Speaking for Trees
The trees we love stand as a symbol of strength, continuity, and memory.
Family dinners in my parents’ house are usually tame. Politics, controversy, and the happenings of the community generally don’t phase us. We’ve been through America’s wars, political turmoil, and crises. Life moves on. But once every few years, linemen from the utility companies come out to ruthlessly prune our oak tree back from phone and power lines. Heads explode, unfriendly calls are made to the offending company, and we collectively mourn the oak as it once was and never shall be again. We can only take solace that it wasn’t cut down like so many others.
I’m writing about our oak only to make the case that everyone should have a tree. Trees are essential in a backyard, a park, a city sidewalk, or even in a pot. I’m not going to make the conservative case for tree-hugging. I’ll leave it to the “science” to convince you of the environmental merits of trees. The value of shade on a hot August day is self-evident.
There’s not a recorded age for our tree. Rumor has it that it’s been around since before Rome. More reliable family sources ballpark it at a little over a century old. Regardless, the oak tree is sacred. It’s a symbol of strength, continuity, and memory. In a lot of ways, it is one of the last physical reminders of our past. My great-grandfather smoked a pipe in the shade of the oak. My grandparents and parents grew up in its shadow. My brother and I climbed it as kids. There’s enough sentimentalism about the oak to fill a book.
The case for trees is much more fundamental than mere sentiment, though. Trees define peoples and places in a way no other ubiquitous natural feature can. Four states take their nicknames from their trees. Toomer’s oaks are sacred to Auburn University, and General Sherman still reigns over the redwoods of Northern California. I don’t endorse it, but people have gone to jail for their trees. They understand that Maine would be detached from its sense of place and being without its famous fall foliage. California would be much reduced without the redwoods, and the quiet comfort of a shaded neighborhood block can be stolen by the ruthless drive for efficiency so typical in contemporary life. Another forest gone, another row of tract housing for sale. Little by little, America becomes unremarkable, undefinable, and placeless.
So bid defiance to the bland and the soulless. Plant a tree, care for a tree, or take up the cause of my family and fight off the utility company. In the end, we’ll all keep a little bit more of what’s ours. I’m not asking you to become a local Lorax, but it’s time some of us start speaking for the trees. After all, they speak volumes for us.
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On Copperhead Road
Texas's heartbeat abortion bill is as "wise as serpents."
It’s a good day for the unborn in Texas, as the state’s heartbeat abortion law passed in May goes into effect. The measure makes it illegal for doctors to abort a child for whom a heartbeat can detected—generally, after the sixth week of pregnancy.
Currently, the Supreme Court’s precedent allows doctors to abort unborn children up until they are viable outside the mother’s womb, when the child is already significantly more developed than at six weeks. Now, Texas joins Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Alabama, Kentucky, and South Carolina in putting such a law on the books, its second attempt since a similar 2016 law was overturned by the Supreme Court.
The Wall Street Journal reports that “the matter only arrived at the Supreme Court on Monday, centered on the preliminary question of what rules should apply in Texas while abortion providers continue to challenge the ban in lower courts.” The Journal notes a federal appeals court halted trial court proceedings in the case for now, and declined to block the ban from taking effect.
Significantly, however, the structure of Texas’s ban prevents the usual harangue of activists from suing government officials who would be responsible for enforcing such a decision, as they have done in every state that has passed such a bill.
The Journal explains:
Abortion-rights advocates typically challenge new restrictions before they go into effect by suing the government officials who would be in charge of enforcing the law. But Texas lawmakers devised a measure that shifts enforcement from the state to private parties. Under the terms of the six-week ban, private parties can file civil lawsuits against any person who allegedly performs or aids a banned abortion, or who intends to do so. Under the law, a successful suit entitles the plaintiff to collect at least $10,000 in damages per abortion challenged.
State officials emphasized this feature of the law in papers filed Tuesday afternoon with the Supreme Court, arguing it was among many reasons abortion providers weren’t entitled to an emergency order blocking the law.
