State of the Union

Orwell: Progressives Aren’t Fascists

luna715/Flickr.com
luna715/Flickr.com

Thanks to the website Open Culture, I came across George Orwell’s 1940 review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Not only does Orwell suss precisely the nature of Hitler’s menace and the source of his popularity, he provides a neat thumbnail description of European liberals and social democrats that could easily attach to today’s American Democrats:

Also [Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.

Dig that prescient reference to birth control!

There’s a variety of reasons—see Santayana, Garry Wills, and our own Dan McCarthy—why liberalism leads to force and coercion, but it’s simply not the case that progressivism or modern liberalism or whatever you want to call it is akin to European fascism and Nazism, a virulent outgrowth of German romanticism that should not be confused with the rationalist-materialist hubris of Marx, Engels, and scientific socialism. Since I began blogging semi-regularly four years ago, the conceit that, well, Nancy Pelosi should check her sleeve for a swastika, has been a constant irritant.

I’m glad to learn that the great Orwell would have been similarly irritated.


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Why Being an “Excellent Sheep” Isn’t So Bad

William Deresiewicz’s July article for The New Republic, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” launched a insightful, heated debate about the nature and meaning of education. In the newest edition of The New Yorker, Nathan Heller has penned a thought-provoking review of Deresiewicz’s newly-released book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, specifically considering its discussion of self-focus and career, comparing them with the writings and thought of Robert A. Nisbet.

In considering universities’ education, Deresiewicz asks whether they produce self-realization: “The highest function of art, and of literature in particular, is to bring us to that knowledge of ourselves that college ought to start to give us,” he writes. But Heller objects to this:

The groovy lore of college—the notion that it is a place to find yourself, follow your passions, learn to think in ways that benefit the world … Nisbet thought that these ideals were mostly feel-good bunk. Since when was it the university’s responsibility to solve all of society’s problems? he asked. And why should a professor rich in knowledge have to teach things that a callow nineteen-year-old considered “relevant” and “meaningful”? Academe ought to focus on the one thing that it actually did well: letting scholars teach what they knew. That teaching might nurture intellectual skills that the students could use in the real world, but how it did so was mysterious and, anyway, beside the point.

This older idea of knowledge—something inherently and, indeed, objectively good—is contrary to “knowledge” in the conception of Deresiewicz and others, which must be self-applicable in order to be meaningful. But it’s true that Deresiewicz’s call for self-actualization is a bit more complicated than this (Heller notes that Excellent Sheep is “full of such confusions”). In an interview with The Atlantic‘s Lauren Davis, Heller explained the meaning of his book’s title:

… [Students are] sheep, because they have never been given an opportunity to develop their ability to find their own direction. They’re always doing the next thing they’re being told to do. The trouble is that at a certain point, the directives stop. Though maybe not, because even when it comes to choosing a career, there are certain chutes that kids, especially at elite colleges, tend to get funneled towards.

Here, Deresiewicz is denouncing the career-focused structure of learning and the limits it imposes on self-reflection, rather than denouncing the actual subject matter of learning itself. Later on, he applies these thoughts to the classroom and the way students absorb knowledge. “The main point,” he says, “is to know yourself so you know what you want in the world. You can decide, what is the best work for me, what is the best career for me, what are the rewards that I really want.”

These two realms in which Deresiewicz identifies a lack of “self-awareness”—the technical/professional and the personal/intellectual—are connected by the ingredient of time. Students are so busy pursuing parent or university-imposed trajectories that they have no time to reflect on their learning, what it’s for, how they ought to apply it. Deresiewicz has some good points here: it is true that, though knowledge itself is objective, we will be unable to see how it threads its way through our lives unless we cultivate a healthy amount of reflection.

But Heller has good points, too: he acknowledges that education ought not revolve around career paths and money, but also sees the tension between career and academics as the “fragile,” eternal balance of the university. And despite Deresiewicz’s criticisms of students’ frantic schedules, Heller writes that “the truest intellectual training could be how to stay calm, and keep thinking clearly, in the high-strung culture in which students need to make their lives.” These are truly lessons that will remain relevant throughout a person’s life. Heller seems to say that being an “excellent sheep” isn’t so bad, if you are truly an excellent one. Perhaps being a sheep is the first step along a path to eventual intellectual independence and prudence.

