Monday, December 31, 2007

Keeping Time

The Roman deity for whom January is named is Janus, the god of beginnings and endings. He is the god of two faces, one facing back toward the past and the other looking forward toward the future. Tonight is his night, as we reflect on what has been and what is to come.

This night we Americans become more aware of time than is usually the case. It is a night when we experience a fleeting awareness of the persistence of the past and the presence of the future (we sing a song of regret about the past, albeit without full awareness of what its words actually mean). Though we are renowned for being a people who are oriented towards the future, in fact we are deeply presentist: we distrust the inheritance of the past and neglect the future in our tendency to pursue our immediate interests. We trust that the future will take care of itself and live in rebellion against the limits about which the past would instruct us and evince an increasingly uneasy optimism that the future will be better, that any unintended consequences or costs of our current ways of life will be wiped clean.

I have always disliked that the celebration of the passing of the old year and the celebration of the new bears no relationship to the changing seasons. How much more appropriate were we to celebrate this date on the Spring equinox or summer solstice. And what more pleasant weather we'd likely be able to celebrate in.

Nevertheless, this year I find it wholly appropriate to mark the day in the dead of winter. For the past few months we have been heating our home with wood - wood that I've been accumulating for the past year and gradually splitting during spare hours of the evening or the weekend. The simple act of heating with a woodstove is a window - admittedly, a small but not wholly insignificant one - on the wholly different experience of time that was the experience of our forbears. The day is marked out by intervals when the stove needs to be fed as the previous load fades to embers. Each piece of wood is the presence of the past in my hands. In passing I'll think of its past as a tree, the accumulation of seasons of sunlight and rain, of ground and air. At times I lift a piece of wood whose shape or markings bring back to mind the day I split it (invariably, I remember the wood with knots or with twisted grain over which I spilled not a little sweat) But, burning wood also makes one keenly aware of the future, particularly as I burn down the seemingly large piles of split wood that had accumulated over the past year in the back yard. The pieces I burn now have been seasoned for about a year, waiting in one part of the yard even as I build a pile for next winter in another part of the yard. How slow and painstaking the pile grows as I slowly split each piece; how quickly the pile decreases as I assemble load after load outside our back door awaiting its swift conflagration.

How much our modern form of life has allowed us to escape thinking about the fullness of our temporal dimensions with such directness, such immediacy. Our gas furnaces, our automobiles, our industrially produced food - and yes, our housing tracts built in complete neglect of the direction of the sun's rays or the placement of rooms in relation to the earth and sky - all contribute to a profound ignorance of the reality of time - past, present and future - as it was experienced when so much more was done by ourselves in providing the daily and annual sustenance of our lives. This night we momentarily recognize the circularity of the time that governs our lives, a circularity we have sought in every way to make straight and flat so that we can walk easily over it. With modern technologies fueled by geologic - not annual - energy, we deceive ourselves into thinking that we are no longer governed by circular time. Tonight we recall the ending and return, if even momentarily. Tonight we are also one year closer to a time when we may no longer enjoy the luxuries of this illusory and fleeting experience of linear time and we will be forced to reacquaint ourselves with annual, cyclical time and the necessity, not the luxury, of community.

Now, I leave to add another log and then settle in for an evening of family board games before declaring the new year at 10 p.m. and sending the young ones to bed. I wish the faithful and quite unexpected readers of this blog - tonight a year old - a very happy and blessed new year. I hadn't expected anyone to find this site when I started a year ago, and have been frankly surprised that its readers continue to visit, even to grow in number month after month. Much as I'd really like to discontinue writing here on the first anniversary of its birth, I feel now obligated to a readership I do not know but whose interest I respect and hope to continue to stimulate. So, one of my resolutions is to spend less time online, including less time here. Still, I will continue to post, if less frequently, as the spirit moves about what I saw, see, and will see in America.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The End of Sprawl?

Can it be that objective analysis of our dire condition and wishful thinking are beginning to coincide? One can hope.

An op-ed in today's Washington Post speaks to many of the themes of the discussion that has been going on around my critique of George Bailey, and more widely in my concerns about the consequences of many of the bad choices we have made as a culture over the past fifty-odd years, now culminating in the exhaustion of resources and the undermining of many forms of cultural inheritance. The op-ed raises the possibility of "the end of sprawl," a cessation of the outward movement of suburban development beyond their original urban centers due to the combination of the current housing collapse and the high price of oil (I have argued that the two are connected, in fact, and will remain so as resource inflation will result in a condition of stagflation and hence higher real interest rates along with the decline in the purchasing power of the dollar).

In many iterations of the debate between traditionalists and libertarians (a split that is bound to continue to widen as the primary season continues to unfold, particularly given the harshness of the Republican establishment's attacks on Huckabee), the main critique of traditionalists is that they advocate a way of life that would not be choiceworthy or even worth living. They point to the very fact that, given a choice, people have moved away from that way of life to lives of ease and comfort.

This argument is worth a very long response in itself, but it's worth at least pointing out that the "adjustments" we will have to make as a consequence of the reckless way of life we have been living are not nearly so dire as is often suggested by libertarian scare mongers.

Take, for instance, the concluding argument of the op-ed's author Eduardo Penalever, who closes on a hopeful note that there may be considerable rewards for successfully moving away from our current car-dependent culture:

"Although the end of sprawl will require painful changes, it will also provide a badly needed opportunity to take stock of the car-dependent, privatized society that has evolved over the past 60 years and to begin imagining different ways of living and governing. We may discover that it's not so bad living closer to work, in transit- and pedestrian-friendly, diverse neighborhoods where we run into friends and neighbors as we walk to the store, school or the office. We may even find that we don't miss our cars and commutes, and the culture they created, nearly as much as we feared we would."

Heaven forfend - we might be able to be happy even if we are deprived of certain "choices!" If we were prepared to grow up a bit, we might even choose to deprive ourselves of those choices that allow us to live cheaply and easily in the present but will make the lives of our children much poorer and much harder. The happiest outcome of the end of sprawl might be that we would, by necessity, live in more constrained ways that would force us to grow up and choose those constraints rather than be forced to adopt them.

Friday, December 28, 2007

It's a Wonderful Discussion

A lively discussion erupted over at "No Left Turns" in response to my post on "It's a Wonderful Life." You can see what's been said there, including a strong critique by Julie Ponzi that disagrees with just about everything I said about the film. I've written a long-ish response there, and for convenience's sake (and since there's been a pretty lively discussion here as well), I post it here.


I guess it's fair to say that I couldn't disagree more with Julie (and some of Peter Lawler's sympathetic nods) - and that all of the redeeming qualities that I find in George Bailey (of which there are many indeed) are not the result of his "natural kingship," but a consequence a decent democratic soul that was the result of his upbringing in Bedford Falls. It is his less admirable inclination to radical individualism (perhaps a kind of kingship? Or is it tyranny?) that must be tamed, first by fate, but above all by his wife, Mary (remember, she is the one who wishes that he won't leave town when they are children. Perhaps she is the cause of all of George's "bad luck"). I couldn't agree more with Julie that his coming to terms with the house that he despised (much like the town itself) is a lesson in his being chastened and humbled, above all by Mary (is the name here coincidental?). His labors on behalf of the town (one can easily overlook the work he does as civil warden during WW II) is exemplary of his good democratic citizenship (much as his brother goes to war and becomes a military hero), one that derives from discipline and self-governance.

But Bailey Park is a disaster waiting to happen - a fact we should recognize certainly with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, but which perhaps even Capra was acknowledging by showing it to have been built upon the cemetery (and, to Stuart Buck, Potter's assistant notes that he used to hunt out by the cemetery when he was a child, and the gravestones are old looking when George goes there, so the cemetery has been there for longer than George, and was part of George's reality. Indeed, you could say that "It's a Wonderful Life" is a kind of prequel to "The Amityville Horror" in which greedy developers pave over any land - sacred or otherwise - to make a quick buck, and disturb the souls of the departed). I have a copy of the script, which describes the setting in the cemetery thusly: "George and Clarence approach the tree from which the "Bailey Park" sign once hung. Now it is just a cemetery, with graves where the houses used to be."

Julie's effort to justify the paving over of the cemetery is creative, but strikes me as a bit desperate to justify the indefensible. I find it hard to imagine her or most anyone supporting such an act - no matter how symbolic - if it were your own ancestors, your own parents or grandparents, sisters or brothers or children - whose grave were plowed under to create a suburban subdivision.

We have legitimate and deep disagreements about the broader symbolic meaning of such an act. I understand the desecration of the graveyard to be more deeply symbolic of the way in which our suburban, mobile, individualistic and cosmopolitan lifestyles more broadly destroy our connection to the past and obscure our responsibilities to the future. For Julie and, it seems many readers (t)here, freedom of choice and ease of life is what it means to be a conservative. McDonalds and WalMart are defensible for the choices and convenience they offer to us. In the discussion of a more recent post (in praise of McDonalds) at "No Left Turns", no one raised the consequences of the form of farming, the degradation of our land, the agricultural monoculture, the inhuman treatment of animals (read the conservative book "Dominion" if you're interested in this aspect), the increasing unhealthiness of Americans (e.g., the rise of childhood diabetes) or the undermining of local businesses - really, a host of "externalized" costs - that accompany such cheap food and convenience. Travel in the part of the country where Bedford Falls is supposed to be - upstate New York? - and see what those downtowns now look like. Bailey Park was the first step in a process that emptied our towns of their residential and ultimately commercial base, the first moments of our automobile culture that has deprived us increasingly of local economies and in its place has made us deeply reliant upon the oil of foreign tyrants and the shipping of goods produced in China (often defectively or even dangerously so as to achieve lowest cost). Those are costs I don't hear extolled in our praise of cheap food and cheap goods and unlimited free choice.

