Archive | April, 2013

A Coaching Controversy Revisited

24 Apr

 

 

 

Today marks the ten-year anniversary of the most infamous day in the history of Duluth East hockey. It wasn’t a loss in a game, nor an embarrassing off-ice incident. In truth, the stunning news of April 24, 2003 didn’t affect the team’s performance in any measurable way. But the decision handed down that day attracted statewide attention and dominated Duluth’s news for the next year. The Duluth East administration chose not to renew the contract of head coach Mike Randolph, effectively firing the state’s most decorated coach.

ImagePhoto credit: Duluth East High School Hockey Facebook Page

At the time, Randolph was a hockey icon. In his fifteen years at the helm of the Hounds, he turned a perennial underachiever into one of Minnesota’s premier hockey programs, guiding them to eight State Tournaments and two championships. East hockey had become a breeding ground for Division One hockey players, abandoning its conference to play the most difficult schedule possible and attracting talent from across the state. Randolph had a reputation as an intense, fiery leader; a brilliant hockey mind who demanded excellence at every turn. His will to win was unquestioned.

But as is so often the case, the very traits that made Randolph great were also his downfall. He pushed his players so hard and was so unrelenting in his demands that some lost their passion for the game. He had to cut many players over the years, and he never was one to mince words in doing so. In his efforts to balance the development of his stars and playing time for all, he’d inevitably made a number of enemies. Fixated on his team, he delegated team fundraisers to his assistants, and some accounting issues sprang up. Randolph, his critics argued, had lost sight of what high school sports were supposed to be. Down came the axe, with no explanation given: data privacy laws allowed the administration to dismiss him without cause.

If Randolph’s tale were a Greek tragedy, the story would have ended there, with the hero felled by his tragic flaw. But Randolph, a fighter to the end, demanded answers. His legions of supporters mobilized against the alleged injustice, and the coach waived his right to privacy and threw open his confidential personnel file for the world to see. His supporters had responses ready for each and every charge, and claimed conflicts of interest at every turn; many of the complainants were parents of cut players with axes to grind—including the East principal—and a leading Randolph critic on the school board had prominent ties to East’s private school rival, Duluth Marshall. No one seemed to have an objective account of what really went on in the East hockey program, and no one’s testimony seemed entirely trustworthy. All of the intrigue culminated in several explosive exchanges with the school board, which ultimately voted to uphold the administration’s decision.

For one year, anyway. That fall, the fate of a hockey coach became an election issue. Three school board members who had opposed Randolph’s reinstatement either lost their bids for re-election or retired. In April 2004, shortly after East’s 3rd place finish in that year’s Tournament, the board declared it had erred the previous year. Randolph had his job back.

Naturally, people with little interest in hockey found the whole affair absurd. Duluth public schools faced declining enrollment and tough budgetary decisions at the time, and yet the only thing that inspired any passion was a man in charge of an extracurricular activity who made $4,000 a year. And even if Randolph had been wronged, why drag out a fight that would only serve as a distraction?

To some, it was a matter of justice, pure and simple. To those who took a longer view, it raised crucial questions about the meaning of high school sports, and even a high school education in general. The debate over whether the program was “too big” probably deserves its own post, but there are plenty of other things to consider. There’s no doubt Randolph was (and is) a tough coach, and that he is not for everyone. But he wouldn’t be controversial if it didn’t work. Is high school too soon to place a hockey team under the command of someone so demanding? Are the claims of burnout enough to invalidate the testimony of those who cite Randolph as one of the most important formative figures in their young lives? Even if the administration had just cause to can Randolph, were there issues with their methods? Should the wronged party (whichever one it might have been) ever stop fighting an injustice for the good of the team, or the community? Where are the lines between demands for perfection and emotional abuse, between intensity and depravity? Would we rather have coaches who push us to the limit, or ones who take things as they come? When framed in those terms, the questions become near-existential, and it’s not so hard to see why the Randolph saga enjoyed so much attention in Duluth. In the beginning it was only about hockey, but by the end came to mean so much more.

So, what verdict might we pass on Randolph’s return to Duluth East? Naturally, it’s in the eye of the beholder. I’ve been through nearly every press clipping, talked to many people around the program, watched every old State Tournament game on DVD, and done my share of eavesdropping at the rink, and I’m not still not sure I have an easy answer. East has been to six State Tournaments in his nine years back on the job, though the third state title has eluded him, and there have been a few playoff disappointments along the way. Moreover, the scrutiny brought on by the 2003-04 saga has left him under the microscope ever since, with controversies at every turn: an accusation of physical abuse (unsubstantiated), players leaving high school for junior hockey (some citing the coach as a reason), Randolph’s criticisms of those who leave, alleged favoritism when his own son was on the team (untrue, in my opinion), claims of recruiting, and scheduling controversies, along with the typical disputes over playing time and cuts that plague most any high-profile program.

