Tag Archives: statement of purpose

My Professor and My Prose

12 Jan

I’m compelled to write a quick post to acknowledge the publication of a new book by Patrick Deneen, a college-era professor of mine now at Notre Dame. I’ve written approvingly of his take on human nature in the past on here. He was certainly a contributor to the philosophical framework that now roughly guides my worldview, and when he told an uncertain Georgetown senior that Duluth needed people like him, he also may have given a dithering kid a necessary kick in the butt.

His book, which effectively distills many of the topics we covered in a Georgetown seminar named “A Humane Economy,” comes with the provocative title Why Liberalism Failed. (Note here that he is not talking about Democratic Party liberalism, but rather the broader definition that includes not only those liberals, but also most of what we in the United States call conservatives.) Not that it’s failing, or might fail in the future: he thinks it is dead. The thrust of Deneen’s argument, as summarized in a recent interview with Rod Dreher, suggests that liberal society is slowly devouring itself as it chips away at the moral and ethical foundations that propped up early modern societies. The left claims that stronger state support will guide people toward freedom while the right believes open markets will do the same, but those two narrow ideologies only tend to reinforce one another, and leave people with less and less control over their own lives. The Trump administration is merely a late stage symptom of a decline set in motion long ago. The solution, though it will not be easy, lies in a return to local cultures; his overarching philosophical framework will help, but is useless without the necessary work on the ground to cultivate something that can last.

Like Dreher, his interviewer here, Deneen is a religious conservative, and that comes out in places in the interview. They’re both following the same strain of political thought as they try to imagine a post-liberal society, but Deneen, I think, may be a better vessel for that message. He acknowledges the remarkable successes of liberal society, and is not about to pine for some lost past era. Dreher’s Benedict Option had very little to say to people who are not already members of committed religious communities, but Deneen, having spent most of his days trying to impart his worldview to skeptical children of the winners of the liberal system at Princeton, Georgetown, and Notre Dame, understands what he’s up against in the broader culture. Of course, he’s also an academic, not a prolific journalist, so we’ll see if this book gets the exposure it deserves beyond a certain corner of the intelligentsia. While I do not share Deneen’s religious views, I think recent events only confirm that he and his fellow travelers have been on to something all along. If people who are honestly trying to grapple with the direction of this country aren’t entertaining this sort of argument in good faith, they’re missing the boat.

The questions Deneen asks are also, believe it or not, the motivating themes behind the collection of short stories that I’m chipping away at on this blog. Sometimes fiction seems a more effective way of making points about the reality we inhabit than writing a philosophical treatise ever could. Ideally, it can also be much more accessible, and much more fun. Grand theory falls away, and we are left only with people, trying to make do. With my characters, who are often gifted but flawed, I seek to give an all-too-human face to the questions that people like Deneen have forced me to ask. They negotiate tensions between self and community, ambition and rootedness, faith and reason, agency and destiny. I tend to write about adolescents and young adults because they, more than anyone, have to confront these questions before they inevitably settle in to the selves they become. My recent arrival into undisputed adulthood has only confirmed this sentiment.

If we’re going to find a guide for how to live in this world, whether we accept Deneen’s post-liberal diagnosis of our current condition or not, we need ways to explore different approaches. Telling people’s stories, real or imagined, is the most effective way to do this. The people in our lives can be superb guides, but humanity’s more impressive achievements often come through imagining an alternate reality, or telling stories of how things could be. These stories can be dangerous; the stakes are higher than we might think. But unless we are perfectly satisfied with what we’ve got, failure to explore different options is a defeat. This is why I write.

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On Public Intellectuals

23 Aug

Once upon a time, or so the tales go, a group of people stood astride the world, casting about learned opinions to large audiences. These people were known as public intellectuals, and while they were often academics or writers or somehow involved in political affairs, they often defied categories and showed impressive range. People who like to see grand debates instead of people yelling past each other on the television networks will lament these lost days of yore, back when these learned men and women (mostly men, but sometimes women) offered reliable voices of authority, or at least a formidable argument. From Sartre to Milton Friedman, from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Vaclav Havel, from Gore Vidal to Bill Buckley, to some of my old favorites like Octavio Paz and Hannah Arendt, these people shaped the thoughts of nations in the 20th century.