“This court cannot expunge the law itself. Rather, it can enjoin only enforcement of the law. But the governmental defendants explicitly don’t enforce the law,” Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton and other state officials told the high court.
As The American Conservative senior editor Rod Dreher wrote last June, after the Supreme Court struck down Louisiana’s heartbeat law, the SCOTUS jurisprudence on abortion is mangled at best.
“Can anyone understand SCOTUS abortion jurisprudence? Can it ever be applied logically? I think it can, if you understand this principle: Pro-lifers must lose,” Dreher wrote.
Yet the Texas legislature, at least for now, has found a way to wrest a meaningful victory from the judicial mire—and power back from a legislating judiciary. It’s more than a victory for life; it’s a model for conservatives in state legislatures to follow, who have any real desire to protect the American way of life beyond what they can post on their campaign websites. If the Texas law succeeds in stymying abortion activists, it shows that conservatives actually can win battles, and when we aren’t winning, maybe it is due to a lack of cunning, not just a system rigged against defenders of innocent life at every turn.
The Gospel of Matthew has words to the wise, as true in politics as in any other aspect of life in exile: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” We can continue using the same timid approaches, and hope against hope we aren’t devoured, or we can learn to outsmart the wolves. Texas did just that.
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Introducing “Taking the Mask Off”
It’s far past time for the COVID regime to end.
In March 2020, our public health officials embarked on a major public relations effort. The novel coronavirus had arrived in the U.S. from China, and a fearful American public scrambled to stock up for the apocalypse: toilet paper, canned goods, bottled water, and face masks.
So U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams took to the media to get an urgent message out. “Americans get scared when they feel like they’ve lost control,” Adams said then on Fox & Friends, “There are things people can do to stay safe… [but] one of the things they shouldn’t be doing, the general public, is going out and buying masks. It actually does not help, and it has not been proven to be effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus amongst the general public.”
Times have changed.
Now, almost 18 months later, these face coverings have become ubiquitous. After a temporary reprieve over the summer months, when vaccine optimism reigned, mask mandates are back across the country. Children are starting another school year with faces covered. Younger grades may not know a time when seeing classmates’ smiles was allowed. The mask has superseded its [dubious] medical benefits, and is now a potent symbol of right-thinking.
Our public health “experts” seem determined to extend their power to vaccine mandates as well. With the FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, Big Business—and the government of at least one of our major cities—has moved quickly to force employees and patrons to get the jab. “My body, my choice,” was always a cynical platitude. They never meant it.
We must remember that this was all a choice. No, not the arrival of a deadly disease from China, but the concerted effort to radically alter daily life in response. It’s a choice driven by fear, by a failure to come to terms with our own mortality. And all the while, the goal posts shift, from “15 days to stop the spread,” to “flatten the curve,” to vaccines, COVID-zero, and on and on and on.
Enough. It’s far past time for this insanity to end.
So I’m proud to introduce “Taking the Mask Off,” a new series from The American Conservative. We will call out the hypocrisy of our public health regime. We will highlight the toll lockdown measures and mask mandates have taken on our families and communities. We will urge Americans not to accept a “new normal”. And we will actually “follow the science”, offering alternatives for what a balanced public health policy might look like.
We will, quite literally, take the mask off the COVID regime.
COVID-19 is here to stay, joining the countless other maladies that affect our fallen human condition. The loss of life at the hands of this deadly disease is tragic. Far more tragic would be a society in which living is lost, in which we are unable to pursue that which makes life worthwhile.
We at TAC hope to play a small part in preventing this greater tragedy.
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Caring About Home
The people of Galveston, Texas, know and love where they are from. The denizens of D.C.? Less so.
When I first moved to Washington, D.C., I sought out a statue of the Spanish Revolutionary War general Bernardo de Galvez. He’s the namesake of my hometown: Galveston, Texas. I found it directly in front of the State Department, wholly engulfed by a homeless encampment. Drugs, trash, and strung-out users lay all over the lawn. I had come to send a picture of the general to my family, to show them our representation in the nation’s capital. I left without taking a photo at all.
