I have not yet noted that my thoughts about cities are necessarily shaped by my having grown up in one. When, twenty years ago, I read Paul Hemphill’s book Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son I knew I had to write something about it. Marc Smirnoff of the Oxford American let me do so, and I’m reprinting my essay here. It was hard for me to keep my editorial pencil away from this — I would write it much differently today — but let it stand as a moment in my own personal history.
Still Leaving Birmingham
My home town, the place where I was born and lived until I was twenty-one years old, is not a city; it is a symbol. More technically, it is a synecdoche, a part of an entity which can stand for the whole. Birmingham represents the darkest days of the civil rights movement, evil forces finally but at inordinate cost defeated. The name once pronounced, all the images step obediently forward: the church shattered by dynamite, the four young girls dead in their Sunday clothes, Bull Connor, fire hoses, Reverend King in jail inscribing his great open letter on the margins of a newspaper. Birmingham is the fiery trial, the purgatory that, as far as anyone then could see, was just plain hell.
I was slow learning all this, because most of it happened when I was too young to find out on my own, and as far as I can recall it was never discussed in my house. Though I clearly remember seeing the announcement of President Kennedy’s assassination on television the year before I started school — sitting on the linoleum floor of our living room, playing with a puzzle, looking up with no particular curiosity to see why a program I was not watching had been interrupted — I only learned about the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which had occurred just two months before the assassination, while browsing through a book in my local public library when I was senior in high school. In my history and civics classes (most of which, incidentally, were taught by black men) nothing of Birmingham’s recent history was ever mentioned. I didn’t read King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” until I was in graduate school, six hundred miles from home. It was only in those years, living outside of Alabama for the first time, that I came to understand that I could not speak the name of the city in which I had lived my whole life without calling up, in the minds of my interlocutors and increasingly in my own, that whole solemn procession of evil images from the past.
I understand myself, then, to live on the other side of a divide from Paul Hemphill, author of the recent historical memoir Leaving Birmingham. Between those Birminghamians who knew what was happening when it happened and those who did not (including those who were not yet born) there is a great gulf fixed. I am not sure it can be bridged. Though Hemphill and I grew up not only in Birmingham but in the same part of Birmingham, though the landmarks of his youth (the streets, the parks, the schools, the churches) are also the landmarks of mine, though the old family home which he revisits at the end of his book stands just a scant few blocks from the one in which I was raised, though, in short, he represents the world of my youth more fully than I ever imagined anyone would ever do, we are different in this fundamental respect: he grew up in a city, I in a symbol.
But this is not to say that I was completely ignorant, as a child, that I lived in an unusual place. I was attending Elyton School, in the oldest section of the city, when Birmingham’s schools were integrated for the first time. At Elyton, anyway, the transition was peaceful, and even at the time (or not long afterwards) I was proud of our tolerance. Perhaps my teacher told me I should be. When I was twelve Birmingham was named an “All-American City” by whatever bureaucracy claimed the authority to make such a designation, and the t-shirts bearing the official logo which suddenly appeared on bodies of all ages were worn not just with civic pride but also (it was palpable to me even then) with an air of vindication. Every white person in the city, it seemed, was copping an attitude. Dimly and half-consciously I understood that people who lived elsewhere didn’t have to be so defensive, that other lives remained unwatched and unremarked.
This was not, I think, part of Hemphill’s childhood experience. He relates, concisely and directly, Birmingham’s short and ugly history, its birth and development after the Civil War as a “gawky stepchild” of northern industrial desire, its enormous distance from the “agrarian South, that gossamer myth” upon which other Southern cities (“Memphis and Charleston and Mobile and Natchez”) have tried for so long to nourish themselves. But these differences were surely inaccessible to a working-class child like Hemphill. Later, as an adult trying to understand what it meant to grow up, not a Southerner, but specifically a Birminghamian, he must have meditated on this history; but I wager it was not part of his upbringing. The troubles of his Birmingham were never exposited by Walter Cronkite, or depicted for readers of the New York Times by reporters on special assignment and photos courtesy of AP. When the agonies of Birmingham came to attract such august national institutions, Hemphill had the chance to get out of town, and to do so as a more-or-less conscious act of protest. By “leaving Birmingham” he could get a better job, see more of the world — but he could also make a point, could respond in the way he found most appropriate to the transformation of his home town into a synecdoche. That was an opportunity my generation never had. By the time I was old enough to leave Birmingham there was no one point to make: had I intended a noble protest against continuing racism, it could easily have been interpreted (if anyone happened to notice) as another white in flight from a city increasingly dominated, politically if not economically, by its black majority. The problem with symbols is that they are susceptible to continuing reinterpretation.
