their subscribers change? How do they continue to attract newer, younger subscribers? Will this method detract or impede them from pursuing their real purpose: selling books? Perhaps local bookstore patrons could be an exception to the rule, but it seems a bit dangerous for bookstores to switch to a support model that is faltering throughout the nation.

It could be that, if a patronage system offers enough different and attractive perks, the store could continue to bring in subscriptions. The list provided by Beatts’ Borderlands Books doesn’t seem particularly appealing, at first glance: you would have to truly love the store, its model, and its ownership in order to sign up for a subscription. But perhaps subscriptions could involve special book discounts, coupons to an attached/nearby cafe, a free book at the beginning of each month, access to a special “reading room,” author meetings, or book club activities. It is difficult to tell how many potential subscribers would be interested in these opportunities, but local bibliophiles should show their support.

However, it still seems a better method would be to emulate Portland’s Powell’s, Paris’s iconic Shakespeare and Company (pictured above), or any of these thriving independent bookstores. The key is to show buyers why they want to shop here, instead of elsewhere, and to continue to stock books that are rare, distinctive, and attractive. Most people continue to frequent bookstores because they offer something enticing yet different: something that’s worth sacrificing convenience and efficiency in order to obtain. A subscription could help cultivate this sort of appeal, but—once again—it would have to be a pretty attractive subscription. And, by itself, such a sponsorship system can’t save the bookstore. It’s by 1) cultivating a unique yet pleasant ethos, and by 2) selling unique and appealing books, that bookstore owners can continue to attract a variety of patrons—patrons who actually buy books.

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The Perils of Disillusionment

Debie Thomas tells the story in River Teeth of growing up in a conservative Indian family, one in which arranged marriages were a normal and accepted practice. She describes a discussion she had with her father at age 12 about “falling in love”:

I ask the next question fast, before my courage gives out. “Did you fall in love with her?” … I need Daddy to confess that he felt something for Mummy when he married her, and this is the only way I know to ask. But he doesn’t answer. He gives me a vocabulary lesson instead.

“Indians don’t ‘fall,’ Debie. We don’t marry by accident. We choose. Choose to marry, choose to love. We’re not powerless like Americans.”

The concept is incredibly difficult for Thomas to accept, growing up as she is in a culture saturated with more glamorous, soap-opera influenced conceptions of love. This is the love she wants as a teenager. But as she grows older, she begins to consider its pitfalls, too:

Maybe the mistake Americans make, I conclude, is that they confuse attraction for romance. They do fall, because all of us fall, but what they fall into isn’t love. … As a child, as a teenager, it doesn’t occur to me that on-screen romance is wholly filtered, polished, packaged. I don’t notice that American love stories generally end right where love—sustained love, the volitional kind—ought to begin—at the first kiss, on the wedding day, on the morning after the first heated night in bed. I never imagine Erika Kane minus her lipstick, or Victoria Newman ten years into a marriage.

The idea of attraction dissolving into marital disillusionment is nothing new: it’s a common theme, a story of discontent and temptation that threads its way through literature. It’s the downfall of Anna Karenina, the angst and unhappiness of Madame Bovary. As Bovary thinks to herself at a crucial point in the book,

Why was life so inadequate, why did the things she depended on turn immediately to dust? … Nothing, anyways, was worth looking for; everything was a lie. Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a malediction, every pleasure its own disgust, and the sweetest kisses left on your lips no more than a vain longing for a more sublime pleasure.

Madame Bovary is searching for perfection—and when she cannot find it, she succumbs to despair. It’s a rather common tale, though perhaps not so dramatic in everyday life as in Flaubert’s novel. We glamorize human connection to such a degree, we are horrified and shocked when we disappoint each other with our own fallibility. Living amongst flawed and sinful human beings, we respond with disillusionment, restlessness, dismay. Bovary seeks lover after lover, distraction after distraction. When we realize there is no perfect “soul mate,” life becomes a dreary dance of new entanglements, hopeful joys that fade fast.

Thomas is right: our society conveniently escapes these truths by cutting the ending short, by inserting the “happily ever after” where Tolstoy and Flaubert begin their novels, and where Thomas’ parents begin their love story.

But we don’t have to respond to our own flawed story lines with disillusionment. We can respond by choosing to love. As Thomas’s father puts it, we don’t have to be powerless.

This isn’t just true of romantic relationships: it is also true of everyday life in community. We can easily become irked and irritated by neighbors, town government, the flaws in our houses. No place is perfect. Like Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, we can begin to worry and wonder: what are we missing because we settled with this place? As Chris Whiley writes for Front Porch Republic,

There is a risk to staying put. We should acknowledge it. That seems odd—what could be more conservative than putting down roots? But it is wildly speculative. The risk goes by the name: “opportunity cost.”  By staying put you limit yourself to what the land can yield, to what this particular place can yield. And if you’ve made Detroit your home, well, its fate is yours as well.

So why root yourself at all—in a marriage, or in a place? Why not mimic the lives of the soap opera stars, dabbling in different loves, moving from place to place, enjoying all the allure of a life without duty or responsibility?

Whiley answers this question well: “Every formula for freedom I’ve come across contains some form of dependency, usually hidden, like some secret ingredient.”

There is freedom in choice: in choosing to make permanent decisions, in choosing to bury your roots deep in a specific soil. There is freedom in choosing a life partner, someone to build an entire future with. Contrary to the narrative of society, it is after the vows, the wedding day, the house contract, the babies—when the “volitional kind” of love begins—that the real adventure can begin. Because knowing, and being known, offers us the freedom to be ourselves, to grow and change, without losing security and love. In marriage, we marry together freedom and security, forgiveness and truth. We commit to giving our partner grace, no matter the frustrating or fearsome challenges that may greet us. In committing to a place, we receive an assurance of community and rapport that will sustain us in the tribulations of life.

It isn’t perfect—but that’s not the point. It will never be perfect: but it will be good.


The Problem With Our Foster Care “Pipeline”

Sex trafficking in America is more prevalent than you think—and according to recent research conducted by NCMEC, 68 percent of “likely sex trafficking victims” were in the care of social services or foster care when they ran away. Lauren Kirchner wrote about the problem in Pacific Standard last week:

When the FBI rescued 168 children in a sex trafficking sting last year, it found that two-thirds of the victims had never been reported missing in the first place; the agency has also said that in all of its stings over the past few years, about 60 percent of the children rescued have had some experience in the foster care system or a group home …

The hard truth is that a lot of the risk factors for becoming victims of sex trafficking, or being recruited to transactional sex, overlap with the realities of life for many kids and teens in the foster care system: having teenage parents or parents struggling with substance abuse or mental illness; a history of sexual or physical abuse as children; and a lack of emotional, psychological, and financial support systems.

The story reminded me immediately of TAC’s new cover story (to be published online soon) for the March/April 2015 magazine, a story about the collapse of Britain’s working-class families. Schwarz outlines the enormous problem of sex trafficking in the U.K.—”the systematic sexual grooming, rape, and trafficking of more than 2,000 pre-teen and teenage girls, white and overwhelmingly working class”—and asks why this problem is so widespread. His answer? The breakdown of the working-class community: “Virtually all these girls had been left adrift—unmoored from and unprotected by the guidance, love, and authority of their families and community, which left them wholly exposed to predation at once brazen and methodical—[this] reveals a wrecked society that has failed in its most essential purpose.”

This is not just true of Britain. It is overwhelmingly true of our society, particularly of our foster care system. It’s a system that is meant to serve as a protection to needy children—but so often, the sheer size, lack of accountability, and lack of community involved in the process can lead to abuse or disarray. There are about 400,000 children in foster care, with 23,000 “aging out” each year. Some states lack the social workers necessary to truly know and care for each foster child. They cannot truly invest in each situation, or know for sure whether foster parents are doing a good job. Sadly, some foster parents are just in it for the money; others, while well-intentioned, are not prepared for the enormity of the job, and give up.

All of these things signal a breakdown of community, of a locally-focused care that would result in more dynamic and accountable placements and relationships. Foster kids don’t need a pipeline. They need a platoon. They need a steadfast, permanent community—a bastion of supporters and caregivers that will not constantly shift. The attitudes and mores necessary for proper care of the needy are rooted in the soil of community. Systems and pipelines, in their lack of place or permanence, relationship or roots, are sorely lacking. Local, relational platoons result in human flourishing and a sense of home—a place to return to, regardless of whether one “ages out” of the system.

Applying these principles to the system we currently have starts with the family: with the cultivation of strong, committed, loving foster care families, who are willing to love and tend to children, no matter how difficult, and who are willing to do whatever it takes to provide a lasting community for needy children.

There’s a small town in Belgium that has historically provided a home for the mentally ill. Mike Jay wrote about the community for Aeon Magazine last year: “When boarders meet their new families, they do so, as they always have, without a backstory or clinical diagnosis. … These are people who, whatever their diagnosis, have come here because they’re unable to cope on their own, and because they have no family or friends who can look after them.” Town inhabitants created a safe home of sorts, where “boarders” worked alongside and participated in family life.

But sadly, “Few families are now able or willing to take on a boarder,” writes Jay. “…Modern aspirations—the increasing desire for mobility and privacy, timeshifted work schedules, and the freedom to travel—disrupt the patterns on which daily care depends.” The virtues necessary for care of the needy often run counter to modern society’s “desire for mobility and privacy.” Opening our homes leaves us vulnerable. It means sacrificing our time, resources, and comfort.

I have known foster children who grew up feeling placeless, homeless, and unloved. But I’ve also met passionate, caring foster families, who opened their doors to needy or troubled children without hesitation. One such family welcomed in dozens of troubled youth over the years, and their son is now a social worker. Their actions planted seeds, and they began to grow a community. Such work is sorely needed—so that, regardless of the flaws of our foster care system, each child can someday know they have a place, a home, in the world.

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Wendell Berry, Burkean

Some conservatives love Wendell Berry; others are vehemently opposed to his thought and writings. A native Kentuckian, Berry is a farmer and philosopher, essayist and poet, environmental activist and localist. He has written over 40 works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, on topics ranging from sustainable farming to biographical novels to cultural commentary. Over the years, Berry has been the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the National Humanities Medal, and the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award—given for works that “advance peace through literature.”

Berry doesn’t easily fit political boxes: though many of his views on community and culture are traditional, his views on the environment and pacifism are more often associated with the politics and policies of the left. He often angers people on both left and right with his stances. Yet despite this, there is a marked consistency to Berry’s thought. He is concerned, first and foremost, with representing and defending his home: Port Royal, Kentucky.

Indeed, Berry’s fictional works all center on the town of Port Royal—known as Port William in the books—chronicling its heritage through the lives of its townspeople. One of his most beloved novels, Jayber Crow, tells the story of the town’s fictional barber. After an early life of rootlessness, Jayber anchors himself in Port William, living a quiet life of service within its community. The novel demonstrates, in a very straightforward way, the importance of local rootedness and stewardship.