Deresiewicz sees the frantic chaos in students’ lives, and argues self-reflection will assuage their depression and give them meaning. Heller sees the chaos, and suggests that this is the way in which gold emerges from dross. It could be that both are right, to an extent: the key is, perhaps, in the “excellent” part of “excellent sheep.” If the core of an education is good and insightful, it will cultivate strong and thoughtful minds. Some students may still run frenzied and stressed between internships and fellowships, papers and projects, exams and speeches. But the meat of what they learn, their daily bread of knowledge, will sustain and grow their self-reflective souls. And eventually, whether during college or after, they will be sheep no more.


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Why Facebook Wants You to Be Happy

People see Facebook as a neutral platform, which they can use to have conversations. But in reality, it’s a company, and thus it has motivations and strategies and interests involved in the ways its users utilize the network. Facebook has commercial reasons behind its desire to curate specific experiences, happy or otherwise—and as of late, it’s been working rather hard to curate a positive, uplifting (or “Upworthy”) experience for its users, as Casey Johnston reports in an ArsTechnica post:

As the protests in Ferguson, Missouri over police fatally shooting 19-year-old Mike Brown have raged through the past several nights, more than a few people have noticed how relatively quiet Facebook news feeds have been on the matter. While #Ferguson is a trending hashtag, Zeynep Tufekci pointed out at Medium that news about the violence was, as best, slow to percolate through her own feed, despite people posting liberally about it.

While I’ve been seeing the same political trending tags, my feed is mundane as usual: a couple is expecting a baby. A recreational softball team won a league championship. A few broader feel-good posts about actor Chris Pratt’s ice-bucket challenge to raise awareness and money for ALS, another friend’s ice-bucket challenge, another friend’s ice-bucket challenge… in fact, way more about ice bucket challenges than Ferguson or any other news-making event. In my news feed organized by top stories over the last day, I get one post about Ferguson. If I set it to organize by “most recent,” there are five posts in the last five hours.

This harkens back to Facebook’s recently released news feed manipulation study, which tracked users’ responses to positive vs. negative content. Facebook manipulated its algorithm to give a different experience to different users, and documented the effect these disparate algorithms had on their emotional wellbeing. All of this was in order—they purport—to curate a better user experience. Johnston adds,

One of the things Facebook thrives on is users posting and discussing viral content from other third-party sites, especially from sources like BuzzFeed, Elite Daily, Upworthy, and their ilk. There is a reason that the content users see tends to be agreeable to a general audience: sites like those above are constantly honing their ability to surface stuff with universal appeal. Content that causes dissension and tension can provide short-term rewards to Facebook in the form of heated debates, but content that creates accord and harmony is what keeps people coming back.

Facebook is not the only company that curates a given experience for commercial gain. Most online tools use algorithms for similar curation—Google, for instance, doesn’t show you all potential search items for the keyword you give it: it shows you specific search items it thinks you will like, ones that accord with its idea of your personality or character. And while this can be a useful service, it also has it drawbacks. All of these tools have a way of perpetuating specific traits or bents (virtuous or otherwise) in users: if you used to search Google for pornography, it’s likely to continue offering you pornography, even if you are trying to avoid it. If you looking at an old ex’s photo album on Facebook, perhaps in a moment of jealousy or curiosity, their postings will continue showing up in your news feed for days or weeks to come. Outside of the personal, we should pay attention to the effect these sites have on our perception of the outside world: as Eli Pariser noted in a March 2011 TED Talk, two users could Google the word “Egypt” and get completely different results—one would get news of protests and the Arab Spring and Morsi, while the other would only see tourism information and pictures. Pariser noted that Facebook does the same: Read More…

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Unschooling: the Future of Education?

