State of the Union

Boycotting the Arts and Academia

The Russians are withdrawing. Not from Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, but from Washington D.C. where the Woolly Mammoth Theatre has just canceled its festival of four plays from Moscow. As the political climate chilled, the Moscow Cultural Ministry decided to pull its funds from the festival, and Woolly Mammoth was unable to make up the difference.

This is the second controversial play cancellation this season in the nation’s capital. Theater J was forced to cancel performances of The Admission, an Israeli play modeled on Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Like Miller’s play, The Admission focused on a family haunted by possibly complicity in wartime wrongdoings.

After a sustained campaign by Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) to shame Theater J’s donors into withdrawing their funds, The Admission had its run shortened, and the production was scaled back to a workshop, rather than a full staging. Ultimately, a local restaurant and another D.C. theater stepped in to keep the show going.

The partial victory won by COPMA is, presumably, the exact kind of tool the BDS movement (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) is hoping to bring to bear on Israel, although the two groups aim at completely different results. Like COPMA, BDS supporters aren’t confining their efforts to the business sphere but have moved on to the marketplace of ideas and culture.

In late 2013, the American Studies Association, an organization of American college and university professors, voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. They became the second academic consortium to approve a boycott, following the Asian American Studies Association, which voted to intellectually divest in April 2013.

Conventionally, sanctions are a punitive tool of foreign policy that are intended to bring the offending country back to the bargaining table. Or, in extreme cases, to make life under the intransigent government so uncomfortable that the citizens push for regime change, whether democratically or otherwise.

An arts and academia boycott doesn’t quite fit the bill. The pain of restrictions on researchers or experimental theater companies is unlikely to trickle down to voters or up to politicians. But, even worse, when the time comes to broker some kind of détente, both sides will be worse off for losing the weak bonds of shared culture and learning. In the case of academic boycotts, the world as a whole will be worse off as researchers end up siloed and isolated from their peers, as mathematician Edward Frenkel was until he caught a lucky break.

Unfortunately, the United States has behaved just as shortsightedly as Russia during this crisis. While Moscow has held back artists, Washington has directed NASA to stop collaborating with their Russian counterparts. Extra-terrestrial blustering has been curbed a little by pragmatism; NASA is still allowed to coordinate plans for the International Space Station, and, of course, all launches of American astronauts, which will occur on Russian soil until 2017 at the earliest.

While boycotts and divestment can do good, both by putting pressure on foreign leaders and by singling out regimes on the world stage, bringing sanctions to the actual stage or to laboratories or lecture halls undermines both sides ability to understand one another and to be prepared to work together when negotiations resume.


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Rousseau’s American Heirs Fight the Final Prejudice

Joseph Bottom’s An Anxious Age has stirred up quite a debate over his thesis that progressivism has recently switched from setting reason and science as first principles toward eradicating prejudicial beliefs as its prime ideological imperative. The left has always had an attraction to both, however. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s romanticism has always challenged Rene Descartes’ rationalism, but after the bureaucratization and failures of the rationalized welfare state in recent times, the former’s aesthetic critique has become the more attractive argument for modern progressives.

What both strains of leftism had in common was repulsion against tradition. A typical dictionary defines prejudice as “a preconceived opinion that is not based upon reason or actual experience.” Descartes and the rationalists objected to tradition’s irrationality, and Rousseau and the romantics objected to tradition’s experience. It is curious that both rationalist and emotive progressivism first validated prejudice in the movement’s early eugenicist days. The progress in progressivism was from traditional prejudicial socialization to future reason, or social accord, or hopefully to both. So it is not surprising that prejudice became their common political target.

In the postwar United States, legal segregation in public schools and accommodations was outlawed, and the civil rights acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964 promoted equal treatment and voting. Antidiscrimination regulations were extended to sex and ethnicity. Feminism won the right to vote in 1920, an Equal Pay Act in 1963, no-fault divorce in the 1970s, sexual harassment protection in 1986, and guaranteed free contraception in 2010. With the 2013 Supreme Court decisions, same sex marriages were granted equal federal benefits with traditional marriages and it appeared that the same thinking would also void traditional state marriage laws. The Violent Crime Control Act of 1994 set criminal penalties for hate crimes committed on the basis of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or gender of any person.