The entirety of Berry’s work, despite its breadth, is focused on the relationship men and women have to the earth and to their townships—to the communities that are integral to human flourishing. TAC senior editor Rod Dreher once wrote that Berry’s “unshakable devotion to the land, to localism, and to the dignity of traditional life makes him both a great American and, to the disgrace of our age, a prophet without honor in his native land.” Yet Berry’s fame is growing as more people come to appreciate the role he has played in our national conversation—not as a prophet of conservatism or of liberalism, but as a vital thinker for our culture and country as a whole.

Gracy Olmstead: Jayber Crow is deeply rooted in his community. He’s opposed to war and much of the so-called “progress” that goes on around him. Would you call Jayber Crow a conservative?

Wendell Berry: It never occurred to me to think of Jayber as a “conservative.” I don’t think that would have helped, though he is instinctively and in principle a conserver. His membership is not in a party or a public movement, but in Port William. He is a man of unsteady faith in love with a place, a perishing little town, a community, a woman—with all that is redemptive and good—struggling to be worthy. I didn’t (and don’t) think of him as a “liberal” either.

GO: What are your biggest objections to conservatism?

WB: Often, as with Jayber, a political labeling never occurs to me. But often too I am conscious of a need to avoid all the names of political sides.

“Liberal” now names a lot of people who thought the election of President Obama put an end to American racism, which was a kind of good-heartedness but also a kind of silliness. “Conservative” names at least a significant number of people who know that Obama’s election is the best thing that has happened to American racism since the “Southern strategy,” for it set up a man partly of African descent whom they could entirely hate and totally oppose while being politically correct.

But both of those political sides evidently accept war as a part of human normality. Both evidently suppose that the only effective limit of human conduct is technological capability: whatever is possible must be done. And both evidently assume that nature, the land communities, and the economies of land use can be safely exploited or ignored.

And so I prefer to get along without political labels. They don’t help thought, or my version of thought. Since I’m self-employed and not running for office, I’m free to notice that those political names don’t mean much of anything, and so am free to do without them. I’m free, in short, to be an amateur. Jayber to me is Jayber unclassified.

The same for Edmund Burke, whose writings and speeches I have read eagerly and at considerable length. As an amateur, I don’t need to be waylaid by wondering how he, a Whig, comes now to be counted a conservative, the sire of “Burkean conservatism,” not the least bit liberal. I can object to some things he said, but that is not remarkable, and it doesn’t matter much.

I don’t read him to be confirmed in a party allegiance. I read him for his steadfast affirmation of qualities I see as, in a high sense, human. I read him for his decency, the luster of his intelligence and character, his patience and endurance in thinking, his willingness to take a principled stand, the happiness of his prose.

He was a peacemaker, a lover of “order and beauty,” of “the amiable and conciliatory virtues of lenity, moderation, and tenderness.” As a man in politics should do, he preferred reason to the passions. He thought that “the separation of fame and virtue is an harsh divorce.” He said, “I do not like to see anything destroyed…” He said that a person “has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favor.” He said, “The poorest being that crawls on earth, contending to save itself from injustice and oppression, is an object respectable in the eyes of God and man.”
A useful exercise for an American is to ask which of our holders of office has ever spoken publicly in favor of beauty or the “virtue” of tenderness.

GO: You write a lot about the importance of conservation—which, really, conservatism is supposed to be about. How have conservatives lost an understanding of proper conservation?

WB: For those who enjoy absurdities—as I do, up to a point—“conservatives” opposed to conservation are vibrantly absurd and worth at least a grin. But such conservatives have achieved this amusing absurdity by a radical and dangerous narrowing of purpose. They apparently wish to conserve only the power and wealth of the most powerful and the most wealthy.

The conservation of wilderness and “the wild” seems now to be recognized as a project belonging exclusively to “liberals.” But that also is a dangerous narrowing of purpose. It is true that “liberal” conservationists also fairly dependably oppose the most excessive and sensational abuses of “the environment,” such as oil or slurry spills (in some places), surface mining (off and on, never enough), extreme pollution of air and water (mainly as it affects cities), and so on.

But in fact most politicians, “conservative” and “liberal,” are the pets or juvenile dependents of the industrial corporations. In Kentucky, for example, the Party of Coal has swallowed, digested, and shat nearly all politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike. Above all, it is still virtually impossible to interest any of the powers of politics in the economic landscapes of farming and forestry. In those landscapes the gravest and most extensive damages are being done: by soil erosion, by toxic pollution of soil and water, by impairment of the diversity and integrity of ecosystems, by drastic interruptions of the fertility cycle, by the devastation of rural communities and of our never adequately developed cultures of husbandry.

There are reasons to hope for and even to foresee the coming of more honesty and better purposes—the need for a sustainable economy, the increasingly obvious failures of industrialism and corporate rule—but no extensive improvements can come easily or soon.

GO: You once wrote of the Gulf War, “But we know that this was descended from a history of war and that it evokes the fear of other wars that may descend from it.” Is war with ISIS also part of this chain—descended from the Iraq War, in particular? How do we stop this cycle?

WB: It does seem that there are lineages of war and that wars are the causes of wars. And it seems unlikely that wars cause peace. Wars cause victory and defeat, equivocal terms because in wars both sides lose much that they would rather keep, and they cause exhaustion. But victory, defeat, loss, and exhaustion don’t define peace. It is certain that peace does not cause war. Wars, moreover, tend not to end. Damage from our Civil War continues today. We are still under the influence of World War II. We still suffer the effects of the succession of wars that have followed. thisarticleappeared-janfeb15

But I don’t believe we can hope to make sense of our modern wars until we have acknowledged that war is good for business. The industrialization of war has made it far worse than before. And weapons, ammunition, explosives, the vehicles of battle—like throwaway bottles, made to be destroyed and expensively replaced—are ideal products of industrialism. Wars favor “industrial development.” They are invariably the occasions and agents of “technological progress.” The greatest benefits by far of the Civil War went to the railroads and the mineral and timber industries.

And so the damages have continued and become worse. Young people in the “armed services” pay for war with their lives, and so do children and other innocents in foreign countries (so far), while even the wealthiest citizens, for whose freedom these deaths supposedly pay, oppose paying taxes. And who among the experts, scholars, and promoters of war has calculated its ecological damages? As mere citizens, people, suffering humans, we face two arresting questions about industrial war: How much longer can we stand it? And how much longer can we and our world afford it?

We threaten and make war, as a first choice or as a matter of course, because we conceive of violence as the normal answer to other people’s violence. As war becomes ever more industrial, more technological, more able to inflict its damage at a distance and by remote control, we seem to like it better. President Obama has become, as he was fated to be, the new head pioneer of remote control. There is no need to face your enemies or even know them, if you can push a button and kill them at a distance of thousands of miles without getting up from your chair. For this there are the urgent practical reasons that war invariably supplies.

But we also are susceptible to the technological charm of, for example, drones. In the very midst of war, these weapons of precision killing have become “consumer products,” and the most modern and up-to-date people are buying them as they bought cell phones. They fit with perfect logic the needs of the preservers of the “balance” of freedom-and-security, and by the same logic the needs of blackmailers and hit men. No doubt already there are drone billionaires.

Peace assuredly would pay even larger dividends, but to the wrong people. It is not at all clear how you could make a billion dollars by being peaceable. And so we don’t consider or study the means of peace, or make them available to our leaders. We speak well of peace, we say we want it, we have paid the lives of innumerable other people and unaccountable wealth supposedly to get it, but we seem not to mind, we seem not to notice, that all we have got for so much loss, for so long, is more war.

GO: Many U.S. Christians feel a burden to protect and help Iraqi Christians put in danger because of ISIS. What do you see as the balance here—between compassion for those who suffer persecution and focusing our attentions on the troubles in our own neighborhoods?

WB: Of course Christians want to kill the enemies of Christians. How could this not be so when Christians have so often and so happily killed other Christians? But it is remarkable and disturbing that Christians were pointedly instructed by Christ not to do this. In most of historical and institutional Christianity there appears to be a void where should have appeared Christ’s requirement that we should love, bless, do good to, and pray for our enemies, and forgive those who offend us. In order to end war, somebody, some nation, would have to stop fighting. In order to stop fighting there would need to be an alternative, something to do instead. After 2,000 years all Christian nations and most churches have found nothing preferable to war.

Only a few marginal Christians have dared to think that Christianity calls for the radical neighborhood, servanthood, love, and forgiveness that Christ taught. I agree with them, and much against my nature I have tried to make my thoughts consent. I do not say this with confidence.

GO: The localist movement seems to get a lot of bipartisan support, at least when it comes to supporting farmers’ markets and buying local. What do you think of the “locavore” movement? Do you think it could branch into a deeper philosophical, cultural, and economic conservatism?

WB: Though “local” and “movement” are almost a contradiction in terms, we do seem to have, in this country and in others, the substantial beginning of such a movement. As you suggest, it is so far limited to the promotion of local consumption of locally-grown food. Its founding premise, as I understand it, is that a local supply of food is (or, if fully developed, would be) more secure, more democratic in scale, cheaper, fresher, and healthier than food supplied by distant producers dependent upon long-distance transportation. A local food economy obviously also would strengthen the local economy as a whole and therefore the local community.

This possibility is extendable to local economies of energy, forest products, and to appropriately scaled industries adding value to the produce of the local countryside. As the local economy grew and diversified, the local people would become dependent on it, and would become, in effect, a lobby for the sustainable use of local sources.

It is important to understand, and to be grateful, that this movement is diametrically opposed to the “global economy” (much older than its present name) which exists for the purpose of extracting everything of value from every locality and gathering it into fewer and fewer hands.

I did once write an essay, “In Distrust of Movements,” and I will maintain my distrust, which is to say that I will attempt to weigh, as fairly as I can, any movement’s aims against its results.

GO: Partisanship is often, it seems, a national-level stance, whereas agreement seems easier to find on a local, particular level. Could localism serve as an antidote to partisanship and schismatic politics?

WB: I think so. People speaking in good faith of what they know and love, in the presence of those things, are likely to find that they have a common ground, literally and figuratively. This has happened in conversations between conservationists and ranchers.

GO: You’ve written, “Television has greatly accelerated the process, begun long ago, by which many communities have been atomized and congealed into one public.” How has the Internet exacerbated this dilemma? Is it possible to cultivate community through or despite technology, or do you think the two are antithetical?

WB: I don’t, on purpose, see much television, and my acquaintance with social media is at secondhand. What I know is that when neighbors replace local stories with stories from television, and when they sit in the house and watch television instead of talking on front porches, a profound disintegration has taken place. And I know it is impossible to talk to somebody who is “telecommunicating” with somebody who is absent.

The usefulness of electronic communication to cultivate community, I think, is tightly limited. It may be useful in emergencies, useful to people who are sick and shut in, etc. But community is not made just by communication. It is a practical circumstance. It is composed of people who have a place in common. But it is made by people’s willingness to be neighbors, good and faithful servants, to one another. It survives by its members’ recognition of their need for one another, if only to keep the small children from getting lost or run over, or to keep their trash out of the streams and roads. My guess is that a healthy community would be indivisible from its own, its local, economy.

GO: Many believe that marriage as an institution is no longer uniquely valuable in modern society. If a couple lives together, sharing a faithful commitment to each other, that is seen as enough. What would your response be to such a claim? What role can marriage play on a communal level?

