State of the Union

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Uber allows smartphone users to summon a variety of vehicles for hire directly without going through the oppressive and outdated taxi system.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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Can’t Staunch a Heartbleed

If you’ve used the internet in the last two years, there’s a very good chance that your personal data has been exposed. Any website that you log in to is likely to have been compromised by Heartbleed, a serious bug in the way sites verify your secure connection.

When you visit a site that begins with “https://” or see a little padlock icon in your address bar, you’re supposed to be connecting securely. All information that you send to the site (password, text of emails, etc.) and that it sends to you (account numbers, client information, etc.) is encrypted, so someone can’t tell what you’re doing by just snooping on your internet connection.

The Heartbleed bug is potentially a lot more serious than the occasional security lapses that result in leaks of usernames and passwords or even the breach at Target that compromised over 40 million credit card numbers. Instead of one site exposing data, Heartbleed left a loophole in the protocol the majority of sites use to secure their users’ information.

OpenSSL, a protocol that handles all this encryption and decryption turns out to be broken, and has been leaving back doors for two years undetected. The Heartbleed bug works like a peephole into that stream of supposedly encrypted data. An attacker can’t browse your traffic at will, but they can keep peering in, seeing random snatches of whatever happens to be being transmitted at that moment.

That means malicious actors can spot your user name and password, as one tester did for Ars Technica, skimming login credentials from Yahoo Mail, but they might also pull in the full text of the email you’re sending. Heartbleed affected about two-thirds of all servers, and although a patch has been released, each website must fix the bug individually.

That means you shouldn’t rush to change your all passwords. Your bank or email or company may still have left the digital stable door open. You can check whether any particular website is broken using this tool, and, if you get the all-clear, make the change. But, although you can see which sites have been fixed, there’s no way to look up whether your own information has been skimmed.

There’s no easy undo button for this kind of insecurity. There’s no guarantee to cover your losses, like the fraud protection for Target customers. There’s no one to punish and no way to retroactively protect yourself.

Heartbleed is a reminder of the fragility of the complex systems that surround us and our own powerlessness to make ourselves safe from every kind of harm. It’s worth auditing our old failsafes, but the Heartbleed bug, like the iOS vulnerability revealed and fixed earlier this year may just be the collateral price we pay for the convenience of software.

There is no indication that this flaw was deliberate, like the NSA’s subversion of encryption tools, or negligently handled, like GM’s fatal ignition switches. We can work to increase oversight and try to build antifragility into our security systems, but, online and off, there’s a limit to our ability to “Do something!”


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Ukraine Learns the Problem With Revolutions

Current Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk  rallies protesters in Ukraine last fall.
Ivan Bandura / Flickr
Current Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk rallies protesters in Ukraine last fall. Ivan Bandura / Flickr

When the old order begins to fall apart, many of the vociferous men of words, who prayed so long for the day, are in a funk – Eric Hoffer, True Believer

The news of late out of eastern Ukraine is laden with irony. Those of us possessed of a realist disposition—I use the term “disposition” advisedly, for as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr noted in his essay “Augustine’s Political Realism,” definitions of realists “emphasize disposition, rather than doctrines”—are not terribly surprised that the recently installed regime in Kiev has set in motion a revolution it now finds itself unable to control. As history shows, that’s the trouble with revolutions: once begun, efforts to predict—much less control—their path are often fruitless.

What we are seeing taking place in the eastern provinces of Ukraine shouldn’t be terribly surprising, after all—the erroneous, yet seductive phrase “one Ukrainian people” that has been uttered over and over again by American and European diplomats, was always a fiction. So the new regime in Kiev finds itself in an analogous position to the one the Yanukovych government found itself in late 2013-early 2014; it faces popular dissatisfaction that expresses itself in the street (we have thankfully—thus far anyway—been spared the term “the Ukrainian street”).

There are a few differences between the oft-praised Euro-Maidan and the pro-Russian demonstrations now taking place across the East; the first being that the latter have actually been peaceful (so far). The nature of the regimes against which the respective protests were aimed are different as well; one, Yanukovych’s, was democratically elected in 2010, the government headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk (or, as he was referred to in honeyed tones by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, “Yats”) was imposed by acts of violence and coercion. Another difference can be spotted in the reactions of the American media to the two movements. Proving the American media is nothing if not nimble, solidarity for the aspirations of the “Ukrainian people” during the Maidan riots has now morphed—in nary a blink of an eye—to scorn for protesters in the east who are obviously tools of the Kremlin.

And so if the protagonists of the Ukrainian revolution and their Western cheerleaders aren’t “in a funk,” perhaps they ought to be, for developments are not proving very favorable at present. In addition to the restive populations in urban centers like Donetsk and Kharkiv, Vladimir Putin is playing a strong hand well. He recently issued a letter to 18 European leaders urging them to provide Ukraine with financial assistance to avoid a shutdown of Russian gas supplies to Europe; economic leverage is joined by military leverage: Russia has amassed over 40,000 troops on its western border with Ukraine; and last but not least, Russia is busy consolidating its hold over Crimea. Indeed, this week the Russian government announced it was exploring the possibility of investing upwards of $1 billion toward developing the Crimean wine industry. Read More…

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Bard College Declares War on Admissions Rigmarole

I once tutored a student who could write an A+ essay, and then get a D on her multiple-choice tests. In working with that student, I learned that these two different exercises required entirely different skills. I learned that not all students test well—an unfortunate trait in this age of testing frenzy. The SAT and ACT rule supreme over the futures of prospective college students across the U.S. Want to attend an Ivy League? The tests will determine your fate.