This year’s 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act illuminates the value of shifting to a focus on the elimination of prejudice. Yes, the left itself questions these laws’ success, complaining that racism, sexism, and gender discrimination are still rampant—but that is efficacious for the cause. Certainly, access to voting is now universally available and overt discrimination has decreased, although formal discrimination complaints have actually increased. There is a large African-American middle class. Women lag male average income but, when wages are controlled for time and type of work, they have mostly achieved equality of income. Never-married women actually out-earn single men.

But there is another side to the story. The ratio of black to white income in 1947 before the civil rights laws was 52 percent; this increased to 60 percent in 1969 by the end of legal segregation—but before the mass government antipoverty and affirmative action programs had effect. By 2012 the ratio was only 57 percent, no improvement in 40 years. Worse, black unemployment has been twice as high as that of whites ever since data has been collected. Racial workforce participation rates are equally dramatic. Some of these disparities were offset by government welfare programs, though in absolute numbers whites received more funds.

As Robert Rector has noted the greatest differences are in education and marriage, both of which are important social supports for earned income and employment. Most black urban education is dysfunctional, but marriage makes the biggest difference in poverty levels: the poverty rate for married blacks is only 7 percent compared to 36 percent for unmarried blacks and 22 percent for unmarried whites. Yet, to the left traditional marriage seems part of the problem. Indeed, fighting prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered citizens by traditionalists is at the top of progressivism’s present agenda. Read More…

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Don Draper Returns for One Last Shot at Salvation

After Sunday night’s premier of season seven of “Mad Men” aired, the critics agreed: this first episode of the final season, “Time Zones,” is a foil of the very first episode of the series, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” It’s January of 1969, the nadir of bohemian ennui, a stark departure from Camelot’s straight-laced glamor at the top of the decade. But in “Mad Men”’s world, the emphasis isn’t on what has changed, but what hasn’t. Don’s is still tensely married to a (admittedly different) statuesque woman; Peggy is still frustrated at the office and in her personal life; Joan’s loneliness still undercuts her book-balancing, man-taming acumen. All these tropes were present in the very first episode, and nine years later, we can see how far these characters haven’t come.

But this season, there have been significant changes under the guise of sameness; the largest is that Don’s leave from his firm is an involuntary one. Don has played hooky before, but always on his own terms. Less and less of Don’s life, as we see, is within his control. Gone is the lean, mean advertising machine. He’s been replaced by a sallow sadsack, a shell of his halcyon days. Ashley Fetters at The Atlantic contrasts the Don from the first season and with this one in season seven:

The last shot of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is of Don’s home life, complete with a pretty young wife and children—which reveals that Don spends his days lying to and fooling other people. “Time Zones,” however, finds Don lying to everyone about how he “has to get back to work” and remaining somewhat deludedly optimistic about returning to SC&P, then ends with a closing shot of Don’s home life. This time, he’s sickly-looking and miserable, out alone in the cold with just his muddled thoughts. This time, it looks more like he spends most of the day consciously fooling himself.

In spite of Don’s unraveling, the culture critics at Slate feel Don’s self-deception can still work, at least at work, at least for a little while. One of the episode’s highlights is the “Accutron” pitch, delivered on the lips of Don’s former colleague Fred Rumsen, but with all the punch and power of a Don Draper masterpiece.

Regardless of whether or not Don still has the “it” factor that gets him out of every jam thrown his way, the cornerstone in Don’s rootlessness is Anna Draper’s absence, whose maternal guidance was an essential component of Don’s confidence. Read More…

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The Sharing Economy’s Undead Capital, and Its Discontents

Uber targets Lyft drivers in San Francisco. Steve Rhodes /  cc
Uber targets Lyft drivers in San Francisco. Steve Rhodes / cc

Out in the LED-lit, LEED-certified halls of Silicon Valley, the past few years have heard a whisper growing into a roar: the sharing economy is coming, and it will be good. The “sharing economy” is best represented by enterprises such as Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft, internet-based companies that allow everyday people to monetize their own property. Airbnb allows people to rent out rooms or whole houses to strangers without having to go through an expensive rental company. Uber allows smartphone users to summon a variety of vehicles for hire directly without going through the oppressive and outdated taxi system. Lyft takes Uber one step further and allows regular drivers to offer rides for a fee; the Lyft app connects the driver with the passenger, who slips into the front seat and gives his lift a fist-bump.