There's a bill that comes with our choice for "choice" - a few my conservative friends here might consider. Betty Friedan ended up living in Bailey Park (of one kind or another) and "The Feminine Mystique" was written about the misery of isolated and alienated housewives living in pasteboard houses with machines that did the job of humans. Modern feminism was born of the suburbs - not as a result of felt inequality, as we are now told, but because of the uselessness and indignity that women experienced in the suburbs. From the Bailey Parks we'll begin to see the rise in divorce rates and the decline of birthrates. The character Viola is kind of a female version of George Bailey, and in the 20th century she does leave Bedford Falls and, I dare say, becomes Carrie Bradshaw of "Sex in the City" - a woman who wants to have sex like a man (without commitment). One could go on in this vein.

It's hard for me to understand how, on the one hand, the message of this film can be extolled - commitment to wife, family, and place - while also praising George's impulse ultimately to undermine all those commitments (first, in his despising of the town and his effort to flee, and then in his efforts to create a modern subdivision). Marriage means giving up certain choices - we forswear others in our commitment to one person. This is a loss of freedom, certainly, but something is certainly gained as well. In this sense, it also tells us why marriage is defensible on certain terms that have increasingly escaped us nowadays, inasmuch as it, like everything else, has become part of our personal self-satisfaction. Marriage is the blessing of the community on a couple who become fully a part of that community, who partake of its history and now will contribute to its future. Marriage is a commitment to a person, but also to a community and its full temporal dimension. One marries not only a spouse, but the people with whom one will live (hence why an announcement - "the Banns" - was posted outside the Church for weeks beforehand). Marriage, thus understood - as a marriage not only to an individual but to a community, past, present and future - could never condone the paving over of a graveyard for the sake of cheap housing. Metaphorically, such forms of marriage should also resist the decimation of the community in the name of our individual (or even, writ small, familial) convenience. To the extent that we have lost that connection and bond, all the things that conservatives often complain about are deeply connected to the very forms of consumer and personal freedom that they often extol. Until we figure out this deeper connection, we won't figure out how to begin doing some repair work.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Vonnegut in "CRB"

As a result of several posts (here and here) at the time of Kurt Vonnegut's death this past April, I was invited by The Claremont Review of Books to contribute an essay-length appreciation about Vonnegut (who said that a blawg was pointless?). This was an offer not to be passed up, first, because Vonnegut is such an unlikely subject for the conservative-leaning Review , and second, because it's a very fine journal in which for which I'd not had the opportunity to write before. I'm very pleased and honored to have the piece appear in its most recent Winter, 2007 edition. The essay is not yet available online, so I will make (only) some portions available here. If and when it is posted online in its entirety, I'll make the whole essay available.

Buy, or better yet, subscribe to the journal: it's a first rate publication.

Human Dignity and Human Nature

Vonnegut developed [his critique of progress] to near-perfection in one of his finest books and his first novel, Player Piano, a chillingly prescient account of the rise of a meritocratic, automated America in which advancement up the economic ladder becomes the main measure of human success. Test scores and I.Q.s obsess those who seek entry into the meritocratic ascendancy. Degrees must be from the “right” college, and no one with a decent job lacks an advanced degree (even the secretaries have Ph.D.s). Because the production of goods can be increasingly accomplished by machines, the world is not divided between haves and have-nots (even the least well-off workers live in middle-class comfort) but between those accorded dignity and those denied it. The visiting Shah of Bratpuhr regards workers (most of whom dig holes on the government payroll) as nothing more than takaru, or slaves. In one telling scene, the secretary of state attempts to explain to the Shah that these are actually citizens, but the Shah understands citizen merely to be the translation of the word takaru. His interpreter explains, “In the Shah’s land are only the Elite and the Takaru.”

According to the trajectories observed by Vonnegut, Bratpuhr does not lie far ahead in America’s economic future, which will consist of an upwardly mobile and successful elite versus a mass of increasingly underemployed service-industry workers who seek above all not the comprehensive equality of “Harrison Bergeron” but the dignity of knowing their life and work matter. As a revolutionary in Player Piano explains, “At the bottom of [the longing for a savior] will be a promise of regaining the feeling of participation, the feeling of being needed on earth—hell, dignity.” What citizens seek is the knowledge that their lives have mattered; that their efforts can contribute to the good of the polity and the benefit of future generations. The practical result of much technology, even when pursued for seemingly good ends, Vonnegut argues, is to render human work increasingly meaningless and human relationships irrelevant. Vonnegut’s critique would remind us that there is a pleasure, a reward to playing a piano with one’s own hands that cannot be captured in the perfect mechanism of a player piano.

Many Vonnegut stories and novels point implicitly to the idea that humans have certain natural ends whose realization is necessary to live a good life. A fully realized human life would encourage the ties that bind the generations together, honor contributions to our communal good, and attain dignity for ourselves through our participation in the community. This is a conception of human good that would accept the limits of nature (like mortality) as a necessary boundary to the indiscriminate employment of technology, and defend culture as the necessary precondition of human flourishing.

Folk Societies/Lonely and Restless

Vonnegut’s belief in a discernible human nature that requires a certain culture and cultivation for full flourishing was awakened, or perhaps confirmed by, his brief experience from 1945-1947 as a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago. In an address to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1971 (included in a volume of non-fiction writings, Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, 1974), Vonnegut speaks of his encounter in Chicago with the cultural anthropologist Robert Redfield, whose essay "The Folk Society" was formative to the novelist’s thought.

[Redfield] acknowledged that primitive societies were bewilderingly various. He begged us to admit, though, that all of them had certain characteristics in common. For instance: They were all so small that everybody knew everybody well, and associations lasted for life. The members communicated intimately with one another, and very little with anybody else…. There was no access to the experience and thought of the past, except through memory. The old were treasured for their memories. There was little change….

I say to you that we are full of chemicals which require us to belong to folk societies, or failing that, to feel lousy all the time. We are chemically engineered to live in folk societies, just as fish are chemically engineered to live in clean water—and there aren't any folk societies for us anymore.

How lucky you are to be here today, for I can explain everything. Sigmund Freud admitted that he did not know what women wanted. I know what they want. Cosmopolitan magazine says they want orgasms, which can only be a partial answer at best. Here is what women really want: They want lives in folk societies, wherein everyone is a friendly relative, and no act or object is without holiness. Chemicals make them want that. Chemicals make us all want that.

Chemicals make us furious when we are treated as things rather than persons. When anything happens to us which would not happen to us in a folk society, our chemicals make us feel like fish out of water. Our chemicals demand that we get back into water again. If we become increasingly wild and preposterous in modern times—well, so do fish on river banks, for a little while.

If we become increasingly apathetic in modern times—well, so do fish on river banks, after awhile. Our children often come to resemble apathetic fish—except that fish can't play guitars. And what do many of our children attempt to do? They attempt to form folk societies, which they call "communes." They fail. The generation gap is an argument between those who believe folk societies are still possible and those who know they aren't.

Vonnegut argued that modern humans are lonely and restless because of their “chemicals,” a pseudo-scientific word (in an address delivered to science lovers) for what might just as well be called “nature.” It is our nature to live in certain kinds of societies, and our modern loneliness, indignity, and unhappiness stem from the fact that modernity has extirpated those societies. Of course, folk societies are not the same thing as the polis, which Aristotle declared was man’s natural home, but then again, neither is the modern nation state; and so there may be as many unasked questions and unexamined assumptions in Vonnegut’s notions as in many of our own. Nonetheless, Vonnegut seeks to point out that it is the human propensity and natural ability to invent machines and devices that help makes the extirpation of natural communities possible, even inevitable. Our ability to manipulate our environments—to conquer nature, with the exception, it seems, of human nature—contributes unavoidably to human unhappiness. In a novel he considered to be his finest (Galapagos, 1985), Vonnegut portrayed a future in which Darwinian evolution results in the loss of our opposable thumbs and our dangerously large brains, two features that turn out to have been unmitigated disasters for humanity and the planet. Having abandoned our natural condition which demands that we live in “folk societies,” Vonnegut argues that nature will reassert itself and undo what technology has artificially created. An overarching theme of his work seems to be that nature will reassert its governance over humanity, unless we humans do ourselves in first.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

It's a Destructive Life

Several years ago I gave some thought to Frank Capra's classic film "It's a Wonderful Life" and published these thoughts as part of a longer essay in the journal "Perspectives on Political Science" in March 2002. As we settle into Christmas celebration, I thought I would "re-publish" that portion of the essay here. Caution: you may never watch the movie in quite the same way again...

And - a Merry Christmas to one and all!