WB: I don’t think modern society is a proper context for evaluating marriage. Modern society supplies the statistics of divorce and the attendant reasons and lamentations. Modern America knows that divorce is good for business, and a marriage that makes a reasonably productive and self-sufficient household economy is bad for business. At the least, marriage is made by vows and the implied effort may certainly make [a couple’s] marriage valuable to themselves. Its value may be extended, even increased, within the circumstances and influence of a family and a community, if the couple has a family and a community. But there is an aura of comedy hanging about Christian conservatives, who have stood silently by while corporate (Christian!) industrialism has broken the old coherences of family and community, and who now come out sweating and shouting in favor of “traditional marriage.”

GO: You have described yourself as a “forest Christian,” and as a “marginal Christian.” What are the primary reasons you have distanced yourself from a particular church or denomination? What are your biggest concerns with the modern Christian church?

WB: I’ve called myself a “forest Christian” because on Sunday mornings when the weather is favorable, my vocation (as it seems to me) has led me to the woods. I call myself a “marginal Christian” because I’m pretty much a literalist. I think, for example, that Jesus meant literally the imperatives I mentioned [above]. I don’t think their embarrassment can be lightened by interpretation. As a literalist, I can’t allay my unhappiness, for example, with Christ’s killing the barren fig tree (Matthew 21:19) or his condemnation of the wedding guest who showed up without a proper garment (Matthew 22:13). And I deplore entirely the racism and genocide in some passages of the Old Testament (Joshua 6:21, for example), and what I take to be their bad influence on American history.
Why have I distanced myself from any particular denomination? If I were to apply on the condition that I would attend only in bad weather, and that I have founded my faith on some passages of the Bible selected by me, I think I should be refused.

The core tenets [of Christianity], I think, are an undiscriminating neighborliness, help to “the least of these my brethren,” love in response to hate, mindfulness of the present rather than the future, peaceability, forgiveness, justice, and above justice mercy.

My concern about modern Christianity? I don’t know when, why, or how it happened, but at some time the mainstream denominations put themselves in charge of the Sunday job of accrediting people for admission to Heaven, turning the workdays, the human economy, and the material creation over to the materialists. And so it became possible for people to commit their souls to God while participating in an economy dedicated to the swiftest possible extraction and consumption of everything it values in God’s world, with unlimited collateral damage to all creatures, humans included, that it does not value.

Once this desecration of creation, of life itself, becomes conventional economic practice, then the submersion of the Gospel in nationalism and the waging of Christian warfare readily follows. Once war is accepted as the normal condition of human, including Christian, life, then spying upon citizens, imprisonment without indictment or trial, torture of prisoners, and all the malpractice of a tyrannical “security” evidently follow and are justified by leaders. If the life of the poorest being that crawls on the earth is not respected as a great and holy mystery, then it may be that humans go “free” of all limits, become disoriented, and are truly unable to find themselves.

GO: How do you think your work reflects deeper Christian principles?

WB: In my work I have tried to understand and defend the possibility of an enduring community, assuming that such a community could not be exclusive but would include all the local neighborhood of creatures—from the rocks, the water, and the air to the microorganisms in the soil to the plants and animals to the humans—within human respect and care. I know that my effort is far from clear enough or complete enough. Maybe it “reflects” Christian principles enough to be called Christian, but I can’t be judge of that.

GO: Which thinkers and writers have particularly inspired your political thought?

WB: Mere political thought has to do, I suppose, with how to get elected or how to get power. In a larger and better sense, political thought is a continuous asking how best to conduct oneself as a member of a community or a polity. We have a surplus of the smallest political thought and not nearly enough of the larger.

I don’t think I can isolate my political thought, imperfect and incomplete as I’m sure it is, from my thoughts that are not political. But I can list a number of writers or writings that have influenced my thoughts about public issues.

To begin with I have tried, especially in my essays, never to contradict the Gospels, the prologue of the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. I may have strayed, but my intention has been to accept those writings as a sort of boundary.

Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience seems to me to give an essential definition of citizenship. Just as essential, I think, is Martin Luther King’s understanding that we have rights only insofar as we share them with all others.

I have relied always on Thomas Jefferson’s advocacy for “the small landholders.” But in that, Jefferson has confirmed for me both the outcrops of agrarianism in literature going back to ancient times and the more continuous culture of agrarianism that came to me chiefly from my father but also from many other farmers.

For 50 years I have turned again and again to the instructions of J. Russell Smith, Sir Albert Howard, Aldo Leopold, and their followers on the proper use and care of the land. My political and other thoughts are grounded both in their work and here in my own place. Land is a most urgent public issue, though not (yet?) a political one.

The most strictly political influence on my work and life is still the tobacco program that began operation under the New Deal in 1940. This program—locally the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association—combined price supports with production control, was confirmed many times by the votes of the growers, and was run at minimal and finally at no public cost. The crop, of course, has been impossible to defend for the last 50 years, but the program was an exemplary government service. It did for a large number of farm people what they had tried to do, and for substantive reasons could not do, for themselves. It preserved the small farmers of our area for 60 years. This program was unrelentingly hated and opposed and finally beaten by “conservatives,” who prefer to subsidize the overproduction of grain crops, the great surpluses of which are oppressive, when not lethal, to farmers but are the taxpayers’ gift to agribusiness corporations.

Maybe I’m a Jeffersonian liberal. Maybe I’m a Burkean conservative. But I read John Lukacs’s definition of a reactionary (in Confessions of an Original Sinner) with a sense of compatibility and much relief.

Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor of The American Conservative.

Considering Valentine’s Day

It seems impossible to get away from Fifty Shades of Grey these days. On Facebook and Twitter, as well as every news site, there are articles expressing their opinions on the film, whether they be for or against it. I don’t intend to offer an opinion of the film, but do recommend The New Yorker‘s review, as well as Emma Green’s article on the troubling abusive elements in Fifty Shades.

But as the movie is released in conjunction with Valentine’s Day, it makes one consider what love really looks like in today’s society, what sorts of relationships we crave and desire. The obviously marketed connection between Fifty Shades and today’s holiday is, at least, indicative of the things we associate with love, and of the increasingly prevalent equation of “love” with “eros” (and nothing else). As Leah Libresco wrote in her article about our “starved for touch” culture, “The friendzone is treated as a wasteland not just because we treat sex as an idol, but because friendship and non-sexual affection is written off as irrelevant. Casual dating has been replaced by casual sex; platonic touch has been eclipsed by erotic signalling.”

But even romantic relationships have been sadly degraded by this shift toward eros-as-love: because in the wake of such a shift, affection is constrained to the merely sexual, and our ability to demonstrate affection becomes sadly reduced. The simple sweetness of flirtation, admiration, even intellectual conversation, all become secondary to sex.

Several years ago, when my 96-year-old great-grandfather was ill, my family drove to his little farm house in Idaho. Great-Grandma Iva, who died before I was born, had been a brilliant musician. So my sister and I played some hymns on her old upright piano, and then Grandpa Walter shared some memories, like he always did. But then he did something different—he got out his love notes.

They were ones Grandma Iva used to write for him, on little slips and bits of paper. She would tuck them inside his lunch box. Nothing especially long, elegant, or sexy: just small, sweet reminders of love. Sometimes he had written little affectionate responses on the back. He kept them beside his chair, all those little notes.

How many couples in today’s world write love notes to each other? How many would be able to read those love notes to their grandchildren or great-grandchildren? Yet those notes kept alive in my teenage heart a hope: that love was real, and love could last.

Indeed, it often seems to be these little things, the tiny notes and little reminders of affection, that keep a love alive. My dad would always put sticky notes on my mom’s mirror: with a simple heart, or an “I love you.” Such tiny displays of thoughtfulness often take us by surprise—they fill us with warmth, even hope.

This is what I think of when I think of Valentine’s Day: small gestures of abundant love, a sweetness that can seep into the fabric of our lives, reminders of love that keep us going when the days get long and everything seems dreary or dark. It’s an opportunity to show sincere affection—and not just to a romantic love, but also to the countless friends and family who brighten our days: to surprise them with a classy or silly card and remind them how much they matter. We all need those reminders, sometimes. I have a friend named Chelsea, who during the most difficult semester of college, bought me bright yellow daffodils and a sweet card, and stuck them outside my door. We’ve worked on countless projects, experienced dozens of happy memories together. But when I think of Chelsea, I think of those daffodils.

Such gestures often seem difficult because they’re so small: because our world runs at a frenzied pace, and we forget to stop the clamorous procession. We get sucked into the fabric of routine, and forget to be creative—to reach past the self, and think of the other.

But it’s the love notes in your lunch box and the daffodils outside your door that make days brighter—that turn the doldrums of winter into Valentine’s Day. And it’s this idea of Valentine’s Day that has sadly eroded, in a culture that prizes eros over every other sort of love.


The Art of Being Neighborly

Most Americans experience the frustration of an uncleared sidewalk during the winter: trudging through knee-deep snow, wet and cold, we always wonder which neighbor didn’t do their duty—who didn’t clear their patch of sidewalk? According to CityLab reporter Lydia Lee, one community in Ann Arbor, Michigan has fixed this problem—by pooling their money, buying a tractor named “SnowBuddy,” and organizing a volunteer force to man the snowplow:

It took only a couple of weeks to raise the $18,000 in startup funds that the board of the SnowBuddy (now registered as a formal nonprofit) had set as their first goal. … This winter, the SnowBuddy tractor has already made its 8-hour circuit around the neighborhood’s sidewalks about 10 times. In addition to 12 volunteer tractor drivers, others have signed up for the “windrow patrol”: They shovel away the piles of ice and snow pushed up by road snowplows that block the ends of sidewalks at intersections.

This story brought me back to almost an exact year ago, when a snow storm bellowed through D.C. and Northern Virginia, leaving driveways and sidewalks caked with snow. My husband was gone, and I was about to leave on a 9-hour road trip.

But when I walked out to my car, I found it buried in thick snow on every side. Young apartment-living individual that I was, I had no snow shovel. So I began kicking and clawing and wrestling with the snow. As you can imagine, this method wasn’t very useful. Just as I was getting very tired and wet, a stranger came over, and shoveled my car to freedom. He beckoned for me to get in the car, start it, and make sure I could pull out. Just as I pulled out onto the road—free at last—with a smile and a wave, the stranger was gone. I didn’t even have time to get out and say thank you.

This stranger had mastered the art of neighborliness: the art of anonymous friendship, offered without expectation of return. And that kind, mysterious individual has remained with me ever since—a reminder of the anonymous affection that we so often can offer, but choose not to. We usually have a plethora of excuses: lack of time or resources, a frantic schedule and needy kids, thousands of weighty concerns already burdening our minds.

There is something else, too, that often prevents us from reaching out: fear. It’s a simple yet potent ingredient that can poison all our interactions. It’s the sort of thing that infects many American towns. It prevents parents from letting their kids accept homemade treats (or even wrapped candy) on Halloween. It’s the sort of thing that results in us calling the cops, rather than reaching out and helping our neighbor. As a country, we are slowly un-learning the art of neighborliness.