Such debates never capture the national imagination anymore, and while we could point to a few people on the New York Times editorial page and other such venues that have some claim to the title, no one has the reach of those in earlier eras. This isn’t because intellectuals have stopped intellectualizing; I could do a quick search and find a few billion videos of people blathering about topics of their choice, but very few rise above the din. The sheer power and authority of those old figures doesn’t hold up well in an age where everyone has an opinion on everything.

A couple of things happened. The walls of old media came crashing down, and a couple of TV networks and newspapers no longer set the terms for polite debate. Anyone with a keyboard or a camera can now take a stand. Academia deserves some of the blame, too: universities have grown more and more specialized, and a publish-or-perish culture forces academics to churn out an endless heap of articles on obscure topics in even more obscure journals that will never gain any broader purchase. This siloed thinking has inevitably led to more clouded language and at times reinforced a sense that the academy is a cloister where people can go earn salaries to pump out inane thoughts rather than engage with the world beyond ivy-covered walls. Relatively few scholars manage the range necessary to sound intelligent in a wide variety of fields, and to weave together literature and politics and moral philosophy in a satisfying way.

Or so some would have you believe: I always try to stay skeptical of tales of decline and woe. We remember the handful of brilliant mid-century thinkers whose reputations deserve to endure, for good or ill; all the middling thinkers of that era have drifted away, and in twenty years, maybe we’ll be able to look back on the early 2000s and identify a few people whose ideas on what was going on were sharper than most. And some of those past intellectuals were so colossally wrong that their bloody legacy lives on today. David Brooks (who has to rank among the top handful of people with a contemporary claim to the title) diagnosed the shift away from public intellectualism in a sympathetic but hardly uncritical column earlier this year: we live in an era of thought leaders who offer quick TED talk pitches, not intellectuals laboring to understand the world through a distinct moral lens.

Every now and then, though, some people try to follow the exact road prescribed by Brooks. Take the boys at American Affairs, a journal that is the second generation effort of some men (here, basically all men) who are trying to put some intellectual meat on the bones of Donald Trump’s presidency. Obviously, a lot of people (including a fairly large class of conservative intellectuals that includes David Brooks) are not fans of what they’re trying to do for conservatism or American politics more broadly, but when the journal appeared, a little part of me was kind of pleased to see that a handful of people with big ideas can still jump into the fray and broadcast their opinions like that. Even wholehearted critics of their project can acknowledge that they probably had a much better handle a broad swath of America than their more established fellows in the intelligentsia.*

But to what end? To their considerable credit, the American Affairs founders recently invited Anne-Marie Slaughter, an Obama-era State Department official and no one’s definition of a Trumpista, to comment on the content of their first two issues. She did so, and with devastating effect. She approaches the journal authors’ efforts in good faith while at the same time skewering them for their narrow thinking as they claim to reinvent American politics. She challenges them to either reflect the country they purport to speak for or make peace with being a mouthpiece for Trump’s 2016 electoral coalition, and no more. They risk either becoming just another grumpy group of self-righteous thinkers in that cottage industry of well-written and narrowly-read journals of political thought consigned to be a footnote in a David Brooks column.

This is the point at which I make a self-serving confession: as someone who has long had vague pretensions in this realm, the direction of Slaughter’s attack is reassuring. I turned my back on Washington think tanks and instead went to work back home, but (as if this blog wasn’t obvious enough proof) I won’t pretend to have abandoned my desire to hold court on issues great and small. Getting there, however, won’t come from burying myself in intellectual circles or typing out thoughts late into the night that I then blast out into cyberspace. It won’t come from hammering on certain principles over and over again, hoping that this time someone will listen. It will come from practicing politics in the old sense of the word: trying new things in concert with other people, honestly assessing one’s efforts, and being willing to say that my experience to date does not make me some sort of authority. Sure, I have ideas on how to do things based on a very wide range of reading and an increasing amount of practice, but I recognize that I need more than that to move any sort of needle.

This requires patience. This requires tact. While there are certain circles in which I’m happy to launch into a debate on Aristotle or John Locke, I’m not going to force them on any unsuspecting victims. It requires translating messages for a bunch of different audiences, not because the plebes can’t handle intelligent thought but because no two people see the world in the same way. Knowing one’s classics or cutting-edge scholars or being able to construct abstract theories are signs of intelligence, not wisdom, and divorced of some understanding of human politics in all its gritty flaws, the best-laid theories and plans are all for naught.