Perhaps my envy of Hemphill’s ability to leave Birmingham underlies my otherwise inexplicable frustration with his book. I have been reading Paul Hemphill’s work for a long time: in fact, when I was about ten years old, poring over his columns in Sport magazine, I got my first glimpses of a world in which an interest in sports and an interest in language were not irreconcilable. And the parallels between his history and mine seem almost calculated to garner my sympathy. Still, again and again I find myself wincing at parts of Hemphill’s narrative. What I’m trying to understand is whether those winces come from the chasm that separates us or the ties that bind us. Wincing at Hemphill I may be wincing at myself.
An illustration: After he moved away from Birmingham, Hemphill — so I infer from his story — came to suffer from an affliction common to sensitive Southerners: the compulsion to establish and display friendships with black people. With evident relish he describes his experience as a Nieman Fellow (which meant a year of writing time at Harvard for gifted young journalists) when he became close friends with the year’s only black Fellow, Joe Strickland of the Detroit News. He is clearly proud to relate the eulogy he gave at Strickland’s funeral in Boston. Perhaps he doth protest too much, I start to think, but memory forces me to acknowledge that I have often done the same. One of my most vivid memories of my freshman year in college involves a young black woman I had known in high school. We crossed paths on campus, neither having known that the other was going to school there, and greeted each other with a hug. We talked for a few moments, then parted, and as I walked away I saw another student on a bench, a big guy in jeans and a tight t-shirt, looking at me with unconcealed disgust. Immediately I realized that I had hugged a black woman right there in public, in front of dozens of people, many of whom were likely as disgusted as the guy on the bench. Pride surged in my breast — not so much that I had hugged Bernice, but that I had done so unconsciously, not thinking it a significant act. Surely this was proof of my immunity to racism. And yet why, if I could hug Bernice so un-self-consciously, why do I inwardly rejoice that after twenty years I have finally found a way to get that story into print? As lawyers and logicians will tell you, it’s mighty tough to prove a negative; if you want people to believe you’re not a racist, you’ll scrounge for any evidence you can find.
Similarly, I find myself as I read complaining that Hemphill makes racial innocence sound all too easy. The self-exiled native son returns to Birmingham after many years away and takes all the right stands: he dispenses appropriate contempt for the country club racists whose whites-only admission policy disfigured Birmingham’s first major golf tournament; he attends a city-government-sponsored “Salute to Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement,” duly noting the scarcity of white faces; he assures anyone who will listen that the accusations against Birmingham’s black mayor, Richard Arrington, were trumped up by hostile Republicans in the Justice Department; he visits the black family who now lives in the house his virulently racist father once owned and feels “elated” because “finally justice had prevailed.” As I read such passages I scowl and carp: who are you, Hemphill, to dispense praise and blame so confidently, or to find an almost Biblical achievement of justice in black Birminghamians’ inheritance of houses virtually abandoned by whites fleeing to the suburbs? Are you given privileged moral stature by your long-time residence in Atlanta? — whose superiority to Birmingham, especially in racial relations, you regularly proclaim, though not everyone finds Atlanta so ideal a polis, or so remarkably free from the racist taint. Yet even as I mouth such words I remember that others could draw certain regrettable conclusions from the fact that I now live in a suburb of Chicago where one would be hard-pressed to scare up a black face for love or money, and where my tales of being the only white boy on the basketball court at Lynn Park (ask Paul Hemphill where that is) can, in the minds of my suburban friends, compare in exoticism with the travelogues of Victorian gentlemen in Asia. If it’s easy to be a native of Birmingham when you live in Atlanta, it’s even easier when you live in northern Illinois.