But stories like Lee’s are a welcome reminder that, in truth, community rapport and neighborliness are still alive—in different places, and in different ways. Preventing the decline of neighborliness is not only possible: it is already happening in many neighborhoods, as people realize what they’ve lost.

We are a society obsessed with work, a society in which most gathering and fellowship now happens outside the home, at restaurants or bars or coffee shops. We’ve moved the crux of hospitality and fellowship away from the home and neighborhood, thus creating an empty vacuum in our local affections. We’ve spread our commutes further and further from our locales, making it increasingly difficult to spend time at home. Our churches are often a half hour, or an hour, away from our homes. We’ve structured lives in which the home and neighborhood are always secondary.

This often leads to a second dilemma: our society has become frightened and wary of the stranger, always assuming the worst. And while this is indeed necessary at times—especially, say, for a young woman traveling alone, or a child at the park—such fear also prevents us from offering, or from accepting, the friendship of a stranger. We become accustomed to viewing everyone around us with a wary eye, from metro riders to the local coffee barista. This wariness and fear is a major impediment to neighborliness: how can we love the people around us if we’re constantly expecting them to knock on our front door with an ax in tow? Perhaps we watch too many horror movies; perhaps we have let rational fear morph into irrational terror. But regardless, such hostilities are absolutely antithetical to hospitality.

The local community often is not the fearsome place we think it is—or at least, if we started investing in it, it could be that even the darkest of neighborhoods would begin to change. But such investment requires a subjugation of our desires and schedule to serve our neighbors. As the aforementioned story and the CityLab article point out, the work of neighborliness is often thankless or unpaid work. It may often be offered to someone you may never see again. Thus, it requires a purposeful sacrifice of the self, as well as a trust that the resources, time, and love offered will not return void—but that, rather, it is indeed “more blessed to give than to receive.”

Interestingly, the SnowBuddy organizer, Paul Tinkerhess, thinks that the job of clearing sidewalks should eventually be handed back to the city:

While gratified by the community response, Tinkerhess would ultimately like to see the city take on the job of clearing sidewalks. “We want to make an example of what a neighborhood looks like through the winter if its walks are all kept clear,” he says. “But equally important, we want to encourage our city officials to consider taking this task from us, since they are the rightful administrators of the transportation corridors.”

But what Tinkerhess and the SnowBuddy are encouraging in their endeavor is something that a city-organized clearing system could never replace: a network of community, a vibrant “little platoon,” characterized by a true understanding of what it means to be neighborly.


The News We Need

“Junk news is like junk food—a quick bite that fails to nourish.” Thus writes Sarah Smarsh for Aeon Magazine, in a thoughtful article about the news we need—versus the news we crave and feed upon in our modern media world:

Today you have probably encountered more news of the world outside your immediate experience than most humans did in an entire lifetime. Did you feel much? Probably not. Information without context strikes the mind but peters out before the heart. When you did feel something from the news, it likely was because your empathy sniffed out some humanity – you saw your child in a bullet-torn body in Ferguson, Missouri, or your prejudice in the man who pulled the trigger – rather than because the news report itself was humane.

… Page-views suggest we crave short, informative text, ‘clickbaited’ with images of half-naked or bleeding bodies – even faster variations on the TV soundbites I once helped locate on tape. The marketplace has something to tell us. But to say that the 24/7, quick-and-dirty news cycle exists because people want it is incomplete logic. Poor people in a blighted urban food desert – devoid of garden or grocer but rife with Burger Kings and Dairy Queens – don’t consume fast food every day because their bodies are hungry for French fries. They consume it because they’re hungry for food. Its lack of nutrient density often means they have to keep eating – creating a confusing 21st century conundrum for the evolved human body: to be at once obese and malnourished.

In a media landscape of zip-fast reports as stripped of context as a potato might be stripped of fibre, most news stories fail to satiate. We don’t consume news all day because we’re hungry for information – we consume it because we’re hungry for connection. That’s the confusing conundrum for the 21st century heart and mind: to be at once over-informed and grasping for understanding.

Most journalists (myself included) have always viewed “hard news stories”—the bread and butter of newspapers and broadcast journalism—as the staple of our journalism world. It’s the condensed, clear, concise report that people need in order to be informed. But if Smarsh is right, “hard news” should actually be secondary to feature stories—to the reading of those pieces that we hashtag #longreads on Twitter, or save in our browser for a weekend’s perusal. She proposes that the stories we ignore could be the sustenance we need to develop a more holistic view of the world:

… Narratives are familiar to us as magazine stories, documentaries, the occasional newspaper series. But in our lifetimes they’ve been secondary, a Sunday supplement to daily news. What if they were primary? What if, by examining our news sources with the same scrutiny we afford food labels, we chose stories that were, in fact, stories? We have now the opportunity to plug our digital devices less into the fast information trough and more into whole stories that better match the moments they describe. With a conscious effort to do so, how might our world change?

Difficult realities would still dominate the news, perhaps, but we’d recognise them as human experiences rather than abstract issues. Nourished by nuance, we wouldn’t crave another bite from our cell phones every minute. Our news stories would be no more or less accurate, but they’d be more true – and the human beings they feed, more full.

I agree with many things in Smarsh’s article. It’s a thought-provoking read, one that reminds us why we need “news”: not to fill our already-frenzied minds with more clamor, but rather to gain a broader, more complete understanding of the world. If news stories are giving us a deficient or half-baked understanding of our neighborhood, country, or cosmos, then they are not serving their true purpose. Long-form journalism gives us the ability to cover serious, complex stories with the depth and specificity they require. One example of this might be The Daily Beast’s recent article about a Columbia student accused of rape: it’s thorough, balanced, thoughtfully-reported. It takes a very complex topic, one that has been badly reported on in the past, and gives it the attention it deserves.

However, I do not think that such thorough coverage is always needed. When reporting on local news, especially, there are a variety of simple news subjects than can be covered with minimal detail and simple concision. Minor traffic accidents or mishaps, weekend events, day-to-day politics in the state or nation’s capital: these aren’t things that deserve 5,000 words of coverage. But they are still important, I would argue, for readers to know—for them to “connect” with their neighborhood and their world.

It doesn’t seem that Smarsh is condemning these sorts of stories—she is noticing instead that journalists have a habit of taking serious, tragic stories (like the plight of Iraqi refugees, or the Ferguson protests) and giving them a short, quick writeup. Why? Because shorter, more gripping stories often get more clicks on Facebook and Twitter. Because they grab the attention of a distraction-prone readership. Because sometimes, we as journalists think we don’t have the time, resources, or energy to do the necessary research.

So the difference that I think Smarsh would argue for is that journalists need to become more thoughtful curators. We need to understand the difference between these two types of stories—and we need to recognize that the latter (features) are important for long-term knowledge, while also being especially suitable for the serious stories that fill our world. This doesn’t mean getting rid of hard news altogether—but it does mean consigning it to its proper place. Journalists are not merely meant to spew information out into the public sphere. We are meant to serve as bridges: to connect readers with previously unknown people, ideas, or information. This role often requires that we write more than 500 words—it may even require that we venture away from our computers, and out into the real world, as often as we can.

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The Way We Eat Now

Andrea Della Monica has a rather heated and interesting article at TIME magazine on the classism and superiority often demonstrated by the organic movement:

I hate the whole organic food movement. Notice I said “movement,” because it is the mindset that is perverse and insufferable. My hatred stems from the fact that this trend is a repudiation of my own working class background. Eating organic is eating more expensively and, in my opinion, often unnecessarily.

… People who eat primarily organic are the same hipsters who make their little ones toil in community gardens after picking them up from child care cooperatives. What they can’t harvest, they buy in small shops that sell two dozen kinds of honey, and enough soy and tofu to choke a cow. … And as for cows, they are regarded as one moo short of pure evil by people who fear the possibility they may be treated with antibodies or growth hormones and steroids. The organic foodies raise children who may never experience the lush, velvety feel of a milk mustache. Instead, they get the flat, chalky aftertaste of some almond-based alternative milk product. Rather than dunk Oreos rich with refined sugars, they wash down carob biscuits baked with agave.

A lot of the points that Monica makes are very true. The “organic movement” carries with it a sort of superiority that is impossible to ignore. Those who shop exclusively at Whole Foods can develop a snobbish attitude toward those who don’t. It’s borne, perhaps, out of a sense of moral superiority in some ways: in a world that deifies health, striving for a healthy body becomes an almost religious pursuit. We fall prey to the legalistic, holier-than-thou eating that Monica protests. We become susceptible to ridiculous excesses, like the drinking of expensive “organic birch tree water.” Monica is also correct to note that the organic movement doesn’t always make a demonstrable difference in the health factor of a product, as this Washington Post article points out.

But I’d like to refute a couple of the other claims Monica makes: first, the myth that eating healthy has to be expensive. She is right to point out that buying organic products can be expensive—but even so, there are ways in which to minimize costs while maximizing health. The answer really lies in 1) cooking from scratch, and 2) knowing what to buy.

Some of the most expensive products (organic or otherwise) that you can buy at the store are those that are already prepped or processed: organic cookies, kale chips, granola, etc. Buying these things is often egregiously more expensive than simply making them from scratch would be. Making kale chips is easy, and takes very little work. Baking a batch of cookies decreases the cost considerably.

But many people often don’t know how to cook healthy, cheap meals—even though it can be quite simple. My mother-in-law is one of the healthiest, and cheapest, cooks I know. Her meal staples are garbanzo and black beans, brown and white rice, oatmeal, chicken, and eggs. She buys flour in bulk, and bakes her bread from scratch. She grows her own vegetable garden in the summer, and cans tomatoes and pickles veggies for the winter. She uses a lot of dark leafy greens (like kale, chard, mustard greens), mushrooms, and onions—while more expensive fruits and vegetables are a rare treat.

But it’s also true that she makes the best cinnamon rolls I’ve tasted, and my father-in-law the most delicious burgers. They eat healthy 80 percent of the time, and enjoy their treats—homemade coffee cake, pizza, mac and cheese, etc.—the rest of the time.

And this is second point that I’d like to make: not all healthy eating has to display the same excesses and superiority that Monica perceives in the organic movement. This is a false idea—one borne out of the aforementioned deification of healthy, a sort of idolizing that makes it impossible to achieve any sort of balance or moderation. There is a false dichotomy that we often establish between healthy eating, and fattening foods. We draw lines in the sand, and refuse to cross them. The organic “foodies,” says Monica, are unwilling to give their children Oreos, ever—and sadly, this is often true. Many are unwilling to consume any dairy product, be it butter or milk. But oftentimes, this attitude arises out of a fallacious conception of what is healthy, and what is not. Various diets and movements have touted that certain foods are always bad for you: the paleo movement cuts out all grains and legumes, the raw diet decries cooked foods. But these attitudes are often guilty of excess, of painting food with black-and-white dogmatism. The only reason we as an American populace are struggling with these things, be they carbs or fats or sugars, is because we have adopted an excessive attitude toward them in the past—and are now reaping the consequences. But we cannot fix this dilemma by now abstaining from all the dairy products, all the french fries, all the cookies.