It’s a Destructive Life

Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” portrays the decent life of a small-town American, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), an everyman who saves his community from an evil Scrooge – Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) – and who only comes to realize his accomplishments by witnessing what terrors might have occurred had he never lived. George Bailey represents all that is good and decent about America: a family man beloved by his community for his kindness and generosity.
Yet, if there is a dark side of America, the film quite ably captures that aspect as well - and contrary to popular belief, it is found not solely in Mr. Potter. One sees a dark side represented by George Bailey himself: the optimist, the adventurer, the builder, the man who deeply hates the town that gives him sustenance, who craves nothing else but to get out of Bedford Falls and remake the world. Given its long-standing reputation as a nostalgic look at small-town life in the pre-war period, it is almost shocking to suggest that the film is one of the most potent, if unconscious critiques ever made of the American dream that was so often hatched in this small-town setting. For George Bailey, in fact, destroys the town that saves him in the end.

Undoubtedly viewers have come to adore this film in part because it portrays what Americans intuitively sense what they have lost. Among the film’s first scenes is the portrayal of an idyllic Bedford Falls covered in freshly fallen snow, people strolling on sidewalks, a few cars meandering slowly along the streets, numerous small stores stretching down each side of the tree-lined streets. It is an America increasingly unknown and unseen: wounded first by Woolworth, then K-Mart, then Wal-Mart; mercilessly bled by the automobile; drained of life by subdivisions, interstates, and the suburbs. Americans admire this movie because it portrays Mr. Gower’s drug store as a place to meet neighbors over a soda or an ice cream, not merely a place to be treated as a faceless consumer buying an endless variety of pain-killers; similarly, like Cheers, Martini’s bar is somewhere everybody knows your name, a place to spend a few minutes with friends after work before one walks home.

George Bailey hates this town. Even as a child, he wants to escape its limiting clutches, ideally to visit the distant and exotic locales vividly pictured in National Geographic. As he grows, his ambitions change in a significant direction: he craves “to build things, design new buildings, plan modern cities.” The modern city of his dreams is imagined in direct contrast to the enclosure of Bedford Falls: it is to be open, fast, glittering, kaleidoscopic. He craves “to shake off the dust of this crummy little town” to build “airfields, skyscrapers one hundred stories tall, bridges a mile long....” George represents the vision of post-war America: the ambition to alter the landscape so to accommodate modern life, to uproot nature and replace it with monuments of human accomplishment, to re-engineer life for mobility and swiftness, one unencumbered by permanence, one no longer limited to a moderate and comprehensible human scale.

George’s great dreams are thwarted by innumerable circumstances of fate and accident: most of the film portrays a re-telling of various episodes of George’s life for the benefit of a guardian angel – Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) – who will shortly be sent down to earth to attempt to save George during his greatest test. Despite all of George’s many attempts to leave the town of Bedford Falls – first as a young man with plans to travel to Europe, later to college, and then still later, and more modestly, to New York City, various intervening events constantly prevent George from even once leaving Bedford Falls. In the course of relating his life, however, we discover that George has helped innumerable people in the community over the years; these countless seemingly small interventions it will be later discovered have amounted to the salvation of the entire town. Despite George’s persistent desire to escape the limitations of life in Bedford Falls, George becomes a stalwart citizen of the town he otherwise claims to despise.

However, if George’s grandiose designs, first to become an explorer, and later to build new modern cities, are thwarted due to bad fortune, he does not cease to be ambitious, and does not abandon the dream of transforming America, even if his field of design is narrowed. Rather, his ambitions are channeled into the only available avenue that life and his position now offer: he creates not airfields nor skyscrapers nor modern cities, but remakes Bedford Falls itself. His efforts are portrayed as nothing less than noble: he creates “Bailey Park,” a modern subdivision of single-family houses, thus allowing hundreds of citizens of Bedford Falls to escape the greedy and malignant clutches of Mr. Potter, who gouges these families in the inferior rental slums of “Pottersville.” George’s efforts are portrayed as altogether praiseworthy, and it is right to side with him against the brutal and heartless greed of Potter. However, such sympathies serve also to obscure the nature of Bailey’s activities, and their ultimate consequences. In particular, it is worth observing the nature of “Bailey Park,” not merely by contrast to “Pottersville” – in comparison to which it is clearly superior – but also in contrast to downtown Bedford Falls, where it may not compare as favorably by some estimations.

Bedford Falls has an intimate town center, and blocks of houses with front porches where people leisurely sit and greet passerbys who constantly amble on the nearby sidewalks. Bedford Falls is a town with a deep sense of place and history. When George’s car crashes into a tree, the owner berates him for the gash he has made: “My great-grandfather planted this tree,” he says. He is the fourth generation to live in his house, and the tree’s presence serves as a living link to his ancestors, a symbol of the stories told about the dead to the living and to the unborn.

It is especially worth noting the significant role of the front porch in the course of the film. Numerous scenes take place in the intermediate space between home and street. While apparently serving as a backdrop for the more obvious action on the screen, it is worth pausing to consider the contributions, even “role,” of the porch in the underlying assumptions about a way of life that Bedford Falls permits. In a discerning essay entitled “From Porch to Patio,” Richard H. Thomas notes that the front porch – built in part for functional purposes, especially in order to provide an outdoor space that could be used to cool off during the summer – also served a host of social functions as well: a place of “trivial greetings,” a spot from which an owner could invite a passerby to stop for conversation in an informal setting, a space where “courting” could take place within earshot of parents or the elderly could take in the sights and sounds of passing life around them, the porch “facilitated and symbolized a set of social relationships and the strong bond of community feeling which people during the nineteenth century supposed was the way God intended life to be lived.”

By contrast, Bailey Park has no trees, no sidewalks, and no porches. It is a modern subdivision: the trees have been plowed under to make room for wide streets and large yards with garages. Compared to Bedford Falls - which is always filled with strolling people - the development is empty, devoid of human presence. The residents of this modern development are presumably hidden behind the doors of their modern houses, or, if outside, relaxing in back on their patios. The absence of front porches suggests an alternative conception of life that will govern Bailey Park - life is to be led in private, not in the intermediate public spaces in front that link the street to the home. One doubts that anyone will live in these houses for four generations, much less one. The absence of informal human interaction in Bailey Park stands in gross contrast to the vibrancy of Bedford Falls.

The patio – successor to the front porch – embodies as many implicit assumptions about how life is to be led as the porch. Thomas notes the move from urban centers into suburban enclaves in the years following World War II led to the creation of “bedroom communities” in which one did not know one’s neighbors and where frequent turn-over made such stable community relationships unlikely, where privacy and safety were dual concerns leading to the creation of the “patio” space behind the house, most often at the expense of a porch in the front. As Thomas contrasts the two, "the patio is an extension of the house, but far less public than the porch. It was easy to greet a stranger from the porch but exceedingly difficult to do so from the backyard patio…. The old cliché says, ‘A man’s home is his castle. If this be true, the nineteenth-century porch was a drawbridge across which many passed in their daily lives. The modern patio is in many ways a closed courtyard that suggests that the king and his family are tired of the world and seek only the companionship for their immediate family or peers."

Bailey Park is not simply a community that will grow to have a similar form of life and communal interaction as Bedford Falls; instead, George Bailey’s grand social experiment in progressive living represents a fundamental break from the way of life in Bedford Falls, from a stable and interactive community to a more nuclear and private collection of households who will find in Bailey Park shelter but little else in common.

We also learn something far more sinister about Bailey Park toward the end of the film. George contemplates suicide after his Uncle has misplaced $8,000 and George comes under a cloud of suspicion. At this point the recounting of George’s life for the benefit of Clarence the angel ends, and Clarence enters the action to dissuade George from taking his life. Inspired by George’s lament that it would have been better had he never lived, Clarence grants his wish – he shows what life in Bedford Falls would have been like without the existence of George Bailey. George’s many small and large acts of kindness are now seen in their cumulative effect. Particular lives are thoroughly ruined or lost in the absence of George’s efforts. Further, the entire town – now called “Pottersville” – is transformed into a seedy, corrupt city in the absence of George’s heroic resistance to Potter’s greediness.

Attempting to comprehend what has happened, and refusing to believe Clarence’s explanations, George attempts to retrace his steps. He recalls that this awful transformation first occurred when he was at Martini’s bar, and decides to seek out Martini at home. Martini, in the first reality, is one of the beneficiaries of George’s assistance when he is able to purchase a home in Bailey Park; however, in the alternate reality without George, of course the subdivision is never built. Still refusing to believe what has transpired, George makes his way through the forest where Bailey Park would have been, but instead ends in front of the town’s old cemetery outside town. Facing the old gravestones, Clarence asks, “Are you sure Martini’s house is here?” George is dumbfounded: “Yes, it should be.” George confirms a horrific suspicion: Bailey Park has been built atop the old cemetery. Not only does George raze the trees, but he commits an act of unspeakable sacrilege. He obliterates a sacred symbol of Bedford Fall’s connection with the past, the grave markers of the town’s ancestors. George Bailey’s vision of a modern America eliminates his links with his forebears, covers up the evidence of death, supplies people instead with private retreats of secluded isolation, and all at the expense of an intimate community, in life and in death.

