The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture

Bloggin' Kristin 3: Et Nos Dimittimus Debitoribus Nostris

What a book, what a book.

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Detroit, failed rival of its own suburbs

In the standard ruined-Detroit story, there’s a photo of the burnt remains of an abandoned home, and it’s clear that the house you’re looking at the charred outer shell of was pretty big – two stories, well detached from its neighbors, with an ample porch and its own decent-sized yard, now overgrown. This is an important detail, typically unmentioned.

Detroit is old by American standards. It was founded by French traders in 1701, grew unremarkably for two centuries, then exploded (or, if you will, boomed), but strangely, in a munificent rush starting after 1900 and fueled (of course) by the auto industry, in which the city bypassed the usual stage of dense, tenement-style construction – very few row-houses or attached townhouses, very few multi-family houses such as greater Boston’s ubiquitous three-flats or Chicago’s two- and three-story gray-stones, very few apartment buildings and virtually no neighborhoods anchored or defined by apartment buildings – and went straight to vast swaths of detached, single-family, owner-occupied homes, a striking percentage of them two stories high, many of them on ample if not generous lots. Detroit’s double blessing early on was its curse later – lots of flat land for houses, and lots of money for building and buying them, as people migrated to Detroit for jobs that were already waiting for them. Perhaps more than any other great American city, Detroit went up as a perverse forerunner of its own suburbs.

For a long time I’ve thought an underappreciated factor in Detroit’s demise was this mix of housing, or, this lack of a mix of housing. The city is a virtual monoculture, residentially speaking, 140 square miles of detached, owner-occupied, single-family homes. Being a monoculture made it vulnerable to a particular pathogen that infected many large cities, but not so thoroughly as it did Detroit, the run on real estate known as white flight. If you were renting an apartment in a dense patch of, say, Chicago, in the 1950s or early 60s, the distant sound of whites fleeing areas to the south and west perhaps foretold a change in your neighborhood, which you may or may not have welcomed, but it didn’t make you panic that your biggest investment was heading for a collapse in value, because you were just renting. And so those who did own houses on the leafy back stretches of your cross-street could take your relative equanimity, and of the whole clot of other renters you’re part of, into account. Not everyone would be reacting to the same cues. Change would be slower and less total. It might be worth it to stay put.

Homeowners in Detroit had no such break on their panic. It was all houses, almost all owned by the families inside them. Maybe they were racists, the white people who owned and sold those houses, but it wouldn’t have mattered. You didn’t have to be a racist to flee whitely. You just had to suspect that some meaningful portion of your neighbors were, or that some meaningful portion of your non-racist neighbors were engaged in a slightly more anxious calculation than you were, for your market behavior to become identical to theirs: Sell! Racial fear and the endemic anxiety of homeowning fueled each other. The ’67 riots didn’t help, but those two factors were already spinning in a feedback loop.

This suggests another convenient, Jane Jacobs- and James Scott-inspired hypothesis I’ll just throw out there: Detroit’s stunning increase in violence, which made it the Murder Capitol in ’73, was not unrelated to this housing scheme. As in arid planned cities like Brasilia that turn sketchier than anyone imagined, life in the atomized residential blocks of Detroit is carried on less visibly, more amenably to crime, than in dense urban streets with 24-hour business happening under the streetlights of busy intersections. Crime obviously happens amid urban density, but maybe it’s easier for violence and fear to invade and conquer a place where so much less other life is visibly happening. And maybe this housing scheme heightened racial suspicion by making so much black-white interaction so private, comparatively, and high-stakes, subjectively, our property lines tending to be etched in vigilance already, if not yet fear: Why is that black man walking down our all-white street? Past our homes? Where our children live?

This non-mix of housing has of course made Detroit a less attractive target for repopulation and gentrification than pretty much any city of its original size, not to mention of its cultural prominence. (And this is the real issue in this conversation, not why Detroit went downhill – virtually all eastern cities lost jobs and people and saw crime rise after WWII – but why it kept going downhill and saw no revival as even humble rivals like Cleveland did.) Indeed, some of Detroit’s closer suburbs feel more like urban neighborhoods, by the light of the current urban BoBo revival, than most of Detroit does, or did, or, probably, could. By the 1980s middle-/working-class Royal Oak was already becoming a hip quasi-urban destination, with clubs and restaurants lining Woodward Avenue. More recently this role’s been taken up by Ferndale, right across blighted Eight Mile Road to the north, a humble old working-class suburb of little houses that used to be called “Fabulous Ferndale” ironically, because of its dilapidation under the care of poor whites, but which now bears that handle unironically, or in ironically self-canceling irony about the old irony – because it’s hip now, and because it’s where the gay people live and, perforce, fabulous. Buzzing right up against Detroit as it does, anchored in a strip of Nine Mile Road that probably has more vintage clothing stores than trees, peopled by hipsters living in its low-slung houses on its highly uninteresting streets, Ferndale feels like the gentrifying BoBo impulse throwing up its hands and saying, “Look, we’re really trying, but this is the best we can do.”

When white Boomers and Gen Xers were buying up Brooklyn’s glorious Park Slope and Chicago’s cozy Bucktown and Boston’s gorgeous South End in the early Nineties, neighborhoods sketchy in the 70’s and 80’s but wonderfully and sturdily built, Detroit’s version of this demographic had good-enough options for hip living north of Eight Mile, and no obviously better options south of it, because, compared to its suburbs, compared even to Ferndale, the vast majority of Detroit is profoundly unspecial, especially uncompelling. It’s a flat, unvarying landscape of detached houses, many big like those in the suburbs, but, well, old and worn, in neighborhoods that were always going to take a lot more than a few pioneers and a restaurant and a club to spark a revival. They were going to take loads of people willing to mortgage their lives on those 1920s money-pits, all of them assuming the existence of a critical mass of other people just as reckless and dreamy as they are. And the payoff, best case, if you’re one who wagered it all to gentrify such a neighborhood? Having improved the landscaping and paint-jobs and plumbing of a block that now looks and feels like one of the world’s first suburbs, from back before they were, like, nice. And until your efforts are realized in this long-deferred anticlimax… “Er, the café up on Grand River between the empty lots and across from overgrown field that just opened under new ownership just closed again, and there’s still not a supermarket, and there’s nothing we can walk to but other houses, and the coyotes keep eating our cats.” No wonder it didn’t happen.

The deeper causes of this have nothing to do with race, and are only indirectly related to the auto industry, and have more to do with its early triumph than its later collapse. The city is just too geographically big, too filled with too-big houses, too defined by neighborhoods that are too defined by those too-big houses. Detroit, built as a weak rival of its own suburbs, was eaten by them.

Several factors – both weird bad luck and criminally bad urban policy – aggravated this comparative disadvantage. I hope but don’t promise to expand on them here.

Re-reading Kristin Lavransdatter

I did not intend to re-read Kristin Lavransdatter this summer; no, I did not. But Matt and I pressed it into Pascal-Emmanuel’s hands so firmly, and here he is gushing over it, and so I sat down to comment on his posts, which prompted me to refer to the first book in the trilogy, The Wreath, and then I found myself—an hour and a half later—a third of the way through it!

Perhaps it’s engrossing to this degree because this is my sixth read. I am not a re-reader by nature. Of all the books I have read, there are only a few that I’ve considered picking up a second time, and even fewer that I have followed though with a total re-read. Kristin obviously ranks among these, and it’s not just because it’s so good. It’s because I am making up for lost time.

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Detroit died because it sucks

Everyone’s joining the fun game of Autopsy: Detroit, but the coroners are doing a lousy job, in general, because they neglect the obvious task of isolating what was unique about Detroit that might have contributed to its unique condition, among American cities, of being dead. Lots of recent examples.

Former Detroit suburbanite Jonathan Chait says “Detroit’s crisis began as primarily a racial problem,” but this gets the timeline wrong and fails as comparative explanation. Virtually every major American city has been marked by grievous racial division. Why is Detroit alone dead? In Slate Matthew Yglesias wonders how much better-off Detroit would have been had a major private university – Ford University – been given a home there, or if the University of Michigan hadn’t relocated to Ann Arbor. Answer: we’d have had the equivalent of Hyde Park Chicago, a small island of stubborn tax- and tuition-supported affluence, except surrounded by the vast acidifying ocean of Detroit. And Andrew O’Hehir, Salon’s excellent film critic, dabbles in stupid para-conspiracy theories Detroit failed because of, or at least in a malevolent aura of, right wing hatred of this Chocolate City. As a theory of Detroit’s decline, O’Hehir’s comes closest to being both self-refuting and, actually, right.

What O’Hehir’s right about is the malevolence. Conservative gloating about Detroit’s failure is unseemly and self-congratulating and just wrong as analysis, though if you want a real glimpse of sickening white gloating read the comments section of any depressing news story from a Detroit TV station – white suburbanites watching Detroit’s decline with undisguised glee.

And so I suppose I should add these ungenerous race-tinged theories – corrupt black leadership and government largesse killed Detroit – which are obviously wrong in that Detroit became a Chocolate City as a result of its decline, not the other way around. Blacks didn’t seize power in Detroit. White people left. They began leaving the city when it was still affluent, and kept leaving and leaving until Detroit was a black majority city with a black mayor, by which time affluent black Detroiters were also leaving in large numbers. Detroit’s Black leaders, corrupt and inept as they’ve been in their disastrous mix of machine politics and identity politics, have merely been feasting on a dying corpse. The horrific Detroit riots were in 1967. Coleman Young became Mayor in 1973. Detroit’s population began its steady decline in 1950. And steady it was. The population graph of Detroit marks a relentless downward plummet that shows no special dips of acceleration for such cataclysms as the riots or the more recent disaster ’07-‘08. And, to repeat, every other big American city has had racial divisions, and yet these problems didn’t kill them.

So all the people who point to race and/or racism as Detroit’s defining problem, Chait, O’Hehir, Conservatives and Detroit’s gloating white suburbanites, are wrong. So are creators of the simplistic documentary Detropia, which lingers on recent troubles in the auto industry as its main explanation, even as it contains a scene in which someone raises a population graph, illustrating the sharp decline starting in 1950, that undermines this theory. The Big Three were in robust health in 1950, and had some hale decades ahead of them. Yet people started fleeing Detroit then, and kept leaving at a pace that stuns above all by its constancy. Why?

In a day or two I hope venture my own ideas about why Detroit died. And, just as a warning, and even though I was born downtown and lived some of my happiest years on the city’s west side, my general claim will be that Detroit failed as a city because, as a city, it kind of sucks.

Noah and Alan on growth

I tried to restrain myself from responding to Alan’s latest post on growth because the last time he did I unleashed what I have to say was a big honking rant. Then Noah responded.

Noah’s post, characteristically, is very smart, very eloquent, and makes a lot of good points. And yet it’s mistaken, in a subtle, but serious and deep way.

Let’s start with the things Noah gets right:

- “Growth” is actually hard to measure.

- Not all kinds of growth are equal. Growth that comes from productivity gains is much more desirable than growth that simply comes from longer hours worked.