Last week, R Street’s Daniel Rothschild described these services as bringing to life massive stores of previously “dead capital,” allowing a tremendous democratization of commercial life. He wrote, “If the key economic trend of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the growth of economies of scale—factories, big firms, multinationals—we are now seeing the opposite.” The sharing economy combined with the Etsy (an online craft marketplace) economy in his eyes to represent a tremendous turn towards filling the coffers of the common person, rather than the great industrialist. Ever more easily, people can rent out their car to pay for a dinner, a room to pay for a date, a house to pay for their own vacation. In Rothschild’s eyes, corrupt cities bought off by entrenched interests risk stomping out this tremendous innovation, sending the undead capital back into the ground for good and depriving countless people of a chance to make a bit of extra money.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry finds himself unsettled by the prospect of an Uberfied economy, however, and suggests that its benefits may not be quite as democratically distributed as usually assumed. He acknowledges that “the efficiency case for “Uberifying” services is obvious. You have lots of productive capital which is unused (your spare bedroom, your car, your idle hours) and which could be used and monetized. Collectively, this makes society richer.” But he then follow, “how does it make society richer? I’m concerned.” Read More…

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What Austen Taught Me

Portrait of Jane Austen, 1873
Portrait of Jane Austen, 1873

Many view Jane Austen as a decidedly “feminine” writer. And it’s true: every woman must read Jane Austen. But there’s a lot to be found in Austen’s work, apart from romance, interesting characters, and good plot development. Austen explored the depths of human nature, its foibles and fancies, and wrote novels that promoted virtue to great effect.

This is what Br. Aquinas Beale argues for in his blog series, “Austen the Aristotelian.” His posts are remarkably insightful and interesting. He goes through Austen’s primary works, and reveals their parallels with Aristotelian and Thomistic thought. Not only are Austen’s works fun to read—Beale shows that they are philosophically profound.

Beale offers a deep look into the virtuosity inherent in Austen’s plot lines. But I want to return to that earlier statement—“every woman must read Jane Austen”—and demonstrate why it has nothing to do with the novels’ romantic storylines (though they are good, too). I would reinforce the fact that Austen’s works contain lessons and delights for any reader, regardless of gender. But a woman who reads Austen will find truths sadly lacking in most other modern novels created for women. When it comes to the “romance” novel, Austen stands apart.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is through her heroines. Their virtues are decidedly counter to the “cultural norm” we would expect from a 19th century woman novelist. There is freedom, independence, strength, and valor within these women. They displayed a courage and virtue that, while enveloped in the docile scenery of English countryside, are decidedly robust in caliber.

Jane Austen wrote three novels that perhaps best exemplify the virtues of bravery and resilience better than most others: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. Mansfield Park is a close runner-up to these three (I highly recommend Beale’s insights into Fanny Price and Mansfield Park).

These novels’ protagonists face a series of disappointments and griefs. Lizzy Bennett weathers family trauma and disruption, doggedly protects her older sister, faces down her coldest enemies, and overcomes the fear she’s lost the man she loves. Elinor Dashwood has to uproot herself in the wake of her father’s death, takes charge of her family’s future with prudence, walks her sister through heartbreak, all the while struggling with inner turmoil and disappointed hopes. Anne Elliott braves the callousness of her father and older sister, bears the judgment of becoming an “old maid,” and watches her former love flirt with other women—and she never stops serving and loving the people around her.

Lizzy, Elinor, and Anne are good, strong characters—while being single. There is never any indication on Austen’s part that they are lesser women without a man. It’s true that they have romantic interests, and indeed wish to be married at some point. But their love isn’t tempestuous, nor is it willful or selfish. Austen’s romance, while still emotional, is very rational. Her characters pick good men—men with character, humor, and gentility. These girls aren’t swept away in momentary crushes. In the same way, they don’t let unrequited or rejected love derail them: Elinor is perhaps the best example of this. She holds strong in the midst of inner disappointment. Anne “fades” for a while, but as Beale points out, she learns to seek happiness and hope in the future. She doesn’t lose herself in the past.

There are a few novels by Austen that teach virtue through sillier, more frivolous protagonists. These characters learn and develop their virtues, not through periods of intense circumstantial difficulty, but rather through their own shortcomings and shame. The lessons they offer us, however, are just as important—if not more so.