So easy, in fact, that the longer you live in the North the more nostalgically you speak of your old Alabama home, though some folks might notice that you aren’t contacting any real estate agents in Birmingham. I can plead the excuse that the scarcity of jobs for college professors makes it hard for me to move, which is true; but it is also true that, while I used to wonder how writers like Roy Blount Jr. could write so fondly and eloquently about the South while living in near-polar climes, I don’t wonder so much anymore. Time and distance sand one’s experience smooth; I can handle my Birminghamian history now without fearing so much as a splinter; and since most of my friends know my shtick about growing up in a synecdoche, while my students have never heard of Bull Connor and have only the vaguest iconic image of Martin Luther King, there’s no reason to think that my past won’t get smoother still as time goes on. And when things get rough I can always reread Absalom, Absalom! and remind myself how much tougher poor Quentin Compson had it, huddled in a bitterly cold room in Massachusetts trying to explain a peculiarly Southern piece of American history to a Canadian.
But really, I still haven’t left Birmingham; though in a way and without willing it I suppose I’m in the process of leaving. This may be a point at which Paul Hemphill and I really do part company, because his book may be his true farewell to the city. His parents are dead now and his sister’s husband is, shall we say, sufficiently unreceptive to his liberalism that he wonders if he will ever eat at their table again. Having lived in Birmingham long enough to put this book together, he need never return, and can watch future developments from the safe vantage point of Atlanta. I, on the other hand, retain many ties to the place: though I’ve lost touch with every one of my old friends, my wife and I still have family there — but only in a sense. Her parents live in one of the suburbs Hemphill calls the Five White Kingdoms; mine, when their neighborhood in East Lake was levelled because of an engineering project, took the money and fled to a little town fifty miles north of the city where the old men still sit on the court house steps and spit. Her one sibling lives on a lake forty miles from town; mine on some farmland not far from my parents’ house. There was a time when all these people lived in Birmingham; now none of them does, and “the race thing” has played some part in all of these moves. In one way or another we’ve all been flung by the same explosion that Paul Hemphill left town to avoid, or to protest; my wife and I have just been flung a little farther than the others. So my connections to Birmingham grow, imperceptibly, ever more tenuous. One of these years I’ll return from a visit and realize, with surprise and regret, that in ten days I never crossed the city limits.
I still go back, though, if only for Christmas, and drive around in my old neighborhood — most recently with my two-year-old son chattering from the back seat in his already pronounced Northern accent, not a dipthong to be heard. I think about how the place has changed, usually for the worse, especially now that my old street has no houses on it; or note that my son’s schools will be far superior to any I ever attended; or consider whether, if we could spend our summers in Alabama, he might acquire a Southern accent; or ask if the suburbs of Chicago meet anyone’s definition of a “place.” But I always think one complicated and ambivalent thought: if this isn’t home, no place else ever will be.
My critical edition of W. H. Auden’s long poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio is now available. It’s a beautiful poem, and it’s okay for me to say that because I didn’t write it.
Here is a brief excerpt from my introduction to the poem:
A few weeks after his mother’s death Auden moved to Ann Arbor to begin a year of teaching at the University of Michigan. By October Auden was drafting an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship in which he proposed to write “a long poem in several parts about Christmas, suitable for becoming the basis of a text for a large-scale musical oratorio.” (Asked to identify the project’s significance, he simply wrote, “There may still be much to be discovered about ways of combining language and music.”) If an operetta about Paul Bunyan written by two Englishmen [Auden and Benjamin Britten] had been a peculiar enterprise, a poem about Christmas might be thought even less promising: rescuing the validly sayable from a morass of sentimental associations and purely secular observances would be a difficult task indeed.
Yet Auden had come to believe that all the matters he was strenuously reassessing — art, community, erotic love, politics, psychology — had been fundamentally altered by a single event: the entry of God into human history, what Christians call the Incarnation. The Christ child, as every character agrees in the poem he would write, changes everything. And that radical disruption of the world, and therefore of all the things human beings typically think about the world, needed to be accounted for. Auden set about that task.