Ben Hewitt doesn’t send his boys to school—he doesn’t even own a curriculum. He’s an “unschooling” parent. Though the method has grown in popularity since educator John Holt introduced it in his books and theory, many Americans are still largely unaware of the term’s meaning or methodology. Hewitt explains and introduces the concept at Outside magazine:

It is already obvious that unschooling is radically different from institutionalized classroom learning, but how does it differ from more common homeschooling? Perhaps the best way to explain it is that all unschooling is homeschooling, but not all homeschooling is unschooling. While most homeschooled children follow a structured curriculum, unschoolers like Fin and Rye have almost total autonomy over their days. At ages that would likely see them in seventh and fourth grades, I generously estimate that my boys spend no more than two hours per month sitting and studying the subjects, such as science and math, that are universal to mainstream education. Not two hours per day or even per week. Two hours per month.

But perhaps to abate the shock and alarm of thousands of parents, Hewitt adds,

Our sons are not entirely self-taught; we understand the limits of the young mind and its still-developing capacity for judgment. … I can report that Fin and Rye both learned to read and write with essentially zero instruction, albeit when they were about eight years old, a year or so later than is expected. They can add and subtract and multiply and divide. I can report that they do indeed have friends, some who attend school and some who don’t, and their social skills are on par with their peers. In fact, Penny and I often hear from other adults that our sons seem better socialized than like-aged schoolchildren.

Hewitt believes that unschooling makes his boys happier, healthier, and more exuberant learners. He’s part of a growing group of parents who thinking homeschooling—whether applied via a more structured format, or via the more self-directed unschooling methodology—presents a better environment for children to grow and learn.

The greatest contrast to unschooling, perhaps, is the helicopter parenting method, in which children adhere to a very strict curricular and extra-curricular regimen. This sort of learning can take place in public or private school, or even occasionally in homeschooling households. Such families usually have at least the outline of a college plan in mind for their children, and their academic, athletic, and artistic pursuits will align with this overarching trajectory. Many parents encourage this “track” in hopes that their children will be successful in their future adult lives. However, these “guaranteed” methods for career success have fallen into disarray as of late. With crippling student loans and shaky job prospects confronting college graduates at every turn, many are reconsidering their demanding trajectories, wondering whether the work is truly worth it.

On the opposite end of the educative spectrum, we have more libertarian, loose methods, in which children are given a vast array of freedom over their education. This can either be intentionally or passively developed: some children in public school may receive little to no adult supervision. The system is very flexible, giving parents the opportunity to lean in or opt out of their children’s education.

But then there’s unschooling: a very intentional sort of negligence (though the word “negligence” is perhaps a bit too dysphemistic). Parents choose to let their children choose, sculpt, direct, and orchestrate their own education (or lack thereof). This method seems to have two common motivations that separate it from the more popular method of “homeschooling”: first, there are unschooling parents who acknowledge that children will learn what they truly want to learn, and that forcing them down a given path can have deleterious consequences. They see that their children are highly motivated when they are free to pursue their own aspirations, ambitions, and projects, and want to foster this sort of driven passion in their children’s learning. Thus, the reasoning goes, what better than to give them control of their own education? Read More…

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Why Does Beauty Matter?

Our lives are often happier when they are surrounded by beautiful things, according to a Friday article by Cody C. Delistraty in The Atlantic. He references to a paper written by Abraham Goldberg, professor at the University of South Carolina Upstate, in which Goldberg analyzed the tendencies and environments which tend to foster happiness:

The usual markers of happiness are colloquially known as the “Big Seven”: wealth (especially compared to those around you), family relationships, career, friends, health, freedom, and personal values, as outlined by London School of Economics professor Richard Layard in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. According to the Goldberg study, however, what makes people happiest isn’t even in the Big Seven. Instead, happiness is most easily attained by living in an aesthetically beautiful city. The things people were constantly surrounded by—lovely architecture, history, green spaces, cobblestone streets—had the greatest effect on their happiness. The cumulative positive effects of daily beauty worked subtly but strongly.