The best of the public intellectuals I mentioned at the top of this post were highly self-critical, always revisiting old thoughts and willing to admit mistakes. This is a lifelong project, and one that may never really end. I can’t say that my plan for my own little pulpit is fully formulated yet, but I’m okay with that, and I have some idea of how to get to where I want to go, and why it is I’m going there. For now, that’s enough.

 

*One of the founders of American Affairs, Julius Krein, disavowed Trump in a widely circulated New York Times column last week. Of course, a wide swath of Trump critics were hardly impressed: it really took him this long to see that this man’s character would lead him to operate in this way? I can probably include myself in that category of critic. Even before the election, I wondered if Trump’s ascendance might not do more damage than good to the platform he (sort of, sometimes) espoused, as it chained various principles to a baggage-laden man unlikely to ever implement them. The impulse to support him, or some comparable figure elsewhere on the political spectrum, in spite o those concerns only reveals the pervasive extent of the god-worship of the presidency, and a national obsession with Important People and Big Ideas that plagues so much of our political culture. Perhaps the real problem is much closer to home than many of the figures who trade in these tales would like to believe.

Over the Edge

1 Dec

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

-Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

There are certain moments make us realize how close we are to going over that cliff. When they do arrive, they come as a shock, even for those of us who think we know better. It’s now possible to go a very long time in life without knowing anyone who has died, or suffered some other serious calamity. Only on rare occasions do we—and by ‘we,’ I suppose I mean Westerners who live relatively comfortable daily lives—get these terrifying windows into the fragility of everything we’ve built.

It is a noble desire, that wish to be the catcher in the rye. Holden fancies himself the protector of the innocent from the horrors of the world. He’s aware of the danger, and wants to make sure no one goes over the edge. He takes on the burden for the good of all, and he can keep the children from ever knowing that fear.

It won’t work forever, though, as Salinger well knew, and his protagonist slowly came to learn. No one can possibly keep the horde of naïve kids from running toward the cliff, and no one person can hold them back. Humans are not born into perfect innocence, and will inevitably wander toward various edges. The precipice always looms, and learning more of it is both the way over the edge and the way to learn not to go near it.

Perhaps, then, it is best to let the kids wander toward the edge. Be there to offer a hand if they get too close, maybe, but let them see it for what it is. There’s a compelling case here, one that says it is on the edge where we push limits and find meaning, daring to do great things. The world is a plaything, meant to be explored with curiosity and delight—even its darkest parts. All those dull measures of life’s worth like money and years lived mean nothing when stacked up against those moments of enlightenment. Or so you’d wish to believe.

There is danger here; danger in the hubris in believing that you know where the edge lies for each and every person. It’s never in quite the same place, and the edge will bring out extremes in people, whether fragile or resilient. There’s also the question of choosing when to go for it; seeking the edge for itself alone is recklessly aggressive, before long lapsing into ennui. Toying with the edge will tempt fate before long. We must choose our battles wisely.

Is there a way out? Perhaps. It involves a careful, even brutal, self-examination, one that rises above the field of rye and lets one see beyond, at the same time aware of what we cannot see. To the well-ordered mind, this is a healthy process, not cause for inward obsession. Reflect, learn, move on, forever gauging where the edge is. Venture to the brink, and try to prepare those kids running about for what lies beyond—but always head home afterward. A brief glimpse is all we need, and our minds can do the rest.

Life cannot be found in the suppression of passions, but it is as much of a mistake to let passions rule it all. They must be channeled, carefully tended, and watched with vigilance, with immediate action when things do go awry, as they most likely will. We do not fear the edge, but we respect it, understand its power, and carry on with our quests, wherever they may lead. The true task of the catcher in the rye is not to save blindly, but to teach, to demand an honest reflection, and then to turn the children loose again, this time more prepared to cope with what lies beyond.