On more than one occasion, I’ve wished he might find some way to ride off into the sunset so that we could leave all of this behind and move on to the next coach. But that, of course, wouldn’t be Randolph’s style, and for the time being East hockey is wedded to him, both in victory and in defeat. And even if I grumble from the stands from time to time, I can’t quite picture East hockey without Mike Randolph stalking the bench behind his players, arms folded, glower in place as he barks at his Hounds, orders them to begin that patient cycle that so enthralled me as I watched from the stands in his first season back on the job. I was a freshman back then, and without his quarter century of work, I doubt I’d care about this sport half as much as I do.

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Boston and Emotional Response

23 Apr

I’ve always been fascinated by my response to national crises. I try to be as detached and rational about bombings and death as is possible, and indeed, the big picture is never quite lost on me: on the same day as the Boston Marathon bombings, thirty people were killed by bombs in Iraq, and no one batted an eyelash; on Friday, the U.S. government shut down an entire city of several million people in an attempt to hunt down one person—one person!—and most everyone accepted it as necessary. When viewed from an extreme critical distance, our responses to such events can seem nearly as absurd as the initial act of terror.

And then I go and watch something like this:

And then, in spite of my alleged detachment and cynicism, in spite of my inner stoic, hockey-bro-wannabe persona, I am reduced to tears.

I have a similar reaction to 9/11, even though the effects of 9/11 on my own life are limited to a few airport security annoyances and a visit to Ground Zero back when I was sixteen. 9/11 is often described as the moment when my generation lost its innocence, yet not even that really applies to me; my illusions about the world were shattered by a jarring personal tragedy some three years earlier. So, what gives? Why do I abandon reason when confronted with a national tragedy, even though I’ve been trained all my life to never do such thing?

My clearest thoughts on this conundrum came out in the immediate aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death two years ago. I was a junior at Georgetown at the time, and the memories of that night are still crystal-clear: a text message breaking up a night of halfhearted study, barreling down the stairs of my house seconds after one of my housemates to turn on the TV, vaguely wondering if I should join the herd of Hoyas racing off to the White House. Still, I couldn’t quite settle on a sensible response, and wound up just debating the night’s events on Facebook, of all places. “Justice reigns,” I wrote, and someone quite rightfully called me out on this point. If I may be allowed the pretension of quoting my response:

Many of my friends in this city are storming the White House as I write this, and that part of me that lives in the moment–which I do value greatly–is sorely tempted to join them. But I’m not. Instead I’m sitting here, writing on this note, blathering more literary thoughts in a document, and facebook chatting, trying to give this some sense of order. In questions of justice, there is always a question of whose justice we really are serving, what is truly worth fighting for, and what means are worth using to attain some distant goal. As I sit here, I try to balance my efforts to judge from on high as an intellectual, my dreams for what can become, and figure out my own place in this world as a child of a country born of a messianic mission but trapped within the moral morass of reality. I don’t have an answer yet. In the past, I’ve even paused to ponder whether “justice” as an idea really even has any value. But tonight my mind didn’t turn to questions of moral relativism or geopolitics. It turned to the kids in New York and DC who grew up without a parent, with some awful hole wrenched in their young minds. Tonight, they found some form of justice. If that conclusion is a sign of my moral failing, a sign of my blind nationalist or liberal (in the broader sense of the word) pride, then so be it. His death is not cause for blind celebration, but it does affirm a certain set of values to which, for better or worse, I have some measure of loyalty. For all America’s faults in this “War on Terror”–a concept whose complexity many fail to grasp–the guiding vision has never fallen back on blind hate. That is an achievement, and tonight we can note a victory over blind hate. Onward, to however history may challenge us next.

It has become fashionable in some circles to disown one’s roots in the interest of detached reason, and while I understand the impulse, I cannot adopt it. It strikes me as a luxury available only to those who have never understood what it means to lose someone, to endure a cycle of grief, to confront those bitter thoughts in the dead of night that call us to revenge, or invite us to imagine What Could Have Been. There are many things I do not particularly like about modern America, just as there are things that annoy me about Minnesota or Duluth or the details of my own upbringing and (most importantly of all!) my own choices in life. But for better or for worse, they are me, and no amount of self-delusion can make it otherwise.

Acknowledging these blind passions is not an excuse for acts of hate or incredible stupidity. We must always hold ourselves to the highest standard that we can. But only by recognizing them can we begin to understand why this world of ours is so imperfect, and why people feel so deeply for certain things—be it a country, a faith, an ideal, or a loved one—that they are willing to defy all other logic to defend them. As dangerous as those passions can be, a world without them would be a far poorer place.