George prays to Clarence to be returned to his previous life, to suffer the consequences of the seeming embezzlement, but to embrace “the wonderful life” he has lived, and has in turn created for others as well. His prayer granted, George returns home to find that a warrant for his arrest awaits him, as well as reporters poised to publicize his shame. However, his wife Mary has contacted those innumerable people whose lives George has touched to tell them of George’s plight. In one of the most moving scenes on film, George’s neighbors, friends and family come flocking to his house, each contributing what little they can to make up the deficit until a pile of money builds in front of George. Trust runs deep in such a stable community of long-standing relationships: as Uncle Billy exclaims amid the rush of contributors, “they didn’t ask any questions, George. They just heard you were in trouble, and they came from every direction.” George is saved from prison and obloquy, and Clarence earns the wings he has been awaiting.

Despite the charm of the ending, a nagging question lingers, especially when we consider that many of the neighbors who come to George’s rescue are ones who now live in Bailey Park. If the tight-knit community of Bedford Falls makes it possible for George to have built up long-standing trust and commitment with his neighbors over the years, such that they unquestioningly give him money despite the suspicion of embezzlement, will those people who have only known life in Bailey Park be likely to do the same for a neighbor who has hit upon hard times? What of the children of those families in Bailey Park, or George’s children as they move away from the small-town life of Bedford Falls? A deep irony pervades the film at the moment of it joyous conclusion: as the developer of an antiseptic suburban subdivision, George Bailey is saved through the kinds of relationships nourished in his town that will be undermined and even precluded in the anomic community he builds as an adult.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Signs of the Times

Overheard in the Deneen household, in response to the customary seasonal threat that my son could expect to find coal in his stocking:

"I don't mind - I can sell it for a lot of money."

Peak oil is even undermining the old folkways...

Maybe the threat of the future will be that Santa will leave an internal combustion engine in your stocking if you don't behave...

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Read My Lips - No New Energy

Yesterday the President signed into law the new Energy bill - inaptly named "The Energy Independence and Security Act." It will do two main things, one modestly good and one incredibly bad. First, it will raise CAFE standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020 (gains will certainly be incremental, though it likely does spell the death knell to the SUV as we have known it). Second, it mandates the annual production of 36 billion barrels of biofuels by 2022.

What is most noteworthy is what was not included in the bill, provisions that were stripped out at the last minute under industry pressure and the threat of a veto by the President. Not included were incentives for the production of renewable energy which would have been paid for by new taxes on the oil industry, as well as a mandate that 15% electrical generation be achieved through renewable sources. Anyone who opened a newspaper during the past few weeks could not have failed to notice the steady publication of full page ads from utility, oil, and manufacturing industries opposing the legislation. The President threatened a veto because he opposed the new taxes that this bill would impose on the "consumer." After all, who can consume when prices are high?

The short-sightedness of these arguments need hardly be rehearsed. Higher taxes on oil would have provided a significant "price signal" for research and investment in alternative energy sources, but more importantly, would have provided an incentive for people to begin changing their behavior - using less, buying smaller cars ahead of any CAFE mandates, thinking twice before they buy the McMansion 40 miles from work.

The argument criticizing higher taxes as protection for the consumer is so laughable it makes one want to cry. People will be paying more for their energy, but because of the mandates for biofuel production, it will pinch at the supermarket and not most obviously at the pump. Bush won't get blamed for higher energy prices - people will likely fail to make the connection between the provisions of this bill and the rising cost of basic foodstuff. As this New York Times article of two days ago describes, "the nation [is] about to commit itself to decades of competition between food and fuel for the use of agricultural land."

The effects of the rise in the cost of groceries as we commit to burning our food out our automobile tailpipes is already being felt among the world's and the nation's poorest people: already there is increasing starvation in Africa, food riots in Mexico (ethanol production has been called "the tortilla tax") and firm evidence that the high price of corn is dissuading food banks from purchasing surplus food for the poorest among us.

Further, given the amounts of energy inputs that the production of corn requires - energy that will continue to have to be imported from abroad - how can anyone suppose that this bill represents "energy security and independence?" This energy bill reminds me of the way that developers name tract housing subdivisions - by calling them "Fox Run" and "Maple Woods" you distract attention from the fact that those are the things you are actually destroying. So too, "security" and "independence."

The only way of achieving either of those things would be to use less. The only realistic way that we will use less would be for energy prices to rise significantly enough to prompt us to alter our behavior. Once again we've missed a chance to behave like grownups. Our adolescent self-indulgence is nothing new: we've shown an aversion to adult behavior since the end of World War II. There's some "comfort" in knowing that prices will rise regardless, and we will eventually alter our behavior. However, the longer we wait, the harder that adjustment will be, and the more people will suffer now around the world and the more likely we ourselves, or our children, will suffer serverely as we continue our reckless energy gluttony.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Bit Short

I am employed at one of the many institutions of higher education that farms out its retirement plans to TIAA-CREF. TIAA-CREF runs some of the largest investment funds in the world, including basic domestic stock, domestic bond, international stock and money market funds.

It strikes me as interesting that the only options that most employees with such plans have is to invest in the future growth of America or worldwide economic growth. We have no choice: the options of one's plan dictate that you invest in one of these funds whether you believe that growth will or should continue or not. It's a bit like all the choices we have as purchasers of automobiles - color, style, accessories, etc. - but no real choice about whether to own a car or not. Just as we must all be drivers whether we support our system of transportation or not, so most of us must be investors in America's economic growth and the drivers of that growth, our corporations.

This is a fact even we professors don't think or talk much about - we, those people who purportedly value teaching "critical thinking" (a wholly empty bromide that if ever there was one, one that succeeds mainly in promoting self-satisfaction and little thought, much less actual criticism). What if there was an option to "invest" in the market's decline and economic contraction - that is, a fund that shorts the market? Why aren't our purportedly Marxist professors who hate capitalism demanding such a fund? How about our post-modernists, our radicals who see power everywhere? How can they be content investing in even in a "Socially Conscious" stock fund when even companies in such funds are still part of the overarching structures of capitalist power in our world? Would they invest in it? Should they? Should anyone?

In recent months investments in "Bear Funds" would have been a good investment, outpacing Mr. Market modestly over the past year and significantly during the past six months (along with funds that bet on the decline of the dollar and are purchasers of gold or gold stocks). So, there have been good financial reasons over the past year and especially past six months for betting against the U.S. Market. But what about philosophic reasons? Many people view "short sellers" as un-American, as unwilling to invest in the brighter future of America. Others in the financial industry regard them as a necessary evil - people who provide liquidity and who reign in the over-exuberance that can occur during Bull Markets, kind of like the vultures of the financial industry. But what all these analyses have in common is the assumption that a well-functioning growing market/economy is an indisputably good thing, and if Bears can be justified, it's because they are good for the overall health of "the Market."

Even our most radical radicals are firmly in the bourgeoisie, investors in America's future even as they spend their daylight hours criticizing the nation. In the meantime, an interesting question might be entertained by "critical thinkers": might there be ethical grounds to "invest" in the market's decline that go beyond the support of the market itself? Could this be one of those unthinkable thoughts that can't be entertained by the Left or the Right? Could one admit in polite company during holiday parties that one has done very well betting against the market this year in the same way many people have had no compunction acknowledging that their technology funds did very well a decade ago? An interesting thought as investment fund annual reports begin to fill our mailboxes in the wake of Christmas cards...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Who's Right? What's Left?

An interesting debate about campus politics has erupted in the pages on the Washington Post. First, Rob Maranto of Villanova University contended that there was a subtle liberal bias on hiring committees - not enough to rise to the level of conscious awareness, but a common enough phenomenon by which academics, like anyone else, like to surround themselves with people who are like-minded. Yesterday his mentor - Eric Uslaner of University of Maryland - acknowledged that studies show that faculty tilt to the Left, but that there is no conspiracy or even unconscious bias among liberal faculty. Hell, he tells us, it's fun to have conservatives around! Instead, he contended, conservatives are drawn to money-making careers while liberals seek to do good and are drawn to the noble professions like teaching.

Uslaner is a political scientist and his first response is to accuse Maranto of providing "no systematic evidence that liberal academics either consciously or unconsiously seek to replicate their own ideology in hiring." While he helpfully suggests that a better question might be why there are more liberals in academia, he then states "I have no data about this question. But my own life story, and those of others I know, suggest an alternative explanation: People choose academic careers because they care more about intellectual pursuits than about making lots of money." So much for "systematic evidence."

As a political scientist, Uslaner might have at least considered the following piece of counter-evidence: why is it that so many academically-trained conservatives (one thinks especially of political scientists and political theorists in particular) end up working for Republican administrations? It seems just yesterday that liberals like Uslaner were calling down anathemas on the Straussian cabal that had planned the war in Iraq at their nefarious master's bidding from beyond the grave. Two explanations come to mind: first, that they weren't able to get jobs in academia (often the case, if I may offer my own anecdotal evidence. I know many talented conservative PhDs who have been effectively shut out of academe, and I think the bias is real); but, second, that they followed a calling for public service, hardly the locus of money-making that Uslaner suggests is the main motivator of conservatives. Indeed, if we were to poll many doctors and attorneys and other "money makers" of our country, would we really find that they are all conservative? Paging Dr. Howard Dean!