- Growth is a moral imperative insofar as it helps people in truly bad living circumstances raise their conditions of living.

And yet Noah makes errors on growth because he misunderstands it in some key ways.

As we’ve said, growth is hard to define, and economists have a hard time understanding where it comes from. And as we said, not all kinds of growth are equal.

So to better understand growth, then, we had better understand value. The “growth” that we want is a growth of the value of the things we produce and consume.

Now “value” is also a fuzzy concept so let me try to explain what I mean.

If Apple (or Dell) produces a better computer that costs less, that might not register as “growth” on the national statistics, and yet we understand it as essential to growth, at least in the long term (I hope), because it creates more value for society—value for Dell (or Apple) but more importantly value for consumers in terms of consumer surplus. And even more importantly value for society in terms of how this computer helps me do things better, more effectively, etc.

To think about things differently: society gets value out of Google because Google generates profits for its shareholders and jobs for its employees (jobs that then go on to generate more economic activity). That’s how we generally understand the benefits of “growth.” Society actually gets a lot more value out of Google (orders of magnitude) out of the consumer surplus that Google generates—that is to say, the difference between what consumers of Google would be willing to pay for the service, and what they actually pay. That’s how many economists generally understand the benefits of “growth.”

But actually Google generates even more value. It generates value in the sense that it makes our lives easier and better. This is what is actually meant by “consumer surplus” but of course if I am willing to pay X for something it means I am getting something more than X of value out of it. And in the case of Google it is very high. Here the example would be the time I save by doing Google searches instead of looking things up in books or hard-to-use and disparate databases. That would be the types of “productivity improvements” that would lead to “growth” that we would crave. But that is actually a minuscule amount of the value that Google creates.

Thanks to Google (and the internet more generally, I am here talking about “Google” in abstract) I have read many things that I would never otherwise have read. I have met people that I wouldn’t otherwise have met. I met the investor in my first company through Twitter. Business Insider gave me a job because I got in touch with people who worked there over the internet. Again, the point isn’t that I generated $X dollars of economic activity thanks to the internet—I probably would have earned more money by going to work at Goldman Sachs rather than Business Insider—the point is that I got to experience things, and meet people, and collaborate with people on things, in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. And that this is a tremendous amount of value in any sense of the word that makes sense (economic or not).

Or think about the car revolution. The car revolution created value not because it created big car companies that made a lot of people rich and gave even more people jobs, although that’s nice. The car revolution created value because it gave people a profound autonomy that they didn’t otherwise have, it transformed the culture (drive-in cinemas) etc. etc. etc.

This type of value seems incredibly hard to quantify and is certainly impossible to integrate in macroeconomic statistics in any meaningful way, and yet it is without a doubt the much bigger quantity of value and the more precious one.

If we define tautologically value as what we value, things like cars and the internet (and penicillin, and electricity, and…) have value not just because people can put a dollar amount on them, they have value because they allow them to do things or to experience things that they find valuable.

Why carp on this?

Because once you understand what value is and how it’s created, you understand not just why it’s precious but how to get more of it.

As Noah notes, to be vague about it economic growth (at least the good kind) comes from some combination of the use of energy and productivity, that is, more output per unit of energy. And meanwhile, “productivity” is this mysterious black box that probably includes things like technology, but also other things like better know-how—skilled labor, but also production processes and so forth.

But once you’ve said this, you have to realize that all value comes from cooperation. Energy must be extracted (whether from the ground or from the sun or from uranium). Technology must be invented, and then tested, and then built, and then marketed, and then market-tested, and refined, and iterated upon—all things which are done by people working together, whether as members of firms, or as firms collaborating together, or as participants in marketplaces (literal or metaphorical, e.g. the “marketplace of ideas”).

Coase describes how economies of information make it better for us to collaborate as firms or not to accomplish some things. Schumpeter and Christensen describe how how some innovations lead some firms or industries to be destroyed and yet simultaneously lead to more value creation. Hayek describes how our poor handling of information makes central planning destroy value while bottom-up collaboration creates value. Bhidé describes how the interplay of departments within a firm (R&D, manufacturing, sales, marketing) and the interplay of actors within a marketplace (venturesome consumers, market feedback) create innovation through an iterative, decentralized process.

Value, then, is what happens when you allow people to cooperate. Economic value, but also culture, communities, all the things that make the good life. Now, the details on how to accomplish that are fiendishly complicated, and there’s good reason (though not always) why economic policy is so complex and, at times, so powerless.

But once you understand what makes value you can’t make some of the errors that Noah makes, and that are all-too common. That is to say, the error of thinking that growth comes from stuff. If there’s enough oil, then there will be growth. If there’s not enough oil, then there won’t be growth. If we have super-duper computers (or robots or Big Data or spaceships to Mars or whatever) then there will be growth, and if we don’t, we won’t. (True enough on the latter, but it only begs the question of who builds the robots or the supercomputers.)

So Noah writes “of course, once resources are exploited beyond a certain degree, population growth just means sharing those resources across more people – a decline in per-capita wealth” as if “resources” was some finite concrete thing even though human ingenuity and industry is the only resource that creates value.

And Noah writes that we have to “limit the costs of growth” by “restraining population growth.” That makes sense if you think growth comes from stuff, from a fixed pie that we have to share. But that’s simply not how value creation works.

There is nothing to indicate that there is any resource constraint on humanity. We are producing a lot more food than we need, and that is by exploiting only a tiny amount of land and “resources.” If you took just Iowa and replaced all the corn field by vertical farms, you would have enough food to feed ten planet Earths.

Same thing about energy. Just build enough pebble-bed reactors. They’re safe, plus they also generate lots of hydrogen which is great if you want to build fuel cell cars.

Earth is not densely inhabited at all.

We’re just not running out of anything.

And yet this inexplicable fear is there. It comes, most of all, from a failure of imagination. For example, Noah wonders whether if we achieved Star Trek-like cold fusion, it would even register as economic growth. Um, yes? Like, if you dramatically lower the cost of a unit of energy for a unit of production, you will get more units of production?

And yet, while all of this is true, it is also true that growth is slowing, and that it is at least worth asking whether this will continue forever and what to do about it.

First of all, there is little question that given how “growth-oriented” our societies are, if we don’t reignite growth we are headed for societal collapse.

But second of all, it is also true that once you realize where value comes from, it also becomes a lot easier to see how we might get more of it. First, since people cooperating is what creates value, the more people cooperate the more value we get, so we should really get more people, not less. (And it becomes obvious that a civilization that adopted a neo-Malthusian frame and decided to lower its population growth rate in fear of lower economic growth would trap itself in a self-fulfilling prophecy.) Second, it also becomes clear that there are lots of avenues for cooperation that have been blocked. One example is immigration. Another example is the numerous regulations that hold back many sectors of the economy, particularly the most promising (pharma, transportation, space, etc.).

But that’s not even the point. The point is that, to go back to the beginning, once you really understand value and how it’s created, you understand how it’s precious, and you at least understand what you must not do.

Watch Reza Aslan Make An Ass Out Of Himself

A scholar named Reza Aslan wrote about about the historical Jesus. From what I’ve seen, the book reprises one of the familiar narratives about the historical Jesus, which is that Jesus was not a religious preacher but a political rebel against Roman rule. Apparently Aslan was once a Christian and is now a Muslim.

You probably already know these things already, and the reason you probably knew them is because Twitter has been aflame with links to an interview Aslan has given about his book to Fox News. The Buzzfeed post about the interview has over 3 million pageviews and a “12X social lift” (whatever that means). Meanwhile the Slate post is cited among its “Most Viral”. Both call it “embarrassing”, and usually with superlatives.

Well, it’s certainly embarrassing. But mostly for Aslan.

Let’s back up here for a second. There is a problem for “historical Jesus” research, which is that source material is so scarce. You have a few fragments in Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. You have the non-canonical gospels which are of very late and dubious origins. And you have the canonical gospels, which make supernatural claims about Jesus and therefore automatically (and justly) invite skepticism. This gives a wide latitude for historians and other scholars to paint pictures of the “historical Jesus” as basically whatever they want. That’s not an indictment of Jesus scholarship. That’s just the way it is.

Meanwhile, there is a great popular interest in “historical Jesus” scholarship, if only because there is a great popular interest in “What You Don’t Know About This Familiar Story”. Many “historical Jesus” books have gone on to become publishing sensations. And often, they’ve gone on to become publishing sensations in the wake of generating controversy for proclaiming that the traditional Christian account of Jesus’ life is a-historical. (Even though it’s not possible to prove it, only to hypothesize it.) Controversy generates book sales. Particularly religious controversy. Such is the world.

In this context takes place the Aslan interview.

And it’s impossible to watch the video and not feel that Aslan has come into the studio picking for a fight. Trying to generate a viral moment.

Oh sure, the Fox News interviewer also has an agenda. But watch how the interview proceeds.

Interviewer: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”

Aslan: “Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with [enunciating] four degrees including one in New Testament and fluency in Biblical Greek who has been studying the history of Christianity for [enunciating again] two decades.”

And boom, we’re off to the races!

Aslan won’t answer the question, and so the interviewer presses on (as Interviewing 101 demands), and we all go downhill from here. Aslan never stops treating the interviewer with contempt, and never stops taking offense at any relation between his faith and his book.

Those bigots at Fox News with their anti-Muslim views. Oh, how dare they say that a Muslim can’t write a book about Jesus! And their buck-toothed anti-intellectualism. This is a SCHOLAR. Don’t you understand? A scholar!

Except that there is nothing whatsoever offensive or out of the ordinary about the interviewer’s question.

“Why did you write this book?” is literally the most common interview question asked of authors! It is so common, it is such a cliché, that it is a joke in literary and media circles! This is also true of the variation “[Tidbit of author’s personal history], so why did you write this book?”

I’m a Frenchman who has never lived in the US for long, and who often writes about American politics. As a result, I am often asked why I, as a Frenchman, decide to devote so much time and attention to US politics. This is normal. And to be honest, I sometimes tire of answering that question. But I’m never offended by it.

And I’m also a practicing Roman Catholic, and if I wrote a book about Luther or Muhammad or the Buddha, it would be normal and completely innocuous to ask me why I chose to write about this particular subject given my faith tradition.

But I could take offense. I could treat the person like a child and say something like “I have a master’s degree from HEC School of Management which was ranked number one in Europe for many years running by the Financial Times — a small newspaper out of London, maybe you’ve heard of it — where I was ranked among the top twenty matriculants.” You know what that answer would make me? It would make me a complete ass and a buffoon.

Scholarship is scholarship and should be judged on its merits. But there is absolutely nothing weird or out of the ordinary for an interviewer to ask an author how his background affected his decision to write a book. It’s amazing to me that this has to be pointed out. I would even add especially if a believer in one religion writes about another religion.

Aslan, talking to his interviewer “as if she were a child”, Slate notes, says “it would be like asking a Christian why they would write a book about, you know, Islam.” Indeed, old chap! That’s exactly what it would be like!