In the coming weeks, we may learn whether one of those things motivated the Tsarnaev brothers. If it was indeed a deep love or sense of duty, then they are little different from any of us in their motives. They simply went to such an extreme that they lost all perspective, and that made all the difference.

But there is another possibility: they acted not out of passion, but bitter indifference toward life. Their alienation left them so detached that the emotional response to the bombings felt by so many of us lost all meaning to them. If so, more than anything, they have my pity. Either way, they were dangerous: either because they loved too much, or they loved too little. The middle ground may not be the most alluring, but it is, in the end, the only safe refuge.

Two Articles Worth Reading

19 Apr

Distractions have slowed my blogging pace, but here are a couple of articles I enjoyed. One came out today, while the other is an old one that I found myself revisiting after writing my last post on here. They are not all that related, though they do both express opinions that I would have frowned upon just a few years ago, but have come to appreciate since.

First, from the British newspaper The Guardian, an article telling us to stop reading news. (Ironic, no?) http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2013/apr/12/news-is-bad-rolf-dobelli?INTCMP=SRCH

I’m not sure I could ever cut myself off as the author of that piece did, but there’s a lot to think about there, and I can certainly relate to some of his sentiments. It’s easy to convince oneself that reading lots news is one’s duty if one wants to be an informed and intelligent person, when it is often merely a somewhat more enlightened form of procrastination. I’m all for a healthy dose of vicarious living and sounding intelligent at cocktail parties, but following the news can easily get out of hand. This isn’t without its problems, especially when things do directly affect us, and it’s also difficult to know what the author considers “news”–does that include, say, op-eds? A longer analysis piece in a news magazine? Personal essays? This blog? Still, I agree there is a certain freedom in not being chained to the news cycle.

The idea of slavish devotion to the news was already in my mind this week; when I first heard of the Boston Marathon bombings, my first instinct was to glue myself to a news feed and follow along. But then, as I often do in such moments, I flash back to 9/11. I was at school that day, and while they told us what had happened, they never turned on the TVs. When I got home, my dad–a college professor and generally very well-informed man–wasn’t glued to the news and worrying; he was gardening. Even as an 11-year-old, I was in awe of such composure during a crisis. My understanding of that day was not hurt by not seeing video footage of the falling towers until weeks afterward; in fact, it may have let me think through it better–as well as I could at that age. In a certain way, that was our own little victory over the terrorists: there was no terror in our house. Instead, there was some sadness, some reflection, and then we all got on with life.

Fr. James Schall, a Jesuit priest and recently retired Georgetown professor, always told his students to “never major in current events.”  Such narrow focus, he reasoned, led us to ignore the bigger things. Sometimes I wonder where I’d be if I’d heard his advice as a freshman or sophomore, instead of as a senior–but that’s all water under the bridge now, and there were different rewards to following the route I did take.

Fr. Schall also serves as a good transition into the next piece, which was written by another former Georgetown professor. I had the pleasure of taking a class from Prof. Patrick Deneen in what was the final semester in Washington for both of us; I’d suspect he generally shares Fr. Schall’s disinterest in current events, though I’m afraid he’s the main reason that several of those news links are on the right side of this page. In this essay, he explains his decision to abandon a tenured position at Georgetown to seek out a different opportunity:

http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2012/10/leaving-washington/

Prof. Deneen and I come from fairly different places in life, but when it comes to leaving Washington, we have a lot in common. The essay captures much of my own jadedness with D.C., and though coming home since has not been without its frustrations, it was also rewarding on many levels. I may not be able to stay in Duluth long-term, but even if I don’t, localism is (funnily enough) something that can be useful anywhere. As with the news, I’m not sure completely cutting oneself off is the way to go, but there is certainly some wisdom there.

The Elephant in Every Room

14 Apr

I ended my last post by suggesting that individual freedom is the driving force in just about every social change. Today, I’ll flesh out that argument a bit more.

First, the evidence: personal liberation has been at the heart of nearly every liberal or leftist achievement since the 1960s. The civil rights and feminist movements, while not necessarily complete, made great strides. Likewise, sexual autonomy has taken off dramatically. Yet when it comes to collective action, the left has stalled. Despite the efforts of many politicians and community activists, poverty remains entrenched in many American communities, and inequality has only grown. Unions have gradually lost their power. The environmental movement records most of its victories on an individual level, with consumers embracing green shopping but minimal political action on such issues as climate change. Universal health care came about only through appeals that every person deserved the right to some level of care, and remains far less centralized than Europe’s single-payer systems.