Tim Keller’s 2006 exhortation to Christians to move to the cities was part of a general symposium organized by Andy Crouch, for Christianity Today, around a potent question: “How can Christians become a counterculture for the common good?” The question had actually been prompted by Keller, who believes that cities have a particular need of a visible and seriously countercultural Christian presence.
One of the most powerful stories associated with that symposium — recorded a DVD that Crouch produced to accompany it, meant for church use — was that of an immensely gifted artist named Makoto Fujimura. In the film we see Fujimura working in his studio, and we hear him explain how under the influence of Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian he had moved from the suburbs of New Jersey to Manhattan — three blocks from what would become Ground Zero. The horrors of September 11, 2001 did not make him feel he had made a mistake; rather, it served to intensify his commitment to living, working, and raising his children in New York. His story is a beautiful and thoroughly Christlike example of drawing near to a place not in its glory but in its suffering, and joining in the work of renewal.
A few months ago Fujimura wrote, “Last December, as I headed to Japan for an exhibit, I left the ‘Ground Zero’ loft that we spent the last 14 years in and raised our three children in, and I came home to a farmhouse in Princeton on Christmas Eve. The move is a culmination of many years of wrestling for both Judy and [me] to gauge our journey together, to determine the best path to weave our future together.”
It is perhaps worth noting that I read about Fujimura’s move to the country in the website devoted to a new project Andy Crouch is overseeing for Christianity Today. The project is called “This Is Our City.”
What we always want in a home is refuge, haven, security. In Juvenal’s image, people come to the city for protection: they sleep well with neighbors close by and the gates of the city walls firmly locked and guarded. But when they find that “there is more harmony among snakes” than among people, they seek to escape: the countryside suddenly appears not as a place of threat from “nature red in tooth and claw” but as place free from the most dangerous kind of serpent. “This was my prayer,” Juvenal’s fellow Roman Horace, that gentler satirist, writes about his Sabine Farm: he always wanted to be there, or so he tells us. Maybe in fact it wasn’t so simple; maybe Machiavelli is more honest, in his portrayal of a life that in a single day finds immense frustration among disputatious rubes and peaceful colloquy with the great sages of the past.
It’s easy to see, then, why those who can afford it have both: the Manhattan apartment and the beach house in the Hamptons; the London townhouse for one season and the country house for another. English novels are filled with people who can’t wait to escape the boredom of country life for the excitement of a social season in London, and then, a little later, are equally desperate to escape and noise and bustle of the city in order to smell fresh air and hear the birds singing.
This oscillation is perhaps more significant than it appears. Over the years that we have lived in northern Illinois, my wife Teri and I have eagerly anticipated visits with our families in our native Alabama. “It’ll be so nice to get home,” we say. But then as our return to Illinois draws closer we say, “This has been nice, but it’ll be good to get back home.” It took us several years before we realized that we were always describing the place we weren’t as “home.” This may say something about how humans think about place, what we expect from our places — and especially from the city. We ask much of it; perhaps too much.
… Not quite back to the red clay of our Alabama childhood, after decades amidst the thick black Midwestern loam, but to land more like it. A lighter tan soil, reddish in places. Occasionally deep orange, ferrous. More exposed rock, with greens muted, almost pastel. Unexpected arroyos, entangled in brush.
More cattle in big pastures, fewer fields of tall corn. No limber stretching maples and locusts, but spreading live oaks. Two degrees south of where I’ve ever lived before; ten degrees west. The real West quite visible, over that way. Days of more constant length throughout the year, not the long long summer evenings and short short winter days that I now know well. How my heart always sank with the wan winter sun of the upper Midwest.
Heat, of course; a few degrees warmer than the Alabama I grew up in (sans air conditioning), a few percentage points less humid. After so long in a cooler world, where even in the midst of hot and humid summers a northerly wind can sweep through and make the world crisp and dry for a while, how readily will we re-acclimate ourselves to implacable heat? We once knew it intimately.