Galveston is a city constantly reminded of its mortality. In my short lifetime, it’s been hit by four major hurricanes and countless tropical storms. It’s the site of the deadliest natural disaster in American history: the 1900 Storm. Local businesses paint flood-level markers on their walls with the dates and names of major storms. Many of the markers stand several feet above my head.
It has always been remarkable to me that a long-irrelevant cotton port constantly subjected to natural destruction has maintained such care for itself. Galveston is home to the oldest churches in Texas and many of the most beautiful. The Bishop’s Palace dominates its main thoroughfare, accompanied by the Moody Mansion and countless Victorian marvels that once belonged to cotton merchants and shipping tycoons. Even the average home in the city is a small Victorian, likely restored two or three times over after enduring a century of storms.
People in Galveston don’t have a superb explanation or philosophy for their city. It’s just their home. It’s a beautiful place with a beautiful history. Statues still stand. The streets are largely clean; the police take care to contain crime to the smallest radius possible. They just want their kids to enjoy living there. They want their kids to know who came before them. They’re not going to let vandals take that away from them.
That all is a clear contrast with Washington. Vandals are not only tolerated, but occupy the highest public offices. Washington is the most powerful city on earth and the wealthiest in America. Cleaning the city up would be easy, and it would pay dividends for America’s image around the world and help burnish perceptions of the political class. But instead, brutalist atrocities cruelly named after L’Enfant accompany homelessness, crime, trash, and drugs. Crumbling infrastructure and public parks unsafe for children sit just blocks from the Capitol and the White House. There’s no public policy benefit to this. There are no white papers that advocate filth. They can’t even blame hurricanes.
The capital is a town filled with vandals—nihilists who hate their history, themselves, and the children they don’t and won’t have. Some live in cramped apartments, others in Kalorama mansions, and a few in the White House. They pretend to be an enlightened ruling class, but they can’t even pick up the trash on their own streets.
The people in Galveston are ship crewmen, restaurant workers, fishermen, and roughnecks. Some are artists, surfers, and nurses. Most don’t have master’s degrees, fewer still have read Aristotle. But they maintain their community of souls, and they love their homes. It’s time for Washington, D.C., to dust off the statue of General Galvez and learn from the people it once represented.
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The Other Exodus
Urban exodus is nothing compared with what's happening in American small towns.
Stuffed between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, in a fold of land that shares borders with both Missouri and Kentucky, is a town called Cairo, Illinois.
Alexander County, the county to which Cairo belongs, is losing people faster than any other county in the United States.
The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday:
In a nation where more than half of all counties saw population declines during the past decade, nowhere fared worse than Alexander County in far southern Illinois.
Located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the county lost 36.4% of its residents between 2010 and 2020, Census Bureau data released this month shows. No other county lost more than 30%.
The exodus amounted to roughly 3,000 people and lowered the county’s population to 5,240. The declining numbers are putting added pressure on already stressed local government finances and leaving the remaining residents questioning whether there’s any future here. A yearslong plan to revive Cairo’s port may be the area’s last hope.
Not too many centuries ago, this providentially-located town was prime estate for both agriculture and trade. Today, roughly 80 percent of all inland barge traffic in the U.S. passes Cairo, but barges aren’t sufficient to keep a town thriving in the 21st century. Significantly lower taxes in the town’s two neighboring states means there is no gas station in Cairo: The Illinois gas tax is more than double the rate in Kentucky and more than triple what’s charged in Missouri, the Journal reported.
The census data show that population growth—despite the much-hyped urban exodus caused by Covid-19 lockdowns, and a housing market that confirms a scramble for suburban life—is still plodding its usual path, with big counties growing and smaller ones shrinking. Or perhaps it’s too soon to tell of any lasting effects from 2020. In either case, it’s clear that most small towns, especially along the lower Mississippi River, are in worse condition than ever. This region has consistently higher unemployment and poverty rates, as well as lower life expectancy and steady population loss, as the Journal notes.