On the right, it hasn’t been any different. The past half century has seen decreases in tax rates, deregulation, and the proliferation of free-market economic theories that rally against state intervention. Most liberal social issues have done well over the past half-century, yet gun control legislation rarely goes anywhere, with the Second Amendment as the guiding light. The conservative ideals under duress are far more communal in nature: traditional family structures, church attendance, and perhaps the predominance of “traditional” American culture generally associated with white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

There are some issues that don’t line up so evenly. On abortion, for example, both sides can play the freedom card: the left demands rights for women to control their bodies, while the right demands rights for the unborn. National security—that paradoxical enterprise by which we take away freedoms so as to protect freedoms—doesn’t line up very nicely, either. On that front, the politicians in power almost always favor the collective definition of freedom, despite complaints from both ends of the spectrum. Still, I think this is the exception that proves the rule: collective action only seem to advance when the populace feels sufficiently threatened by some outside force, and enthusiasm for more rigid national security has faded away now that Islamic terrorism is not perceived to be the existential threat it was decade ago. Clearly, there are times when public opinion rallies against the steady march of individualism, and slows the tide for a spell. But the fact remains that the side that can best monopolize arguments for individual freedom just about always wins.

Appeals to individual rights resound with voters on a level that vague appeals to the greater good cannot, just as photos of a single starving child tend to move more people to action than a ream of statistics on child poverty. Self-interest tends to take priority, and in a society where the majority of people are relatively secure from outside threats, collective action often seems needless. On an individual level, this makes an awful lot of sense; the problems arise when we dare to ask what might be lost by such a narrow focus.

It’s important to note that this does not necessarily mean the advancement of individual liberties at the expense of state power. In some cases, government policy is seen as the best means to drive individual liberation, and the state sure hasn’t gotten any smaller over the past few decades, even with “conservatives” in control in Washington. Some even argue that individualism and growing state power feed off of one another in a vicious cycle. What have suffered, on the other hand, are voluntary associations that make up civil society—groups that citizens join to affect the communal good. In my opinion, the greatest threat this country faces is not its debt load, nor some external foe, nor an immediate lack of social justice. It is its failing social fabric, and without it, none of the other issues really matter.

My point here certainly isn’t to say that the government needs to control more things, or that we need to subsume all our individual desires to the collective. If I lived in a different country and in a different era, I might have lamented the opposite trend. My point is that our basic ways of thinking about politics—as a battle between the individual and the state—is fundamentally flawed.

Instead, we ought to recognize that humans, for all the unique traits of each one of us, are forever doomed to live within communities, and have to find some way to make them work as a collective. Certain problems can only be solved via collective action, and we also tend to be happier when we have our most fundamental beliefs validated by groups of people with similar interests or concerns. Conceiving of the human being as an autonomous individual who is forced into living with others is an impoverished view of human nature, to the extent that we can define such a thing. We have our moments when we operate alone, yes, but we also have moments where we must operate in concert, and we can’t ignore either one and expect to come out with a sensible philosophy about life.

At this moment in history, individualism has the upper hand, and while individual liberation has brought us many very good things, it isn’t without its dark side, and we must acknowledge it. This, of course, leads to the question of what can be done to counteract these trends; unfortunately, I don’t have a whole lot of great answers on this front yet, beyond the basic suggestion that we should all get out a little bit more. It may, in fact, be hard to do much of anything until a lot more people become aware of the trends driving modern American life.

To that end, I suppose, this blog post is a start. We’ll see where we go next.

Changes in Marriage and the Big Picture

12 Apr

Two Sundays ago, Ross Douthat, the New York Times’s resident conservative, wrote a column about the relationship between gay marriage and the general decline in what he calls “traditional” marriage. While later careful readings make show Douthat never explicitly draws a causal arrow between same-sex marriage and the decline in traditional marriage, he is certainly bringing attention to the possibility. No matter how tightly worded the column may be, its very focus on same-sex marriage was bound to generate a response.

After several critics took shots at the column, Douthat composed a three-part response on his blog. The blog posts were, in my opinion, far more effective than the original column, in part because of their composition: instead of seizing upon a hot-button issue and trying to cram it into a broader theory, they considered the theory and let the consequences of the theory—of which the same-sex marriage debate is one—flow from it naturally.

The second blog post traces the history of the decline of the “traditional” model of marriage, “which seeks to integrate sex, parenthood, economic cooperation, and emotional intimacy in a permanent union,” according to the National Marriage Project, with a “soul mate” model that puts one person’s love for another first and foremost. It shows how the latter model seems to have some serious consequences; while educated and wealthier classes tend to do just fine, working-class and less-educated Americans struggle to conform to the new model, leading to dramatic increases in divorce and childbirth out of wedlock, which tends to only exacerbate inequality in later generations. This is certainly a problem, and one that tends to unite both liberals and conservatives, even if their diagnoses of the causes and possible remedies vary wildly.