Thanks to a new experiment being conducted this year, liberal arts school Bard College is breaking this mold. While students can still submit a standard application, with the traditional list of SAT scores, GPA, extracurriculars, etc., the New York Times reports that students can also opt for a different (and in many ways, more difficult) project:

… Bard for the first time invited prospective freshmen to dispense with all the preamble, and just write four long essays chosen from a menu of 21 scholarly topics. Very scholarly topics, like Immanuel Kant’s response to Benjamin Constant, absurdist Russian literature and prion disorders. The questions, along with the relevant source materials, were all available on the Bard website. As for the four essays, totaling 10,000 words, they were read and graded by Bard professors. An overall score of B+ or better, and the student got in.

So you can send in your reading lists, club activity, academic references, and transcripts. Or you can write 2,500 words on the topic, “What is the Relationship Between Truth and Beauty?” Which exercise, do you think, is more beneficial to the student? Which measures their creativity—and which demonstrates their ability to jump through hoops?

Bard’s president, Leon Botstein, said the experiment is an act of “declaring war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions.” The typical admissions process picks students based on their best set of quantifiable skills. But this essay method requires and reveals students’ resilience, creativity, and erudition.

Not surprisingly, it’s a rigorous exercise, and many students did not complete the process. The Times reports that only 50 people ended up submitting essays—applicants aged 14 through 23, hailing from seven countries and 17 states. Nine submissions were not complete. All three homeschooled applicants were accepted.

However, as awareness of the program grows, it seems likely they’ll receive more applicants—from students who delight in thinking and writing, or perhaps from students who struggled with tests and classes, and want a second chance. Of course, this process defies the quantifiable designations of a normal application process, and one must applaud Bard for defying the automatous ease of the modern era. This application process, if it grows, will mean more work for all parties.

But it also offers greater goods to those involved: it stretches the application process from a mere filling out of forms, into a learning process itself. As one student essayist told the Times, “I thought about other colleges, but when I started working on the essays, I became sort of obsessed.” Bard’s experiment takes learning out of the classroom, and challenges students at the very outset of their academic career.

While the traditional college application process isn’t wrong, it does leave important knowledge—and important people—out in the cold. Perhaps this experiment will encourage other institutions to look with greater depth at students’ ideas, not just their GPA.


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Reagan’s Lessons for Dealing with Russia

Wikimedia Commons

President Reagan was holding a meeting in the Cabinet Room on March 25, 1985, when Press Secretary Larry Speakes came over to me, as communications director, with a concern. The White House was about to issue a statement on the killing of Major Arthur Nicholson, a U.S. army officer serving in East Germany. Maj. Nicholson had been shot in cold blood by a Russian soldier. Speakes thought the president’s statement, “This violence was unjustified,” was weak. I agreed. We interrupted the president, who reread the statement, then said go ahead with it.

What lay behind this Reagan decision not to express his own and his nation’s disgust and anger at this atrocity?  Since taking office, Reagan had sought to engage Soviet leaders in negotiations, but, as he told me, “they keep dying on me.” Two weeks earlier, on March 10, 1985, Konstantin Chernenko, the third Soviet premier in Reagan’s term, had died, and the youngest member of the Politburo, Mikhail Gorbachev, had been named to succeed him. Believing Gorbachev had no role in the murder of Maj. Nicholson, and seeking a summit with the new Soviet leader to ease Cold War tensions, Reagan decided not to express what must have been in his heart.

Which raises a question many Republicans are asking: What would Reagan do—in Syria, Crimea, Ukraine? Is Sen. Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, or Gov. Jeb Bush or Chris Christie the candidate most in the Reagan tradition, the gold standard for the GOP? We cannot know what he would do, as we live in a post-Cold War world. But we do know what Reagan did. In the battle over the Panama Canal “giveaway,” Reagan stood against Bill Buckley and much of his movement and party. “We bought it, we paid for it, it’s ours, and we’re gonna keep it,” he thundered.

The Senate agreed 2-1 with Jimmy Carter to surrender the Canal to Panama’s dictator. Reagan’s consolation prize? The presidency. Reagan came to office declaring Vietnam “a noble cause” and determined to rebuild U.S. military might and morale, which he did in spades. His defense budgets broke the spine of a Soviet Union that could not compete with the booming America of the Reagan era. What’s our strategy, his first National Security Council adviser Dick Allen asked him. Replied Reagan: “We win, they lose.” Reagan saw clearly the crucial moral dimension of the ideological struggle between communism and freedom. He called the Soviet Bloc “an evil empire.”