Our new world is still mostly flat, though, not the ridges and valleys among which we grew up. No landscape opening before us like a grassy sea will seem as natural to us as the wooded hill rising up to hide the rest of the world. We will continue, then, to know broader vistas. In most other respects things will change. We will see how it goes.
If traditional institutions reduce suicide, as Douthat suggests, then suicide rates should be lower in the South, where religiosity is highest, or in the inland West, where marriage is most common. Instead, suicide rates are lowest in the northeastern corridor, with Washington, D.C., and New York rounding out the bottom of the list. Suicide is most common in the sparsely populated states of the interior West. If the 30 percent increase is worthy of a headline, then western states deserve a spot in the headlines, too: The suicide rate in states like Alaska or Montana is more than 300 percent higher than in D.C. or New York.
So let’s look at Douthat’s column:
In the 1990s, the suicide rate dipped with the crime rate. But since 2000, it has risen, and jumped particularly sharply among the middle-aged. The suicide rate for Americans 35 to 54 increased nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2010; for men in their 50s, it rose nearly 50 percent. More Americans now die of suicide than in car accidents, and gun suicides are almost twice as common as gun homicides.
This trend is striking without necessarily being surprising. As the University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox pointed out recently, there’s a strong link between suicide and weakened social ties: people — and especially men — become more likely to kill themselves “when they get disconnected from society’s core institutions (e.g., marriage, religion) or when their economic prospects take a dive (e.g., unemployment).” That’s exactly what we’ve seen happen lately among the middle-aged male population, whose suicide rates have climbed the fastest: a retreat from family obligations, from civic and religious participation, and from full-time paying work.
The hard question facing 21st-century America is whether this retreat from community can reverse itself, or whether an aging society dealing with structural unemployment and declining birth and marriage rates is simply destined to leave more people disconnected, anxious and alone.
Nate Cohn argues that this is all wrong because “If anything correlates with suicide rates, it’s a states’ [sic] population density: In populous areas, suicide rates are low; in the sparsely populated hinterlands, suicide rates are high. Perhaps depression and loneliness is particularly harsh in desolate areas, and maybe it’s easier to cope in a major city like D.C. or New York.” Which is — well, actually, it’s not that different than what Douthat wrote, is it? — given that it’s far easier to become “disconnected from society’s core institutions” when you’re living in “sparsely populated hinterlands.”
Cohn seems so desperate to disagree with Douthat that he fails to notice now similar their explanations are. Perhaps Cohn could benefit from investigating the studies that Brad Wilcox cites here, in a post that outlines the data that Douthat is drawing on. Cohn doesn’t seem aware of those studies. He repeatedly insists that “the data” doesn’t support Douthat’s claims, but doesn’t actually cite any data that supports his view: he refers only to two very general datasets and one New York Times story that summarizes some recent research in this way:
Preliminary research at Rutgers suggests that the risk for suicide is unlikely to abate for future generations. Changes in marriage, social isolation and family roles mean many of the pressures faced by baby boomers will continue in the next generation, Dr. Phillips said.
Or, precisely the explanation that Douthat suggests. Nate Cohn seems to have gotten into a panic at the thought that “society’s core institutions” could have anything to commend them and let that panic chase him far ahead of any actual information about American suicides.
Or maybe he has data that contradicts the explanations offered by the very researchers he links to. I can’t tell from his post. And his only references to (again, uncited) data are at the state level, which is far too coarse a grind for this kind of question, given how different urban and rural cultures can be in the same state. If you’re going to insist that you have data that proves that someone else’s explanations for a social phenomenon are definitely wrong, you should link to that data, shouldn’t you?