Farewell Duluth I: The Answer to Everything

27 Jul

One day in late February 2012, Prof. Patrick Deneen of the Georgetown Government Department (now at Notre Dame) modestly told us students that he was going to give us the “answer to everything.” He proceeded to draw three circles on the chalkboard and explain human nature in the clearest manner I’ve ever seen. It’s an oversimplification, of course, as all such representations must be, but it’s an excellent starting point, and now forms the basis of my worldview, such as it is. What follows is my take on the three circles. I’ve also embellished his drawing with some of my obvious artistic genius.

deneen circles

The three circles represent three rough spheres of human possibility. The center sphere is basic human action; above it we find gods who transcend human appetites and obsessions and lead lives of bliss, and below it we find the beasts, who fixate on instinctive and immediate fulfillment of those appetites.

One very large camp of people, most of them on the political left, draws a line through the center circle and focuses only on the top. They see humanity as fundamentally good, but simply constrained by unfortunate social or historical structures, and believe we can better ourselves by liberating ourselves from them. (This being the left, they often don’t believe in explicit “gods,” but the idea is much the same: humans are the masters of their own fate, subservient to no one, and can be the authors of their own salvation.) The general sense is that everyone has great potential, and it can be unlocked with the right combination of incentives and supports.

Most fundamentally, though, it aims to liberate people so that they’re free from the existing order and can just be their own awesome selves, deciding what’s right and wrong for themselves. If we turn people loose and have a safety net ready when they stumble, things should turn out alright. Humanity can be improved in this way, and the world can become a better place; depending on how far you want to go, we might even be able to perfect it. Marxism took this way of thinking to its furthest possible extreme, but the word progressivism, often used to describe the left-of-center agenda, captures the sense here. Humans are capable of progress and are going somewhere, wherever that might be, slowly making the world a better place. Other relevant philosophers here include Rousseau, the French positivists, John Stuart Mill, and Hegel.

The right also draws a line through the center circle, but focuses on the bottom half, not the top. (Deneen, a self-described conservative whose conservatism bears no resemblance to the contemporary Republican Party, used the term “liberal,” though I think my left/right terminology maps better on to current-day politics.) For the right, humans are fundamentally fallen, and while we may put on shows of benevolence and decency, the self-interest underneath can’t be wished away. Absent strong social mores and an established order, humans will rut around and kill each other and generally live in a miserable state of anarchy. No amount of wishful thinking or fanciful social engineering can get rid of those base instincts that we all have, and the manner in which many on the left react when confronted by conservatism is decent evidence of this. Hence the reliance on tradition, and the insistence on a strong state to keep things in line. (Machiavelli and Hobbes are the go-to philosophers here.)

This way of thinking can take other forms, too. The framers of the U.S. Constitution, for example, saw that those in power were just as likely to be corrupted as anyone else, and sought to limit their ability to exercise power. The Constitution is a fairly conservative document; it makes little effort to guarantee any positive rights that can lead toward the good life. It was written in response to some of the worst of human excesses, and only in some of the amendments do we find a more progressive turn. The emphasis is on recognizing and managing the tragedies in life, which no amount of “progress” can stop.

There is third approach here, less often used but alluring to some: just cut out the middle circle. This is Nietzsche. We have a choice, he argues. We can either be impressive Ubermenschen dedicated to living thrilling and fulfilling lives, taking control of everything and ruling nobly, or we can be feeble, weak people carried along only by resentment and grievance, seeking a pitiful life of bland comfort. It was a good thing for Nietzsche’s already frail health that he didn’t live to see suburban subdevelopments and reality TV. Still, this worldview is attractive for those who slog through Nietzsche: who wouldn’t want to be an Ubermensch? It’s a delightful lifestyle, and it makes for a very crisp, self-serving distinction, as the enlightened ridicule the pitiful masses below. (This is where we’d find the Nazis, who tried to hijack Nietzschean philosophy and turn it into a justification for their atrocities.) That’s a bit of a misreading of Nietzsche, but it also illustrates the weakness of this approach: no matter how hard one tries, it’s impossible to stay on top like that, and very easy to fall back into vindictive backbiting. The divisions aren’t that crisp.

This brings us to the last approach, which encompasses all three of those circles. It recognizes that humans have qualities that overlap with those of gods and of beasts, but that, in the end, we’re somewhere in between, wandering between the two and often in an ambiguous middle realm. We’re not inherently good; we’re not inherently bad. We have moments where we reach toward god-like status, and we have moments where we live among the beasts, and in the end we’re left with a confusing mix that isn’t quite as black-or-white as we’d like. The boilerplate left and the right stances both get part of the picture, but neither one quite grasps it all.