To take an example, one of the TAS Alums is Alan Jacobs, a professor and scholar of literature. His latest book is a biography of The Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer (I now know, thanks to Alan) is one of the great works of the Anglican Church. And I know Alan is an Anglican. So it seems obvious to me why Alan wrote this book. Alan is a man who cares deeply about books and their history and about his own religious tradition so it makes complete sense to me why he would write this book. If Alan’s next project was a Biography of the Ramayana, I would be indeed curious to note why he decided to write it.

The interview goes on in this vein. The interviewer quotes Aslan a bit of criticism of his book. Instead of responding, Aslan talks about how his book has a hundred pages of endnotes and is therefore a serious book. First of all, that’s silly. I mean, really. But second of all, answer the damn question. Aslan speaks as if the fact that he has a PhD somehow means that he is beyond criticism, at least from non-PhDs, and certainly from journalists.

Then why go on the interview?

I mean, think about it for a second. There’s about as much chance of Fox News’ audience buying Aslan’s book as there is of it buying Yeezus. So why do the interview?

Well, for this, of course. The interview didn’t ever degenerate—it never “generated” to begin with. Oh sure, Fox News had its own agenda. But Aslan could have played it cool, or presumed good faith at least on the first question. That’s if he hadn’t been coming on the interview just for this. To assume bigotry on the part of Fox News, to talk about his academic bona fides, and therefore to generate a viral moment and juice his book sales.

And this is why I’m annoyed and I’m writing this. Yes, Fox News had an agenda, and yes, Aslan is not the first person to manufacture controversy.

What’s so annoying to me is that I haven’t seen a single media outlet—that so breathlessly posted the video, and called it “embarrassing”—point out what is actually going on here. Because there’s the Bad Guys in one camp—the camp of bigoted Christians—and there’s the Good Guys in the other camp—the camp of Scholars who, because they are Scholars, are Good.

Oh yes, the Fox News video is embarrassing. It’s a little embarrassing for Fox News. It’s a lot embarrassing for Aslan. And it’s very, very embarrassing for Buzzfeed and Slate and all the other outlets that amplified it uncritically.

Bloggin' Kristin 2: Mother

I read in great big gulps while our daughter naps on the weekend. Now halfway through. I am soon leaving for a week’s vacation without internet, so you’ll have to wait a little while for the next installment, which will probably be the last one.

This may be the single best novel I’ve ever read. (The other contender is War and Peace.)

Again I am struck by Undset’s gift at sketching characters that are utterly believable, as complex as any living being, and deep. I am struck by her gift of “showing not telling.” When I wanted to be a writer (ha) those were the two things that bedeviled me. Those who can do it I view as gods.

(Before I started Kristin I was reading Infinite Jest but for all my true admiration for DFW’s amazing wordsmithery, this is not where the charism of writers lies.)

I’m also struck by what a page-turner this is. I am intensely invested in the story. I can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next. As I write this I’m struggling with the temptation to just spend the whole day reading the book—but of course I have a business to run here.

All right, some chaotic notes.

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Whatever You Do, Don't Pray

I take a break from your regularly scheduled 14th century Norway blogging to bring your attention to a funny piece that appeared recently in America’s Finest News Source: “Unambitious Loser With Happy, Fulfilling Life Still Lives In Hometown.”

You may have already seen it because it’s been around on Twitter and Tumblr several times now. I’m writing about it now because TAS Alum ayjay linked to it.

Quick question: what’s missing in this paragraph?

According to relatives who moved thousands of miles away and are currently alienated from much of the family, Husmer has never once taken a major professional or financial risk, choosing instead to “coast through life” by putting considerable time and effort into his rewarding marriage, playing an active role in his two children’s lives, and being sincerely thankful for what he has in this world.

First, let’s think about what The Onion is doing here. I’ve argued before that the internet (and perhaps its recent change of ownership) has led The Onion to change its editorial strategy from “writing funny stuff that panders to our readers” to “writing funny stuff that will make our readers want to heighten their social standing by sharing it on social networks”, a subtle but, in my view, real, difference.

If we accept the old-school newsgroup definition of “trolling” as “trying to get a reaction” as opposed of “trying to make people angry” The Onion is now very much (and a real way, moreso than in the past) in the trolling business.

And here we’ve got a great Onion piece, because it is trolling both “sides” here, is it not? It’s trolling its traditional audience of urban hipsters who are mocked by the piece and will ironically share it, but it’s also trolling the guys-who-stayed-in-their-small-town and will very unironically also share it.


When I read the sentence “putting considerable time and effort into his rewarding marriage, playing an active role in his…” my mind completed the sentence with “church.”

But there’s no mention of “church,” or “God,” or “faith” in this story, is there? And shouldn’t there be? I mean, this is a piece that recites clichés of Small Town vs Big City life, and one of those clichés is that Small Town people are churched.

But Michael Husmer, for all appearances, doesn’t go to church. Not that he isn’t “spiritual”, because we still need that for his picture of happiness. So instead of going to church, he has “[put] considerable time and effort into […] being sincerely thankful for what he has in this world.”

That would have been a bridge too far for The Onion. The Onion trolls its audience—while pandering. If they’d shown someone who goes to church as more fulfilled than their presumably largely secular audience, they wouldn’t have been able to build the ironic detachment to enjoy this critique of their lifestyle.

Anyway, I couldn’t help but think of this post and video brought to you by Friend of TAS Rod Dreher which highlights just how thoroughly contemporary American media ignores religion in the day-to-day life of people.

Meanwhile, we’ve replaced the language of salvation with the language of addiction.

I’m not sure I have a point here except to note that it is through the day-to-day that we build the awareness of faith that allows it to remain a potent cultural force (as well as through projects of infiltration and renewal) and that there’s something important here about making and keeping faith as a fabric of everyday life for contemporary American culture. Call it the naked cultural square.

Bloggin' Kristin 1: Youth

My first hundred pages. Below the fold because spoilers.

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Bloggin' Kristin

After the eighth horse’s head in my bed I have finally caved in to TAS Chamberlain Matt Frost’s entreaties and begun reading Sigrid Undset’s novel Kristin Lavransdatter.

Since the translation available on Kindle is reportedly not very good, I have next to me as I speak an ancient and cumbersome artifact, a codex which I will carry around with me now for some time. It has been handed to me by my wife, who is now done with Kristin (for now, at least).

The timing is apt. Summer is here, and I will be vacationing (or, “vacationing”, as entrepreneurs do…) soon.

This is a nice throwback for me. It’s been a very long time since I’ve read fiction, or a codex, or a book this long. And since I’m told this is such a masterpiece (and thirty or so pages in, I’m already inclined to agree), and since I may or may not need extra motivation to make it to the last page, and since I know Matt has a gun and so I’d better make it to the last page, I intend to blog my reading of the book here.

It would be truly glorious if we could get a bit of a book club started and have other folks (bloggers, commenters) join in, but I understand that’s a bit of a stretch.

In any case, get ready for some more Kristin bloggin’.

Bloodlust is worse than ignorance

When Christians (and smart agnostics) talk about the New Atheists, what they usually talk about is their ignorance, because it is so glaring and obvious. Ignorance about philosophy, ignorance about the world, ignorance about history, ignorance about humanity.

But really what ought to be striking about the New Atheists is what I can only call their bloodlust. These are people who quite clearly and nakedly want to see religious believers oppressed, and even eradicated. Like the European anti-Semites who don’t want to fall afoul of speech laws, they know very well where the line is, and they know very well how to walk right up to it and not cross it, but there’s little doubt where they’re headed.

Hitchens believes that religion is the main driver of war, but of course the best rebuttal of this is not a book of history or sociology, but his own history. Hitchens needed no Yahweh and no Shiva to enthusiastically call the thunder of war upon countries he deemed less civilized than his, and orgiastically luxuriate in the ensuing bloodshed. Hitchens was an enthusiastic advocate of the idea that more civilized groups should wage war on the less civilized; he was an equally enthusiastic advocate of the idea that religious belief is the mark of the uncivilized. He didn’t say “2+2=4” but the math is still straightforward.

As Damon Linker noted in the only perceptive essay I’ve seen on this, Richard Dawkins has written very clearly that bringing children up to believe in God is not only tantamount to child abuse, but actually worse than sexual abuse. Dawkins doesn’t explicitly spell out the only logical conclusion of this—that society should treat religious parents the way we treat sexual predators, with prison sentences, thorough ostracism, and perhaps “reëducation”—but he doesn’t need to.

Here’s a TED Talk by Sam Harris on science and morality. Now, normally the impulse of any Christian (or other slightly educated person) would be to note that his argument that science is a moral guide doesn’t, you know, make any sense whatsoever.

But actually, that’s missing the point. Skip to 10:15. What Harris does here is fascinating. It’s rhetorical three-card Monte so you have to put it on slow motion to break it down.

Before a picture of women wearing head-to-toe Islamic veils, here’s what Harris says:

We might not like this, we might think of this as wrong in Boston or Palo Alto. But who are we to say that the proud denizens of an ancient culture are wrong to force their wives and daughters to live in cloth bags? Who are we to say even that they’re wrong to beat their wives with steel cables, or to throw battery acid in their faces if they decline the privilege to be smothered in this way? Who are we NOT to say this? Who are we to pretend that we know so little about human well-being that we have to be non-judgmental about a practice like this? I’m not talking about voluntary wearing of a veil. Women should be able to wear whatever they want, as far as I’m concerned. But what does “voluntary” mean in a community where when a girl gets raped, her father’s first impulse, rather often, is to murder her out of shame?

Notice, first, the big straw man. Harris conflates the wearing of a veil with beating wives with steel cables or throwing battery acid in their face. I’m pretty sure “we” tolerate the former but not the latter. I’m pretty sure that “we” are quite comfortable in saying that these things are wrong. I’m pretty sure that in any advanced country if a man throws battery acid in his wife’s face and is arrested, “I am a proud denizen of an ancient culture” is not actually acceptable as a legal defense. So this is a complete straw man, but Harris gets to conflate everyday, mundane expressions of religious faith with utter atrocities, and paint a world where we are dangerously complacent and inhumane by tolerating these atrocities.

Note also how Harris talks about the supposed toleration of fundamentalist Islam in “Boston and Palo Alto” at the beginning of his paragraph but it’s pretty clear by the end that he’s talking about fundamentalist Islam wherever it may be.

But note, most importantly, the little switch at the end. This is where you lose sight of the lady.

Does Sam Harris think we ought to make the wearing of Islamic veils illegal? He quickly reassures us: “I’m not talking about voluntary wearing of a veil. Women should be able to wear whatever they want, as far as I’m concerned.”


A pause.

And then he says this. “But what does ‘voluntary’ mean in a community where when a girl gets raped, her father’s first impulse, rather often, is to murder her out of shame?”

See what just happened?