What’s happening to our towns is not news to most Americans, yet our ruling class seems incapable of offering real solutions. The rallying cry to “shop local” during the bleakest months of 2020 were touching, but hardly a concrete plan to save the brick and mortar of American Main Street. Places like Cairo need more than a stimulus check (in fact, there’s a good case to be made that such forms of government largesse are just digging such towns into an even deeper hole). What’s to be done?
Russia’s Main Street offers one possible solution. Cutting back unemployment is another first step. One thing is certain, that without a swift realignment, there will be little left, if anything, of the once-thriving heartland by the time we’re raising the next generation.
In describing the causes that led to the French Revolution in The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville points to metropolitan Paris, and its tendency to absorb more and more of the population, economy, and political attention of the entire country. He quotes Montesquieu: “In France, there is only Paris, together with the remote provinces, because Paris has not yet had time to devour them.” The result is a government with a bloated head, and no life left in its body, ripe for revolution.
Preserving our towns is a project for innovative minds and determined souls, and has as much to do with protecting the delicate balance of republican government as it does the very real problems of unemployment, overdoses, and suicides we see in such devoured towns. Most important, it’s a job for the urgent, as many, like Cairo, may already be beyond repair.
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Just One More Shot, Please
The corporate media is addicted to the pandemic.
I’m no expert, but I think I can tell an addict when I see one. By all the usual earmarks—erratic behavior, a different story every time you speak with them, and a trance-like fixation on the subject of their addiction—the corporate media is hooked on Covid-19.
Apparently, a double shot of the Covid-19 vaccine wasn’t enough to assuage their mania over a virus that is already an insignificant threat to most healthy people. When the Biden administration announced Wednesday it will roll out “booster shots” for the Covid vaccine in September, the media jumped to be the first in line for a fresh dose.
Don’t be confused. The original vaccine still works, says the New York Times. This supplementary injection is merely necessary to boost the good the first two shots are already doing. Of course, that’s just what an addict would say, isn’t it? The next fix is necessary. Vital. Non-negotiable.
The corporate media is a delicate creature. It gets a little cagey when you question it about its obsession—when you say things like, “I already have antibodies” or “why do I have to wear a mask if I’ve been vaccinated?” and “do I really need another shot?” It starts to sweat when it sees Covid-19 cases declining, is quick to insist this doesn’t mean the pandemic is over, and latches onto every viral variant the Greek alphabet has a letter for.
Experts have identified a phenomenon characteristic of an addict’s behavior: self-deception.
The American Addiction Centers writes:
Doublethink is a form of self-deception that involves the ability to believe and live contradictory beliefs. The term “doublethink” comes from George Orwell’s great novel, 1984. Simply put; doublethink is being able to tell deliberate lies while still believing them and forgetting any facts that are inconvenient. Doublethink isn’t just believing a contradiction (which never can be true) but having that contradiction drive actions and behavior. All of these tactics become necessary for living, according to Orwell.
How are these tactics necessary for living with an addiction? Firstly, they help to manufacture a reality in which one’s use is not disordered or addictive. Even if on some level a person believes she is becoming addicted, she can appeal to the always ready at hand belief that she is just fine.
We should pray for our brothers and sisters in their fight against this debilitating disease. They’ll be boosting the booster to their booster shot, with more stamps in their vaccine passports than their real ones, before they’ll accept the pandemic is done.
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Lone Star on Target
Republican governors should keep pushing back to prevent Lockdowns 2.0.
Somebody just remembered the Alamo.
On Monday, after a lower court struck down Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, the Texas Supreme Court overturned the ruling in favor of Abbott, showing the more polite members of his party that you can indeed fight back against bureaucratic overreach, and win.
Abbott isn’t exactly a cowboy here; he’s following in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s boot-clad footsteps, the latter of whom recently banned vaccine mandates on cruise ships, with a flurry of lawsuits following 100 yards behind trying to catch up. Kristi Noem, South Dakota’s governor, banned vaccine passports in the state as early as April. With the trail to shut down Covid-19-related overreach now sufficiently blazed, it’s time for the rest of the red states’ governors to step up to the plate.