In an attempt to measure this daily happiness, George MacKerron, now a lecturer at the University of Sussex, created an iPhone application called Mappiness when he was a graduate student at the London School of Economics. More than 45,000 people now use it, and the concept is simple: The app beeps twice a day and asks a series of questions, such as: How happy are you feeling? How awake do you feel? How relaxed are you? Then it asks another set of questions question to contextualize your situation: Who are you with? Are you inside or outside? As you’re answering these questions, the app tags your location via GPS, and the whole process only takes about 20 seconds. Deceptively simple, the answers to these questions provide a lot of information on happiness. The times that people recorded the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction were during sexually intimate moments (on a date, kissing, or having sex) and during exercise (when endorphins are being released).

But the next three types of moments where people recorded the highest levels of happiness were all related to beauty: when at the theater, ballet, or a concert; at a museum or an art exhibit; and while doing an artistic activity (e.g. painting, fiction writing, sewing).

The results of these studies present a few different, interesting components worth considering. First, they continue to affirm what New Urbanists have been saying (both here at TAC, and elsewhere): that the places in which we live matter, and that the cultivation of beautiful spaces has a very immediate impact on the happiness and flourishing of human beings. All the beautiful, place-related things listed in Goldberg’s study—”lovely architecture, history, green spaces, cobblestone streets”—are things that New Urbanists emphasize. Sadly, these sorts of spaces are currently limited to small portions of America. We have some cities that cultivate such an ethos—but living in these beautiful spaces is often egregiously expensive (Alexandria, Virginia is perhaps one of the best examples of this: it is a “super zip” city, according to the definition presented by Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart). The very environment that contributes most to the peace and happiness of human beings is only available to those who already have at least two other common attributes of happiness: wealth and career. And those who are not so well-established are often cut off, resigned to an ugliness that infiltrates and undermines their overall happiness.

It’s true, however, that there are other more important components to happiness—as noted by MacKerron, romantic and healthful components of life also have something to do with overall happiness. Interestingly, though, both things can be seen as part of cultivating a “beautiful” life. They fits with Roger Scruton’s definition of natural beauty, which he says is an item of intrinsic interest or value—something we can appreciate for its own sake. Cobblestone streets, for interest, are of little utilitarian value. They slow down and impede traffic, they’re less efficient and expedient. Yet, for some reason, we enjoy them. They have a value that transcends the immediate and pragmatic: they’re beautiful.

Similarly, romantic and healthful pursuits, though they often involve selfish motivations, are also usually sought and maintained for a greater good, out of a combined reverence and love that transcend the self. In his book on beauty, Scruton argues that pornography represents the “profanation” of the sexual bond, as it removes it entirely from the realm of intrinsic values, thus turning something inherently good into something inherently self-serving. But sexuality and romance that are sought as goods in and of themselves, to be cultivated and maintained with respect and reverence, can be seen as beautiful objects.

Thirdly, these findings on beauty’s connection to human happiness interestingly parallel modern literature, specifically the study’s emphasis on artistic pursuits. Two of the most popular books published in the past couple years, The Goldfinch and The Fault in Our Stars, revolve around this premise. Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch tells the story of Theodore Decker, a boy whose mother dies in a terrorist bombing at a New York City museum. Theo survives the catastrophe, but carries emotional and psychological scars away from the ruins—as well as a small, priceless painting. The rest of Theo’s life, in all of its twists and turns, centers around this secret: that he carries a museum masterpiece with him wherever he goes, burdened yet blessed by it. As I wrote for Acculturated, the book is about beauty, despair, and our desperate search for meaning amidst the chaos of life. Tartt suggests that the only things that last are “beautiful things,” pulled from the wreckage and the fire of life. The Fault in Our Stars presents a similar dark nihilism and obsession with art (though in TFiOS‘s case, the artistic object is a book). Both point to art as our key to happiness in an ugly world.

It’s an interesting concept, especially in a world that so often feels frayed and grotesque. But while beauty may be a necessary part of happiness, it is not sufficient for it. Though one of the first and most important ingredients in human flourishing, other important values must follow in its footsteps—namely, goodness and truth.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn explained this in his 1970 Nobel lecture. In his youth, he read Dostoevsky’s words, “Beauty will save the world,” and was skeptical. But with time, he realized that beauty plays an essential role in cultivating our understanding of goodness and truth:

There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender. It is possible to compose an outwardly smooth and elegant political speech, a headstrong article, a social program, or a philosophical system on the basis of both a mistake and a lie. What is hidden, what distorted, will not immediately become obvious.