The third and final post is the strongest of them all, as it begins by mentioning everything that has pushed against the “traditional” model of marriage. There’s the state of the U.S. economy over the past forty years, which has made stable employment for younger people—particularly the white working class—much more difficult. There’s the impact of the feminist movement, and greater female participation in the work force. There’s contraception, there’s popular culture, and there are cultural norms that posit marriage as something one does once one is settled in life. Some people even trace it all back to the origins of modernity, and the early philosophers and revolutions responsible for aspects of the American project. As I mentioned in the post about the championship-winning goal, we can plausibly go back to the dawn of humanity finding events that affected later events that somehow lead up to the present day. The complexity of causes at play is nearly impossible to sort out, and Douthat recognizes this:

But I also think culture and economics, ideas and incentives, are all entangled at a deep level, working in cycles and feedback loops rather than in simple causal arrows — and thus it’s a mistake to treat changes in what people believe, and particularly the sweeping generational changes in how Americans conceptualize the links between sex and marriage and procreation, just as epiphenomena of economic pressure. (Emphasis mine)

Near the end of the second post, Douthat admits that same-sex marriage is not the driving force behind the decline in traditional marriage, but is rather a result of many forces. However, he also plausibly argues that the current push for same-sex marriage feeds back into the push toward the “soul mate” model, and that it would behoove society to step back for a moment and recognize that there might be more at stake here than just some ideal of love between two people. As just about all of us can attest, sometimes love can hurt, often in ways we never anticipated when we first fell in love. It is never as easy as it seems.

Of course, one could rationally argue that love between two people forever trumps those more complicated implications whose causes and effects are rather murky. This argument has considerable merit, in my opinion. There is always the question of what we can control, and with so many interplaying cultural and economic forces driving family instability in the 21st century United States, it seems silly to mount the defenses of traditional marriage strictly along the same-sex marriage front. Doing so cannot possibly stem the tide, and only invigorates a long-marginalized minority into greater action as they rally behind the simple, controllable, winning battle cry of love. I would also like to believe there is a way to reconcile an older, more stable vision of family life with such changes as same-sex unions. (I’m sure people have tried to do this, but I haven’t read or weighed them extensively yet.)

However, we can’t ignore the broader debates completely, and very few supporters of same-sex marriage seem to have grasped the magnitude of the movement their cause is wrapped up in. Douthat ends his series by saying “no one can predict the future,” and while I agree, it is fairly clear to me that history is marching in a certain direction: toward individual freedom, with little regard for societal implications. Same-sex marriage supporters (and opponents) often embrace some aspects of this push while scorning others, and few people seem to appreciate how tightly interrelated they all are. This, of course, is a very complicated subject that deserves its own post (if not a treatise), and I’ll have one along in the near future.

From the Vault: Election 2012

10 Apr

The post I’d planned to write for today isn’t quite done yet, but since I’m sticking with my plan to put up a post a day, here is something I wrote on the eve of last November’s election. I have some other reservations about doing this; I don’t want to have readers of a newish blog judging everything I post from here on out through the lens of who I voted for in an election–especially one that, in the grand scheme of things, I do not think was all that relevant to most of what I plan to write about on here. But, much as I may wish to believe it, I am not purely objective. I have my biases, so I may as well note them, hopefully with enough nuance that any reader can respect it.

The Only Thing I Will Write About the 2012 Election

I’ve studied politics my entire life, and I spend a healthy amount of my time procrastinating by reading about it daily in any number of publications. So it might come as a surprise to some that I have intentionally avoided nearly every opportunity to express my opinion about the upcoming election. It all goes back to a moment not long after the 2010 elections, when I found myself standing before a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Mexico City in the dead of night and realized, finally, that my happiness in life was not remotely related to the results national elections. It was a delightfully liberating moment. Eternal student that I am, I’ve kept up with the endless intricacies of politics ever since, but always from a comfortable distance, and only rarely volunteering my opinion. But, as the saying goes, silence is only useful if someone somewhere expects you to be loud. Given the extent of the endless screaming about politics out there, it’s obvious my silence hasn’t meant much. Not that I expect to be able to drown out the din now that I am offering something, so I’ll be a good citizen and have my say on the 2012 election.

What a difference four years make: the incumbent President and his party find themselves in a conundrum. The new liberal majority proclaimed four years ago has been beaten into submission, and reality has taken root. This country is split almost evenly between its two dominant parties. This in itself is no great change; it’s exactly where we were twelve years ago, at the start of the George W. Bush era. But after a few wars and a giant recession, the mood couldn’t be any more different. Bush’s effort to remake the world in America’s image fell flat, and U.S. influence around the globe is waning, though in a number of cases that is not necessarily a bad thing. Likewise, the hopelessly high hopes for Barack Obama have resolved themselves into a murky mess, and even if the President is re-elected, the odds do not favor any sort of great shift in a second term.