Even if only to prevent an eternal, Groundhog Day-esque repetition of 2020, states like Arizona, Georgia, and Tennessee should come out strong against the returning Covid-19 mania as more blue states eye the prospect of yet another lockdown.
The law isn’t the only thing on the side of keeping 2020-era policies in 2020; public opinion is, too. With vaccines now available to anyone over the age of 12, the majority of Republicans and independents oppose any further mandates. A recent Monmouth University poll showed that 73 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of independents opposed reinstating masking and social distancing guidelines—guidelines, to be clear, not even mandates. The same poll showed less than half of Americans are even concerned about contracting new coronavirus variants. And in California, only 49 percent of polled registered voters favor a return to mandating face coverings, down from 60 percent and higher last fall.
The science our technocrats so like to tout is also on the side of liberty. But, more importantly, the liberty we have inherited and claim to love requires some responsibilities of us. These responsibilities are personal and relational—in other words, I should decide to stay home from work if I’m carrying a contagious illness, not some bureaucrat.
The experimentation of science can only measure and mitigate physical risk. It is the job of government, and citizens, to determine which of several risks is of greatest concern: death from Covid-19, for example, or servile dependence on a bloated nanny-state. Protecting our country’s health and safety includes preserving republican liberty, not just managing viral diseases.
With the law, the people, and fresh momentum in favor of resisting future lockdowns, all that remains is for conservatives to follow up in a coordinated fashion. This is the part we are, historically, the worst at.
But as we surpass 18 months of this seemingly endless obsession with a low-risk virus, and the corporate media still pushes everything from double masks to endless booster shots, daily Covid tests, and vaccine passports, the only way to prevent Lockdowns 2.0 is to push back en masse and keep the momentum going. Our governors should lead the charge.
The beginning of the pandemic taught us a lesson we shouldn’t soon forget: Our state leaders are fully capable of taking swift, far-reaching action when it interests them. Texas may be the biggest star over the target with its mask pushback this week, but it shouldn’t be the only one. While 27 of the 50 United States are governed by a Republican, there’s no reason to allow public health bureaucrats to infringe on our civil liberties in these states again.
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At Last, a Presidential Case for Restraint
Joe Biden forcefully argues for ending the war in Afghanistan amid great pressure to do otherwise.
I’m not naturally inclined to like anything Joe Biden says, but I can’t help but think that was a great speech last night. More than a presidential address, it was comprehensive attempt to make a case for foreign policy restraint (Trump did this on occasion too, though his arguments were more scattershot and undermined by the “let’s take their oil” stuff).
Amid howls from across the political spectrum and genuinely disturbing images out of Kabul, Biden didn’t back down. He decried nation building and placed it in opposition to America’s national interest. He stated unequivocally that it was wrong for American troops to do a job the Afghanis themselves wouldn’t do. He contrasted counterterrorism operations in places like Somalia with the all-out occupation of Afghanistan (a somewhat tenuous distinction but still indicative that he understands how extraordinary our presence in that latter country is).
He’s now taking fire from some who say he deflected blame for what happened in Kabul onto the agreement President Trump signed with the Taliban, acting like the deal tied his hands. But I’m not sure that’s true. Decide for yourself (emphasis added):
There would have been no ceasefire after May 1. There was no agreement protecting our forces after May 1. There was no status quo of stability without American casualties after May 1.
There was only the cold reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan, lurching into the third decade of conflict.
I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.
That sounds more like an indictment of the occupation than a narrower attempt to fault Trump’s policy.
Still, the best bit had to be this:
American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves. We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong — incredibly well equipped — a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies.
We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force — something the Taliban doesn’t have. Taliban does not have an air force. We provided close air support.
We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.
There’s some very brave and capable Afghan special forces units and soldiers, but if Afghanistan is unable to mount any real resistance to the Taliban now, there is no chance that 1 year — 1 more year, 5 more years, or 20 more years of U.S. military boots on the ground would’ve made any difference.