Then a contradictory speech, article, program, a differently constructed philosophy rallies in opposition – and all just as elegant and smooth, and once again it works. Which is why such things are both trusted and mistrusted.

In vain to reiterate what does not reach the heart.

But a work of art bears within itself its own verification: conceptions which are devised or stretched do not stand being portrayed in images, they all come crashing down, appear sickly and pale, convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force – they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.

So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through – then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three?

In Solzhenitsyn’s conception, ideas that are not true or good will be ugly when we try to represent them artistically—and thus, their real force shines through. We see this very practically in our towns and cities, our art museums, our plays and films: there are many ugly, incongruent ideas in today’s culture. Their effect on the human person is not one of flourishing, but one of decay.

Solzhenitsyn believed our yearning for beauty is more than a mere aesthetic itch: it’s a siren call of the true and good, the other two trees we have decimated and ignored in modern society. Beauty is pointing us to them, and beckoning us onward. Our desire for New Urbanist cities, with their beauty and community, are part of a larger desire for the goods of community, love, fellowship, rootedness. Our desire for romantic and sexual love reflects a deeper yearning for companionship, camaraderie, unity, love, belonging. Our love of art reflects a deeper attraction to order, loveliness, and—as Delistraty puts it in his article, “surprisingly, hope.” Hope is what emerges out of art: which is why Donna Tartt and John Green (the author of The Fault in Our Stars) vest so much in it.

Beauty is a multi-faceted, mysterious thing that somehow brings happiness to humanity. Yet if we merely absorb its aesthetic pleasures without considering why we enjoy it, we  only receive bestial satiation from its presence. A deeper, more fulfilling realm of inquiry awaits us. We must plunge deeper into our understanding of the beautiful: to ask why it is necessary to human happiness, yet not sufficient. We must consider why beauty calls us “further up, and further in.”

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Can Equations Predict Happiness?

Want to be happy? There’s an equation for that, according to British neuroscientists. In a study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesthe scientists found an equation that correctly predicted the happiness of more than 18,000 people. The Atlantic‘s Cari Romm reports:

In the first leg of the study, the researchers developed the equation by having a group of volunteers play decision-making games, rewarding certain choices with small amounts of money. Every few rounds, participants were asked to rate their happiness on a sliding scale, while their neurological responses to the rewards were measured with MRI scans.

In the second leg, the team tested the equation on a larger audience by turning the decision-making task into a smartphone game, drawing players by the thousands. The results were as their model had predicted: When players expected a reward, they were less happy to receive it than if they hadn’t expected anything at all.

After compiling their research, the neuroscientists came up with this equation as an accurate predictor of happiness:

 

However, there’s an important catch to this equation that we must consider. As The Atlantic puts it, the neuroscientists’ research “measures only immediate reward, not long-term satisfaction.” The above equation specifically measures your response to expectations and rewards (or disappointments)—not your overall metaphysical state of being. How could one measure and quantify the sort of deep, value-based happiness that truly motivates humans long-term? Maybe there’s an equation for that; but it seems unlikely.

The equation above seems to be describing something a bit different from real “happiness.” It identifies something our society constantly identifies with happiness, but is in actuality quite different: namely, “pleasure.” It can contribute to happiness, but pleasure is neither necessary nor sufficient for real happiness. It’s defined most often as a feeling or sensation of happiness, synonymous with satisfaction, enjoyment, gratification—all the more temporary facets of “happiness.” It describes how you feel in a current moment.

But Aristotle put “pleasure” and “happiness” into very different boxes. Happiness in his conception is the highest good, the end to which we all aspire. But happiness, in his mind, requires ethical living: pursuing the supreme good necessitates that we fulfill our vocation as human beings, with virtue and integrity. Moral virtue is an integral part of happiness—and virtue helps us cultivate a proper response to “pain” and “pleasure” in life. Thus, “pleasure” is not seen as a good in and of itself—it is a facet of life that must be navigated, considered, and rightly responded to, in the larger pursuit of true happiness.