In search of a pragmatic center-left candidate who disdained business as usual in Washington, I voted for Mr. Obama in 2008. That is more or less what I got, though I will not pretend to be thrilled with the results. Mr. Obama’s dislike of political wrangling led him to ignore the dirty work of consensus-building, and his eagerness to be all things led him into unsavory alliances with much of the entrenched political and economic elite. A necessity for survival in modern government, perhaps, but the consistent caution in the President’s dealings has often allowed others to dictate the terms of the debate. Even when Mr. Obama has tried to be tough, it hasn’t seemed very natural or effective for anyone beyond the base; that just isn’t who he is. And for all of the post-partisan rhetoric, the legislation produced was decidedly liberal; sure, many liberals had their quarrels with certain points, but when one considers the arc of liberal history in this country, there is no doubt Mr. Obama is one of its greatest champions.

After four years in the city, I don’t have many illusions over what Washington does; by in large, I can live with Mr. Obama’s major legislative achievements and foreign policy. Both have elements that I find worrisome, at times even deeply troubling: drone strikes, coziness with big banks and insurance companies, an extremely narrow view of faith, and a well-intentioned but sclerotic continued expansion of the ever-growing, ever-centralizing federal bureaucracy. Still, given the constraints of his office, I think he has done some good where others may have done none.

Yet through it all, I’m reluctant to reward him with a second term. The Democratic turn to class warfare, coupled with canards about taxing the wealthy—though true in the sense that everyone will have to pay in somehow—often rely on fanciful math and willful ignorance. Make no mistake, this country faces a fiscal crisis, and the Democratic Party has yet to offer a substantive approach to reining it all in. None of Mr. Obama’s achievements on the health care front will mean much if this country goes broke sometime down the road. Many of the narrow-minded defenses of government intervention that have emerged this election cycle are cringe-inducing in their portrayal of how the state interacts with individuals, seeming to dole out benefits from on high out of the goodness of its heart, replacing any need for such trivialities as families or communities. I still admire Mr. Obama’s measured seriousness, and perhaps a President freed from worries over future elections could again rise above the fray. But Mr. Obama’s message is no longer something fresh or terribly inspiring beyond the base, and after the exhausting scrutiny of the past four years, he may have neither the will nor the authority to do so.

And so I have done my best to give Mitt Romney an honest appraisal. It wasn’t easy. Though he is more complicated and decent than the all-too-easy caricatures make him out to be, Mr. Romney remains a graceless political chameleon. I think a President Romney would have more in common with the Massachusetts governor than the version of him we saw in the Republican primaries, but his self-serving rush to please does not suggest much potential in the way of executive leadership, and his apparent ambivalence over issues unrelated to the economy is troublesome. Sure, it’d be nice if the economic recovery went a bit faster (no guarantee), but where is the grand scheme? I find his recent adoption of the rhetoric of “change” amusing; he has adopted the vagueness of the Obama ‘08 message without any of the interesting backstory that made Mr. Obama likeable.

All in all, I think Mr. Romney is a distraction; the man who best captures the Republican moment is not the former governor but Congressman Paul Ryan, his lieutenant. There is little doubt Mr. Ryan is the intellectual heavyweight of his party, and he is among the few who take the country’s fiscal situation seriously, even if his proposed solutions are, in the end, no less fudged than those of the Democrats. I have my disagreements with the man, but I’d like to think he has both the political clout and the sense of duty necessary to eventually get something done. Yet I cannot embrace him: he is an enigma, and in the end we are left with this curious fusion of Ayn Rand and Catholic social teaching. Whether the congressman from Wisconsin recognizes it or not, he embodies the contradiction that has poisoned his party: the union of conscientious (if often self-righteous) religious and community-oriented conservatism with a free-market ideology of individualism. Each has its merits (particularly the former, in my opinion), but the resulting policies—slashed taxes without fiscal restraint, a missionary zeal to Americanize the rest of the world, the hypocrisy of conservative government overreach in an effort to impose the alleged solutions—usually manage to combine the worst of both.