This is a very old notion of human nature, and its modern-day caretakers are, for the most part, Catholics, following in the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas. I’m not Catholic, but Catholicism has always hovered around my life, from deeply faithful grandparents to Catholic universities to travels in Mexico, so it’s probably no surprise I find this worldview most appealing. (Sticking with Nietzsche, we might say I’m living in its shadow, and quite thoroughly.) The very word “catholic” means, roughly, “about the whole” in Greek: it encompasses the totality of life, and tries to cover everything. To use my current favorite word, it’s holistic.

Theology digression: even if this seems obvious, it really isn’t a common worldview in this day in age. One need only look at the reactions of the left and the right to our current pope and his predecessor: one side loves Francis while the other is skeptical of him, and vice versa with Benedict. This is a pretty good sign that people are coming to the popes not as Catholics, but instead as liberals or conservatives who want Catholicism to conform to their preordained political worldviews. This isn’t to say that one can’t disagree with certain aspects of papal teaching, and that popes themselves may not be influenced by different forms of thought, but it reveals the disconnect, and how wholly we’ve adopted the modern political mindset in how we try to analyze things. Faith, for most moderns, has become a crutch in times of need and a source for inspiration that can give people a little nudge down a preordained path. But rarely is it a way of life, and when it is, it seems fundamentally alien. Moral therapeutic deism reigns triumphant.

Still, the three circles begin long before St. Peter. Prof. Deneen is a staunch Catholic, but he wrote one of his first books not on anything Catholic, but on the Odyssey and how it fit this conception, with Odysseus constantly pulled both up toward the gods and down toward the beasts. Philosophically, the man at the root is our old buddy Aristotle, who said that beasts or gods are unique from humans in that they’re capable of living free from community. But since we can’t ever live entirely in one of those realms, we’re neither. This doesn’t mean we have to submit ourselves solely to a communal order, whether it be of the left or the right; it just means we have to live in constant accordance with that fact. Instead of starting our theories by considering humans in vacuums and making presumptions about their nature from there, we need to understand each other socially. You can find a lot of spilled pixels on that topic elsewhere in this blog, so I won’t belabor it here, but in the end it does boil down to living in community and finding our niches within whatever ecosystem we call home, realizing it is neither heaven nor hell. Instead, it is complicated, and complication deserves respect, though once we’re inside it we can certainly leave our own marks. (Equally important is the need to step out of the community from time to time, in order to gain some perspective, before heading back in.)

Six years ago, when I left Duluth for Georgetown, I cared only for the top half of the diagram. My admissions essay for the School of Foreign Service was a paean to the power of liberal education to change the world. I don’t think my evolution was a complete surprise—in retrospect, I’m pleased with the subtlety expressed in the more thoughtful writings of my adolescent self—but evolve I did, from a fairly activist man of the left to something a lot more murky. Fixing the world’s problems proved a lot more difficult than waving some liberal magic wand, and my personal experience also suggested I was missing something.

Eventually, I found it. This was great for my understanding of the world, but something of a disaster for someone whose pre-college career interests had involved saving the world, and using the progressive agenda as my vehicle. I went home to Duluth, part out of philosophical belief in the community closest to me, and part because it was the only place I could go to figure out what the hell came next without undue stress. “Duluth needs people like you,” Prof. Deneen told me in our final meeting, and I took those words to heart.

I don’t know if Duluth needs me, but I sure needed Duluth. I’ve slowly gotten myself tied up in community affairs over the past two years, and I’ve found that this whole philosophy really does work in practice. I’ve also started down a career path that nurtures those goals; one that seems to have a healthy balance between practical work and the up-in-the-clouds thinking I enjoy but can take too far. It all worked out. I’ve found healthier channels for some of my instincts, both the ones that told me I could be a god and also the ones that had me wallowing in muck. (Channels, I hastily add; not stoic suppression.) I’m only human, so there will be continued temptation in both directions. But for now, I spend most of my time grounded in the middle circle and reveling in my community, where I belong.

Part Two is here.