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters that there are two types of gluttony: one of much, and one of little. Modern versions of gluttony amongst sophisticated people, he wrote, are often characterized by close attention to diet and an insistence on less of one thing or another—even when it puts other people at an inconvenience. Such a person, writes Screwtape, is wholly enslaved to sensuality, but doesn’t realize it because “the quantities involved are small.” Yet “what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern?” This seems to be exactly the disposition that irks Monica so.

It seems that the best path is the moderate one: one in which we enjoy healthy foods, but aren’t afraid to splurge once in a while—be it on alcohol, cheese, pizza, french fries, brownies, or some other “unhealthy food.” We ought to savor the fruits of the earth, their wholesome goodness—but we ought also, then, to appreciate the occasional indulgence, too. It needn’t be either/or: the question is, how do we act in a moderate and virtuous fashion toward what we eat? As I’ve written in the past, virtue is about a modest pursuit of the mean, a sweet enjoyment of life that is considerate and moderate. No matter the diet regimen you embrace (or reject), your life will not fall into health until it falls into balance.

Perhaps much of the resentment Monica feels would be fixed by this more moderate attitude toward health. But it’s also true that there is a relational problem here that must be fixed: namely, a lack of charity in our social interactions. We are often guilty of an ungracious disposition toward those who eat differently than us. Those who eat organic foods or enjoy the paleo diet ought to respect and love those who do not. Those who eschew dieting methods or healthy foods ought to respect and love those who do.

Why? Because we are more than the sum of our physical parts: we are more than sentient beings with appetites. We have minds, souls, feelings—we come from different life circumstances, struggle with different weaknesses and sins. We have different budgets, different lifestyle convictions. Food should never create a barrier of resentment between family members, friends, or neighbors. Perhaps, if this were true, articles like Monica’s wouldn’t have to be written.


The Arab Spring and Madisonian Factions

January 25 marked four years since the beginning of Egypt’s Arab Spring, and the massive demonstrations that followed. But Eric Trager notes in a Politico article that Egypt’s uprising didn’t really work—it didn’t bring the peace and prosperity that its people were hoping for:

The story of Egypt’s 2011 revolt is often told in terms of the youthful revolutionary activists, who used their street smarts and social media savvy to mobilize the masses from multiple directions and overwhelm the police in downtown Cairo, as I witnessed on that day. But Egypt’s “Arab Spring” is equally the story of an autocratic state’s breakdown. …

Four years later, this remains the ultimate legacy of Egypt’s uprising. While the activists’ revolutionary dreams were never realized, Egypt’s state broke down further, and remains quite broken today. As a result of this experience, many Egyptians are so fearful of change that they are now content to live with their broken state, since they view it as preferable to further collapse.

The problems that existed before the Arab Spring have hardly gone away—as Ursula Lindsey writes for The Arabist,

I appreciate the desire to offer some encouragement to Egyptian citizens who supported January 25 … I also agree that we are not just back to the old days — there was a huge rupture, and even if the hopes it raised were defeated, the repressive techniques employed to achieve this (media propaganda; Saudi subsidies; massive repression; a shameful politicization of the judiciary) are destabilizing and seemingly untenable in the long-term. But I take a much darker view of the kind of days we’re in. People used to say that the revolution had brought down the wall of fear and it could never be back up; I think the army and police have done a great reconstruction job. Virtually every institution in Egypt is worse off than it was four years ago; a big segment of society has been complicit – out of fear, ignorance, self-interest — with the falsification of its own history and with granting impunity for state injustice and violence.

Why did Egypt’s uprising fail so badly? I remember when the Arab Spring was first stirring and growing four years ago: at the time, I was reading The Federalist Papers, particularly focusing on Madison’s writings in Federalist #10. Madison wrote about the dangers presented to democracy by faction and insurrection—but he believed geographical distance, coupled with societal and cultural differences, would counter the potential dangers presented by factious movements. The distances caused by these divisions (in regards to interest, time, and opportunity) would prevent people from 1) gathering into too large an interest group, and/or 2) acting out of passion rather than considered reason.

Madison could not have imagined the impact that modern technology and social media could have on the mitigating power of geographic and cultural disparities. The Arab Spring was a pop cultural movement perpetuated by the uniting force of Twitter and Facebook. In its populist appeal, it overcame a lot of the cultural and geographic controls that help prevent tyrannical movements. And in its wake, some of Madison’s worst fears came true.

One cannot ignore the effect the Arab Spring had on Egypt’s minorities: specifically, its Coptic Christian population. Egypt’s Copts have undergone a lot of persecution in the wake of the Arab Spring—the passionate belligerence that emanated from Tahrir Square was not just directed toward the government. The word “democracy,” according to Egypt’s rebels, constituted something quite different from the representative democracy the West expected and envisioned. The rebels wanted majority rule—but without the mitigating factors presented by temperance, prudence, and a diversity of leadership, the movement quickly escalated toward fundamentalism and Sharia law. It did not help that the rebels were strongly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafites, and other fundamentalist groups. Of course, there were more liberal voices in the Arab Spring movement—especially early on—but they were drowned, as time progressed, by the majority influence. As Madison wrote, they were a “majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” (Emphasis added.)

This shift was partly a result of the dominant media voices, serving to unify the Egyptian populace. But it was also partly resultant of something Alexis de Tocqueville explained very well in Democracy in America: namely, that there must be specific mores in place for democracy to work. You have to have a specific sort of people: people who are energetic in the exercise of their principles and rights as citizens, who are appropriately skeptical of authority, and who are prudent—considerate of future generations, not just present concerns. These things, unfortunately, were not present in Egypt—an understanding and appreciation for the common good, for the diverse needs and interests of the entire people, was not present.

Thus, Egypt has, in many ways, reverted to the authoritarian rule it suffered from before. In a sense, this has been a relief for minorities like the Coptic Christians, who are hoping for a more tolerant and safe future. But it is also tragic to see that those who clamored for democracy only helped bring about chaos and persecution, followed by an almost complete reversal to how things were before.

Egypt is not alone in this struggle. Our own society, bound together by social media and increasingly populist inclinations, can often exercise an influence that is quite tyrannical in its influence and scope. So how do we mitigate this problem?

First, we must emphasize the education and exercise of virtue. Without a virtuous populace—as Tocqueville wrote—democracy cannot work. This would include education in the importance of religious freedom and respect, both of which enable us to love our neighbor, even when he or she disagrees with us.

Part of this education must also consist in cultivating a populace interested in the common good: not merely looking at one’s own temporary interests, but focusing also on the long-term needs of one’s community and nation. This is something that Tocqueville thought democracies were most prone to lose, because their very construction encouraged short-term thinking, fixation on the passions, and consumerism. He believed that religion could counter this by providing people with a more long-term view: a desire to seek out the good of future generations, not merely the goods of the current moment. But, as we have seen in Egypt and even recently in Paris, we need a certain type of religious observance in order for this to work—one that, as stated above, encompasses respect and love for the other, one that is truly desirous of the common good.

Egypt has suffered much in the past four years, in the chaos and upheaval that followed the Arab Spring. But the lessons they—and we—have learned in its aftermath can truly make a difference in the way we understand and embrace revolution in the future. It can help us understand what, exactly, democracy is—and what sort of mores and values it needs in order to work.

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Support Your Local Paper

Do you read a local newspaper? If you don’t, perhaps you should—new research by GWU professor Danny Hayes and American University professor Jennifer Lawless demonstrates that the local press can have a significant impact on the civic life of local citizens. Hayes describes his findings in the Washington Post:

When the content of local news deteriorates — as has happened nationwide in an era of newsroom austerity — so do citizen knowledge and participation.

…When we merge our newspaper data with survey data from the 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we find that voters in districts with less news coverage know less about the candidates running for the House. For instance, as the volume of news coverage declines, citizens are less able to identify candidates as liberals or conservatives. They are also less likely to say that they will cast a ballot in the House contest.

… [L]ocal news contributes to citizens’ ability — or lack thereof — to form judgments about politicians. … We find that this is true not only for the least politically engaged voters but also those who are typically more attentive to politics. Where the news environment is impoverished, engagement is diminished for all citizens.

Hayes contrasts this to nationally-reported news, which—via its “vast expansion of news and entertainment options”—has actually perpetuated a political-involvement “gap,” as the less politically-interested merely watch ESPN or HGTV, while the political junkies soak up MSNBC and FOX News to their hearts’ content. There is little interest in or knowledge of local politics at all.

“This development has potentially profound implications,” writes Hayes. “To the extent that a knowledgeable and participatory citizenry is a marker of a healthy political system [read Alexis de Tocqueville for more on this], the demise of local news should raise concerns about the operation of electoral democracy. An anemic news environment makes it more difficult for citizens to hold their local representatives accountable.”

Hayes’ comments reminded me of some remarks made byNew York Times Magazine’sMark Leibovich at an event I attended a couple years ago, at which he encouraged young journalists to embrace “rootedness” and community, rather than seeking the popularity and charisma of Washington, D.C. “Being immersed in small communities gives one an exposure to how people interact, a more hands-on approach to things,” Leibovich said in response to an email on the subject. “Plus, I think it’s more interesting.”

But small-town reporting is hardly glamorous or financially rewarding—oftentimes, it’s tedious and uninteresting. So how do we keep the small press alive?

NPR shared some ideas on keeping newspapers alive in a 2012 news article: their advice regarding the importance of diversified and interesting digital ads is definitely worth considering—yet they  note that, at the time, only 40 percent of newspapers were “devoting significant efforts to selling ‘smart’ or targeted advertising — the category widely predicted to eventually ‘dominate’ local markets, the study finds.” Developing a tech-savvy, targeted online presence is something that many local media sites are going to have to do in order to keep up with larger brands—and in order to keep drawing a younger audience.

But to grow their audience, it’s also important that a newspaper carves out its niche: be fully local, fully involved, with a strong reporting presence in its town/county. The success of this method is demonstrated by a column Bill Kauffman wrote last year about his town’s online newspaper, The Batavian:

The God Who fits people to places brought Howard Owens to Batavia. … The idea was to launch an online news site in a small city whose daily newspaper did not have a significant Internet presence. An obsessive grower of roses, Howard had visited the Cooperative Extension in Batavia and found a “small city that was surrounded by nothing but farmland. I liked that isolation.” He persuaded his boss to make this his journalistic laboratory. A year into the experiment, GateHouse bailed, selling The Batavianto Howard and his wife Billie.

Five years of 12-hour-a-day and seven-day-a-week workloads later, Owens has embedded The Batavian in the public mind. From his office on the second floor of the Masonic Temple on Main Street, Howard covers local government and politics, arts, culture, sports, business, crime, the natural world: all that is beautiful or ugly within his beat of Genesee County.

Owen’s experiment worked, as Kauffman notes with an anecdote at the beginning of the column: when anything happens in the town, people “check The Batavian” for news. But what this means practically is that Owens has to dedicate himself, 24/7, to his local beat. And this is why, though Kauffman and Owens both hope others will embrace and support “hyperlocal” news, they aren’t sure it will happen—“Most people don’t want to assume the risk and work that hard for something with no definitive payoff,” Owens says. “I believe the opportunity is there. Most small and mid-size cities are underserved for news by their existing local news organizations. Opportunity abounds for those willing to take the plunge.”