Yet he never threatened military intervention in Eastern Europe, as some bellicose Republicans do today. Reagan would not be rattling sabers over Crimea or Ukraine. Read More…

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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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Discrimination Is a Distraction from Real Wage Gap Causes

The White House of late has been peddling the claim that women make 77 cents to every man’s dollar for the same work. Elizabeth Plank and Soraya Chemaly from PolicyMic ran with this dubious statistic, creating the hashtag #withoutthewagegapIwould that circled the Internet with statements such as: “without the wage gap I would be able to buy my sister a house.” Phrases of that ilk are meant to elicit an immediate and visceral reaction. Were it not for the wage discrimination, women’s finances would dramatically improve. But would they, really? There has been strong blowback against that statistic, with substantial evidence showing it to be incomplete and applied to incongruous employment situations. Misrepresenting data that affects half of the population, even if well-intentioned, risk framing the problem incorrectly, making the path to a viable solution much steeper.

Christina Hoff Summers of AEI, writing at The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post, crunched the numbers and determined that when relevant variables are controlled for (such as occupation, time in the workplace, and college degree) the pay gap between men and women shrank from 23 cents to between five and seven. It’s not yet clear whether or not discrimination accounts for that last nickel, but it disarms a would-be political platform purporting to give underpaid women their retribution. Matt Yglesias attempts to argue that statistical controls identify discrimination rather than disproving it, but fails to explain how the wage gap is caused by discrimination.

One explanation for the gap is the professions that women choose: women are more likely to take jobs in the caretaking and artistic fields while men are more likely to elect for professions requiring technical expertise. More women are graduating from college, but fewer of those graduates are getting degrees in STEM fields, where the most lucrative jobs are. According to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, since 1990, the amount of men earning computer science degrees has nearly doubled, while the amount of women earning degrees has stayed the same after a brief bump in the early 2000s. Feminist groups like the National Organization for Women claim that this self-selection is not a woman’s choice at all, but pernicious gender stereotypes predetermining her career path. While there may be little data to support this, but there is significant evidence to support the idea that the main culprit responsible for women’s inability to keep pace with a men’s earning power is the bearing of children. 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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The Case for “Serfdom,” Rightly Understood

Baker County Tourism / Flickr
Baker County Tourism / Flickr

Last Saturday I had the honor of addressing the 50th anniversary meeting of the Philadelphia Society. The title of the meeting was “The Road Ahead—Serfdom or Liberty?” My remarks sought to suggest that conservatives should be more circumspect about their rote incantation of the word “liberty,” and that there may even be something to be said for “serfdom,” properly understood. My remarks in full are printed, below.

“The Road Ahead—Serfdom or Liberty?”

 The Philadelphia Society Annual Meeting—50th Anniversary

Patrick J. Deneen, The University of Notre Dame

I would like to begin my remarks by calling to mind two commercials that aired at different points during the last five years. The first aired in 2010, and was produced by the Census Bureau in an effort to encourage Americans to fill out their census forms. It opens with a man sitting in his living room dressed in a bathrobe, who talks directly into the camera in order to tell viewers that they should fill out the census form, as he’s doing from his vantage as a couch potato.

Fill out the census, he says, so that you can help your neighbors—and at this point he gets out his chair and walks out the front door, past his yard and the white picket fence and points at his neighbors who are getting into their car—You can help Mr. Griffith with better roads for his daily car pool commute, he says—and then, indicating the kids next door, “and Pete and Jen for a better school,” and continues walking down the street. Now neighbors are streaming into the quaint neighborhood street, and he tells us that by filling out the census, we can help Reesa with her healthcare (she’s being wheeled by in a gurney, about to give birth), and so on… “Fill it out and mail it back,” he screams through a bullhorn from a middle of a crowded street, “so that we can all get our fair share of funding, and you can make your town a better place!”

The other ad, produced in 2012, was produced by the Obama re-election campaign, though it was not aired on television and has today disappeared from the internet. It was entitled “The Life of Julia,” and in a series of slides it purported to show how government programs had supported a woman named Julia at every point in her life, from preschool funds from a young age to college loans to assistance for a start up to healthcare and finally retirement. In contrast to the Census commercial—which portrayed a neighborhood street filled with people who knew each others’ names—“The Life of Julia” portrayed a woman who appeared to exist without any human ties or relationships, except—in one poignant slide—a child that had suddenly appeared but who was about to be taken away on a little yellow school bus, and as far as we’re shown, is never seen again. No parents, no husband, a child who disappears.

The first ad is a kind of Potemkin Village behind which is the second ad. The first ad shows a thriving community in which everyone knows each others’ names, and as you watch it—if you aren’t duped by what it’s portraying—you are left wondering why in the world would we need government to take care of our neighbors if we knew each other so well? Why is my obligation to these neighbors best fulfilled by filling out the Census form? The commercial is appealing to our cooperative nature and our sense of strong community ties to encourage us to fill out the Census form, but in fact—as the commercial tells us—it is in order to relieve us of the responsibility of taking care of each other; perhaps more accurately, it’s reflecting a world in which increasingly we don’t know our neighbor’s names, and instead turn to the government for assistance in times of need.

The second commercial is what lies “behind” the Potemkin village of the first. Read More…

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