Of course, voluntary expressions of religious faith should be allowed…except that the meaning of “voluntary” is in question. Indeed, who could say it’s “voluntary” for you to belong in a cult if you’ve been brainwashed into doing so? Of course, Harris has made it clear elsewhere that he believes virtually all religious belief is brainwashing. So voluntary expressions of religious belief are fine, except that it’s an open question whether they’re really voluntary, and if they’re not “voluntary” by Harris’s definition, then they’re really fair game for the coercive powers of the state.

You really have to watch the video. Harris says the “voluntary” part softly, almost musing to himself, you could easily miss it. And then he brings up the shocking idea of a father murdering her daughter for being raped (and insists on that image) so that you quickly forget the little parenthetical about the definition of “voluntary.”

Harris knows that even though an audience like TED is probably not a big fan of religion, it’s also probably not quite yet willing to strip all religious believers of their civil rights, so you have to just push slightly at the Overton window.

If you think I’m being paranoid, Harris doesn’t hide his comfort at using the levers of state to punish religious belief.

Harris is actually refreshing among the “New” Atheists as not exactly lumping all religions together. He thinks some religions are worse than others, and has no problem contrasting them. (Sometimes you prefer a New Atheist who recognizes differences between religions to a milquetoast agnostic who thinks all religions are the same…) And he thinks the worst of them is Islam. And because when he talks about violence against religion he talks about Islam specifically and not religion in general, he is less guarded about showing his true intent.

Harris has argued against the building of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. He has argued for the use of torture in the War on Terror—in fact he doesn’t like the expression “War on Terror”; he wants it to be replaced by a war on Islam (Pope Benedict couldn’t get invited to TED, but maybe if he’d said that…). He has argued for a nuclear first strike against Iran should the country acquire nuclear weapons, an option that even Bibi Netanyahu doesn’t contemplate. (He has noted that the prospect horrifies him, which I’m sure would be a great comfort to the good citizens of Tehran. This will hurt me more than it’ll hurt you, etc.)

So in other words, Sam Harris is wholly comfortable using civil oppression, war, torture and weapons of mass destruction against the believers of a religion. Now maybe it’s just a religion, not all religions. But Harris has also made it abundantly clear that he only feels microscopically less contemptuous of myself and fellow Christians than of Muslims. And of course once the terror machine machine gets started it needs to feed on new enemies.

Do I believe that Sam Harris is actually actively plotting to wage a global jihad on all religious believers? Well, I’m agnostic (ha) on the question.

But (yes, I’m going there) if you think of an event like the Holocaust, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It grew from a fertile terrain of anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism which had intellectual promoters, many of whom were very well-read and well-credentialed, many of whom were good husbands and good fathers. If you’d asked one of these men, circa say 1920, whether they favored a plan to systematically murder all of the Jews on the planet, they would have scoffed—and sincerely, too (for some of them anyway). But they did help bring it about. And once it happened, of course, none of them (that I know of) turned against it, and many of them cheered it on and actively participated.

Now, I obviously don’t think the situation of Christians, or religious believers in general, in wealthy secular countries is anything like the situation of Jews in, say, Vienna or Paris in 1890, let alone Berlin in 1932. And there’s a very good chance we may never get there.

But I do think Christians in the West are much too complacent about it, and this complacency is reflected in our response to the “New” Atheists, which gave them a heck of a lot of credit. In a sense, this is admirable. Very Christian. These guys are one shot of vodka too many away from calling for all our heads on pikes, and we’re patiently explaining Philosophy 101 to them.

The problem is that while this is going on, Sam Harris goes to TED and gets a standing ovation. And a slightly-less-strident (at least in public) version of “New” Atheism is increasingly taking over the elites of our culture. (If you’re wondering why I’m writing about “New” Atheism now when no one’s talking about it, it’s because of this Buzzfeed post.) There’s more than one kind of atheism, and because it’s the worst, we’re assuming it’s going to stay the minority. But there’s nothing in either past or recent history to suggest that that’s true.

Mainstream Christians and run-of-the-mill agnostic liberals are united in their belief that “it couldn’t happen here.” But the French Republic kicked religious orders out of the country and banned religious schools just a short century ago, in a democratic country where there were devout Christians were a significant minority with significant political clout. Again, I’m not saying it’s going to happen in the US. I’m saying it makes no sense to be complacent about it, something the Founding Fathers would wholly agree with.

And one thing I’d like would be for people who talk about these guys to be clear with what we’re dealing here—religious people, but particularly non-believers. These are not people who are “extreme” because their ideas are too simplistic, or because they’re not civil, or not nice (we believers can handle ourselves on the tough streets of ideas, thanks)—though all these things are true. These are people who are extreme because they don’t really think religious believers deserve civil rights. This is something I hadn’t realized until looking into them many years after their books came out and many years after I’d read the reviews of them. I wish we’d had said it.

A Shift In How We Think About Education

Random thought I had on the way back from dropping my daughter off at the Nanny…

There’s been a remarkable shift in our public discourse about education, and what it ought to entail, over the past few centuries, more remarkable for the fact that (I think) it’s gone unnoticed.

Simply put, in the 19th and 18th centuries, the public discourse about education was about politics; over the past few decades it’s become about economics.

Here’s what I mean: if you read the great advocates of democracy in the 18th and 19th century (the Enlightenment philosophers, the American Founding Fathers, various French liberal and/or republican intellectuals (using those words in their French meanings)), to them education was a necessary precondition of democracy and its main goal was to build enlightened, free, citizens. What was foremost to them was that education be liberal, in the oldest and etymological sense of the word: an education to freedom. A free society could not long endure if its citizens were not educated enough to make responsible use of that freedom in their personal lives and in public life, and so education was not only crucial but a certain type of education was.

Flash forward to today, and the only goal is to beat the Chinamen who are coming to eat the bread off our plates. The central question about education, both sides of the aisle agree, is how to create productive worker bees workers to win the economic race against China.

This has obvious consequences. The classic curriculum of the public schools of the French Third Republic emphasized philosophy, mathematics and latin. There were also “morality” classes in elementary school. Today the United States is obsessed with producing ever more graduates in the field of experimental science and engineering.

Now, there are several possible explanations for this shift, not all of them bad:

  • To some extent, the earlier focus on liberal education was related to an anxiety about whether the then-new experiment of democracy could succeed. Critics notwithstanding, the architects of democracy were well aware of how the regime could fall victim to populism leading to despotism (today we would say fascism). One might say liberal education has become less pressing a concern, because we’ve reached that goal. Advanced democracies have been around and relatively stable for a long time, and almost everyone in them agrees with the basic tenets of individual rights, representation, rule of law, etc. Of course, a critic would say that this is all dangerous complacency—we think democracy just “happens” whereas in fact it is a constant struggle.
  • If you agree that the polity should encourage some form of liberal (in this sense) education, then you are postulating that there is some sort of “public morality” that everyone must subscribe to, and perhaps this is dangerous. Perhaps we’ve grown a lot more weary about “imposing morality” on anyone and this is something we prefer to leave to the private sphere. There’s an obvious sense in which any attempt to impose a worldview through (mandatory) public education is creepy; Jules Ferry, the architect of France’s public school system, once wrote that his main goal for his school was to teach citizens to be able to sit quietly for hours at a time and to obey orders. And obviously the overarching goal of public education in France was to rid the country of organized religion by combating the “brainwashing” of non-secular schools with secular brainwashing. But there are obvious retorts to this libertarian-ish view: that it amounts to a dangerous relativism; that the ideology that has replaced it, which we could dub “economism”, is itself a form of public morality; that indeed the very belief that only the private sphere should teach morality is itself a form of public morality; that really no one actually believes this, witness ever-flaring debates about e.g. evolution and sex in school curricula, or the striking resemblance between school curricula in the US’s manifold jurisdictions.

What’s striking to me here is that if we’ve gone away from “public morality” as a goal for education, it seems to me that it’s either because we all agree on what the public morality is, or because we can’t agree on what the public morality is. And I have a nagging sense that the answer is actually “both.”

There’s a sense in which there is a “public morality” in education and that it works out to some sort of “atheistic productivist moral therapeutic deism” where the goal of life (and what education should prepare you for) is to be happy and do whatever you want and find fulfillment as long as fulfillment involves earning a degree from a four-year institution of higher education in a vocational field and finding a productive 9-to-5 job (and getting married but as long as it’s not before 30 and having had many other romantic experiences before that). Or something.

Keen readers of this post will rightly guess that I side with the “politists” against the “economists” in this debate, if only because the “economist” view is so awful, but what I’m more interested in is in why we’ve actually shifted away from this view so much that to articulate it is to seem old-fashioned and out of step, and perhaps even outside the Overton window.

(PS I guess I’m thinking about this because yesterday I had a convo with libertarians on Twitter about civil liberties and terrorism. They argued that another 9/11 wouldn’t be such a huge deal because after all plenty of people die in car crashes every year. I responded that another 9/11 would be a huge deal because it would have huge social and political ramifications. Now they’re right that it doesn’t have to be this way, but they’re wrong to just wave away the stubborn fact that this is the world in which we live. I really wish it weren’t this way. As I said yesterday, I agree strongly with David Foster Wallace here. But most Americans don’t. Perhaps teaching that sacrifice is part of liberty should be part of our public goals for education. Of course, the idea of public goals for education would also horrify libertarians…)

Alan on me on growth

(Since TAS Alum @ayjay has disabled comments on his blog, I’m responding here, so this will not be like a regular blog post. Here’s me and here’s Alan. )

With regard to grammar, a subject on which you’re more qualified than me, I take your point, though only to some extent. I am not merely arguing that “in conditions of economic growth many heated debates would become less heated or would disappear altogether.” I am arguing that these debates arise as a result of decelerating economic growth and that the only sustainable solution to these debates is higher economic growth.

With regard to, say, pensions, it couldn’t be clearer. We are arguing about “saving” Social Security, and whether the way to “save” it is to raise taxes, or lower benefits, or raise the retirement age, or move to some form of private accounts, or some combination of those things, or whatever. There’s only one problem with this: absent long run economic growth none of these solutions will “save” Social Security and Social Security will be in serious trouble whatever we do. And on the other hand, if there is long run economic growth, “Social Security” under whatever form will do fine.

This is rather like being stuck in a car on railroad tracks with a freight train rapidly approaching and arguing about whether the way to avoid it is to change the car’s paint job or install a different sound system. These things may well be desirable and these questions are worth posing. But if your objective is to avoid getting crushed by the freight train, they are also quite irrelevant. If you want a better paint job that’s a very legitimate thing to want. But if you want to avoid being pancaked you have to put the pedal to the metal. And everyone is acting under the assumption that getting the right paint job will stop the freight train. It won’t.

These debates are “about” economic growth in the sense that any rational outside observer would view “avoid the incoming freight train” (prevent a Social Security collapse) and “move the car off the railroad tracks” (reignite economic growth) as essentially identical propositions. The debate “about” avoiding the freight train is the debate about moving the car off the tracks. Now maybe the accelerator is stuck or the engine is out, or something, and in that case that’s something really worth looking into. But that’s not even the debate we’re having.

So that’s with regard to the point about semantics, which is incidental.