This takes us back full-circle to Leibovich’s advice, and the dilemma presented by Lawless and Hayes. We need smart, talented, driven reporters to “go home” and cover the local beat, to breathe life into state, regional, and town-centric newspapers. It is grueling, time-consuming work, often lacking the glamor or prestige of national news reporting. But it’s also incredibly fulfilling. It is about relationship: cultivating community through a developing awareness of one’s town or county, through a deepening understanding of the issues, concerns, and joys that make up its chief concerns.

This also means, though, that we need more news readers to do the difficult thing, and support their local paper: even though free news is available online, even though the New York Times may have better crosswords, even though many of us hate subscribing to things. The local press is worth keeping alive.

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The Problem With Online Dating

An increasing number of Americans are looking to social media and online dating sites like Tinder or OKCupid to meet potential romantic partners. In a Friday column, David Brooks reviews the data presented by the book Dataclysm, written by the creator of OKCupid:

People who date online are not shallower or vainer than those who don’t. Research suggests they are broadly representative. It’s just that they’re in a specific mental state. They’re shopping for human beings, commodifying people. They have access to very little information that can help them judge if they will fall in love with this person. They pay ridiculous amounts of attention to things like looks, which have little bearing on whether a relationship will work. …

When online daters actually meet, an entirely different mind-set has to kick in. If they’re going to be open to a real relationship, they have to stop asking where this person rates in comparison to others and start asking, can we lower the boundaries between self and self. They have to stop thinking in individual terms and start feeling in rapport terms.

Brooks calls this “the enchantment leap”—when “something dry and utilitarian erupts into something passionate, inescapable and devotional.” The algorithmic relies on the measurable, and thus most often depends on the physical, as Brooks points out. Through apps like OKCupid and Tinder, we’ve learned to emphasize the temporary and the sensually gratifying in our pursuit of love.

But enchantment requires us to look beyond ourselves and our temporary desires—it requires us to give up control, or as Brooks puts it, to become “vulnerable.” Part of the reason we love quantification—of our love lives, our vocations, even our pastimes—is because we love having a sense of control, the reassurance of a pleasurable outcome. Even those of us who would never use online dating sites will still often Facebook-stalk someone before a date. We take the Meyers-Briggs personality test and various strengths-finder quizzes in order to determine whether we’ve picked the right job. We use Yelp to check every restaurant, pick movies via Rotten Tomatoes, use wine apps to purchase the perfect bottle. Because we are so anxious to control outcomes, we are unable to take any real risks. But we forget, in the midst of our controlling, that it is absolutely impossible to eliminate all risk. We forget that embracing our limits and vulnerability can actually bring us greater pleasure, greater adventure, and even greater closeness.

Our culture prizes quantification to the detriment of true intimacy, as well. Quantification destroys intimacy through its rigid measurements of human beings: measurements that cannot encompass the inner intricacies and contradictions that make us unique. Quantification requires open books: not mysterious, deep, changeable, thoughtful individuals. But we need mystery for true relational intimacy—because it is through the sharing of our deeper selves that we grow in love and devotion.

Quantification can destroy our very desire for the unique: seeking love through an algorithm necessitates that we look for some sort of golden mean, some perfect conglomeration of ideal attributes. Thus, we do not see Andrew or Carl—we see Andrew, the 70 percent match, or Carl, the 94 percent match. We do not see them as human beings: we see them as objects.

How do we re-capture an attitude of enchantment, a qualitative rather than quantitative pursuit of love? Brooks believes it will require a return to humanism, religion, and the humanities, “the great instructors of enchantment.” Countering algorithmic fixation requires a re-education of the American populace—teaching people how to see and prize the philosophical, spiritual, intellectual, and thus immeasurable characteristics that cannot be removed from our pursuit of love.

But a short-term answer to the algorithm dilemma can also be found in urging people to stop putting so much weight on numbers, studies, and quizzes. We are fascinated with Buzzfeed quizzes, personality tests, and scientific studies: enchanted by the prospect that reading from a print book improves your brain, that friendship is good for your health, that married people are financially better off. But so what? You should be reading because—BOOKS. You should have friends, because friendship is good, in and of itself, regardless of its personal repercussions. You should get married because whoever your potential spouse is—Andrew or Carl, Mary or Jane—you love them. It’s about taking the great leap of enchantment: seeing the other, and prizing them for who they are, in all their mystery and imperfection and potentiality. It’s about choosing to love a person, not an algorithm.


Defining Human Dignity Down

“As Americans, we respect human dignity,” President Obama said during his State of the Union speech Tuesday night. “It’s why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims … why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.”

Some noticed a marked absence from Obama’s list of humans worthy of respect or dignity:

The bill Carney references was, as Politico reporters Burgess Everett and Lauren French noted earlier this month, “an easy-to-explain proposal [Republicans] believe will animate their base without alienating swing voters who might be turned off by a frontal assault on Roe v. Wade.” The bill specifically targeted abortions that would happen during the 20th week, approximately halfway through a pregnancy—“the time at which anti-abortion activists maintain that unborn fetuses can feel pain,” wrote Everett and French. Although Americans are still split on the abortion issue, according to a 2014 Pew poll, Quinnipiac University found that 60 percent of Americans supported the 20-week ban.

The bill has now been pulled, reports Politico’s Jake Sherman, “after a revolt from a large swath of female members of Congress, who were concerned about language that said rape victims would not be able to get abortions unless they reported the incident to authorities.” This was also the reason the White House gave for disapproving of the bill: “[T]he provision that requires rape and incest survivors to report the crime … in order to have access to an abortion after the 20-week mark demonstrates a complete disregard for the women who experience sexual assault and the barriers they may face in reporting,” it said in a Tuesday press release.

But I do not think this was a conservative attempt to block suffering women from having an abortion. It was an attempt to offer life, as often as possible, to those denied life—to those who could experience extensive pain in the extermination of that life. Equating the pro-life position with anti-woman sentiment is unfair—not only to the deeper understanding of human dignity inherent in the pro-life position, but also to the countless women who are pro-life, and believe that it is an incredibly important issue for the health and flourishing of women. Making sure rape and incest survivors report their case to a law enforcement agency or child welfare authority wasn’t about being insensitive or cruel: it was about making sure that justice is procured for the victim, that they are able to receive ongoing support and care, all while preserving life.

Many of the difficulties of this debate are found in the fact that we have different definitions of “human dignity,” and what properly constitutes an issue deserving of that name. President Obama believes “women’s rights” are a human dignity issue, but he does not put “the rights of the unborn” under the same category. He defends the rights of rape victims, while denying the rights of a baby (or “fetus,” depending on the political language you prefer).

It seems that Obama’s use of the word “dignity” is dependent upon his definition of the most important human rights: choice, equality (of opportunity and treatment), justice, and tolerance. The examples he gave during Tuesday’s speech match those values.

But an older, perhaps more classical conception of human dignity reaches beyond the circumstantial, and speaks to the very core of who we are as human beings. It is founded upon the idea of human life as sacred, as imago dei, meaning that no matter the circumstances of a person’s life, he or she is precious and immeasurably valuable. This is perhaps the greatest of all equalizers: no matter the place or culture, the poverty or vulnerability, each life matters. And this is why, under this conception of human dignity, the unborn child cannot be left out.

The president indulged in additional terminological cherry-picking on Tuesday night when advocating for his “pro-family” policies. In actuality, his legislation only supports a specific type of family. He wants pro-family tax reform, “so long as the tax credit only pays for daycare and excludes families with a stay-at-home parent,” writes Ross Douthat.

Obama’s proposed “second-earner tax credit” is worth $500 for dual-income families in which the lower-income spouse earns between $10,000 and $120,000. He also called for expanding a tax credit for commercial child care—“a 50-percent tax credit for a parent’s first $2,000 in babysitting or daycare costs … available only for parents who use the child care to do paid work,” Carney wrote Wednesday [emphasis mine]. Obama defended this measure by saying that dual-income households incur “additional costs in the form of commuting costs, professional expenses, child care, and, increasingly, elder care … these work-related costs can contribute to a sense that work isn’t worth it, especially for parents of young children.”

But what about the stay-at-home mother, who realizes that—though she does all the kid-watching, driving, cleaning, cooking, shopping, and even schooling—her work isn’t “worth it,” in the eyes of her government? That her attempts to save money, invest in her children’s lives, and care for her home are somehow inferior to those of a mother working outside the home?

“Yes, it is costly for a mother to enter the workforce,” Carney notes. “But it is also costly for a mother to exit or stay out of the workforce. … Obama has decided that the cost of a mother returning to work and placing her children in daycare is something he wants to subsidize … he values working parents more than stay-at-home parents.”

Obama said, near the end of Tuesday’s speech, that’s he’s hoping for a more united and respectful political conversation this year, “one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.” Family policy issues are often characterized by just such controversy, stereotype, and belligerence.

Perhaps this is because we fear each other’s judgment, the implications of the views held by the “other side”—that, say, conservatives don’t care about women, or that liberals don’t care about unborn babies, that stay-at-home moms are lazy, or working mothers don’t care enough for their families. These are truly controversial, heated topics. We get angry and belligerent about these issues because they present us with fearful alternatives to our current modes of thinking, or current modes of life. They force us to ask moral or personal questions that are incredibly difficult to answer.

But it is because they are so important, because they mean so much to the American populace, that we should talk about them. It is because the lives of both babies and their mothers matter, that both stay-at-home moms and working moms matter, that we need to discuss and contend and work through these issues. Our discussions require empathy, understanding, and compassion.

The 20-week abortion ban was conservatives’ attempt to reach across the aisle: to, without presenting black-and-white ultimatums, present some of their views on human dignity to the American public. The American public answered in support, but the bill has now been lost, perhaps to a fear of confronting just what a full understanding of human dignity might demand.

We need such policies, but both Republicans and Democrats are too often afraid to offer families the support they need.


Losing the Ability to “Lose Oneself”

William Giraldi has written a fascinating piece for VQR about loving literature. Much of the article is directed toward the way that academics, specifically, approach fictional works. But this thought was especially fascinating, and useful for all readers:

[A]cademics … treat literature neither as a thing nor a person but rather as a frog splayed and pinned to a table. They then dispose of the frog’s innards and insert a tract for their own ideological purposes, a tract that has little or nothing to do with how that poor frog croaked its song in life.

He concludes,

Literature will not be harnessed for any cause, no matter how an academic distorts it, and literature that harnesses itself in the service of a cause is not literature at all but agitprop. If you agree that literature is, in Kenneth Burke’s words, “equipment for living,” a necessary asking of the right questions, and if you don’t question your own love of living, your own love of children and nature, of justice and language and storytelling, then why would you question your love of the best expression and assertion of that love?

The problem we face—or, at least, that I seem to face as a reader—is that true “love” (even love of literature) is a selfless act. It involves forgetting oneself in one’s regard and care for the “other,” whether the other be spouse, sibling, friend, etc. Love requires looking beyond our own feelings and desires, to the object loved. And this is where, I fear, my love of literature—and even of reading in general—has suffered greatly.