Defining Ourselves

6 May

As many Duluthians—or, at least, the ones who are likely to read a blog like this one—know, Duluth has a weekly newspaper called the Reader Weekly. It is a staple in the local media; it is known to inhabit areas just inside the doors of restaurants, and is read by people riding the local bus system. On more than one occasion, I’ve felt a bit of awkward elitism when my seatmate is reading the Reader and I whip out my New Yorker. But, loyal Duluthian that I am, there’s a reason you won’t find me buried in the Reader during my commute.  I find large parts of it predictable, exhausting, and not worth reading.

Okay, that’s harsh. It’s a free paper; you take what you can get. The Reader does some things well. It has a nice calendar of local events, their reviews and nature pieces can be good, and some of the syndicated columnists they bring in are alright. There is some good, campy humor, especially in the April Fools’ Day issue, which is one I do make sure to read. John Gilbert’s sports columns are an institution, and every now and then, someone stumbles into something intelligent. It helps fill in some of the gaps that our venerable daily, the News Tribune, cannot as it continues its noble but desperate fight to stay afloat in an era of collapsing newspaper revenue. (Aside from the obvious shrinking content, am I the only one who’s noticed a serious drop-off in the editing recently?) The Reader, on the other hand, is beefing up its local content with a bunch of new hires, some of whom will be covering the local political meetings. Welcome to the club, boys. (They are all boys.)

The Reader is also self-consciously alternative. It says so, right there on the cover. It’s trying to give perspectives you may not see in the traditional media. It’s more critical, gives editorial freedom to fringe figures, and covers some things that would otherwise slip aside. It lets people who would otherwise be ignored have a platform. Most of this is cool by me; diverse voices are my thing. Problem is, many of these people are painful to read.

I offer some cautionary notes here, too. Personae that come out in writing may be nothing like the ones people display in person—and that can be a good thing or a bad thing. I’ve read of some columnists who get their hackles up in writing on a weekly basis and drive me nuts, but in person are utterly charming and lovely company. I make no judgments on these writers as people, but merely on how they come across in writing.

The thing that comes out in so many of these writers, however, is how they define themselves. They appear in opposition to something. They have gone and learned about something, and they just hammer on those same few hobbyhorses, over and over again. Their worldview is set in stone, and they must expose those who cloud it. There is no intellectual curiosity here, no exploring of new ways of thinking. It is just “I know a lot about X. The people in X are stupid and/or evil.” A policy prescription may or may not follow, but if it does, it is probably either vague or completely divorced from reality, or both.

They aren’t necessarily wrong, mind you. Sometimes they are, but there’s often at least a grain of truth in what they write. Take Loren Martell, for example. (For the unenlightened, he’s a Duluth man who’s spent the past six years railing against a school restructuring plan at every public meeting imaginable, school-related or not, and now writes for the Reader.) I’ve belittled him for his obsession numerous times on here, but he has some fair points to make, and his passion is obvious. I could probably find some common ground with him if the two of us sat down together. The man also really needs an editor, both for his prepared remarks and for his writing; he is so hit-or-miss that I’d sooner go hunting with Dick Cheney than with him. But whether we agree or disagree, whether he speaks cogently or in a muddle, I still find him grating, and I no longer bother to pay much attention to him. His perspective is locked, his revolt unending, and the end result is neither pleasant nor compelling, except in the eyes of a handful of fellow revolutionaries.

This way of thinking afflicts every political stance imaginable. There are some marvelously hypocritical conservatives out there who rant about liberal victimization politics while also claiming to be victimized by the liberal overlords at every turn.  (For example, I once had the pleasure of attending an event for wealthy conservative donors designed to call out the liberal bias in the media. To their credit, it actually was pretty funny and delightfully irreverent, though liberal doses of wine do help.) It’s just as bad on the left, though, where a few theories on legitimate oppression have been hijacked and applied to every human interaction imaginable. At the Reader, most of the animus is directed at the Republican Party and people in local government. This can seem like a funny juxtaposition, since there are very few Republicans in local government, but in the end it amounts to a power play: those distant people in power are controlling things, and we’re powerless to stop them, so let’s yell at them in a free weekly newspaper.