With regard to your points about economic growth…

Except that we don’t know what policies generate and sustain growth. At best we might be able to discover and eliminate some policies that inhibit growth, but economic flourishing in any given society depends on a great many unpredictable and uncontrollable factors. Often the stars just have to align.

First of all, I would vigorously dispute just about all of these points. (And also note that if all we know is what the bad policies are, then that’s already a place to start.)

But second of all, I would note that if you’re saying all these things, then at least we’re having the right debate, which was my whole point to begin with.

If we spent all the time we’re spending debating the deficit, unemployment, Social Security, immigration reform, etc. instead debating how to reignite economic growth (including, perhaps, whether that’s possible) we would be in a much, much, much better place. Which, again, is my point.

Now, on to this:

As James Poulos has recently argued, in these matters as in so many others we are susceptible to the illusion that proper planning can both eliminate failure and ensure success, which means that if growth doesn’t happen someone has screwed up and is to be blamed. That is wrong, but more than that, as James argues, it’s a mode of thought that misses a vital truth: The planned life is not worth living.

So my response to PEG’s post is this: we need to strive to articulate and commend visions of the good life, of human flourishing, that do not depend on economic growth. Then, if the growth comes, well and good — what a delightful bonus.

Now, why didn’t I think of that? Yes, Marie Antoinette, it’s possible to live the good life without bread. Why, I’m sure many vagrants lead a much happier life than many people with their fancy McMansions and their cars and their indoor plumbing! All this fretting about material concerns is so bourgeois, so materialistic.

Sorry for being sardonic, but this is where I lose my patience with the Poulos-Jacobs “critique” of politics and policy. Yes, it’s important to realize that politics and policy can’t solve all our problems, and certainly not “save” us in any metaphysical sense. It’s important to realize that we as individuals have a duty to first change our own lives and those of people around us, and to realize that we can transfigure one another in our private lives in a way that politics never can. It’s important to realize that culture matters a great deal. It’s important that wonks have some humility. Yes to all these things.

But we also live in the real world. In this world, people organize collectively—as they always have, as they always will, those political animals. In the parts of the world we live in, they do so through things called governments. They have things called elections where they appoint representatives. These representatives then implement things called policies. Out of the universe of possible policies, some are more desirable than others. The more desirable ones will improve the lives of millions upon millions of people in countless tangible ways. The less desirable ones will make the lives of millions upon millions of people worse in countless tangible ways. That stuff, like, matters.

The wonder of the life to come does not absolve us of the duty to serve our brothers in this life—indeed, it reinforces it. In a world of angels, we wouldn’t need politics and economics, but that’s not the world we live in (didn’t you write a book about that? I recall it was quite good). As Pascal (the better one) said, man is neither angel nor beast, but he who would make him an angel turns him into a beast. This is pretty basic stuff.

If you want us to prepare for a world without growth, I assume you’ve been really happy with the state of the United States for the past 5 years, because you got your wish. I hope you’ll visit the 50% of unemployed Southern European youngsters to see how wonderful a zero-growth world is. I hope you’ll experience the deep social malaise of Japan, with its suicide rate and its bone-deep risk aversion. This is not just about material living conditions. Societies tear apart. Neighbors and strangers stop trusting each other. No one wants to take a chance on other people. When the pie gets smaller people fight like dogs over the scraps. The young turn against the old and the old against the young, the rich against the poor and the poor against the rich, the white against the brown, the citizen against the migrant. Maybe you’ll say “See? What was PEG worrying about?” But I doubt it.

A further reason why your line of thinking is so pernicious is that these things have a self-fulfilling quality, what Keynes called the paradox of thrift. If no one expects growth, people will invest and consume less, and the zero growth will continue.

The stubborn fact of the matter is that modernity relies on economic growth. I don’t know which revolutionary said the Revolution is like a bicycle, if it doesn’t keep moving forward it falls down, but communists have a strange way with insight sometimes, and while that may not be true of revolution, it’s certainly true about the modern world. It is a world built on growth—built by growth and also built on the expectation of future growth.

And if your response is “Well if we have to always have growth then maybe we’ve been on the wrong track all this time” I would respectfully suggest that living past 40, not starving to death, not dying of a toothache, not losing half your children before they take their first steps, not being forced to watch a warlord rape your wife are all pretty cool things and that only modernity brings this. But hey, the Dark Ages produced lots of saints, so that’s cool too.

Several generations of Americans have organized their lives in expectation of a government program called Social Security that will serve them through retirement, and this expectation will be dashed if growth is too low for the next 20 years. “Sorry Grandma, time to eat cat food now, but remember that Jesus loves you and you can still make friends with your neighbors” is, simply, not acceptable as a response to this problem. Oh, but “the planned life is not worth living.” (Said the tenured professor to the entrepreneur.) Okay then.

Just because ships sink sometimes does not mean that it’s irrelevant who the captain is and what she does, or that sinking is somehow equally valid as an option as not sinking. I mean, who can tell? Sometimes we hit icebergs, sometimes we don’t. It’s all a big mystery. Ashes to ashes and all that, lad. All we can do is put on life jackets and be nice to the people in the next cabin and pray. And if we do get to port, why, “what a delightful bonus.”

And if you don’t like my analogy of society as a ship with a captain—well, tough. This is the City of Man.

Replacing less desirable policies with more desirable policies is not “the planned life” in any by me comprehensible sense of those words. And by the way I am very inclined to believe that in many instances the more desirable policy is “the government should just leave it to private initiative”—but that is still a policy decision and “decide to do nothing” is just as much “planning” as “decide to do X”. A vision of the good society is put forward, with certain government policies considered as a means of getting closer to it. This is what human beings do.

Gifts Make Slaves, Whips Make Dogs, and Covenant With Yahweh Makes Charity

A couple months ago, I read Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society? Reciprocity and Solidarity in Ancient Judaism by Schwartz. As suggested by the subtitle, in this sense “Mediterranean” is not a geographic designation but a synonym for clientelism. This combines two of my favorite interests, Western civ history and comparative exchange, and so naturally I had to read it when I saw it in the PUP catalog.

As background, it helps to understand that clientelism (aka hierarchy, patronage, or authority ranking) is one of the basic modes of human organization. One of the many ways that our culture is WEIRD is that to us clientelism is relatively unimportant in fact and even less so in salience. The logic of clientelism is premised on reciprocity under conditions of inequality. So you have higher status people giving gifts to lower status people, who in turn incur social obligations to the higher status people. In the process the former become patrons and the latter clients. In the extreme case this can turn into debt slavery, but even short of that you see the clients reciprocating with deference (thereby conferring status to their patrons), votes, and fighting in the patron’s military unit. My  favorite example of reciprocity through deference comes from JLM’s Social Structures (p. 206), when he notes that non-military feudal reciprocity “was usually minor or degrading or both: in return for the manor of Hemingstone, the tenant was required to `leap, whistle and fart for the king’s amusement’ every Christmas day.“ (For more background on clientelism, read Graeber’s Debt, JLM’s Social Structures, and Fiske’s RMT).

Anyway, back to the Hellenistic/principate era Judaism that is Schwartz’s empirical focus, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that his conclusion is that Jews exhibited both clientelism and solidarity during this period. Nonetheless, he sees Jews as exhibiting relatively less clientelism and relatively more solidarity than your typical Hellenistic culture. That is, Jewish culture was unusual in providing charity to the poor without turning them into clients, and in particular with constraints on debt slavery and weak institutions of euergetism (civic philanthropy as clientelism). In this respect it makes sense to take a sort of glass half full approach and ask where did the solidarity come from?

The source of solidarity is God, or to be more precise about it the Bible, and to be even more precise about it, P, D, and the prophets. (For background on Hebrew source criticism concepts like “P,” listen to the Yale OT course by Hayes or read Who Wrote the Bible by Friedman). The prophets and priests who wrote these parts of the Bible, and to a certain extent the rabbis who developed the subsequent interpretive tradition, were developing an ideology of mutual support and a polemic against reciprocity since to hold a client in debt implies that they are not members of the same community with obligations to one another on the same level as between members of the same household. This is seen most clearly in passages like Deuteronomy 23:19, which prohibits charging interest to another member of the community and likewise in other parts of the Bible that demand debt jubilees in which debts are forgiven (and in anticipation of which one is supposed to nonetheless continue making “loans” to those who need them despite the imminent foreseeable mass debt amnesty). That is, in Fiske’s terms, these strands of the Bible are engaging in polemic against authority ranking and in favor of communal sharing. It is telling that debt jubilees come from the P source, which suggests an underlying class dynamic of priests contesting with landowners for the support of the masses, very similar to the oratores/bellatores split of the mediaeval elite or the models of a semi-autonomous intellectual class found in Gramsci, Bourdieu, and new class theory.

However the glass half empty is that, as Schwartz emphasizes, this was to a large extent an aspirational ideology and in practice Hellenistic/principate (and presumably Biblical) era Jews didn’t always live up to it, but still had a fair amount of clientelism. In some cases this was genteel clientelism, as with the rabbinic traditions in which one reciprocated the mentorship of a master rabbi with praise (much as a 21st century academic will write journal articles citing her doctoral advisor), and yeah, this is a form of clientelism but it’s a pretty far cry from debt slavery. At the other extreme you’ve got The Wisdom of Sirach, which Schwartz reads as a sort of a Hellenized Jew’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” type deal, complete with full-blown Bourdieu among the Kabyle-ism in which the instrumentality of gift giving is just barely sublimated.

It’s interesting that Joshua ben Sira was a thoroughly Hellenized chap, living in Alexandria (the same diaspora community that included his book in its great cultural achievement, the LXX Bible). This cosmopolitanism and cynicism to a large extent go together. Part of the logic of communal sharing is that it only works within tightly bound communities and indeed in lab experiments you prime communal sharing by emphasizing the alter’s common membership in a highly salient community. We also see this logic in the parts of the Bible that demand egalitarianism. For instance, the very next verse after Deuteronomy 23:19’s famous prohibition against interest allows the exception that one can charge interest to foreigners (including resident aliens).

Parts of the Bible are downright genocidal, but what’s interesting is that these parts are uniformly directed towards what we might call an especially energetic form of boundary work. That is, the Bible reserves its most bloodthirsty passages for other peoples who threaten to undermine the particularity of Israel through intermarriage and encouraging apostasy (issues which the Bible sees as nearly synonymous). (e.g., Numbers 31:15-17Deuteronomy 20:16-18). Nor can you really separate the “nice” Bible that discourages exploitation from the “mean” Bible that demands men divorce their foreign wives and that the nation wage genocidal campaigns against the nations within Canaan. Intense social closure (at least in aspiration) and intense altruism (at least in aspiration) were mutually supportive. What undergirds both of these issues is that the nation is defined by relationship to Yahweh. The Bible defines Israel not primarily by common descent from Abraham’s twelve legitimate great-grandsons but rather by common affirmation of the covenant Abraham cut with Yahweh. Notably, most of the covenant language follows the genre conventions of Near Eastern vassalage treaties. Although the Bible vacillates on such issues as whether Yahweh’s protection is contingent, all versions of the covenant establish Yahweh as patron of Israel which means that relations of Jews to one another are as mutual clients to a single patron. Now in general co-clients often lack horizontal ties, but this structural equivalence means that there’s the ideological raw material there to build an aspirational case that horizontal ties among these co-clients are as members of a common household. We see this view make the jump to Christianity, yet again primarily as an aspiration, in Paul’s view of the church (including the laity) as the new Israel and internal to which there were to be altruistic relations (e.g., his letters to the Corinthians, which both encapsulate supersessionist covenant theology by rejecting circumcision and demand egalitarian relations within the community through internal arbitration of disputes, sharing the agape feast, etc).