Russell Arben Fox, who lives in Wichita, Kansas, and has been thinking about this series I’m writing:
The literature on cities as the vanguards or birthplaces of basic liberal and cosmopolitan insights and practices — pluralism, tolerance, individual rights, civil society, economic specialization, political freedom, trade — is vast. But so is the literature on the qualities and virtues of rural and small town life — participatory democracy, communitarian solidarity, self-governance, authenticity, agrarianism, long-term sustainability. It really isn’t at all difficult to express cities and country life, with their various marginal cases, by way of a couple of broad types: city life is liberal and individualistic and fast-paced and consumption-based and filled with opportunity and risk; country life is conservative and socially restrictive and leisurely-paced and land-based and filled with attachment and “satisficing.” Neither type is fully accurate, of course, but they have their theoretical uses. Do mid-sized cities have a similar use? If only to help us think about environmental and economic and civic and moral problems, so as to give us as human beings — social creatures that we are — a handle on the difficult problem of tipping points: when is a city too small, or too large, to be able to legitimately associate itself with this or that particular end? I don’t know. I don’t know if it might be that, throughout history, the mid-sized city (which, in my mind, is some combination of: 1) geographic isolation (which itself is a technology-dependent judgment), and 2) a population from 100,000 to 500,000 people — but what do I really know about it?) has actually filled some important, unstated, conceptual hole in our social imagination. Then again, maybe there isn’t anything at all unique or worth particular respect when it comes to the mid-sized city — maybe, in terms of their public amenities and urban problems and environmental costs and economic opportunities, they’re just communities stuck midway between either growing/bloating to some sufficient/too-big size, or shrinking/reducing to a more-reasonable/less-productive scale. And, of course, constitutional matters — local empowerment, federal arrangements, and all the rest, come into play here as well. Perhaps a mid-sized city, unlike huge metropolises, can be managed in a way so as to cultivate the sort of practices associated with small town environments, or perhaps they can be developed so as to attract, unlike rural areas, the sort of investments and opportunities that normally require a significant critical mass of people. Or perhaps both such possibilities are pointless goals, utterly inappropriate to the average city which is neither large nor small enough.
In response to this post I wrote, “As I get older I think more and more frequently of the late Bernard Williams’s claim that ‘We suffer from a poverty of concepts.’ In focusing so much of our critical attention on the ideal types of The Urban and The Rural — the country-and-city dichotomy that goes back at least to the Epic of Gilgamesh, that is, as far back as anything cultural goes — we accept an impoverished analytical vocabulary. This can be seen in the vacuity of the notion of “suburbia”: we attribute that vacuity to people who live in suburbs when the real emptiness is in our own concepts. All those gradations of cultural experience and practice left unacknowledged! We can and should do better.”
I really, really hope Russell — who knows a great deal about the polis and its forms I don’t know — will work on these ideas during his sabbatical.
I’m also reminded of Thomas Nagel’s new book, Mind and Cosmos. Nagel — an esteemed philosopher and, yes, an atheist — argues that scientific materialism cannot account for the existence of consciousness. Instead he posits a teleological explanation: the universe possesses an innate tendency to move in that direction. The cosmos wants, as it were, to become aware of itself, which it does through creatures like us. As for the idea that consciousness emerged through natural selection, Nagel simply says that it flies in the face of common sense. Well, science is built on the corpse of notions of what counts as common sense. Meanwhile, Nagel makes no attempt to explain how his teleological principle arose or might operate. It sounds a lot to me like God.
Krauss and Nagel’s views are hardly in the same league as the planet Kolob or the Book of Abraham, but they confirm our inability to rid ourselves of mystical beliefs. We just can’t seem to accept the fact that this is all there is. That’s what really needs to be explained.
“The fact that this is all there is.” The fact.
William Deresiewicz is a fairly well-educated — though not, as it happens, in science or in religion — member of a fairly advanced society, as societies go, of the apex-predator species on one of eight or so planets that circle one of two hundred billion stars that fill one of five hundred billion galaxies in the universe. Assuming — which of course cannot safely be assumed — that there is but one universe. But William Deresiewicz knows as a fact that what he can perceive with his particular sensory configuration is “all there is.”
Reading The Slurve this morning — and you do all subscribe to The Slurve, do you not? You are people of wisdom and discernment, are you not? — I found myself meditating on strikeouts and stigmas. If there’s one thing that we at The American Conservative are likely to agree on, it’s that America has become stigma-averse and needs to get back in the stigmatic game, so to speak. And why not start with strikeouts?