Marianne Dashwood is an excellent foil to her sister Elinor in Sense and Sensibility. In a sense, she’s the Bella Swan (from Twilight) of the Austen novel: an emotional girl, deeply sentimental, and completely obsessed with Willoughby, her dark and romantic suitor. When Willoughby turns out not to be the knight-in-shining-armor she was hoping for, she sinks into the depths of despair. She becomes fixated on her own pains and broken heart. It’s only through a long and painful process that she finally moves on. Note this: Willoughby doesn’t come back, and explain the whole thing, and redeem himself. He actually tries—but there is imprudence and vice in him that cannot be ignored. Marianne has to give him up, and seek new hope for the future. This is often counter to the way we write romances. But it’s truer to reality.

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Moreland is a sweet and innocent girl—but also quite immature. Northanger Abbey is a story of Catherine’s journey into maturity, and reality. Catherine embraces shame and repentance in the wake of her actions.This is perhaps one of my favorite Austen novels, because of its dry irony and humor. Austen deliberately makes fun of the gothic novel, and the romance-besotted girl. She shows the lack of reality portrayed in those sorts of stories. This is a cunning, clear-sighted commentary on the way sentiment and drama twist our perception of truth. It’s a worthy critique for all of us.

My favorite of these “silly” protagonists is Emma—though I always used to dismiss her as the most spoiled rotten, selfish, annoying heroine of the bunch. But the more I “get to know” Emma, the more I see her complexity of character. Emma is definitely spoiled, a youngest child who has trouble growing up. But she’s also full of good intentions and a desire to show charity. She’s independent, willful, and never wants to marry—she just wants to orchestrate the lives and marriages of everyone around her. Her dearest friend, Mr. Knightley, is a kind and wise man, who is always telling Emma to mind her own business—and yet also reminding her to be charitable. What a hard balance that is. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons this novel teaches us, is that our good intentions are so often vested in the wrong places. Imagine: what if all the energy Emma invested in matchmaking had instead gone into extending grace and charity to people like Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax? This is the lesson Austen teaches us: a truly charitable heart knows when to intervene, when to “meddle,” so to speak—and when to let people go.

In all these works, Austen built a portrait of womanhood that is both graceful and strong. She spends considerable time developing these protagonists’ characters apart from romantic ties—thus demonstrating that a woman alone, rejected, or burdened with “unrequited love” should not be idle or pining. Rather, a woman alone is powerful and equipped to make a difference in her world. Her novels end with marriage, but Austen does not paint marriage as the only happiness available to women—even though she lived at a time when marriage was seen as the most respectable path for women.

I wonder whether Austen was trying to sow seeds of her own confident singleness within her romances. One of the greatest mysteries of Austen’s work is that she wrote happily-ever-after-romances, while remaining single herself. She recognized the beauty and power of these happy endings, but wasn’t afraid to add shades and shadows of “What if?” along the way. What if Captain Wentworth hadn’t pursued Anne, after all? What if Mr. Darcy hadn’t felt he could marry Lizzy after her family was tainted by disgrace? What if Edward Ferrars had married Lucy instead of Elinore?

I believe the heroines would have continued living gracefully and valorously. They would have sought out meaning and purpose in their friendships and their families. Unlike the weak, sentimental heroines often portrayed in modern literature, Austen’s heroines had spirit and kindness. She has taught me the beauties of friendship, courage, and constancy. But most of all, she has taught me how to seek happiness—and how to suffer—with virtue.

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Brendan Eich, Game of Thrones, and the Headaches of New Rulers

HBO
HBO

The forced resignation of Mozilla cofounder and CEO Brendan Eich has been seen by many conservatives as a sad dip into democratic despotism, in which conformity to a very recent societal consensus is demanded as the cost of employment. The uproar could be more of a backlash against perceived in-group betrayal than an immediate template for society-wide action, though. As Leah pointed out in her initial treatment of the controversy, gay marriage in-group policing is practiced by both sides of the issue, as international charity World Vision was forced to rescind its new policy of hiring employees in gay marriages. In-group policing is not limited to gay marriage, either, as the Dixie Chicks learned during the Iraq War.

What seems to distinguish the Eich case from World Vision in the minds of many on the right (besides their own group sympathies), is that progressives appear to be winning on gay marriage, thus their in-group policing will be taking place within an ever-enlarging share of society. As Ross Douthat wrote, “the way people behave within their own communities when a debate is seen to be settled often has at least some connection to how they behave when given legal and political power in society writ large.” An ascendant progressivism shedding the shackles of its suddenly constrictive liberalism is a frightening prospect to those determinedly holding fast against the tide.