To Aristotle, happiness is an activity: a pursuit, not a passive response to life circumstances or expectations. The word eudaimonia (happiness) carries with it the idea of “flourishing” or “success.” This is something we do, not something we merely feel. In contrast, “pleasure” is exactly that: a feeling. And whereas we may be able to quantify cognitive responses to pleasure and pain, we cannot automatically turn such things into real “happiness.”

Our lost understanding of eudaimonia has turned us into the sort of people who seek out happiness in circumstantial or experiential mediums. And this seeking implies that we have already lost something—something that would enable us to grasp and retain happiness, no matter the pleasures or pains that plague our lives.

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Wendell Berry: A Steward of Place

The first book I read by Wendell Berry was Remembering: a profoundly moving novella about a journalist searching for identity and place, in the midst of a war between self and community. It was a deeply poignant story, and Berry’s diverse work has continued to have a profound effect on my writing and thought. Today, in honor of his 80th birthday, it seems appropriate to consider the impact he has had on our culture and ideas of place, in addition to the important role he continues to play in modern conservatism.

Wendell Berry doesn’t just appeal to “crunchy con” writers and conservatives, who probably enjoy his more pastorally-focused prose. His work is about more than farmers and fields, though he definitely promotes the rural. Anyone—urban dweller and rural citizen alike—can appreciate Berry’s focus and emphasis on place. A prolific novelist, all of Berry’s novels focus on one town, placing themselves within its geographic and relational limits. It is as if, even here, he wants to focus on the particulars, to love one place, even a fictionalized one. These are the characters, families, and social dynamics he wants to invest in.

Berry’s poetry has a similarly place-focused slant. His work plunges into theology and philosophy, but manifests itself in the lovely rhythms of countryside walks, meditations on the front porch, musings by the hearth. His work has soil beneath it, anchoring it.

In his essay on “Conservation and Local Economy,” Berry sets out a series of points that helps us understand his conception of place and its importance:

I. Land that is used will be ruined unless it is properly cared for.

II. Land cannot be properly cared for by people who do not know it intimately, who do not know how to care for it, who are not strongly motivated to care for it, and who cannot afford to care for it.

III. People cannot be adequately motivated to care for land by general principles or by incentives that are merely economic—that is, they won’t care for it merely because they think they should or merely because somebody pays them.

IV. People are motivated to care for land to the extent that their interest in it is direct, dependable, and permanent.

V. They will be motivated to care for the land if they can reasonably expect to live on it as long as they live. They will be more strongly motivated if they can reasonably expect that their children and grandchildren will live on it as long as they live. In other words, there must be a mutuality of belonging: they must feel that the land belongs to them, that they belong to it, and that this belonging is a settled and unthreatened act.

VI. But such belonging must be appropriately limited. This is the indispensable qualification of the idea of land ownership. It is well understood that ownership is an incentive to care. But there is a limit to how much land can be owned before an owner is unable to take proper care of it. The need for attention increases with the intensity of use. But the quality of attention decreases as acreage increases.

VII. A nation will destroy its land and therefore itself if it does not foster in every possible way the sort of thrifty, prosperous, permanent rural households and communities that have the desire, the skills, and the means to care properly for the land they are using.

All of these points also apply to urbanites and city dwellers. It matters not where we live: people have a tendency to treat property and land like consumers, with greed and a degree of detached self-focus that disregards potential long-term consequences. This leads to the deterioration of traditional towns, careless urban development and ruthless transportation policies that focus more on size and efficiency than on beauty and community.

This is why people like the New Urbanists call for a more humane, permanent understanding of city and town-building. They are looking for a sort of urban development that is “direct, dependable, and permanent”—one that fosters a vibrant community structure and rich urban fabric. New Urbanism takes Berry’s agrarian aspirations, and gives them an urban face. It encourages people who live in cities and towns, no matter their geographic location, to invest with a long-term focus: to build a place they will grow old in.

Berry writes, “As people leave the community or, remaining in the place, drop out of the local economy, as the urban-industrial economy more and more usurps the local economy, as the scale and speed of work increase, care declines.”