It’s enough to make a man go screaming into the night in search of a third way.  At the moment, the most prominent of those options seems to be the Libertarian Party, a freedom-loving alliance of free-market (and sometimes pro-gold standard) adherents and elements of the anti-war, drug-legalizing left. The movement’s standard-bearers, Ron Paul and his son Rand, have sat out the general election, leaving us with the capable but unremarkable Gary Johnson. I find myself in agreement with Mr. Johnson on a number of fronts, just as I have some lingering sympathy for other alternatives such as the Greens, but I do have some serious reservations. Promoters of the third-party vote will sensibly dismiss these reservations; they know their candidates cannot win, so my qualms with Mr. Johnson’s economic plans really don’t matter. The vote is instead a matter of principle; a form of protest, such as it is.

Still, the certain failure of these third-party candidacies simply goes to reveal the folly of the anti-establishment movement in modern American politics. Sure, bits of the Libertarian or Green or Constitutionalist platforms may worm their way into our two behemoths, and though they may be hijacked or lose their purity, this mild populist influence is not insignificant. Yet there can be no victory of any magnitude. It all gets swallowed up by the beast. It’s only natural, and it makes sense: it’s an attempt to change the system from the top down, and labors under the delusion that the president will be the one who sets the agenda. It outsources the responsibility for meaningful change to yet another distant figure who, for some unexplained reason, will allegedly be less constrained by the twin leviathans of the modern state and liberal (in the broad sense of the term) culture. It’s not coincidental that the most successful of these third-party figures are never moderates, but those who best outline a distinctive, and often radical, agenda either largely wedded to a single issue (as with the Greens) or a clearly ideological worldview (the Libertarians). They are admirable voices in the wilderness on hand to ease the consciences of certain idealists, but little more.

The road out of our political malaise is not in the worship of a single candidate or a vision of the world as it should be. It is a return to the particular, to the things we really can control, a realm not yet totally captured by the Washington bureaucracy or the vagaries of the market. While this means paying a bit more attention to state and local races, not even that gets to the core of the issue. Too often local politicians simply ape the talking points of their party, and hatred can run just as rampant at a city council or school board meeting as on the national stage. Yet any serious inroad against the two-party system fostered by our electoral laws will have to start on the local level, where elections are actually winnable without an absurd amount of financial investment. From there, a movement can grow to regional and state levels, a process that would only make sense given the great regional disparities in this country. In nearly all countries with a multi-party system, at least one party is a regional bloc. No, this process would not change things overnight, but that is the point—and a real strength—of democracy.

I am sympathetic to those who would like to just shut out all this political bickering; it all seems so petty, and I’m sick of it, too. But politics isn’t just Obama versus Romney. It is how we interact with people on a day-to-day basis, and need not involve the formal structures of government. It involves our interaction with other people in any walk of life, from churches to schools to private clubs to our decisions in where we do our shopping and to whom we give our money. It is, in short, how we interact with our community; whether we like it or not, we all live in a community of some sort, and we must find a place within it, amongst the competing interests and crazy ideas of those people who surround us. Whatever the libertarian or liberal-state-providing delusions of individual autonomy may say, we’re stuck with those other people, and we’d better learn to live with them. Many liberals will nod and smile when they hear ideas such as these, but liberals do have a tendency to favor certain aspects of “community” over others, and liberal tolerance is often stunningly intolerant of views that drift outside the constraints of the ideology. Truth be told, a robust civil society is, in fact, traditionally a “conservative” talking point, and there are still plenty of examples of this great conservative tradition in such projects as faith-based initiatives and even some of the Tea Party rhetoric. Still, the Randian, hyper-individualist wing of the contemporary American right has dismissed any sense of obligation to the community, and Congressman Ryan’s effort to at least keep it in the conversation was largely ignored.

I’ve spent enough time studying autocracies that I take democracy seriously, so I will be voting; as unappealing as U.S. politics may sometimes seem, five minutes in a developing nation is usually all it takes to reaffirm one’s faith in our decidedly imperfect system. Being jaded enough in my ideals, I will likely vote the straight Democratic ticket. A second Obama term seems like the somewhat lesser of two evils, and in my dreamland, President Obama might find some way to work with a Republican House led by Congressman Ryan. I am less enthused by an alliance between such opportunists as Mr. Romney and Sen. Harry Reid, neither of whom seem to grasp the scope of the challenges this nation faces. I’m very open to voting for an agreeable Republican, but my state’s Senate race is a foregone conclusion in favor of a hardworking and largely positive-messaged incumbent, and my Republican congressman does not even feel the need to post a political platform to his own website. (Apparently my disgust with Obama and/or love for him is supposed to speak for itself? Given the mediocrity of his Democratic opponent I could have been convinced, but at least the Democrat actually says he’ll do things.) In a refreshing bit of clarity, I am untroubled with my ‘no’ votes on constitutional amendments aiming to ban gay marriage and enact a voter ID law, though even there, I tire of the rhetoric used by many fellow ‘no’ voters. Believe it or not, conscientiously following one’s faith is not bigotry.