However, I think a better explanation is in order, and one that is out of reach of Uslaner's narrow understanding of partisan forms of liberal and conservative. The dominance of a liberal - or better put, progressive - worldview among university faculty has more to do with the transformation of the University from a conservative institution to an "agent of progressive change" in our culture. Universities until relatively recently were conservative or better put "conservators," particularly inasmuch as they were charged with transmitting knowledge and collective wisdom of the past to future generations. Universities were the repositories of the past and conveyors of tradition to the future. More often than not colleges and universities were religious institutions and its professors were just that - men and women who professed faith to the young. If there were sophisticated surveys that measured worldviews and dispositions (and not mere party affiliation, since then - as is often the case now - Republicans were apt to be the more progressive of the two parties), one would find that faculty at most colleges and universities even just a few decades ago would likely have been "conservative" as a matter of disposition, valuing above all the transmission of knowledge and liberal learning among their charges. The contemporary agendas of "research," "originality," and "problem-solving" were not a part of the college agenda.

A slow but steady change took place in our institutions of higher learning starting in the late-19th century with the rise of the natural sciences to a place of prominence. At first the scientific enterprise was largely restricted to the natural sciences and even to a few institutions that had been influenced by the German research model (Johns Hopkins was in the forefront of this movement, and John Dewey was one of the first graduate students to be trained according to this model). Overall, the natural sciences remained firmly embedded within the liberal arts model - one avenue of knowledge, but not solely or exclusively the accepted mode of analysis. However, inexorably the scientific model came to dominate more and more fields, at first the natural sciences and then the social sciences and then finally the humanities, where now "original research" dominates activities of humanities faculty as much as those in the natural sciences. The infiltration of the canons of scientific research into the humanities has been the root cause for the decimation of the very idea of the humanities on our campuses. In their efforts to prove their "originality" and progressiveness faculty glommed onto post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-colonialism, and post- everything in order to prove that they were "with it," and indeed, that they were anything but "conservative" - that is, the one thing that made the humanities defensible inasmuch one of its main reasons for existence is to be a "conservatory." By demonstrating their hostility to the authors and books they studied or even the very idea of "humanity" (what is now fashionably called "the subject"), professors in the humanities at once made themselves "relevant" and destroyed themselves from within.

It's amusing to me to see debates like this one, which pit a "liberal" against a so-called "conservative" who is actually a libertarian. This is actually the span of the ideological debate on our campuses today - whether there is space for people who are more "liberal" than the liberals (notice that Uslaner's piece of evidence is the existence of a libertarian - oops, conservative? - at Harvard!). This "debate" doesn't take cognizance of actual conservatism because it does not have a place or grounds for existence on today's college campuses. Genuine conservatives do encounter systematic bias because they fundamentally reject the modern research model and hence are neither drawn to institutions that operate on such a model nor - if they can swallow that bitter pill - tend not to do well operating in a model that they abhor. One is most likely to find them tucked away at liberal arts institutions or at schools with serious religious affiliations.

The problem is that it is our "research universities" that credential future professors, and those institutions are now dominated by scientism. There are fewer and fewer faculty of a traditionalist or "humanistic" orientation in any departments in these major universities, and their expulsion has been methodical, systematic and thorough. The irony is that professors today are trained as narrow technicians and as such have no capacity to understand what is actually happening in their own institutions. As is true of so much of the social sciences especially, its practitioners can't offer an actual explanation of any phenomenon that can't be measured, and which, by definition, is most often actually the relevant "data." When called upon to give an explanation for an unmeasurable phenomenon, faculty like Professor Uslaner feebly tells a story that conservatives are money-grubbing materialists and happily votes for the next technician to teach our children and the future teachers of our children.

Our universities are so much a part of the problem now that the situation may be beyond repair. The sad thing is, these are the institutions that annually are the cause of a frenzy of anxiety and massive expenditures as the point of entry into Ameria's meritocratic sweepstakes. These places are run by people who, in most instances, have lost the capacity for self-understanding. In the name of progress, I'm willing to bet these are folks who would vote to sandblast off the motto above the Delphic oracle and not a few institutions of higher education - "gnothi seauton" - "know thyself." No one ever got tenure doing that. Instead, they would
replace it with the motto "publish in refereed journals or perish."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Arendt and the Conquest of Space

The latest issue of "The New Atlantis" features a symposium on the classic essay by Hannah Arendt "The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man." I was one of the contributors to the symposium, along with such fine people as the good Professor Lawler. Here's what I wrote:


While “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man” at first strikes the reader as among the more dated essays of Hannah Arendt’s remarkable corpus, with its emphasis on space shots and the splitting of the atom, in all its most important respects the essay remains remarkably relevant. Its main themes—the question of the “stature” or dignity of the human being in an age of scientific manipulation, the threat of science to the common life and lawfulness of humanity, and the question of the viability of the human species in an era of scientific mastery over nature—remain fresh and urgent. In all its main points, Arendt’s essay is as topical today as when it was penned.

Indeed, one could add that the grounds for Arendt’s disquiet over the nature of the modern scientific project and the threat it poses to the very idea of human dignity have become only more worrisome: her conclusion looks today more like a prediction than a surmise. At the end of the essay she wonders whether a time will come when humans will “apply the Archimedean point to ourselves,” that is, whether we will “appear to ourselves as no more than ‘overt behavior,’ which we can study with the same methods we use to study the behavior of rats.” This speculation seems almost quaint in an age in which human brain activity is measured to ascertain whether ethical decision-making can be reduced to a certain sequential firing of synapses, an era in which human behavior is increasingly controlled and normalized by pharmaceutical intervention.

Arendt further speculates that the effort to reduce all human accomplishment to mere “biological process” will cause all grounds for our pride to disappear, and will ultimately threaten not only to lower the stature of man, but to destroy it. Having since had a succession of authors like E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett strive to explain all human phenomena by means of evolutionary impulses, it appears incontrovertible that we have arrived even closer to the point of destruction of “human stature” that Arendt thought us already “perilously close” to nearly a half century ago.

Interspersed if understated throughout Arendt’s essay, however, is an intimation of the complex interplay between the overt effort on the part of the modern scientific enterprise to displace humanity from a residually religious belief of human significance within a created order—one in which God creates humans to occupy a special, even central place, in the created universe—and the more subtle but more fundamental efforts at the heart of the scientific enterprise to make humans akin to gods. The purported aim of lowering human stature is deceptive, inasmuch as its more fundamental motivation lies in displacing the status of the grantor of that special status, namely God. By displacing God, humans—increasingly enhanced in power and control by means of science—can occupy the space once occupied by the divine. Alexis de Tocqueville understood this phenomenon with extraordinary clarity: “I think the doctrines [of materialists] pernicious, and their pride revolts me. By giving man a modest conception of himself, it might seem that this could be useful to him. But they give no reason to suppose that this is so; rather, when they think they have sufficiently established that they are no better than brutes, they seem as proud as if they had proved that they were gods.”

Arendt intimates at this aspect of the modern scientific project with her repeated invocation of the phrase “conquest of space.” The ambition of conquering and mastering the external world of nature lies at the heart of the modern scientific project. The then-contemporary invocation of the phrase “conquest of space” was a predictable echo of the language of Machiavelli, Bacon, and Locke in their repeated calls for mastery, conquest, and dominion over nature. The oft-stated aim of this project was laudable, mundane, and humanitarian: “the relief of man’s estate,” in the words of Bacon, or to contribute to the “indolency of the body” in the words of Locke. But the project was more fundamentally a critique of ancient philosophic and theological inheritance, particularly deriving from Aristotle and Aquinas, both of whom posited a created natural order of which humans were understood to be a constitutive part—creatures of nature and God, not its creators. The modern project rejected the “givenness” of nature and sought rather to put humankind in the position of mastering nature—by gaining insight into its operations and controlling its effects. By means of such control, humans would effectively become godlike. Bacon sought to redefine the scientific project as one that would reverse the consequences of the Fall and, as he put it in The Advancement of Learning, result in learning by means of which “man ascendeth to the heavens” and achieves that to which his nature “doth most aspire, which is immortality or continuance.” The overcoming of limits—seemingly dictated by nature—was the ultimate aim of the modern scientific project.

Space—seen as the sphere where the angels and God himself resided—represented a place of special temptation for the extension of human mastery. Where previous ages had held that the heavens were occupied by divine entities, modern man began calling it space—a void, or emptiness—and sought to extend human control, mastery, and dominion by extending human presence where formerly religiously mythology, and now nothingness, held sway. John Milton, in his “Prolusions,” summarized this early modern fantasy (of which the “conquest of space” is just one step):

"[W]hen the cycle of universal knowledge has been completed, still the spirit will be restless in our dark imprisonment here, and it will rove about until the bounds of creation itself no longer limit the divine magnificence of its quest....Truly [man] will seem to have the stars under his control and dominion, land and sea at his command, and the winds and storms submissive to his will. Mother Nature herself has surrendered to him. It is as if some god had abdicated the government of the world and committed its justice, laws, and administration to him as ruler."