Cue the screeching about how Biden supposedly blamed the Afghan people for their predicament. Yet is there anything in there that isn’t true? The Afghan army did collapse like matchsticks. A lack of will does appear to be the reason. And there is nothing to indicate that a year or 20 from now the armed forces will be any less enfeebled, or the government any less corrupt, or the Taliban any less determined.
Credit Biden for saying so out loud. After decades of officials peddling notional victory scenarios like snake oil, it was refreshing to hear the truth stated so forthrightly. I also loved this line, which came after Biden discussed the visits he’d paid to Afghanistan over the years: “I came to understand firsthand what was and was not possible in Afghanistan.” What’s possible. Isn’t that just what’s been missing from our thinking all along? Isn’t that what’s still missing from those who maintain we can somehow take the Afghani narco-state and flip it into a functioning democracy?
Naturally the Wall Street Journal is aghast:
President Biden told the world on Monday that he doesn’t regret his decision to withdraw rapidly from Afghanistan, or even the chaotic, incompetent way the withdrawal has been executed. He is determined in retreat, defiant in surrender, and confident in the rightness of consigning the country to jihadist rule.
It’s as though Biden was supposed to have switched on his TV and promptly called the whole thing off. And here’s a bunch of stone-fisted circa-2001 rhetoric in case you dare to disagree. The presumptuousness of these people is breathtaking.
That Biden didn’t do that, that he made a case for restraint instead, is encouraging.
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A Letter to the Exiled
"Increase in number there; do not decrease."
The words of Jeremiah 29 struck me differently when I heard them proclaimed in church last Sunday.
Grace Olmstead must have been on the mind, and her August newsletter, which encouraged subscribers to “live like perennials”—to plant flowers, even if you know you won’t be there to see them blossom. In other words, bloom where you’re planted.
Jeremiah, it seemed, had Olmstead on the mind, too.
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Over and over, the instructions all point to the same end: to the exiles in Babylon, live with permanence. Plant your perennials. Your prosperity is tied to your earthly city.
The message is as relevant to conservatives in the big blue cities as it was to the children of Israel in exile.
There is a tension between holy living and wholly living in a corrupting environment. As religious people in a secular world, sometimes it can feel like we’re living in exile, too. In our desire to preserve holiness, we retreat from the culture that pushes opposite our strongest convictions. Earlier generations escaped out west, and thousands of conservatives today are itching to do the same, if they haven’t already (#metoo). Every man has a point at which he’ll go Benedictine. Yet we find ourselves in places we didn’t expect, for longer than we want, and for reasons we can’t control.
To the conservatives in exile (I include myself in this list), a rallying cry: either plant some seeds, or hit the road.
It’s time to build that community we keep talking about. We can start by talking with people on the Metro instead of staring at our phones. We can continue by having dinner with people we disagree with. Maybe we can’t start a garden in our apartment complex, but we can find a local farmers’ market and get to know the man who sells us peaches—actually get to know him, beyond a simple greeting. We can build up our apartments as if they are real homes, places of hospitality and warmth, rather than just a place to crash at the end of a workday. Planting seeds of permanence means being uncomfortable, at first, spending time with different people in different places when it’d be easier to go home on the weekend.
Beneath our dreams of conservative enclaves in Idaho, or the desire to see the wild, untamed land that exists beyond the concrete casket of the American metropoles, is a desire to do something worthy—to change something—the same dream that keeps young blood returning to the dying carcasses. We come to cities with dreams of culture, but what we get more often is culture shock, and it’s tempting to retreat to the places we know.
But an attitude of permanence in a city of transience isn’t just rebellious and cool, it’s necessary.
“Increase in number there; do not decrease.”
If we’re not building culture, we’re ceding it, and we’re the ones who claim to care about that sort of thing, after all. It takes work to build something permanent, but the alternative is to leave the next generation a place even more hostile. We’d better be increasing in number, not diminishing.
Planting a garden in Sodom is not what most of us expected to be doing. But the one who sows sparingly reaps sparingly. So grab a shovel and start digging.