When was the last time you sat down to read, and completely lost yourself in the story? When was the last time reading made you lose track of time, place, to-do lists, and schedules—when you were so enamored with a book, you set everything else aside? If I’m going to be honest, it’s probably been years—with the exception, perhaps, of East of Eden by John Steinbeck and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. And, in both cases, I was reading the books on the airplane: in an environment that significantly decreased distractions.

Of course, immersing ourselves in literature gets harder as we get older: the sheer busyness and responsibilities of adulthood cannot be discounted. Many adults feel too much responsibility, toward family and/or work, to set everything aside and read with deep concentration. But I would also argue that we condition ourselves—through college, careers, and the entertainment we enjoy—to perceive reading in the wrong way: to lose the “love” that enables reading to be a truly transporting and delightful experience.

Reading is something that many of us did, when young, for the sheer joy of it. Of course, school reading was often distasteful. But in our free time, we could enjoy a book without a care. At the college (or even high school) level, however, our style of reading transitions—from the pleasurable to the academic, from leisurely enjoyment to speedy skimming or critical dissecting, from an enjoyment of the book itself to reading as means to an end (the end, in this case, being a good grade). Few ever transition back to the old style of reading.

Additionally, as we grow older, all of our leisurely pursuits continue to accumulate extraneous baggage. A lot of this is due to the pressures and publicity of social media: meals must be Instagrammed, hikes turned into Twitter statuses, workout accomplishments posted on Facebook. Our lives become increasingly public—and thus, our pastimes turn into means to the ever-greater end of personal acclamation.

We continue to read because it’s “good for us.” Because it makes us smarter, more informed people. We read because we’re supposed to, or because a friend recommended it. Sometimes we even read out of nostalgia, a yearning to get back to that time of complete lostness—we read because we long to love literature again. But I would argue that we will not truly love reading again until we reconsider what that love truly requires: a forsaking of self to delight in the object loved. This may mean turning off one’s phone, setting aside the calendar, pushing past stressful life situations, and opening the book with a commitment to read slowly and thoughtfully. It may mean avoiding any sort of public mention of one’s reading, to avoid any pressures or self-consciousness this may add to the process.

It is true that books must also be deserving of love—and that sometimes, our books are just disappointing. But surely, too, there is merit to be found in many works, and if anything, a more thoughtful read will help us uncover the goods which may be hiding beneath the surface. Love is not dissecting, cynical, looking for faults. Love seeks to see the good and virtuous in the object loved (even as it acknowledges frankly the faults therein). Thus, a return to loving books would require that, instead of opening our novels or biographies with a cynical or contemptuous mindset, we read with a spirit of teachability and humility.

All of this, of course, is important for more reasons than just the forgetting of oneself and one’s cares. It is also important because we have a tendency to quantify our lives—to organize our readings into lists and agendas, to be anxious readers, constantly absorbed with getting to the “next thing.” This is the antithesis of what reading really ought to be. Reading should be a delving deep, a consideration and an education, which does not leave us the same. This requires time, thought, and the right sort of forgetfulness: the sort that leaves us and our agendas on the outside, and leaves only the story, with its lessons and loveliness, to be appreciated and savored.


Should We Make Fun of the Tragic?

Still via NBC
Still via NBC

First, it was “The Interview.” The comedy, in which two journalists are sent on an undercover mission to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, received a bevy of praise and criticism during the dramatic events before (and after) its release. The primary concern raised by me (and others) was this: should we be making fun of such an evil, oppressive, dictatorial regime? Will this film help or harm the people of North Korea?

The people of North Korea are in the spotlight again following last night’s Golden Globe awards: hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler shared some scathing jokes regarding “The Interview.” (Fey: “North Korea referred to ‘The Interview’ as ‘absolutely intolerable’ and ‘a wanton act of terror. Even more amazing, [it's] not the worst review the movie got.”) They then introduced the newest “member” of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association: comedian Margaret Cho, dressed as a North Korean army general.

People have criticized Cho’s performance as racist, stereotypical, and insensitive. But Cho responded thus on Twitter:

In an interview with Buzzfeed, Cho added, “I am from this culture. I am from this tribe. And so I’m able to comment on it. … I’m the only person in the world, probably, that can make these jokes and not be placed in a labor camp.”

In a sense, what Cho says has a lot of validity to it. She knows the tragedies and hurts of her people, and this is her way of fighting back. She’s drawing attention to North Koreans, bringing their name and culture into the public sphere. And this, if anything, is the sole use of “The Interview”: despite its stupidity and gross humor, it has put North Korea back in the spotlight. People who may have otherwise never paid attention to the regime now have at least some faint knowledge of what it is.

But is this enough? Here’s the problem: North Korea isn’t just some silly dictatorship. It’s an abhorrently cruel dictatorship. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry puts it,

North Korea isn’t “weird,” it’s not “eccentric” — it is the vilest place on the face of the Earth.

North Korea’s leaders keep their entire nation in a state of perpetual semi-starvation for the sole purpose of maintaining power while they entertain themselves with prostitutes and fine foods from around the world. The North Korean regime is well known for financing itself through drug trafficking and other forms of international organized crime. Alcohol and hard drug use is positively pandemic, unsurprisingly considering life there. And forget about any sort of culture or true education or access to knowledge, or anything we consider integral to human flourishing. This is a country where everyone grows up in constant fear.

And it’s really the descriptions of North Korea’s concentration camps that should give anyone pause. (You owe it to yourself to read them.) If regular citizens in North Korea starve, how do you think concentration camp inmates fare? North Korea practices a system of collective punishment whereby if one person is found guilty (without trial, of course) of an offense — such as being a Christian, or participating in the black market (which everyone must do to survive) — three generations of their family are sent off to the Gulag. There are children in these camps. Many die of starvation. Those who do not have to work starting at the age of six.

It is, truly, the rape and defilement of an entire nation, a systematic and refined evil that only the human genius at its most perverted can produce.

These are the sorts of cruelties and abuses that should make your stomach turn, make you flinch with horror—not make you erupt into laughter. Ought we to make North Korea the butt of jokes, when in reality, it’s the stuff of nightmares and horror stories?

“Human rights groups estimate that more than 200,000 people are imprisoned in North Korea for having political or religious views contrary to those of Supreme Leader Kim,” wrote Open Doors president David Curry for USA Today. “And while every one of these prisoners’ lives matter, North Korea’s treatment of Christians is what earned it the top spot on the Open Doors World Watch List 12 years in a row.”

And this from Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum:

This, then, is the nature of the regime that has been so much in the news lately: It imprisons whole families for generations. When food is short, it quietly allows thousands to die off. And it keeps such tight control over its camps that information about them is extremely hard to come by, even in a world of omnipresent telephones and instant messaging. … Those who do escape over the Chinese border sometimes take years to get to South Korea, suffering beatings, rape and starvation along the way.

I do not agree with Gobry that this situation gives us license to attack North Korea—for reasons that Daniel Larison makes abundantly clear. But Gobry’s attitude—that of brevity and alarm—seems infinitely more appropriate to the situation at hand than the snark and silliness demonstrated by Cho and producers of “The Interview.” That said, it is possible that—despite their shortcomings—the latter will help birth the former: that their awareness-raising, while perhaps inappropriate, could help instigate a most necessary conversation.

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Taking Back Friendship

There’s a problem with our online friendships, writes Kyle Chayka in a Pacific Standard article. In the midst of our “hundreds or thousands of ‘friends’,” we have lost true intimacy. Reclaiming this intimacy necessitates that we “[treat] our virtual selves more like our physical ones rather than less.”

But how do we do this? It is obviously important: the cultivation of intimacy is what makes human connection so important and individual. The ability to cultivate and form friendships—closeness of intellect, emotion, and spirit—is fundamental to who we are as human beings.

We’ve lost this closeness in modern society—due, perhaps in part, to the overly-sexualized pop art, film, literature, and music we indulge in, a sexualization that denigrates phileos in favor of eros (or even tells us that the former is but a watered down or disguised version of the latter). It’s also possible, as C.S. Lewis put it so adroitly in The Four Loves, that “few value [friendship] because few experience it.”

There are three levels, it seems, to human connection. The first is that of acquaintanceship: we know each other slightly, but with little to no depth. Acquaintanceship can deepen into companionship: a condition in which we’ve spent enough time together to have a healthy knowledge and understanding of each other’s lives and characters. This “level” would apply well to many in our workplaces, churches, or schools. The final level, “friendship,” gets constantly confused with the other two categories—especially since social media increasingly labels weak bonds as “friendship.” But friendship was always meant to be something more, something deeper.

Lewis’s classic definition of friendship is this:

“Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’ … It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision—it is then that Friendship is born.”

A couple notes must be added here. Friendship, according to what Lewis writes after, needn’t be contingent on two, or even three, people. True friends are always glad to add to their “little platoon,” to expand the spheres of their company to include other kindred spirits. But friends must share this fundamental kinship of spirit and interest. And here, many modern friendships seem to fail the test straight away—I’ve often gotten together with friends for coffee, and we’ve spent the entire time talking about our lives, “catching up,” but doing nothing. And while talking about life and work is a good thing, it can’t provide a solid or lasting basis for real friendship.

This then, should make clear the other conditions necessary for friendship: physical proximity, or, if that is impossible, consistent communication. If we don’t have these, then we will never have the common ground necessary to cultivate true friendship: we’ll constantly be sent back to square one, to the basics of acquaintanceship or companionship.

Constant communication can perhaps be cultivated on social media, but the public nature of posting makes it difficult, because it goes against the intimacy principle that is so important to true friendship. Facebook private messages and secret groups are better tools for keeping the communicative fires alive; but are they better than email or telephone calls? It probably depends on one’s friends, and which tools they’re more likely to use.

I don’t think social media is completely antagonistic to true intimacy. But, as Wendell Berry told me in a recent interview (one that will be published online soon), “The usefulness of electronic communication to cultivate community, I think, is tightly limited. … Community is not made just be communication. It is a practical circumstance. It is composed of people who have a place in common.” Moreover, he says, “It is made by people’s willingness to be neighbors, good and faithful servants, to one another,” and by a “recognition of their need for one another.”

These components of friendship and community (service, proximity, and need) cannot really be cultivated, long-term, over a long distance. Friendship must have limits: limits of time and place, of closeness and interest. As Lewis writes, “Friendship must exclude.” Chayka puts it thus: ”In searching out ways to better manage our online intimacy, what we really need are spaces that are relatively independent from the pressures of being public on the Internet and the endless need for exposure … Companies may not be able to provide that, but we can give it to ourselves.” This may mean narrowing down your 2,000+ Facebook friends, emailing close friends more often, calling your mother instead of dropping her a note on her “wall.” It may mean limiting the amount of statuses you post, replacing them instead with private, personal messages to close friends.