By repeating the phrase “conquest of space,” Arendt is pointing to the early modern project by which the apparent reduction of the stature of man in fact masked the ambition of making humankind akin to gods.

Arendt was keenly aware that the consequence of this project was to undermine the equal dignity of every human that was an inheritance of humankind’s part in the created order, and to replace such inherent dignity with scientific measures of varying human worth. In the essay, Arendt stresses the way that modern science undermines “common sense”: in its unmasking of our shared sense of a common reality—particularly the reality of nature as it is experienced by humans in and through human communities—modern science undermines the very possibility of equality from which “common sense” arises. By making the status of nature dubious—whether through Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle or Einstein’s theory of relativity—nature is rendered an unreliable and incomprehensible domain. “Common sense” is rendered irrelevant, since it can only be based upon a faulty perception of apparent phenomena: the only form of perception that can now “count” is specialized scientific knowledge. Arendt understood well that democracy, as a political system based upon shared competence drawn from the stores of a common world, was ultimately rendered indefensible as a consequence of the loss of common sense and the rise of scientific expertise. Much of her work was an effort to defend democracy as a regime based upon shared speech and a common repository of history and “enacted stories.” Following such thinkers as Aristotle and Vico, she sought to defend the priority of common speech over expertise and thereby democracy over technocracy.

More fundamentally, the motivation underlying “the conquest of space” imperils the very idea of “common”: the scientific enterprise was apt to give priority of the measurable inequalities of humans over our non-measurable equality. Human equality is not most obviously derived from empirical data, but rather from a religious and political tradition that understood it as more fundamental than any sensory or empirical evidence of inequality. Arendt argued in her essay “Truth and Politics” that the articulation of human equality in the Declaration of Independence was based not so much on its self-evidence than by dint of the fact that it was a truth that “we hold.” By dismissing the “common”—the very basis of such a shared “holding” of equality’s validity—science threatens to undermine the very idea of equality, and hence, the very idea of a single humanity. The deepest danger of the destruction of “common sense” was the temptation of science to dismiss unproveable belief in human equality in favor of scientifically “proveable” distinctions that would divide super- from sub-human. Arendt suggested that such a “truth”—even if it could be established scientifically, as was attempted by National Socialists in their studies of Jews—had no place in the realm of politics, or the domain of the common.

Arendt saw clearly the trajectory of modern science in undermining the belief in a common humanity and the religious and political basis of the belief in equality. Her prescience in anticipating modern science’s tendencies toward displacing God and installing humankind in the place of divinity can only strike today’s reader as prophetic. However, Arendt’s own doubts about the standard of nature and the divine marks her work as finally insufficient to the task of defending against the tendency of science to alter nature and make its standards irrelevant. To the extent that Arendt held that humanity was a creature defined through politics and in history—that our equality was the result of the fact that “we hold” it to be true, and not that it is self-evident by nature—Arendt shared a certain set of modern philosophic presuppositions with modern science. Her philosophic sympathies lay with Kant (Kant of the Critique of Judgment, which she interpreted to understand that truth was the construct of human communities) and perhaps most deeply Heidegger. Her critique of modern science’s destruction of “common sense” is powerful enough to point us back to the status and standard of nature as it was understood by the pre-modern thinkers, and especially Aristotle and Aquinas. While her work does not articulate a sufficient defense of a kind of Aristotelian or Thomistic standard in nature and the divine, nevertheless her writings—this essay among them—are a powerful and necessary corrective to our ongoing faith in the power of science and its ambition for the conquest of nature—even that human nature that informs us at once of limits to our effort to control nature and of the source of our human dignity.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Agreeing to Agree

Georgetown, like most universities, is obsessed with promoting diversity. The latest iteration of diversity promotion centers on gay and lesbian demands for greater diversity training, awareness, and representation on campus. In response to these demands, the university administration has formed several working groups that are going to make recommendations for concrete changes to student life, curriculum, even campus tours.

Diversity is a tough issue, particularly because no one is willing or even permitted to talk about what it actually means. Diversity means "difference": therefore, efforts to encourage diversity on campus would seem to involve the promotion of difference and the sharpening of distinctions. However, movements such as these are actually an effort to discourage difference: "diversity training" is intended to make every person on campus equally tolerant and non-judgmental toward everyone else, and, in fact, equally uncaring. Difference is to exist but not to matter. But this is as undesirable as it is impossible: difference can only exist if it really matters, if differences are noteworthy enough for us to notice and care.

Plato long ago noted that we have different eye colors but that it's a difference that doesn't matter to us. Differences in gender have far more significance, and hence we talk about them and notice them a lot more. It's the effort of "diversity training" to make things like differences in gender no more significant than differences in eye color. But, success in this effort would be to make the difference irrelevant and to undermine the very idea of "diversity." All the while, it remains highly dubious whether one could render such differences truly irrelevant and unworthy of notice.

We pretend as if "diversity training" is to make us all appreciate the differences that distinguish us, but in fact it is to promote indifference to actual difference. We then assume this indifference to be toleration or even approval. Those who cannot be rendered tractable to such indifference are shamed into pretending as if they don't care, fearing above all the label of "intolerance."

In the end, the aim of "diversity training" is for difference to be superficial: our differences are to distinguish us like clothing fashions but not be so deep as to foster "discrimination" or "judgmentalism." To discriminate would be, well - to recognize distinctions. To judge would be - well, to differentiate. Diversity can't allow that. I can wear as many nose rings as I want, but you are not allowed to acknowledge that you notice them. I demand to be different - but you'd better not say that I am.

These discussions about the paramount importance of diversity take place in the backdrop in which intellectual diversity does not exist as a topic of conversation on today's college campuses. Indeed, it could be argued that efforts to encourage diversity are premised upon the dampening if not the elimination of intellectual diversity. It should be surprising to no one, then, that according to an article in today's Washington Post, universities have serious diversity deficit in the currency of ideas - what one would imagine to be of paramount importance in the life of a university. According to this article, you're as likely to see a Republican on a university campus as you are to see a glacier in Iceland.

Indicators like party identification are coarse and inexact: they don't really indicate profound diversity of thought, but at least suggest the presence or absence of certain kinds of political diversity. More importantly, such analyses don't speak to why we have arrived at a point in which universities are dominated by like-thinking people. Maranto notes that people have a tendency to want to surround themselves with people who think like themselves, but he doesn't tell us how we reached a point we are now at. For that we would need a deeper analysis of the modern liberal project and especially the transformation of the idea of a university from a place in which certain kinds of knowledge was transmitted from one generation to the next, to one in which the university came to be an agent of human progress and advancement. We would further need better understanding of what this transformation does to the humanities - those very disciplines that were the conservators and transmittors of ancient learning, and which become superfluous in the new university. Left without a mission or an identity, their only recourse is to demonstrate their hostility to the very thing that they are supposed to teach: and hence, they become critics of past thinkers, of past ideas, and even of books. Each person is charged with making themselves anew, and no limits or ideas of what constitutes human good (or a good life in concert with natural limits and possibilities) can be posited or even intimated. Thoroughgoing human autonomy is the object and aim of the transformed university - and thus, the humanities become the intellectual handmaidens to the modern sciences and their quest to extend human mastery of the world.

The one thing we do not have in today's university is diversity. There is one forbidden idea: the idea that there may be limits based in nature. The modern university exists explicitly on the rejection of this one assumption. One can be sure that there will be no "working groups" anytime soon exploring the creation of a campus "Resource Center" (what a revealing phrase!) for "Nature and Limits." On this point we can be sure that even Democrats and Republicans can agree.

American Dream

Reading the paper never fails to be instructive about the pickle we're in.

Case in point: yesterday's New York Times featured an article discussing the declining levels of oil exports from nations that currently supply importing nations such as the United States. A combination of rising domestic wealth (as a result of oil exports) and cheap domestic gas prices (a result of populist policies), along with declining oil production (a result of peak oil), is resulting in decreasing levels of oil exports from such nations as Mexico and Iran, and it's estimated that these nations will become net importers in only a few years' time. An excerpt:

"The report said “soaring internal rates of oil consumption” in Russia, in Mexico and in member states of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries would reduce crude exports as much as 2.5 million barrels a day by the end of the decade.

"That is about 3 percent of global oil demand. It may not sound high, but experts say demand for oil is so inflexible, and the world has so little spare production capacity, that even small shortfalls can raise prices. In 2002, when a labor strike in Venezuela took 3 percent of global production off line, oil prices spiked 26 percent within weeks."

Many anticipate that the prospect of higher prices will foster innovation and unleash creativity toward the end of finding a new energy source, especially for transportation. Appropriately enough, in a different section of yesterday's Times, there was a review of a new Honda automobile that will run on hydrogen. The article noted that the immediate problem with this alternative is that there is no hydrogen fueling station infrastucture. However, in a separate article the Times reported that Honda is considering selling an "at-home" power station that will also provide heat and electricity for the home.