This isn’t, however, our future—or at least, it needn’t be. The sort of “radical disconnection” that Berry fears is becoming less and less popular, as people begin to realize the importance of place. Hopefully, through a more thoughtful introduction to Berry’s thought and theory, more people will understand that—regardless of where we live—place matters.

Happy birthday, Mr. Berry.

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Development of Non-Toxic 2016 GOP Agenda Continues Apace

The release of Rep. Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty “discussion draft” last week marks another milestone in a long, painstaking, and necessary project: the development of a non-toxic policy agenda on which the next Republican presidential nominee can run.

Zooming out, we see Republicans, like Tiktaalik, slowly transitioning out of the primordial soup of supply-side dogma. There was Rep. Dave Camp’s comprehensive tax reform proposal. It’s revenue neutral and maintains progressivity. Relatedly, Ryan takes care to insist his own proposal is “not a tax cut.” It’s true the conservative movement didn’t exactly leap for joy at Camp’s proposal—and there’s a myriad of reasons to doubt that the GOP could ever muster the courage to eliminate as many loopholes and deductions as it would take to reconcile the math of the Ryan budget.

But the larger point is this: a net tax reduction for the rich is now a radioactive position on the mainstream right.

Climbing down the income ladder, Ryan, in presenting his anti-poverty plan, with its devolution to states and consolidation of public assistance spending, noted that “this is not a budget-cutting exercise.” Yes, there’s the matter of reconciling these reforms with the harsh math of the Ryan budget. And the “accountability standards” to which states and local agencies would be held smells an awful lot to me like the anti-poverty version of No Child Left Behind.

But—and again—the larger point is this: a net reduction in spending on the poor and vulnerable is now a radioactive position on the mainstream right.

The recovery from “The 47 percent” and “You built that” will remain a tough slog over the next 18 months. However, the momentum is clearly in the direction of rational reform. The Tea Party era—in which “conservatism” for all practical purposes stood for an unholy alliance of plutocracy and Dixie revanchism—is clearly coming to a close.

Just how the all the manic energy of the last five years will be brought into the fold of a plausible governing agenda remains to be seen. The Room to Grow agenda represents the seedbed of ideas that might eventually become an appealing campaign platform. I like, in particular, Andrew Kelly’s ideas on higher-ed and job training, and Carrie Lukas’s emphasis on fiscal reforms that improve work-life balance.

Broadly speaking, the “reformocon” carriage is an interesting one, fraught with tension but full of possibility: that of the nontechnocratic wonk; of superintendence of the welfare state in a pro-market direction. Of bottom-up or middle-out reforms that issue from the top. The idea of a Medicare premium support system is qualitatively different than, say, Ronald Reagan’s original position on Medicare. But if the arrow is pointing in a rightward direction, can each faction of the right buy into it? Can you sell the idea of “reform” to people on a steady diet of Mark Levin, Ted Cruz, and Sarah Palin? Personally, I think the right would be better off it admitted—no, more than admitted—that “spontaneous order” does not and will not ever lead to a safety net or social insurance for the elderly.

But perhaps I worry too much. One of my themes in this space is the belief that the Tea Party was a cultural temper tantrum more than a granular programmatic shift. It may turn out that tea partiers can be lead to the water of an essentially neoconservative domestic agenda more easily than anyone currently imagines.


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The Beauty of Getting Lost

“Does GPS kill curiosity?” That’s the title of a piece David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom wrote over at Forbes yesterday. Ironically, their article doesn’t really give an answer—their points on geocaching and the criminalization of curiosity are metaphors for a discussion of creative innovation in the workplace. They encourage businesspeople to “go somewhere ‘in-between’,” to “lose your map,” but all in a figurative sense.  So despite the options offered to innovators in the workplace, we’re left with this question:

… Has the true explorer died within our culture? Have the pathways, roadmaps, proven strategies and GPS units killed off the spirits of great explorers like Magellan, Lewis and Clark, and Marco Polo?