As we struggle to cultivate intimacy, we should not be utterly dismissive of social media. As the saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” We must use social media carefully: not as a perfectly sweet and delightful thing to be consumed without thought—but rather as an ingredient, with both sweet and sour components, that we ought to integrate into the larger whole of our interactions. To take back friendship and cultivate intimacy requires a change in scope, a return to limits—but not necessarily a complete abandonment of platform.

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New Hope For Egypt’s Copts?

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited the main Coptic Christian cathedral Tuesday during its Christmas Eve mass (Coptic Christians celebrated Christmas yesterday), “the first such visit by an Egyptian president in history” according to First Things writer Mark Movsesian. “It’s important for the world to see this scene, which reflects true Egyptian unity, and to confirm that we’re all Egyptians, first and foremost. We truly love each other without discrimination, because this is the Egyptian truth,” Sisi told service attenders.

Coptic Pop al-Tawadri thanked Sisi for his visit, calling it “a pleasant surprise and a humanitarian gesture.”

It isn’t the first such gesture that Sisi has made—in a speech celebrating the birth of Mohammed on New Year’s Day, he called on Muslim religious leaders to help fight against extremism: ”I say and repeat, again, that we are in need of a religious revolution,” he said, according to CNN. ”You imams are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting on you. … We need a revolution of the self, a revolution of consciousness and ethics to rebuild the Egyptian person—a person that our country will need in the near future.”

Movsesian writes,

The Coptic Church very publicly backed Sisi during the overthrow of the Morsi government in 2013, and Copts have been suffering serious reprisals from the Muslim Brotherhood ever since. In fact, some commentators say Copts are experiencing the worst persecution in hundreds of years. Christmas liturgies, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Mideast, have become very dangerous, and some Muslim leaders in Egypt tell followers not even to wish Christians a Merry Christmas. … What would elsewhere be a routine event, a politician wishing a community well on its holiday, is, in this context, a crucial show of support.

There may be mixed reasons for Sisi’s outreach.While there is a large degree of humanitarianism and generosity reflected in his speeches and actions, it is also true that the president’s greatest opponents to date have been members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Egyptian organization that was responsible for much maltreatment of the Copts throughout the Arab Spring and during democratically-elected and MB member President Mohammed Morsi’s short rule. It is Morsi that was thrown out by the military and replaced by Sisi—a rather undemocratic turn of events, perhaps, but one that may end up protecting the rights of Egypt’s minorities to a greater degree.

That said, Islamic extremism is still strong in Egypt. Whether Sisi is really rejecting fundamentalism or caliphate law outright is difficult to ascertain. Some are understandably skeptical—as the New York Times noted, “Some Coptic activists now complain that his government has failed to curb the biases in government and law enforcement, such as criminal prosecutions of Christians for blasphemy or cumbersome permitting procedures that restrict the building of churches.”

Whether Sisi’s efforts are merely a form of lip service to the minorities, or genuine sentiments, remains to be seen. In light of the brutal killings that took place in Paris yesterday, however, these gestures offers at least some promise to the Copts, who have undergone much persecution at the hands of extremists.

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Driving in the City

Sarah Goodyear tells an amusing—and relatable—tale of traffic woe over at CityLab. She usually avoids driving in New York City, but in this instance, decided to use a car. Alas, it didn’t take long for things to go awry:

Already I had been honked at by other drivers twice, once for yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk (the honker zoomed around me and through the intersection, just behind some people on foot) and once for no discernible reason.

Very consciously, I try to approach urban driving with calm and deliberation, following all the rules, proceeding within the speed limit with due care, and never honking unless there’s danger involved (that’s the law, by the way). …

But here I was, quickly reduced to cursing at the world outside my metal and glass bubble and honking myself, trying to get the attention of the guy who had left his car like a piece of used Kleenex in the street. The time it took me to become a monstrous ball of impatience: about 10 minutes. Just add car.

Many (if not all) of us who live in or around a large city have been in a similar situation. On the few occasions I’ve ventured to drive into Washington, D.C., I have regretted the decision almost as soon as my wheels hit George Washington Parkway. It’s not just the claustrophobic congestion or unbearably long intersection lines: it’s the demeanor of those around you, and the demeanor which seems to be thrust upon you as you drive. Because we are all in separate bubbles, encased in our own worlds, it becomes almost impossible to be polite, empathetic, understanding. In the car, each individual reigns supreme—and the road becomes a warring battlefield of selfish sovereigns.

Why is this the case? Goodyear believes that it’s largely the fault of the car itself: “The car is often—let’s say even usually—the wrong tool for the job in a dense urban setting,” she writes. “Using the wrong tool makes you frustrated and impatient. It can quickly turn you into a jerk, even if you are a decent human, as indeed most people are.”

I can’t help but agree: though there isn’t anything wrong with driving per se, driving in dense urban areas creates a whole host of perils and frustrations. Washington, D.C.’s streets are densely packed with pedestrians and bicycles. Streets are often narrow, leaving little room to change lanes or make turns.

But making streets larger won’t help fix the problem in cities like D.C. or New York City. Wider roads, with more lanes, only encourages more drivers and greater speed. This atmosphere can be exceedingly perilous in dense areas, when you mix pedestrians, buses, and bikes into the equation.

Some of this can be fixed via law enforcement: when speeding or careless drivers get tickets, they’re reminded to be more careful. But some of it may also need to involve the careful designing of a conscientious developer: Zainab Mudallal notes that Sweden has drastically cut road deaths by building different sorts of roads—roads that prioritize safety over speed. “We are going much more for engineering than enforcement,” Matts-Åke Belin, a government traffic safety strategist, told him.

How could we apply these lessons to the realm of driving in the city? Washington, D.C. continues to build more protected bike lanes in the district, in hopes of encouraging a different sort of traffic. The protected lanes have already had a good impact in other U.S. cities, encouraging a safe and segregated means of travel for cars and bikers. The biggest challenge is, it seems, in the implementation period, during which time there are segmented pieces of protected lanes interspersed with normal traffic lanes. “They create a strange dissonance for people riding on them,” writes Goodyear in a post for Next City. “One minute you are pedaling along feeling relaxed and calm, the next your adrenaline shoots back up as you get spit back out into traffic, often without much indication as to where you are supposed to go next.”

But it also seems that the narrow cobblestone roads of years past may not be a bad option for many portions of the city: they encourage pedestrians, streetcars, and bikers—the slower sorts of traffic—but discourage a heavy amount of car traffic. And this may help drivers learn to use the right tool in the right environment: picking metro cards over car keys.

I don’t condemn the use of cars for commuting across the board—by no means. When I worked for an Idaho newspaper, it took me 35 minutes to drive the 35.6 miles to the office (it would probably be even faster now, because they just increased the freeway speed to 80 mph). There’s no metro system in Idaho, and it isn’t needed.

But it takes me an hour and a half to navigate the 9.5 miles from my Alexandria residence to our D.C. office, with endless frustrations along the way. So I’ll continue to ride the good old metro—and trade gray-hair-inducing moments for a book and some music.

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Our Search for Culture

Merriam-Webster announced that “culture” was the word of 2014. It was the most searched word on their website this past year. “Culture is a word that we seem to be relying on more and more. It allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group with seriousness,” Merriam-Webster editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski said in a statement. “And it’s efficient: we talk about the ‘culture’ of a group rather than saying ‘the typical habits, attitudes, and behaviors’ of that group.”

Joshua Rothman of the New Yorker writes that, indeed, 2014 was an important year in terms of our conception and understanding of culture. Our ideas of the term were inescapably shaped—and in a negative way, Rothman thinks—by the developments of the year:

“Culture” used to be a good thing. Now it’s not. That isn’t to say that American culture has gotten worse. (It has gotten worse in some ways, and better in others.) It’s to say that the word “culture” has taken on a negative cast. The most positive aspect of “culture”—the idea of personal, humane enrichment—now seems especially remote. In its place, the idea of culture as unconscious groupthink is ascendent.

… Often, when we attach the word “culture” to something, it’s to suggest that it has a pervasive, pernicious influence (as in “celebrity culture”). … This year, there was the rise of the powerful term “rape culture.” … Among other things, “rape culture” uses the word “culture” in a way that doesn’t involve, on any level, the idea of personal enrichment. Instead, the term’s weight is placed, fully and specifically, on Williams’s other two aspects of culture: on the subterranean, group-defining norms (misogyny, privilege) that encourage violence against women, and on the cultural institutions (movies, fraternities) that propagate those norms. The term works, in part, because of its dissonance. You can’t see the word “culture” next to the word “rape” without revising your ideas about what “culture” means.

I think Rothman is right—the word “culture” seems to have functioned as more of a dysphemism than anything else this past year. The terms “rape culture” and “hookup culture,” “culture wars” and “pop culture” have dominated our news conversations. Yet do any of these terms really encapsulate the true meaning and identity of the word they so freely use?

The term “culture” was once inescapable from its Latin root cultus, or “cult.” It was tied to the idea of a shared religion and belief, a particular place and tradition. Thus, we see that—beyond the apparent contradictions that the term “rape culture” seems to present—the idea of “pop culture” is actually somewhat a contradiction in terms, as well, for the larger and more generic the “culture”, the less traditionally cultural it can be. Such forms contradict the very nature of what culture once was, and indeed, still could be.

Rothman recognizes some of this. He writes, “our culture is fractured, and so our sense of the word ‘culture’ is, too.” But it isn’t a fractured national culture that is necessarily the problem—because of the size of our nation, we shall always (and indeed, ought to, to some extent) have a fractured culture. The habits and traditions of those in Georgia will inevitably be different from those on the coast of Maine, or the plains of Iowa. It is this that gives us a tapestry of tradition and culture that is uniquely American—and uniquely “culture.”

But this perpetuation and recognition of bad cultural developments, of distasteful habits and practices, seems to recognize the sort of cultural fractures which are, indeed, bad for the country as a whole: and these are moral fractures, ethical rifts that harm our society. We have lost a common faith, common moral bonds—the “cult” in culture. This is what creates harmful cultural habits. Diversity is pleasant and good; but malicious habits cannot be either. This is what we are fighting against: the sort of ethical anarchy that results in harmful cultural traditions and ideas.

But we must also fight against the sort of cultural groupthink that isn’t actually culture at all, but merely a smarmy or sensualistic combination of propaganda and pleasure. Sadly, our “pop culture” is often exactly this.

So what would a robust culture look like? Ideally, it is that combination of universal moral principles and place-particularized diversity that leads to healthy, flourishing societies: that vests the proper amount of common virtue in our places, while also enabling us to pass down important traditions and values from generation to generation. It’s the sort of cultural practice that accompanies regular involvement in religious and voluntary associations. It enchants the folk tales and music of yesteryear—for instance: in my home county in Idaho, there’s an annual fiddle festival that specifically celebrates old time fiddle tunes. It was specifically made to preserve the old songs so that they wouldn’t be lost to time and generational forgetfulness. There’s a similar regional cultural development that can accompany our pursuit of the arts and our athletic involvement and interests (though sports have largely been swallowed whole by pop culture, there is still a degree of particularity in regional or state allegiances).

This is the sort of culture that must be encouraged in 2015, and beyond: a way we can take the sorry cultural lessons of 2014, and hopefully transform them into something good—something both particular and virtuous.

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