Small problem: it turns out that this "alternative" fuel will need natural gas inputs to be viable:

Hydrogen doesn't float around free for plucking - it needs to be separated from some other source, either water (which would require electricity in order to crack the hydrogen from the oxygen molecules, and hence an external energy source which currently derives mainly from coal or natural gas) or natural gas itself (which is running low in North America). As I've noted previously, hydrogen does not look like a promising alternative as long as the second law of thermodynamics continues to apply. Long and short: I wouldn't recommend for anyone to run out and buy a new nifty hydrogen car, since within the decade we could discover not only that oil and natural gas are becoming too scarce for us to afford to burn them to make our trips to Wal-Mart, but so too any of the "alternatives" (tar sands, hydrogen, corn) that all rest on those external energy inputs. The "American dream" of fast cars, home ownership and mobility is turning out to have been... well... a dream. The question is, what will reality look like?

Friday, December 7, 2007

A Different Speech Explaining Faith and Politics

"It is an honor to be here today...."

"Given our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty, some wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate's religion that are appropriate. I believe there are. And I will answer them today....

"Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for President, not a Catholic running for President. Like him, I am an American running for President.... A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith....

"As a young man, Lincoln described what he called America's 'political religion'.... When I place my hand on the Koran and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to Allah....

"There are some for whom these commitments are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Muslim faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers – I will be true to them and to my beliefs.

"Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it. But I think they underestimate the American people. Americans do not respect believers of convenience. Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.

"There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Muhammad? I believe that Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah and the Savior of mankind. My beliefs about Islam may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.

"There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution....

"I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to Allah...

"It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the religions in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter – on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. Thinking of such bans on immorality as Prohibition, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.

"We separate church and state affairs in this country.... But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of Allah. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.

"The founders ... did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under Allah' and in Allah, we do indeed trust.

"Thank you."

OK, it took a lot of snipping to cut all Mitt's language about the separation of Church and State, religion and politics. It turns out that it's not "religion" we're talking about - it's about theology and whether one's theology is premised upon a separation - or identity - between the Two Cities. Lest we forget in the midst of campaigning...

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


My friend Paul Seaton comments thusly about my previous post on "law and/or order":

"I liked this particular post by Dr. Pat very much. He laid more of his cards on the table than is normally the case. I can't help but think that his Carey McWilliams-inspired view of the Constitution (and Publius) blinds him to certain things that can -- and should and must -- be done: teach proper constitutionalism. In Peter Lawler's formula, instruct any and all why Roe was wrongly decided. In mine: critique "privacy and autonomy" jurisprudence. That's a political-cultural need that all we polisci (and fellow-travelling) folks can assume, isn't it?"

Implicit in this view, a golden age of lawfulness and constraint was undermined by nine men in black robes who ushered in the era of "privacy and autonomy." The result of such decisions as Griswold, Eisenstadt and, above all, Roe v. Wade was the replacement of lawfulness with autonomy, of communal norms with individualism. Our current cultural miasma is the direct result of bad jurisprudence, and many contemporary Republicans are content to purchase any bill of goods peddled by any of the candidates so long as they can promise x-number of Justices who will rule to reverse the decisions of the late-sixties and early-seventies. Many Republicans will be voting beginning in about a month's time for a pro-choice candidate whose only bone to social conservatives is a promise to appoint justices like Scalia, Thomas and Alito. For many, this is enough.

Let's say that President Giuliani (::shudder::) nominates the Justice who overturns Roe and sends abortion policy to the States. President Giuliani would overnight become our new Stephen A. Douglas, being able to do little more than encouraging the States to set their own policies in accordance with their own values. Not having the foggiest idea of why he would even be appointing such Justices other than to appease the right wing of the Republican Party, Giuliani would have nothing to say other than acknowledging the right of each state to "vote up or down" as they pleased. In this sense, Giuliani would be not really be any different from all the Republican presidents since and including Reagan, for whom the issue of abortion is an issue to be resolved by the Courts and went no further. By understanding this as an issue of jurisprudence they have accepted the playbook of the liberals who taught them to fight all the discrete battles of the cultural wars in the Supreme Court. It's a lazy man's battle in which we eschew the hard work of working in the fields of politics and culture - since, let's face it, most "conservatives" like the libertarian culture just as much as the liberals - and put our money on the symbolic victories of winning judicial nominations and court cases. All the while, no one has pointed out that you don't really need to reverse Roe v. Wade to "win" the abortion battle if you persuade people that the language and philosophy of choice needs to be replaced by the language and philosophy of duty and obligation. Has any "pro-life" Republican President been preparing the ground for a post-Roe future, much less seeking to repair the culture of our Roe-governed present?

I am reminded of the egregious case a few years ago of the man who ran a crematorium whose incinerator was broken. Rather than paying to fix the incinerator, he began scattering unburied bodies all over his property and giving mourners fireplace ashes posing as the remains of loved ones. When his horrific deception was discovered, the state of Georgia sought to prosecute him only to find that there was no law on the books forbidding the non-burning of corpses entrusted to crematoria. As a result of this, at least 26 states passed laws banning what this man had done. Do we really think that it was the absence of this law that encouraged him to commit this horrible deed, or that it will be presence of the law that will discourage most people from leaving corpses unburied? In this case we can see that the law very often functions as a means of prosecuting lawbreakers, and in many fundamental ways is not the source of a deeply shared set of cultural norms. Mitt Romney has recognized as much in saying that he would support a Constitutional Amendment banning abortion as an "apsirational" goal - since he full recognizes that a constitutional amendment would require widespread support that would need to exist before its passage. If the norms are widespread, the law becomes an endorsement and encoding of those norms and a means to prosecute the few outliers who disobey them. That's hardly where we are on this issue that purportedly is one of THE central concerns of the Republican party.

It's quite certain that if Roe were overturned, many many States would continue to have liberal abortion laws. Its overturning might result in some fewer number of abortions among lower income women who couldn't travel to a more liberal State (anyone want to celebrate limiting abortions only to the wealthy?), but in the main little would change. What would then be the arguments that would need to be made to discourage the practice not now as part of a judicial strategy, but as the encouragement of a set of cultural and moral norms? Not a single Republican (nor, of course, Democrat) could tell you, because not a single one has ever made a compelling argument. Instead, for more than thirty years we have dutifully heard candidate after candidate tell us that they oppose abortion and will seek to appoint certain kinds of justices.

Thomas Frank argued in his book What's the Matter With Kansas? that Kansans were being hoodwinked by Republican power players to vote on social issues that they would never see fulfilled, all the while supporting a party whose main interest was the advancement of economic advantages for the wealthiest. While I disliked the argument about "false consciousness" in his book - i.e., that the Kansans were voting against their true interest, which was economic - I found it hard to disagree with his analysis of the cynicism of the Republican party use of social conservatives. Should Giuliani be nominated, it will be proof positive that Frank's thesis was correct - that those social issues were never really at the heart of the party's agenda (duh). But, even should he not be nominated, the jury is still out (as it were) whether any candidate is prepared to use the bully pulpit and educative role of the Presidency to move the polity away from our half-century of libertarian self-indulgence and to urge self-governance in all its forms. Such admonishment will have to encompass not only "social" issues but "economic" issues as well, since the two are ultimately deeply and intimately connected. I don't imagine for a moment that such a change will occur quickly or easily, and much of modern life militates against a transformation to a polity of self-governance. But, it's high time to move beyond the banal simplicity of our prevailing assumption that the resolution to the culture wars are the province of the courts or sound jurisprudence (necessary, yes, but hardly sufficient), and to begin doing the hard work of cultivation.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


I had my kids going for awhile with this one. Who knew that someone named Patrick Deneen could be so talented?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Another 15 Minutes

Apropos of the previous post on the State of the University:

A few months ago I traveled to New York to participate in a symposium commemorating the 20th anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom's book The Closing of the American Mind. I arrived at the symposium with hand-written notes which I'd assembled on the train (thus making them nearly unreadable) and unkempt hair that should have been cut two weeks earlier, only to discover that the event was to be televised by C-Span. That video has now been made available on the website of the symposium's organizer, here. The panels were uniformly interesting (I'll exclude my own performance) and Mark Steyn's lunchtime lecture on Bloom on music 20 years later is a must-see.

But, for those with an interest in "seeing" the man behind the blog, I appear in Part I of the second panel, here, starting at about the 30th minute. My responsibility was to comment on the paper by Roger Kimball, which I pretended to do. See if you can spot when I realize I'm missing page 7. I never found that deserter - probably still enjoying life on the Acela.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dr. Pat's Advice to our Best Universities

Of late Georgetown has been crowing about the crushing number of applicants for "Early Action." While I'm sure the rise in numbers has something to do with my institution's excellence, an article in today's New York Times makes clear that the dramatic rise in number of early applicants has more to do with the cessation of Early Admissions programs at Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia.

It's difficult to ignore the hypocrisy of our elite institutions which, on the one hand, like to be seen publically lamenting the hyper-competitiveness among roughly 20 of the nation's "top" Universities and the way that it disfigures the lives of young persons, even as they crow over and advertise their high rankings in U.S News and World Report and publicize the crushing number of student applications (applicant numbers and rankings, of course, are intimately linked, and thus the two create a mutually reinforcing, self-fulfilling cycle).

Another of today's articles only further attests to the staggering absurdity of our current college admissions game: students are now "branding" themselves - a term we used to use for differentiating cattle herds and is now used to describe slick and often superficial ways that advertisers and marketers distinguish nearly identical products. This same term is now embraced by both institutions of higher learning and their potential students in the effort to differentiate themselves - and may have just as much substance as the marketing techniques to which they refer.