So on Tuesday night I’ll settle in with a drink or three to watch the results come in (though I doubt it’ll be nearly as glamorous as my Mexican penthouse election party two years ago, or my run to the White House two years prior). It’ll be a pleasant evening of politics as a spectator sport. But to me, it’s no longer a whole lot more than that. On Wednesday morning I’ll get up, tune out the chatter, and get to work. I’ll make a conscious effort to spend less time glued to the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal and re-commit myself to this city I’m in, whether it’s serving the needy, being a good neighbor, or simply enjoying such communal rites as a parade or a hockey game. I’ll spend fewer nights on the couch and more nights finding new ways to fall in love with the people around me, and their own rather distinct culture that must be preserved and carried forward. After all my study of politics, it is here, I believe, that we find our happiness. I hope a few others will join me.

Complexity, Causes, and a Championship

9 Apr

Time to use some hockey to make a point about complexity and causes.

Here is a replay of the triple-overtime championship-winning goal in the 2011 Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament. In that game, Eden Prairie defeated Duluth East, 3-2. (Sorry for the grainy video, but it’s the best I can do.)

This is about as straightforward as it comes in a sport: the puck goes in the net, one team wins, the other one loses. So, what caused that goal? What decided the 2011 championship?

At the most basic level, you have the excellent effort by the goal-scorer, Kyle Rau, diving to swat the puck into the net. There are also two Duluth East miscues: the goaltender letting the puck squirt through him, and the defenseman, Andrew Kerr, fanning on his attempt to clear it.

Others might point to luck or fate, too: as later replays showed, after Rau made contact with the puck on his dive, it hit the goalpost, bounced out, and deflected off Kerr’s skate before sliding into the back of the net. It was a great play by Rau, who was the state’s best player that year, but not even he could have planned something like that.

But why stop there? Let’s rewind this play a bit: you have the initial shot from the Eden Prairie defenseman, and the sequence of events from both teams that led up to that shot, of which you see only a fraction in this clip. And for Rau to even be in this position in the first place, countless other events had to fall in line. Both teams had scoring chances throughout the three overtimes, and in regulation as well. With East up 1-0 after two periods, one of their best defensemen went off with an injury. The second East goal was fairly soft—one the Eden Prairie goalie would have normally saved. The referees also played a role; they called only one penalty in the entire game, much to the chagrin of Eden Prairie fans—Kerr put together a complete highlight reel of vicious checks on Rau before the fateful play at the end. Any little change in a play, and this moment doesn’t happen. And that doesn’t even touch the months and years of preparation that led up to this game.

Keep in mind that hockey is, conceptually, fairly straightforward. It follows set rules, has a limited number of actors involved, and the goal is obvious: put the puck into your opponent’s net more often than they put it in yours. It has been studied by enough people over the years that we now have a reasonably good idea of what it takes to win a championship. We can know what to look for in individual players, and how they fit within the coach’s scheme; computer models can weed through the flood of information and statistics and predict outcomes with commendable accuracy. We can correlate many things with success.

But nailing down a precise cause; the exact catalyst that left Eden Prairie dancing in delight, and Duluth East flat on the ice in dejection? That’s an entirely different story.

And if it’s so difficult to do in hockey, how can it be any easier in any other realm of human affairs; ones with more actors, less clear goals, and fewer sets of rules we can all agree on? From politics to warfare to those mundane events that pop up in our daily lives, how can we pin down a sequence of events with any degree of accuracy?

Now, this train of thought could easily lead to a sort of causal nihilism. I don’t want to go there. The point here isn’t that it’s impossible to label a single cause. It is that finding these causes is a lot harder than it may at first seem, and that anyone who looks to study this sort of thing needs to go at it with a proper dose of humility. Any sort of analysis or study that tries to end the conversation, whatever the merits of its arguments, suffers from a conceit that does its audience a disservice. At some point, of course, we need to make a decision and move on. But social science, for all its explanatory power, is not a hockey game. Anyone who approaches it with the intent to win or lose has missed the point, and that can be a serious problem.

So, what does this Duluth East alumnus think caused that goal? My philosophy is that one has to boil it down to what one can control, which in this case means pointing out the two plays the East players could have made, but didn’t. There is no shame in taking that responsibility, especially for two otherwise rock-solid players who had fantastic high school careers. They were minor mistakes, but in a game that was so dead-even that it almost had to end on a fluky play, those two in tandem made the difference. Hockey can be a cruel sport, but, well, so can life. That’s my opinion, and while I doubt I’ll change it, it doesn’t invalidate the many other accounts of this game.

At any rate, this is the mindset I hope to use on this blog. Tomorrow, we’ll add some politics to the discussion.