If this is the beginning of a progressive moment, when the culture war is finally over and the conservative terms of surrender are being negotiated, the victorious side may find the coming years more problematic than anticipated. After all, if they have won, then they will see an ever-increasing range of industries and institutions as “belonging” to their group. We may have already started to see some of this playing out with other internet tempests of recent vintage, involving Ezra Klein and Nate Silver’s new ventures.

When Ezra Klein launched Vox, his new journalistic enterprise, he came under fire for a dearth of diversity among his hires. Later, the hiring of one reporter, Brandon Ambrosino, drew fire for being the wrong kind of diverse. Ambrino’s heterodox takes on gay controversies (including friendly words for Jerry Fallwell) were harshly criticized by former colleagues of Klein and his Vox compatriots. Their roots in progressive journalism caused their former allies to view Vox as an in-group enterprise, and to read any divergence as betrayal. They saw Vox as “one of us” more than Klein himself did.

Nate Silver’s new media venture FiveThirtyEight saw its own share of controversy in its opening days, when it ran an article contesting that criticism of the often-cited claim that the historic increase in the rising cost of natural disasters is due to climate change. Environmentalism is another in-group marker for liberal circles, and, predictably. the climate change draws particular focus and attention. The piece drew its own internet firestorm, including from outlets like Slate, ThinkProgress, and Huffington Post, leading Silver to commission his own rebuttal of the original piece.

The culture war’s victorious side may find their newfound power harder to exercise than they expect, however. I’ve recently started HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series, and in my rush to catch up to the current season, I came across very early advice given from Queen Cersei to her king-to-be son, Joffrey. Joffrey expresses a desire to destroy the tradition of each land fielding its own armies, and to consolidate them under his own hand, responding to any resistance by sacking the land in question. Cersei reminds her son that crushing any soldiers loyal to their own traditions would likely leave him without any army at all. The iron throne theoretically gives him access to more people than his family’s personal army, but those new acquisitions bring with them a complicating diversity. Read More…

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Captain America Skips Politics, Stays Personal

Captain America: The Winter Soldier / Marvel Studios
Captain America: The Winter Soldier / Marvel Studios

This review contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Kevin Feige, the mastermind behind Marvel’s movies, said that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a chance to expand the range of comic book movies, since the sequel would really be “a ’70s political thriller masquerading as a big superhero movie.” But, despite the clear references to the overreach of the NSA’s surveillance state and the CIA’s unauthorized abuses, little in the movie treated man (or superman) as a political animal.

Although Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is warned by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) that he should trust no one, the movie never forces the squeaky-clear hero into the same kind of suspicious attitude that characterizes his enemies.

The grand conspiracy isn’t revealed through an act of deduction or infiltration, but through the monologue of a very accommodating villain. When the organization that Rogers has served turns out to be tainted, there’s no attempt at investigation or truth and reconciliation. The heroes just leak all the classified files and disband S.H.I.E.L.D. altogether. And, when they infiltrate the base of their erstwhile allies, Captain America has a very simple heuristic for distinguishing friend from foe:

Falcon: How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?

Captain America: If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad!

Charlie Jane Anders, reviewing the film for io9, argued that Captain America’s greatest power isn’t his superstrength or his shield, but his certainty.

[Y]ou reach a point where you realize that’s Captain America’s true superpower — he makes things simpler, for everybody. Everybody else in the movie changes, at least in part because of their connection to Steve Rogers. He’s a catalyst, as well as a leader. This film is simplistic because Steve Rogers’ worldview is simplistic. And if you only let him, Steve Rogers will allow you to live in his world where everything is black and white.

Usually, when Americans are characterized as thinking in black and white, it’s because we’ve divided the world or just our nation into “us” and “them” and are out to get rid of them as in President Bush’s statement, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”  But when Captain America divides the world into light and dark, he has more in common with John Winthrop, who referenced Matthew 5:14 to tell his fellow colonists that the eyes of the world are upon them, and they must shine out, as a city on a hill.

The forceful optimism that Captain America exemplifies is most moving when the stakes of the movie get lower. When Captain America faces his childhood friend Bucky Barnes, who has been transformed into the robotic Winter Soldier, he offer Barnes his weakness, not his strength. Rogers drops his shield and stops putting up a fight. He’s asking his friend to show mercy, instead of removing the choice, and it’s easy to for the audience to hear echoes of a Martin Luther King Jr. sermon, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.”