I’m not the first person to gripe about this phenomenon, and plenty have tried to figure out where it comes from. Nietzsche blamed Christianity and the grace peddled by priests; modern-day conservatives blame Marx and his stoking of class divisions, leading to narratives of oppressors and oppressed. I’d just blame a gut human instinct that usually emerges sometime in adolescence, when we see things in life we don’t like and define ourselves against them.

God only knows I’ve done this. There was a time in my life—let’s call it my quarter-life crisis—when I allowed my concept of myself to be defined by the things that have gone wrong in my 24 years on this earth. I wasted a lot of ink (well, pixels, mostly) ranting about things that had wronged me, and humanity in general. I don’t think that was entirely misguided; I’ve had a few life events that demand a thorough reflection, and I had to make peace with some of those demons. I had to bottom out to see the whole picture, and a few of the things I learned in that unpleasant place now manifest themselves in deeply held values. This whole process, whatever you call it, defines life, and is a big reason why coming-of-age stories usually make for my favorite books and movies.

But that’s the thing: it’s a process, not something we ever stop doing. Time passes, things change, thoughts evolve, and our narratives keep on writing themselves. I’ve written before that people can’t throw away their pasts, but clinging to one rigid worldview to explain that past is just as bad. And when people cling to a worldview, when there are no more questions, of course they’re going to end up sounding grumpy: they’ve reduced the absurd complexity of it all to one simple formula, and try as they might to jam things in, they just won’t fit. It is a mindset trapped in adolescence.

The way out, curiously enough, involves holding on to certain things associated with youth: a sense of wonder, and a willingness to have fun with it all. The world becomes a plaything to explore, not a charged partisan environment driven by an agenda; even if that searching doesn’t change our thoughts, it should at least give us some respect for the complexity of it all. And while I won’t be so pretentious as to try to sort legitimate grievances out from the rest of the noise, I will say this: letting some of that resentment go can be wonderfully liberating. Instead of defining ourselves by the things that have made us victims, we define ourselves by the things that truly animate us, the things that are more in keeping with the sides of ourselves we like best. At the very least, it’s a mindset worth exploring.

In the end, I wish the Reader all the best for its continued growth. It has potential. I just wish a few of its writers would aspire to something more.

Side note, for clarity’s sake: this takedown is not directed at John Ramos.

A Year-Long Cycle

5 Apr

I’ve had this blog for a year now. I’ve spilled out 138 posts and somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 words. I’ve shared my thoughts on a year’s worth of political meetings, the past and present of a hockey team, broader sports issues, scattered-but-somehow-ultimately-related philosophical prompts, dead Greek people, and a handful of other bits of randomness. They all have audiences of varying sizes, and a committed core reads all three. Thanks, readers, no matter what draws you here.

The honest truth is that I don’t care much about the audience size. I write what I want to write, and do this as a fun outlet for lots of thoughts. I’m not here to launch some sort of journalism career, and while I don’t mean to belittle everyone who writes for local papers or blogs, I don’t exactly want to turn into the sort of person who jumps up and down on his weekly soapbox in the Reader Weekly. I’ve always written a lot and will continue to write a lot, but I don’t want my writing to become my sole public persona. This is something I do for fun, no matter who reads. And if I ever stop having fun and turn into some local crank or even simply find that I’m just blogging for the sake of blogging and nothing more, I’m done.

Still, it is never any fun to yell at empty rooms, and writing for an audience forces a bit more refinement than when writing for oneself. The result is almost always more pleasant, with none of the earnest moaning and far less blathering jargon than in some earlier stuff. Presentation matters. I won’t bore readers with too much self-absorption, but that’s just some of what I’ve learned, or had reinforced, by doing this. I’m glad I’m doing it, and I take pride in the handful of cases where this blog has made a modest impression or led to connections beyond a computer screen. The internet is often a poor substitute for live interaction, but at its best it can be an excellent extension of life when face-to-face contact isn’t practical, and I’m also happy to cover things—political meetings, hockey games—that other media may not have the time to cover, or at least not in great detail due to time and space constraints. I’d like to think I’ve found a nice little niche, or perhaps a series of semi-related niches.

Most importantly, though, this allows for reflection that isn’t always possible in the midst of a spirited conversation. I like being able to step back, think a little bit, and put things together slowly, without rushing to meet a deadline. That has always been the goal here: patient reflection instead of a rush to judgment. While I make no claim to objectivity, I really do try to look at things from every possible angle, and only move to judge when I’m confident I understand what’s going on. I choose my battles carefully and prefer to play with things from a distance—and keeping that distance is usually a good way of reminding oneself what really matters in the grand scheme of things.