Conversely, the decline of particularism and closure is associated with the decline in altruism. Nelson’s thesis is that the taboo against usury relaxed with the decline of a notion of tribalism. Similarly, we see a close reflection of this in the common observation that welfare states are most likely to arise in highly homogenous high trust societies like Scandinavia and less so in heterogenous societies like the United States. However much there might be an aspiration towards universal altruism it looks much like the product of universal and altruism are more or less a constant, such that if you increase one, you tend to decrease the other. An extremely open society is one in which we can hope people will refrain from swindling one another, but it’s probably too much to expect that they will consider highly inegalitarian relationships to be inappropriate or engage in unreciprocated altruism.

cross-posted to Code and Culture

The Case Against The Case Against National Service

I probably wouldn’t support any actually existing proposal for national service, whether in the US or in France.

There are plenty of good practical arguments against national service: it’s expensive; it’s social engineering with a low likelihood of success; it’s feel-good paternalism; it’s a waste of time. If your idea of national service is military service, you can add that good 21st century militaries are highly professional outfits, not mass conscript armies, that social engineering is not the military’s job, and so on.

Those are all good arguments. They are also not the arguments that most libertarians make. And the libertarian arguments are not only ridiculous, and not only as ridiculous as they are strongly-held, they are ridiculous in a specifically pernicious way that perfectly encapsulates why I’m not a libertarian.

I remember being so shocked that I committed the event to memory: many many years ago Rep Rangel introduced a bill to reinstate the military draft as a protest against the Iraq War. One of the writers at the Volokh Conspiracy wrote (and this so shocked me that I committed this quote to memory) that military service is “a heinous institution that presupposes that people are the property of the state.”

I don’t remember which of the Volokh writers wrote this but if I’m not mistaken all of them are legal scholars, and this idea which ought to embarrass a first-year law student shows the extent to which libertarian brains shut down with a mention of the draft. The state is entitled to demand military service of you for the same reason that it’s entitled to demand that you pay a portion of your wages: military service is a form of taxation paid in kind. Military service is like slavery in the same way that taxation is theft. (And if you read this and pumped up your fist and went “Well, yeah!” you need to read more books.)

I’m the most quasi-libertarian non-libertarian you’ll ever meet. Milton Friedman is one of my all-time personal heroes—I even named my cat after him! Free to Choose will be mandatory (gasp!) viewing for my kids.

Here’s the thing, though.

My great-grandfather was a major in the French Army. When the Battle of France was lost he was one of only a handful of battalion commanders who managed to keep his unit together in the debacle, and was decorated as one of the final acts of the legitimate government of France. He was a public school teacher and administrator, because he had grown up as a stableman’s son and a public school teacher’s detection and encouragement of his precocity (something forbidden nowadays) was the only reason he was able to pursue education, and out of gratitude he dedicated his life to public service, at the end of his life watching impotently as the French public school system he loved was destroyed from the inside by Sixties radicals, and taking his granddaughter out of public schools and putting her in a private parochial school. For him serving his country entailed working in schools, but also serving in the French Army reserves, and he went to fight for his country when she needed it. After the armistice, he went home but did not stop fighting. He joined the French Resistance and ended up building and leading one of the most important maquis networks in Burgundy, which was occupied territory. He became a wanted man and his house was taken by the Nazis. If he had been found, he would almost certainly have been tortured to death as an important asset. And I shudder even more to think of what would have happened to his little daughter, also in hiding, my grandmother.

One of the greatest men of the past century, André Malraux gave this homage to one of his fellow Résistants, Jean Moulin, head of the Resistance tortured to death by the Gestapo.

You Head of the Resitance, martyred in hideous cellars, look with your blinded eyes all those black women standing watch over our companions: they mourn for France, and for you. Look as under the small oaks of Quercy, with a flag made of knotted rags, slip by the maquis that the Gestapo will never find because it only believes in tall trees. Look at the prisoner who enteers a luxurious villa and wonders why he has a bathroom—he hasn’t heard of bathtub torture. Poor tortured king of shadows, look as your people of shadows rises up in a night of June pierced by torture. Hear the rumble of German tanks rolling towards Normandy: thanks to you, the tanks will not make it in time. And when the Allied troops break through, look, Prefect, as in every town of France the Commissaries of the Republic rise up—except when they were killed. Like us, you envied Leclerc’s epic bums : look, fighter, your bums crawl out of their maquis. Their peasant hands have been trained to use bazookas, and they stop one of the foremost tank divisions of Hitler’s Empire, Das Reich. (…)

Enter here, Jean Moulin, with your terrible cohort. With those who died in basements without talking, like you; and even, which may be more awful, having talked. With the striped and shaved figures of the concentration camps. With the last stumbling, beaten body of the awful lines of Night And Fog. With the eight thousand French women who never returned from the prisons. With the last woman who died in Ravensbrück for giving asylum to one of ours. Enter here with the people born of shadows and gone with it—our brothers in the order of the night.

My ancestor risked torture and death and worse. What for? So that his children, and his countrymen’s children—so that I could enjoy a free and prosperous life.

If you won the sperm lottery and were born in a wealthy, democratic nation, you have a life whose charm is simply incommensurable and incomparable with the lived existence of the vast, vast majority of human beings who have ever lived on Earth.

You have the privilege of not dying of hunger and easily preventable disease. You have the privilege of having attended schools that, yeah, could be much better, but still taught you how to read. You have the privilege of access to technology and a standard of living that would have been simply unimaginable even to most kings of old. You have the privilege of not having to keep a spare set of clothes under your bed in case the secret police knock in the middle of the night. You have the privilege of being able to spout off whatever nonsense on the internet and not get thrown in jail for your opinions. You have the privilege of medicine which cures most ailments and is relatively available to you. You have the privilege of a relatively much much higher likelihood of having work that is not back-breaking and awful, and perhaps even meaningful and fulfilling. You have the privilege of having a life expectancy which is basically twice the life expectancy of most of the people who came before you. That’s right: you basically have A WHOLE OTHER LIFE on top of your “natural” life, as a reward for the hard work and toil of being born in the right place and the right time.

And the simple fact of the matter is that if your sperm was lucky and you were born in one of those countries, the only reason you enjoy this incredible, unimaginable privilege is because people who lived before you sacrificed, and toiled, and gave their lives so that you would have it. They fought wars and they gave their blood and their lives so that a certain political community to which you belong shall not perish from the Earth so that you could enjoy this.

We owe this incredibly charmed modern life not just to scientific progress and capitalism. We also owe it to the stubborn fact that many of our forefathers were willing to put on a uniform, swear an oath, and lay down their lives, for us, their children and their children’s children. Your blessed life is built on the blood and bones of your forefathers.

You can tell me that war is bad, and I agree. You can tell me that nationalism is bad, and I agree. You can tell me that militarism is bad, and I agree. But none of that changes the stubborn actual facts of history that wars, some of them just, were fought by your forefathers, and that your forefathers died, so that you could enjoy the positively mind-boggling privilege you do enjoy. Freedom is never free. Government is often a threat to freedom, yes, but it is also a bulwark for freedom. Maybe it doesn’t have to be this way, but it’s the way it has been.

In this context, the idea that your political community which has given you so much does not have the right to ask you to contribute just a little something back to the effort of national defense strikes me as the height of solipsistic adolescent egotism. It is spitting in your father’s face.

Through no effort of your own, being born in the right political community basically gave you forty extra years of expected life, and giving back just one or two is too much?

“Oh, but that’s slavery.” You know what’s slavery? ACTUAL SLAVERY. And you know where slavery exists? Not where you live. Slavery still exists—in places you were lucky enough not to be born in. Instead you were born into a place of unimaginable freedom, wealth and wonder which you did nothing to earn. And so yes, that place just may ask you to spend a year wearing ugly green fatigues which don’t compliment your eyes, crawling around in the muck and getting yelled at by a guy who didn’t even go to a good college. The horror.

Tell me national service is too expensive. Tell me it won’t work. Tell me you want smart ways to deal with true conscientious objectors. Tell me it’s wankery, even. Heck, tell me why as a Christian you refuse to take up arms against anybody. Tell me all these things—really.

But don’t tell me that there’s no social contract. Don’t tell me that you don’t owe anything to your country.

In the end, that’s why I’m not a libertarian. I am pro-libertarian in that I believe the libertarian critique of state overreach is critically important. I want libertarian ideas to have more purchase in our societies. I probably agree with the Cato Institute on 90% of issues. But following the logic of libertarianism leads to denying the social contract, to denying that political communities have value. Nations exist. In all of human history, people have formed political associations. It seems to me self-evident that this is necessary and good. Through a painful and long process of trial and error, we’ve stumbled upon a form of political association, the liberal democratic nation state, which is uniquely good at protecting people’s natural rights and encouraging their flourishing. But for these political associations to be successful, they require us to give as well as take, and for us to affiliate in a powerful way, and to view our destiny, at least a little bit, as a common endeavor and not just an individual one.

As Jim Manzi wrote in his book, every successful institution relies not just on the well-understood personal interest of its members but also on an emotional attachment to that institution and its well-being at the expense of our narrow personal interests. The liberal democratic nation state is the most successful, good and important institution we’ve come up with. It deserves and needs that we defend it—with words, with deeds, and sometimes, yes, with service. And it has the right to ask that of us.

La Chanson française

As one who straddles the Transatlantic cultural divide, I often have trouble communicating to my American friends the wonder of some French musical acts, particularly the great auteurs of la chanson française.

The thing with chanson is that it is as much poetry as it is music, and poetry that relies heavily on alliteration, cultural references, wordplay, poetry therefore that is very hard to carry over to another language and culture.

The obvious example here is Georges Brassens, who rolls his Auvergnat r’s over a meek plucked guitar, casually unfurling lyrics packed several layers deep with cultural allusions, extended metaphors, clever rhymes and astute wordplay.

His masterpiece Les Copains d’abord (originally written for the soundtrack of an eponymous film which has been utterly forgotten, overshadowed by the song, even though it is one of the gems of French cinema, starring some of the greatest actors of the 20th century, often before they were famous) is built upon an extended metaphor of friendship as a ship and a nautical journey, bringing in The Raft of the Medusa, Fluctuat nec mergitur and the Battle of Trafalgar. In the song, friendship is “franco de port,” a technical expression for shipful of merchandise paid for by the sender, that is to say free, but also a wordplay on “port”—a port in the storm—and “franco”—slang for “honest.”