That makes it all the stranger that, in order to make his way to Barnes, Captain America punches his way through approximately fifty mooks. Maybe he was carefully doing non-lethal damage, but, more likely, the film didn’t expect us to care, since it had already told us that all of Rogers’s antagonists were fanatics and Nazi-collaborators. There were limits to the movie’s mercies.

But Winter Soldier would have been a stronger film if it had taken a lesson from a different blockbuster franchise and admitted that “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters.” In order to be a political thriller, instead of an interpersonal one, we need to see how Cap’s idealism scales up.

What are the limitations on charity and compassion when it’s expressed through an institution, instead of an individual? What sacrifices can Rogers choose for himself, but not the nation? The Winter Soldier, with its simplistic plot, doesn’t have any serious critique of American policy, but Steve Rogers still offers a powerful call to small-scale heroism to the American people.


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Brendan Eich: First on the New Blacklist

“There is a gay mafia,” said Bill Maher, “if you cross them you do get whacked.”

Maher, the host of HBO’s “Real Time,” was talking about the gay activists and their comrades who drove Brendan Eich out as CEO of Mozilla. Eich, who invented JavaScript and co-founded Mozilla in 1998, had been named chief executive in late March.

Instantly, he came under attack for having contributed $1,000 to Proposition 8, whereby a majority of Californians voted in 2008 to reinstate a ban on same-sex marriage. Prop 8 was backed by the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church, and the black churches, and carried 70 percent of the African-American vote. Though Eich apologized for any “pain” he had caused and pledged to promote equality for gays and lesbians at Mozilla, his plea for clemency failed to move his accusers. Too late. According to the Guardian, he quit after it was revealed that he had also contributed—”The horror, the horror!”—to the Buchanan campaign of 1992. That cooked it. What further need was there of proof of the irredeemably malevolent character of Brendan Eich?

Observing the mob run this accomplished man out of a company he helped create, Andrew Sullivan blogged that Eich “has just been scalped” by gay activists. Sullivan went on: ”Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole thing disgusts me, as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society.”

Yet, the purge of Eich, who, from his contributions—he also gave to Ron Paul—appears to be a traditionalist and libertarian—is being defended as a triumph of the First Amendment. James Ball of the Guardian writes that far from being “a defeat for freedom of expression,” Eich’s removal is a “victory—the ouster of a founder and CEO by his own people, at a foundation based on open and equal expression.” Eich’s forced resignation, writes Ball, “should be the textbook example of the system working exactly as it should.”

Ball seems to be saying that what the gay mob did to Eich at Mozilla is what the heroes of Maidan Square did in driving President Viktor Yanukovych out of power and out of his country. This is how the democracy works now. Mitchell Baker, the executive chairwoman of Mozilla Foundation, who escorted Eich out, said in her statement: “Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.”

George Orwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour. What Baker is saying is that you have freedom of speech, so long as you use your speech to advocate equality. Read More…

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Mozilla and the Art of Culture War

In the first paragraph of Mozilla’s blog post announcing Brendan Eich’s resignation, the company offered an apology of its own: “We know why people are hurt and angry, and they are right: it’s because we haven’t stayed true to ourselves.” Continuing to keep an unrepentant Eich on board would, for Mozilla, would violate their integrity.

The developers at Rarebit, who began the boycott, expressed their surprise that their movement had forced Eich out of the company he founded, when there was such an easy solution available.

We never expected this to get as big as it has and we never expected that Brendan wouldn’t make a simple statement. I met with Brendan and asked him to just apologize for the discrimination under the law that we faced.

Eich had already promised to maintain Mozilla’s anti-discrimination policies, in letter and in spirit, but, for the Rarebit developers and other critics, repentance was required. The Rarebit developers stressed that Eich was free to keep his personal beliefs but that he should apologize for supporting this law. But apologies aren’t a realistic end condition for most political fights.

When the Supreme Court finally rules on the Hobby Lobby case, there’s no reason the victors have any obligation to apologize to the losers. The owners of the company don’t owe their employees an apology for trying to strike contraception from the company insurance plans, and the employees don’t need to beat their breasts and ask forgiveness for desiring it. Not all policy disputes have to be settled with personal reconciliation, and, if they are, that repentance won’t come in a pro forma memo.