The article states:

Branding is a buzzword among corporations, and colleges, too, are desperate to distinguish themselves. And so the philosophy — some might call it an affliction — has filtered down to those applying to the most selective colleges.

Yet it would be wrong to blame either the students or their counselors for what is a sickness of the zeitgeist aggravated by the mushrooming number of applicants and misguided notions that only 20 colleges are worth attending. The herd of applicants [PD: see!] is so teeming that students really do find it difficult to distinguish themselves from others who have scored in the SAT stratosphere and spent summers in Guatemala working with the poor. Hannah Lindsell, a sophomore at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School on the West Side of Manhattan, offered an eloquent articulation of the problem.

“People sometimes worry that they’re being packaged, but at the end of the day you’re just a sheet of paper,” she said. “If you’re not packaged to a degree, you’re all over the place. It’s important to be focused. Having someone like a coach helps you decide where the focus is going to be."


[One such coach said]:

“Just as it would be ridiculous to expect a company like Volvo to stop marketing itself as the premier safety car, it would be ridiculous to expect applicants applying to extremely competitive schools to not use branding to stand apart from the competition,” she said.

If our elite colleges were really concerned about the damage that their incitement to hyper-competitiveness was wreaking, and if they really wanted to dampen pernicious incentives that now encourage 17-year olds (or their parents) to spend $4,000 and up to win the meritocratic sweepstakes and turns students into little achievement machines with narrow careerist mindsets, they would have to do more than wring their hands and sing lamentations of woe. Yet, most administrators shrug their shoulders and attribute the madness to the broader culture without reflecting either on the way that their own universities have contributed to the creation of that culture or could serve as an agent of change in altering it.

So, speaking now as a social scientist - indeed, for this exercise you may call me Dr. Pat, as I hereby invoke my expertise and highly valuable advanced degrees that clearly brand me as hyper smart and worthy of your attention and deference - I offer two concrete suggestions to reverse the malicious effects fostered by the hyper-competiveness of our university system. Of course, I will be applying for a grant from the NIH and NSF to test the hypotheses that these proposals would have their desired effect. We will only use lab mice to run our tests, guided by the strictest ethical standards and respectful disposal of the innumerable itty-bitty corpses we'll be producing.

1. Reinstitute a serious core curriculum with extensive course requirements in the humanities - particularly philosophy, theology, history, political philosophy, literature and classics - along with less extensive requirements, but requirements nonetheless, in the social sciences and physical sciences; moreover, require the faculty to re-acquaint (or, more likely, acquaint) themselves with the reasons for a core curriculum (familiarity with Newman's Idea of the University would be helpful) and to demonstrate that they will teach core courses guided by that understanding. If they are not willing to sign on to this basic purpose of the university, make such unwillingness grounds for demotion or dismissal. The President and Trustees will have ultimate say over the proper governance of the University, not individual faculty who tend increasingly only to be concerned with narrow academic specialization and the incentives that reward such narrowness.

2. Since a significant number of courses will be required - and thus students will have no choice about which courses to take - make it clear to faculty and students alike that high academic standards will be expected and grade inflation will cease (this will be possible since students won't be able to shop for the easy classes and the current "market incentive" to dilute grades in order to attract students will cease). Re-introduce the full grade scale, not our constricted grade scale in which a B- is now considered by students to be a failing grade. Be willing to fail students who do not demonstrate competence in understanding or writing.

I am willing to put good money down on two counts:

1. Instituting these two reforms would dampen the huge number of applicants to the University that adopted them;


2. Not a single top 20 university will adopt these measures. Indeed, watch for news of continued diminution of core requirements. For instance, rumors (and, for many, hopes) to this effect abound at Georgetown.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Law and/or Order

A comment to a previous post reads:

"As a Catholic lawyer, I increasingly question the ability of law to produce a "just" society. The question I see is usually, "What law will limit people's [or more often, corporation's] ability to destroy the environment." To which I respond that no law will do that unless we master our own consumption and other unvirtuous behavior. Our society somehow believes that one can consume sex at a rapacious rate and then assume that material consumption will not be drawn in along with that. But, unvirtuous behavior in one area will bleed into others..."

This lawyer raises a discomfiting and challenging question: what is law for? Does it govern behavior? Does it exist to give the State the ability to punish inevitable law-breaking ? If so, might it even contribute to law-breaking by assuming the worst in people (Oliver Wendell Holmes's "bad man" theory)? Or, does law ratify a cultural code, thus in some senses simply underlining what most people take for granted? If so, wouldn't law really be superfluous and culture be everything? If the comment suggests that law can't fundamentally rein in wanton behavior, then what will be the source that will instruct us how to "master our own consumption"?

A bit over a year ago, libertarian Charles Murray published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he predicted that the then-recently passed legislation that sought to limit online gambling would produce a backlash among the electorate, leading to a sound drubbing of Republicans by an intensely spiteful group of outlaw poker players. He was particularly down on the law because it sought to criminalize behavior that many, many people regarded as perfectly acceptable. The result, he argued, would be to delegitimate people's respect for law. He wrote:

"In the long term, something more ominous is at work. If a free society is to work, the vast majority of citizens must reflexively obey the law not because they fear punishment, but because they accept that the rule of law makes society possible. That reflexive law-abidingness is reinforced when the laws are limited to core objectives that enjoy consensus support, even though people may disagree on means.

"Thus society is weakened every time a law is passed that large numbers of reasonable, responsible citizens think is stupid. Such laws invite good citizens to choose knowingly to break the law, confident that they are doing nothing morally wrong."

Murray argued that the law must reflect culture, and that if the culture does not regard a law as moral, the law will be disregarded and such disregard ultimately would contribute to the undermining of the rule of law. The most frequently cited example (one that Murray invokes) is Prohibition, which fostered criminality particularly because so many people sought to continue doing what they regarded the law as unjustly having banned.

By contrast, some legal thinkers - particularly Catholic legal thinkers, such as Robert George - argue that the law establishes a moral code that will influence the culture. Such arguments hold that, even in instances where the culture may not regard the law as desirable or appropriate, the law will over the long term change the culture in accordance with the law. Such arguments are made in particular regarding laws criminalizing certain kinds of sexual behavior that have become as widely practiced as drinking or online gambling. One can imagine that the effort to reintroduce restrictions to certain widely practiced sexual behavior would be "greeted" in the same manner as Murray regards restrictions on online gambling. Indeed, absent widespread support for such law in the first instance, it's hard to know where the very impetus of such legislation would come from; given that it would have to be imposed by elites on a recalcitrant citizenry, Murray is probably right in supposing that the imposition of such law (in this case, limiting online gambling) would result in an electoral backlash.

I find myself both sympathetic with, and repulsed by, Murray's argument - sympathetic because I share the view that culture has a place of primacy, but repulsed by his simple capitulation to immorality on the grounds that "everyone is doing it" and concerned that he is uncognizant that what is acceptable can too easily become a moving target, and ultimately hollow out what we consider to be our "core objectives" - while wondering about the validity of the claim that law can decisively change culture. I find myself recalling Rousseau's critique of D'Alembert's proposal to introduce a theater into the city of Geneva, which decried the likely effect of the corruption of Genevan morals. By contrast, he noted that the morals of Parisians were already so corrupt that the theater was a bonafide good, since it distracted people from doing worse things. His argument was that we ought to protect moral cultures where they exist from corruption while acknowledging that there was no point in trying to reverse the trajectory of immoral cultures. Overall, his argument was that once the morals of a people have been corrupted, there is very little hope of re-introducing virtue.

This is, I take it, the reason that people like Rod Dreher have become increasingly drawn to Alasdair MacIntyre's call for a new kind of monastic withdrawal; why, in part, Wendell Berry withdrew from the wider society for an agrarian life and has defended a certain kind of culture to the exclusion of speaking about what kind of politics would be necessary to realize any such culture; why so many parents strive in a way to emulate the example of the Amish in shutting out as much of the modern world as possible, for example through home schooling and resisting the introduction of "popular culture" into the home; and maybe why the Pope - perhaps not uncoincidentally named "Benedict" after the founder of the monastic order that was charged with keeping the faith alive during dark times - has called for the Church to be rebuilt by its "creative minorities." Can it be that the day for the prescriptions of a political theorist has passed, and that all that those of us in the "ameliorative" professions can do is catalogue what happened as a warning to future generations? Is such a form of withdrawal and quiescence justified, or does it represent a kind of premature surrender to cultural forces that can and ought to be contested? Should we metaphorically fight the creation of new theaters or encourage our countrymen to attend their performances with abandon in order to avoid worse vices?

In so many ways, these are iterations of questions and a broader set of conversations that I seem to be having with greater frequency with young people and professors-in-training in response to the inevitable question, "what is to be done?" And, as a dutiful professor charged with ensuring a certain kind of future, I strive to give an answer that merely echoes Lasch - that not optimism, but perhaps hope, is warranted. And yet, I can't shake my own doubts that I'm asking them to do what I'm barely able to muster, which is to purse my lips and whistle in the dark.