For Brassens, friendship is unselfconscious and not theorized. The copains would give anything for each other, but the last thing they would do is think “I would give anything for him” :

They weren’t fancy friends
Like Castor and Pollux
Or people from Sodom and Gommorrah
They weren’t friends chosen
By Montaigne and La Boétie

For all its value and perhaps transcendence, it would be wrong to see friendship as religion:

They weren’t angels
The Gospel? They ain’t read it
But they loved each other at full rigging
John, Peter, Paul and the gang,
That was their only litany,
Their Credo, their Confiteor,
Friends first

(Brassens is known for his opposition to organized religion, and isn’t it nice for once to see an adversary of the Church who actually knows what he’s talking about? One finds it hard to imagine Christopher Hitchens knowing how to use confiteor. )

This is just a small glimpse of the lyrical depth of one song by Brassens, and perhaps I’ve shown how hard, perhaps futile, it seems to translate the combination of alliteration, rhyme, cultural reference and wordplay that the chanson throws at the listener.

Another glorious example is Jacques Dutronc, perhaps—I dare submit—the coolest cat of the 20th century (no doubt helped by the fact that his wife is one of the most beautiful women in the 20th century). Known in his youth for his three-piece suits and forever for his big cigars, Dutronc is what you would get when you cross the perfect son-in-law with a fiercely playful devil.

His formidable song L’Opportuniste, a send-up of politics, is impossible to appreciate without understanding the idiomatic expression of the chorus: retourner sa veste (to turn one’s jacket inside out, that is to say, to change one’s affiliation or public belief):

Some object, demand and protest
I only do one thing
I turn my jacket inside out
I turn my jacket inside out
On the good side always

The predictable line “I am of all parties” has three layers: political parties; fun parties, but also parties fines, that is to say, orgies. (Not that French politicians would know anything about that, of course.)

J’aime les filles (I Like Girls) is, as the title suggests, a French song out of central casting.

I like the girls from Castel
I like the girls from Régine
I like the girls you see in Elle
I like the girls from the magazines (…)
I like the girls with dowries
I like the daddies’ girls
I like Lot’s girls (!)
I like the girls who don’t have daddies
I like the girls from Megève
I like the girls from Saint Tropez
I like the girls who go on strike
I like the girls who go camping (…)
I like the girls from Camaret
I like the bookish girls
I like the funny girls
I like the Vieille France girls

The song’s overall theme is, well, pretty straightforward. But then again, you miss much of the song if you know the popular Paris nighttime spots Castel and Régine (as popular when I was in college as in Dutronc’s generation—I like les filles de chez Régine too), if you know Megève and (this one is easier) Saint Tropez, if you know that “les filles de Camaret” is the title of a French bawdy song, if you know what “Vieille France” refers to…

Every Dutronc song is packed to the brim with awesomeness, but it’s just so hard to convey. I’ve been meaning for a while to share with fellow Scenester Matt Frost his amazing anti-French Parenting song Fais pas ci, fais pas ça (Don’t Do This, Don’t Do That). Listen to the song’s restless tune, and know that “A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet” is one of the sillier French nursery rhymes.

Don’t do this, don’t do that
Come here, sit here
Watch out, don’t get cold, or else
Eat your soup, come on, brush your teeth
Don’t touch this, go to sleep
Say Daddy, say Mommy
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Don’t put your fingers in your nose
You still suck your thumb
What did you spill?
Close your eyes, open your mouth
Don’t bite your nails nasty child
Go wash your hands
Don’t cross the street or else I’ll spank you
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Let your dad work
Go do the dishes
Stop squabbling
Respond when I call
Be polite say thank you to the lady
Leave your seat
Time to go to bed
Can’t miss the class
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
You tire me I can’t take it
Say good day say good night
Don’t run in the hallway
Or else I’ll spank you
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Come here get out of here
Here’s the door get out
Listen to the grown ups
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Stubborn runt
You’ll get a beating
What did you do with my comb?
I’ll only say it once
You’re good for nothing
I’m telling you for your own good
If you don’t do better
You’ll be a ditch-digger
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Don’t worry guys
Don’t worry guys
They told me all that too
Don’t do this don’t do that
Don’t do this don’t do that
And this is where I ended up
And this is where I ended up
La la la
La la la
La la la
La la la la
La la la la
La la la la

Fuckin’ A man.

Dutronc is, after all, a guy who wrote—and, more importantly, got past the censorship boards of mid-‘60s France—a song dedicated to how wonderful his penis is.

Am I jealous?
Not at all, not at all
I have a girl trap
A taboo trap
An amazing toy
That goes crac-boom-hoo
It makes girls fall to their knees

Dutronc disses “professional play boys” who “work like beavers, not with their hands or feet” (beavers use their tails to build their dams, and in French queue (tail) is slang for penis). Those playboys are “minets” who “eat their ron ron at the Drugstore”—minet means kitten but is also slang for “prettyboy”, hence the “ron ron” (cat food) they eat at the Drugstore, a nouveau riche hangout near the Arc de Triomphe. Dutronc may not have the play boys “Cardin suits” or “Ferraris” or hang out at “Fauchon”, but is he jealous? No, because he’s got his “amazing toy” that makes all the girls fall to their knees…

Dutronc disses all the types of Parisian playboys: “the Supermen with bodies of steel”, “those who read and who can speak” and even “those who get married at La Madeleine”. As far as diss songs go, this is pretty great. “My rivals may be richer, prettier and smarter, but I have a bigger dick.”

Then there’s his untranslatable L’Aventurier where he rhymes French slang with basically every town on Earth (my favorite: “J’ai été lourdé à Lourdes”), while mocking the fake adventurers we sometimes run across.

Perhaps I’ve gotten my point across: it’s very hard to convey the awesomeness of the chanson française to a non-French audience, based as it is on poetic lyrics and cultural references, rather than musical quality.

Of course, there are exceptions. Jacques Brel’s volcanic intensity punches through all cultural barriers. I dare you to listen to his Quand on n’a que l’amour (When All You Have Is Love) and not feel like you’ve just been punched in the gut.

When all you have is love
As your only reason
As your only song
And only succor

When all you have is love
To provide, in the morning,
The poor and the wanderer
With velvet coats

When all you have is love
To offer up as a prayer
For the evils of the Earth
As a simple troubadour (…)

When all you have is love
To talk to cannons
And just a song
To convince a battle drum

Then, having nothing
But the strength to love
We will have in our hands,
Friends, all of the world.

Without a doubt, the most underrated of the great auteurs of chanson is William Sheller. Sheller has a fatal flaw: he appeals to the people of my class, the old money, and thereby earns the contempt of the music critics. He has the gall to use Christian themes sometimes, and not to mock them either, so he’s clearly a simpleton.

Sheller is, first and foremost, humble. It’s so easy to mistake him for a peddler of poor pop, with his saccharine synth and mild electric guitars, his unimpressive voice, a light tenor which sounds like it could be yours or mine. Sheller sneaks up on you. When you listen to his songs, you don’t picture an arena, you picture him in your living room or perhaps some dive, on the piano, banging out a few tunes. Then you realize that the catchy tunes are the wings of deep poetry, that his voice has a je ne sais quoi of earnest intensity you’ve never quite heard elsewhere, that this man is painting a whole world for you in the span of just a few minutes.

Sheller is a poet for sure (his pseudonym “Sheller” is an homage to Shelley and Schiller) but like his lyrics, the quality of his music likes to hide in plain sight. A classically-trained pianist and composer, Sheller uses the tools of orchestration to make the elements of pop music do more than they’re supposed to. The drums, the base are ever so slightly more subtle and complex than they would be if someone else was writing the song. You’ll never catch the music showing off, or overshadowing the song, but always accompanying and strengthening it.

In Les Filles de l’aurore (The Girls Of Dawn), an almost meditation on hedonic teenage love, the drums and base first give off a very simple beat, but they are quickly completed with piano, then synth, then strings. The strings are on their own melody, undergirding the song. The drums sometimes bounce up into the song. So easy to miss that there’s a lot going on under the catchy choruses.

The boys of dawn
Slide their bodies in worn jeans
They brush nervous fingers through their hair
And walk outside
They have deep in their eyes
The dreams of the strongest
The wars they still wage
When the dawn sees them walk two by two

And I come well after the dawn
When the sun rises above St John
I want to tell them I still love you
You who always leave me

The lovers of dawn
Still give themselves to each other
In wrinkled beds
Hearts against bodies
Is it love or death
That keeps them in their embrace?
They have deep in their eyes
Dreams I used to dream
That you would stay
After the dawn kept us

Vienne (Vienna) is both an ode to the beauty of the imperial city and the telling of the bittersweet story of a marriage hitting bottom.

If I write you tonight from Vienna
It’s for you to understand
That I chose absence
As our last chance
Our sky became so heavy

If I write you tonight from Vienna
— O fall in Vienna is so beautiful —
It’s that without thinking I chose to take off
And I’m in Vienna without you

I walk and dream in Vienna
To the triple time of a distant waltz
It seems as if shadows turn and melt into each other
Our evenings in Vienna were so beautiful

(Don’t worry. They get back together in the end.)

I ask you, who has the means to take off for Vienna for a week off when their marriage goes south? Someone who’s not paying enough taxes, that’s who. Class traitors like Sheller can’t make good music.

One of Sheller’s most affecting songs is Maman est folle (Mom Is Insane), narrated from the perspective of the older child who has to care for both his disabled mother and his younger brother, while hiding her condition for fear of having her taken away. No father is mentioned. This heart-breaking song is 100% pathos-free, carried by a strangely upbeat tune and lyrics appropriately simple and blunt for the child narrator.

Mom is insane
Can’t do nothin’ about it
What makes it better
Is she loves us

When she flies away
We hold her hand
She’s like a kite
That the wind plays with (…)

When Mom laughs
We forget we’re hungry
That it’s time for school
That we’re afraid of the neighbors

She’s our idol
She fills our hearts
They mustn’t steal her
Or take her away

So Sheller does naturalistic stories. There are biographical ones, like Basket Ball about, well, playing basket ball as a young man, and more (“I was then a guy/Who played a bunch of basketball/Who played a bunch of rock’n‘roll/But when you were there, I never knew what to say…”), RockNDollars about his slightly silly teenage dreams of making lots of money as a rock star and aping all things American (“I will be your popstar, your King/It’s all about dollars and feeling”).

He also often evokes history, as in Guernesey a poetic evocation of Victor Hugo’s exile on the eponymous island and a call for free speech (“To be exiled for ideas/To hear the voices drifting/Under the waves”).