As even casual historians of baseball know, for much of the game’s history the strikeout was something to be avoided at all costs. When a batter got two strikes on him, he was expected to shorten his swing, choke up on the bat an inch or two, and just make contact with the pitch. The idea was that if you swing and miss nothing good could happen, whereas if you put the ball in play several good things (from the batter’s point of view) can happen: a base hit, a fielding error, a throwing error, a baserunner advancing on a fielder’s choice. Striking out was stigmatized because it takes these possibilities off the table.
Babe Ruth’s disregard for such prudential thinking was legendary in his day: purists were shocked at his refusal to change his swing with a two-strike count. Yet the Babe’s highest strikeout total for a single season was 93, a total exceeded by 136 players in 2012. (That same year, 1923, he got 205 hits, walked 170 times, and had an OPS of 1.309 — pretty much an average year for him in the 1920s.) Joe DiMaggio eschewed strikeouts so vigorously that until the last years of his career he had more home runs than strikeouts, and finished his career with 361 homers and 369 strikeouts. Adam Dunn strikes out that many times in a year and a half.
Again, all this is well-known. The question — or the first question I’ll ask here, anyway — is whether high strikeout rates are a problem. Was DiMaggio being too careful? Should he have accepted more strikeouts in order to have a chance to hit more homers? In general modern sabermetric analysis is okay with strikeouts, though some people dissent when hitters get into Adam Dunn territory. But the evidence here is not conclusive, and it’s certainly possible to imagine statheads arguing for some corrective plate discipline — especially if umpires keep calling high strikes, which is to say, come closer to respecting the strike zone that’s actually in the rule book.
There’s another issue here, too, an aesthetic one: In my judgment, a game with fewer strikeouts is a far more interesting game. Whether sabermetric canons of batting efficiency support cutting back on strikeouts or not, aesthetic canons — my aesthetic canons, anyway — say: More balls in play means more action and more fun.
So here’s my second question: If batters keep swinging from the heels, and umps keep calling high strikes, and front offices start getting concerned about high strikeout rates, and fans lose interest in watching C. B. Bucknor ring batters up, can a stigma against strikeouts be effectively restored? Hitters have been strikeout libertines for so long now that it’s hard to imagine a more strait-laced ethic reigning again. The last person to hit over 20 home runs and have fewer strikeouts than homers was Barry Bonds, in 2004: 45 homers, 41 strikeouts. It might be impossible to get anyone to see Bonds as a model of rectitude, but let’s try, shall we? And let’s see whether an act that has lost its stigma can regain it. That would be quite encouraging to those of us who share a conservative disposition.
From Jessa Gamble’s essay “Life Without Sleep”:
Around the turn of this millennium, the biological imperative to sleep for a third of every 24-hour period began to seem quaint and unnecessary. Just as the birth control pill had uncoupled sex from reproduction, designer stimulants seemed poised to remove us yet further from the archaic requirements of the animal kingdom….
The question is whether the strangeness of the idea will keep us from accepting it. If society rejects sleep curtailment, it won’t be a biological issue; rather, the resistance will be cultural. The war against sleep is inextricably linked with debates over human enhancement, because an eight-hour consolidated sleep is the ultimate cognitive enhancer. Sleepiness and a lack of mental focus are indistinguishable, and many of the pharmaceutically based cognitive enhancers on the market work to combat both. If only it were possible for the restorative functions that happen during sleep to occur simply during waking hours instead.
From Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here:
I believe that not everything that could be fixed should be fixed — even if the latest technologies make the fixes easier, cheaper, and harder to resist. Sometimes, imperfect is good enough; sometimes, it’s much better than perfect. What worries me most is that, nowadays, the very availability of cheap and diverse digital fixes tells us what needs fixing. It’s quite simple: the more fixes we have, the more problems we see. And yet, in our political, personal, and public lives — much like in our computer systems — not all bugs are bugs; some bugs are features….
Only by unlearning solutionism — that is, by transcending the limits it imposes on our imaginations and by rebelling against its value system — will we understand why attaining technological perfection, without attending to the intricacies of the human condition and accounting for the complex world of practices and traditions, might not be worth the price. Design theorist Michael Dobbins has it right: solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problems that it is trying to solve, reaching “for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.”