It is good to consider the effect GPS systems have had on our culture. They have greatly enhanced the ease of travel—the ability to get from point A to point B—but they also make it more difficult to “go somewhere ‘in-between,’” as Sturt and Nordstrom write. We journey, most often, on freeways that are disconnected from the social and architectural fabric of passing communities. We are often too busy noting our estimated time of arrival and upcoming traffic patterns to enjoy passing landscapes. The GPS always promotes the most efficient route for drivers to take—but it doesn’t take note of scenic or historic importance. This is great when you’re in a rush, but can be potentially damaging for road trips, when we’re meant to see and savor.

GPS-navigated travel can also encourage a sort of mental laziness on the part of the driver. We aren’t forced to fully remember which turns we take, or which roads we’re driving on. We merely follow the GPS’s step-by-step instructions. Contrast this with traveling by maps (even a printed out Google map): while in the former scenario, we’re fed baby bites of navigation, the latter forces us to pay careful attention to every sign that passes, every twist and turn of the road. We recognize landmarks and road signs, and can easily find our way a second time, sans map.

Maps, of the smartphone and printed variety, are incredibly useful tools. I’m not saying we should stop using them. But there are times when, perhaps, we should consider taking Sturt and Nordstrom’s advice more literally—when we should seek out “in-between” places, rather than focusing on “getting from destination to destination.” Some of the best places are “in-between” larger places: small towns nestled up on mountain roads, scenic hikes tucked away from urban bustle, hole-in-the-wall restaurants hiding from more bustling thoroughfares. Our explorations of place should involve a desire for detours, and a willingness to stop.

We should also be willing to put down the maps. As Sturt and Nordstrom put it, “All of us have grown up in a world where our outcomes have been directed, and expected … we are suggesting you let your curiosity be your guide into some unknown territory.” Following maps—whether a smartphone GPS system, or merely our own travel-worn steps in a familiar town—can prevent us from discovering new and beautiful things. Setting down these guides enables us to discover beauty and mystery, both on the road and in our most familiar places. Read More…

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Reading & the “Attention War”

Focus is a difficult thing to muster these days. As David Brooks wrote in a recent New York Times column, we are all “losing the attention war. … Many of us lead lives of distraction, unable to focus on what we know we should focus on.” This affects many of our daily activities, especially things that require special mental concentration. It creates a minute-to-minute challenge for the reader, who will always feel the pull of the next Twitter story, the latest email, the newest Facebook post, etc. Whether reading news articles or books, we feel the distractions itch at our brain.

Yet despite our society’s general lack of focus, we aren’t necessarily abandoning long books—the Goldfinch, one of the most popular novels on the market right now, is 771 pages long. But this lack of focus does mean that modern books increasingly cater to the short-term attention span. Tim Park explains at the New York Review of Books:

Never has the reader been more willing than today to commit to an alternative world over a long period of time. But with no disrespect to Knausgaard, the texture of these books seems radically different from the serious fiction of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. There is a battering ram quality to the contemporary novel, an insistence and repetition that perhaps permits the reader to hang in despite the frequent interruptions to which most ordinary readers leave themselves open. Intriguingly, an author like Philip Roth, who has spoken out about people no longer having the “concentration, focus, solitude or silence” required “for serious reading,” has himself, at least in his longer novels, been accused of adopting a coercive, almost bludgeoning style.

The author suggests that, in this world of limited attention spans, the serious writer may have to parcel out his or her writing into shorter sections or volumes, in order for anything like the eloquent and verbose reading of prior eras to remain. An idea worth considering: could this trend toward short reads give rise to a deeper appreciation of poetry in the future? It’s thought-provoking and often mind-taxing, true—but it’s short. Or at least, some of it is. It would be interesting to see whether poetry makes a comeback in the future.

Another possibility worth considering: what if we brought back the short story, or syndicated novel? The New Yorker publishes short fictional works, but few other large journalistic publications do. Yet these fictional stories used to occupy a considerable portion of the news cycle. What if modern novelists, like Charles Dickens in days past, published their novels in publications like the New York Times or TIME magazine—one chapter at a time? I think the public would love it—and it could also help print publications build an audience that they seem to be steadily losing. Read More…

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