But Sheller is not above mysticism. With impressionistic touches, he paints worlds that sometimes have supernatural hues. You never know what’s what, as in Les Miroirs dans la boue (Mirrors In The Mud)

In the storm of an ageless forest(…)
I saw the face of a wild child
Carrying a jewel
Green eyes swept with ginger hair(…)

God makes pictures with clouds
The rain makes mirrors in the mud
I have looked for you everywhere
I keep a mirage in a strange cage
The kind that mad men build
I have looked for you everywhere

My favorite Sheller song (and I’m going to end this interminable post with this) is without a doubt Excalibur An hommage to the chansons de geste, this song evokes the powerful mythos of the Middle Ages about as well as anything else I can think of. The faith and the heroism of knights, but also the violence and the tragedy. I said Sheller’s orchestration is subtle, but here he goes all out, with an orchestra and a Latinate choir. This is a song that makes you want to ride your steed to Jerusalem to retake it for Christendom, and yet leaving you with a piercing feeling that it’s all for nothing, and yet somehow still worth it if it’s noble. A medieval history professor I knew once told me this about the Middle Ages: “They committed as much horror as any era, but they repented more than any era.” The knight narrator addresses a father who is alternatively his lord and God.

It is a great blessing, noble father
To see you again, so full of life
Back on your noble lands
Before your proud squadrons
After these long years of war
Heaven is a witness that today
It is a great joy for the whole city
To open its doors loudly

Misery and long nights came
God gave and God took back
Our brothers are gone, so are our enemies
God gave and God took back
God kept you
May He be blessed

It took so much earth
To dig so many beds
That whole mountains were not enough
And You needed so much stone
To build fair churches
Where we sang Your light
Where we felt so small.

In the forest of your banners
Blows a good wind, flapping with life
The sun burns your iron gloves
Today is a great day,
But allow me noble father
To leave you with this
The road to the border is long
I shall have to travel by night (…)

I leave to bury
At the ends of our old land
The soft Diane with the fair hair
Whom I cannot forget
She shall sleep as in prayer
Out of the fairest marble anyone saw
Under the fair light
Of your fair churches

This bittersweet song appeals to any romantic, particularly one taken with the romanticism of the Medieval knights. It does not flinch from the ugliness of the Medieval drama, but nor does it deny its epicness. This song grabs you and makes you travel to another world, one where you could almost—not quite—confront Mordor on horseback with Aragorn.

Sheller is really cool. He has an uncanny gift for painting whole worlds with just a few words in his songs, and elegant, subtle orchestration. I hope I’ve been able to convey that.

PS: This is a guy who wrote a “psychedelic mass” in 1969. Side 1 and Side 2 on YouTube.

Chesterton's Weed

A few days ago Glenn Loury hosted Mark Kleiman on Bloggingheads to discuss Mark’s work implementing Washington state’s marijuana legalization plebiscite. In the conversation Mark suggested that:

- tax revenues will not be anywhere near as high as people are expecting (and it would be a bad thing if they were insofar as this could only occur were the state to actively promote vices to problem and/or new users, as in the case of state lotteries)

- recreational diversion is a very substantial part of the “medical” marijuana system

- producers should be kept fragmented so as to be too powerless to accomplish alcohol-style regulatory capture that would let them aggressively market, avoid excise taxes, and promote the problem users who account for most revenues

- legalization and regulation should be accompanied by a short-term increase in enforcement against the underground market (and law enforcement should have gotten a cut of marijuana tax revenues to assure buy-in)

- the federal government has the constitutional power (under Wickard v Filburn and Gonzales v Raich) to obstruct Washington’s market (but not to demand the active cooperation of local authorities)

- marijuana is responsible for lots of emergency room visits (for bad trips, not poisoning) and policy should discourage strains with high THC:CBD ratios

- paternalistic policy is generally justifiable to protect minors and to help adults realize self-control and enlightened self-interest

Moreover, when California had a similar (unsuccessful) plebiscite in 2010, Mark frequently expressed a “pox on both your houses” attitude towards the backers and opponents alike, viewing both sides as prone to bad faith and the “legalization in one state” model as unworkable in the face of federal obstruction, and he generally held out the hope for a narrow defeat.

So given that Mark sounds like neither a pothead nor a libertarian, why on Earth would Mark be the appropriate person to implement a law backed by these two constituencies? Well, first, he’s a bona fide expert on drug policy (I’ve read and loved Against Excess but admit I have not read his co-authored Marijuana Legalization book). Second, and more interestingly to me, while he is skeptical of the details, he has no problem with the basic idea of adults who choose to seek out marijuana for moderate recreational use being able to obtain it legally. That is, Mark is not out to sabotage the basic legitimate aims of the law, but he has a pessimistic streak about all the ways it could have bad effects.

If we go by the logic of Chesterton’s fence this makes Mark the perfect person to oversee implementation of legalization. As you may recall (and if you don’t, how exactly is it that you came to read TAS?), Chesterton’s allegory involves coming across a fence blocking a road and the fool says to just smash it whereas the wise person says to first figure out why it was built as it was presumably built for a reason and not by lunatics or sleepwalkers. (Yeah, I know, it was all reefer madness, paper companies, and freemasons). So the person whose idea of a marijuana policy is “everybody must get stoned” isn’t somebody you’d want in charge of it, especially if they’ve convinced themselves of their own talking points that marijuana isn’t addictive or dangerous. (By which logic the problems with alcohol are DTs and alcohol poisoning, but there’s no need to reckon non-physiological addiction, car accidents, homicide, cirrhosis, heart disease, etc). Rather you want somebody who worries about all the things that could go wrong to implement a reform because that person will take steps to make sure that, as far as possible, they won’t.

Reform Conservative Manifesto TL;DR

I wrote a fairly long ‘Reform Conservative Manifesto’ post on Forbes this morning.

For those interested in skipping to the good parts, here are the key points.

1) The key problem facing America is family breakdown, which causes inequality of opportunity, economic insecurity and social dysfunction, and drives higher demand for government as private safety nets fail and human capital formation is inadequate. There are a number of policies that can address this, particularly family-friendly tax reform.

The Republican Party needs to take up this mantle of affordable family formation. If it does, it would get political victory (as starting a family makes you much more likely to vote GOP), a more vibrant America, and the political capital to truly shrink government for good.

If it doesn’t, ever-increasing social dysfunction and stratification will lead Americans to increasingly embrace big government and lead America on the path to France.

I describe the alternative scenarios this way:

Address family formation seriously -> win elections -> make it easier to start families and have kids -> more families and more kids -> a better economy, a healthier society, less demand for big government, more GOP voters -> win more elections -> shrink government, grow the economy and civil society -> win more elections -> rinse, lather, repeat.

The alternative scenario would go something like this: Don’t address middle income voters’ day-to-day concerns seriously, don’t make family formation more affordable -> concede the field to Democrats -> increase economic and social insecurity -> increase demand for government -> lose elections -> government grows bigger -> social pathologies get worse -> keep conceding the field -> increase demand for government -> etc.

2) The “Grand New Party School” of GOP Reform and the “Libertarian Populist School” have a tremendous amount in common, much more than separates them. The problem is that an austerity-plus-flat tax-plus-hard money agenda is a sure-fire political loser and terrible policy. GNPers and LPs should merge. GNPers should adopt the LP small-vs-big framing, and attendant impulses and reforms (anti-corporatism, prison reform, civil liberties) and LPs should adopt family-friendly reform and Milton Friedman-style economic policies.

Read the whole thing here →

We're Getting Our Asses Kicked Over Here, Guys

A message from a Catholic to Catholics.

Via Matt comes this Times Mag piece which is a true monument. It depicts how Mormons have been stealthily infiltrating Hollywood, on the strength of BYU’s excellent computer animation program.

Really do read the whole thing, but here’s some excerpts:

“Honestly,” says Marilyn Friedman, the former head of outreach at DreamWorks, who visited B.Y.U. frequently, “the first few times I went to Provo, I was like: What am I doing here? I’m a little Jewish girl from back East. But I was just amazed by how absolutely lovely those kids are. They couldn’t be nicer, humbler, more respectful. It’s a pleasure. And when they come here, they stay that way.” Many students are already married with children by the time they graduate; they want to excel at their jobs to give their families stability. Many have served missions abroad, often deposited in third-world countries amid great suffering, and are years older than the typical college student by the time they graduate. “It means there’s a maturity level there,” says Barry Weiss, a longtime animation executive and former senior vice president at Sony.

Strong is 24, a contemplative and steady-seeming senior. He was the producer on “Chasm,” the current project. Having borne the managerial stress of the production all semester, he insisted on carving out some time that night with his wife, who was six months pregnant with their first child.

I kept being reminded that B.Y.U.’s program was only 13 years old: most of the moral emissaries that it has been pouring into the industry are still climbing to the positions from which they’ll be able to truly influence a film’s tone and content. One day, there will be alumni directing and producing, students insisted — it’s an inevitability. “Right now we’re the workhorses,” an alumnus at DreamWorks told me. “But I think our future is bright in terms of being able to shape the industry.”

during his freshman year at B.Y.U., his outlook changed. He saw students who were all striving to be kind and moral people but also having fun and enjoying solid friendships with one another. The uneasy compromises between his principles and his popularity didn’t seem necessary anymore. It was the reverse of the typical coming-of-age-at-college story: he felt liberated enough to experiment, so he experimented with returning to the values he was raised with.

But at B.Y.U., everyone works as a team on a single film because, unlike at art schools, students are too busy with religion courses and other requirements to be full-time filmmakers. Out of necessity, production on each year’s film winds up mirroring the way the industry actually works. B.Y.U. students emerge committed to a specialty and to collaboration

Guys, guys, guys, guys—we are getting our asses KICKED.

We’ve all heard the refrain that now that Christianity is no longer dominant, that’s an opportunity to be counter-cultural and salt of the Earth. So why are we not doing it?

The Mormons are showing us how it’s done. They’re in the world, being diligent, hard-working, and yet so, so counter-cultural. And breeding like hell. (By the way, some of the piece shows how Mormons can be too Mormon. The problem with contemporary culture is not reduced to whether it’s PG, and in art quality and uplifting are not equal.)

Oh, and there’s this

Low taxes and a cheap but well-educated workforce persuaded Goldman [Sachs] to go on a hiring binge in Salt Lake City. The bank now employs 1,300 people here — putting Utah’s capital city on a path to become Goldman’s fourth-largest global operation, behind only New York, New Jersey and London.


Georgetown? Notre Dame? Give me a break. Where’s the Catholic Minerva Project? Where are the thousands of Catholic Montessori schools? (Maria Montessori, by the way, is one of us — a daily communicant and friend to Popes. Montessori values are so resonant with Catholic theology it hurts.) Where’s The Plan to infiltrate Hollywood and take it over? And Silicon Valley? And the New York Times? Forget about the NYT, where’s the Catholic Buzzfeed? Catholic Mayo Clinic?

By the way, Tim Keller is right (no Mormon; no Catholic either) — we won Rome because we took over the cities. And the elites. The word “basilica” refers to the mansions of the rich Christians which housed the community when it was persecuted, because we couldn’t have temples.

Back in the day, this is what we created the Jesuits for. The Pope is saying all the right things. What are we waiting for?

EDIT: Ok, we do get SOME things right.

Sex In A Sex-Drenched World Is Sexless

Evidence for the prosecution.

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