Rote repentance or destructive dialogue is all that is possible, when the inferential distance between cultural combatants is too large. As America secularizes, the new “Nones” are particularly vulnerable to mischaracterizing religious opponents. In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell offers a new look at how similar errors in judgement lead to the Waco massacre in 1993.

[T]he religious scholar Nancy Ammerman interviewed many of the F.B.I. hostage negotiators involved, and she says that nearly all of them dismissed the religious beliefs of the Davidians: “For these men, David Koresh was a sociopath, and his followers were hostages. Religion was a convenient cover for Koresh’s desire to control his followers and monopolize all the rewards for himself.” … Because the F.B.I. could not take the faith of the Branch Davidians seriously, it had no meaningful way to communicate with them.

In a pluralistic society, we need to learn how to communicate with the people whose beliefs we abhor, even if only for pragmatic reasons, to avoid the kind of confusion that led to tragedy at Waco. When antagonists refuse to engage the logic behind views that they find repugnant opportunities for engagement are limited on both sides.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu warned military commanders, ”When you surround the enemy always allow them an escape route. They must see that there is an alternative to death.” Demanding public self-criticism, or conversions-expressed-as-apologies doesn’t leave a way for enemies to coexist or retreat. By treating apologies as trivial concessions and objections as irrelevant, those ascendant may find that they turn their enemies into David Koreshes and Thomas Mores.


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Thoreau vs. St. Benedict: How We “Opt Out” Matters

“Homesteading” has come back into vogue—but it’s not the old, federal-grant-fueled farming you may have read about in Little House on the Prairie. It’s a return to the land, focused on self-sufficiency and simple living. Eva Holland wrote Thursday about the trend for Pacific Standard:

Most recently, homesteading has been tweaked and put to use again, this time in connection with the latest do-it-yourself trends and the idea of increased self-sufficiency: of severing—or at least loosening—our ties to the big chain supermarket, the power grid, the consumer economy … It encompasses everything from backyard chickens and rooftop gardens in Brooklyn to the composting toilet in the tiny house your friend’s friend built. Abigail R. Gehring, the author of several recent how-to books on contemporary homesteading and self-sufficient living, writes: “Homesteading is about creating a lifestyle that is first of all genuine. It’s about learning to recognize your needs—including energy, food, financial, and health needs—and finding out how they can be met creatively and responsibly.”

The article reminded me of Henry David Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond, chronicled in his book Walden. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” he wrote.

Of course, Thoreau was a bit more extreme than most homesteaders—he was attempting to revert back to more of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle than an agrarian one. Indeed, he was surrounded by farmers, and criticized the lifestyle:

The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.

One wonders what he would’ve thought of our modern working world: the millions of people huddled over computers in dimly-lit cubicles, working over 40 hours a week, commuting home in droves, stuck for ages in rush hour traffic. The better part of man is no longer “plowed into the soil for compost,” but may perhaps waste away on the urban highway.

Thoreau and the homesteader are united in their desire for a simpler life, a back-to-nature and independence-driven mode of existence. As Holland puts it, today’s homesteaders “knit, and they forage for wild mushrooms, and, if they live in the right part of the country, maybe they smoke their own wild-caught salmon in a rudimentary smoker they built themselves.” Similarly, Thoreau built a rough shack, planted his garden, and cooked the food he needed for daily meals. (Though he was a bit hypocritical: Paul Theroux notes that “During his famous experiment in his cabin at Walden, moralizing about his solitude, [Thoreau] did not mention that he brought his mother his dirty laundry and went on enjoying her apple pies.”)

Thoreau’s mode of life, while not entirely solitary, suggests a state of nature centered on the individual, rather than on community. It also promotes the “noble savage” of romantic primitivism: the idea that, in his most simplistic state, mankind was most innocent, and the best caretaker of the earth. When we view the pollution, decay, and damage the humankind has wrought on the earth, it’s easy to adopt such a view. But there are a few important ingredients missing from Thoreau’s philosophy of living, and potentially from the philosophy of the homesteaders—and this is where St. Benedict comes in.

St. Benedict was a monk who lived around the year AD 500, known for starting monastic communities after the fall of Rome. Rod Dreher recently wrote a feature story for TAC on the monk and his model of living: Read More…

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