But, of course, even that balance needs a counterbalance: a life out in the land of detachment and reflection can get pretty lonely and boring. Aside from the obvious financial difficulties, that’s another reason why I don’t really aspire to a writing career; I don’t enjoy the person I become when I spend too much time in that world. I see it as a necessary complement to a life oriented around the very real dramas in life, both great and small. So it’s time to wrap up this self-conscious post, toast to another year, and head out there and enjoy what (finally!) looks like a fine spring evening in Duluth.

A Sense of Place in the Modern World

23 Oct

So many trends in this day in age cut against loyalty to a place. Being committed to one spot on the map seems to be either a luxury or a harsh necessity.

Just think about it. Finding a well-paying job (or simply a job) often requires travel and frequent movement as one climbs the ladder in search of the best opportunity. Well-educated people often uproot themselves and cluster together in a handful of economic centers that have a lot of interesting high culture. People who come from less-than-ideal backgrounds can escape them, and for many, that is no small victory. Economists speak glowingly about “creative destruction”—that is, the need to tear down old stuff and replace it with new stuff to keep the engines of economic growth firing at full steam. The two political parties’ platforms only rarely give nods to local interests; Democrats emphasize universal rights above local loyalties and often use a distant federal government as their instrument of choice to promote it, while Republicans tend to venerate the frictionless free market above all else. Throw in the technological advances of the past few decades, and people have never been so free to move about without setting down deep roots where they are.

The march of modernity is all bad for a sense of place. Mobility has actually declined somewhat in recent years, though I’d guess that has more to do with economic forces than some newfound commitment to certain locations. The internet makes it easier to connect to interesting people without ever leaving places that might otherwise not be the most stimulating places. It is also becoming increasingly easier to do some jobs from home, and some communities that are just flat-out nice places to live will prove resilient because of that. The mayor of my hometown of Duluth, Don Ness, made that argument in this recent Atlantic piece—he’s admitted that he is the anonymous mayor there. It’s a sensible point, but while this is nice for a city like Duluth, it’s not of much use to many other places. Building communities and growing cultures takes time and commitment, and it’s hard to find the people and capital to build them.

All of this movement is often viewed as a positive thing (the American Way, even), and as the media and other big institutions that drive culture tend to be full of people who have made plenty of career leaps, voices that question it don’t get much coverage. When they do, it’s often negative—and not always without reason, as the excesses and eccentricities of opposition groups merit a fair amount of the mockery they incur. This isn’t to say that all the national media hates or ignores small towns or Middle America—they continue to be a fantastic source for stories of virtue and laments for middle-class Paradise Lost—but most of them seem to view it as a different land to be mused about from afar, its decay inevitable. The people who really argue for something different are on the margins: environmentalists and lefty localists, certain conservatives who are actually interested in conserving things (usually communities, churches, and stable social orders), and a handful of literary figures who transcend those categories, like Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry.

People from very diverse backgrounds agree with bits of their argument, even if they might not ever cohere into a political movement. These people generally respect things like political rights and an open economy, but they don’t think that loyalty to such ideals should come at the expense of personal ties. They are skeptical of abstraction and a life consumed by endless thinking. Instead, they focus on the relationships with people immediately around them, and because interpersonal relationships are at the center of everything, constant movement doesn’t much appeal to them. Family and friends are important, so they keep everyone close and recognize their debts to both their ancestors and their children. As a result, they’re comparatively thrifty and careful about their economic choices. They aren’t necessarily Luddites, but technology isn’t their favorite thing on earth, and if possible, they’d often rather repair things with their own hands than haul in an expensive expert to do the work. A number ground their localism in shopping locally and caring for their neighborhoods, and a number rely on houses of worship to provide community. There’s nothing glorious about this way of life, but it is one of steadiness and deep contentment, and it provides the strongest cushions possible when tragedy strikes.

Of course, it can all go wrong, as it has many times over the years. The most egregious examples are racial, religious, or other such barriers imposed by small communities with strong tribal instincts. Communities can be stultifying, or just stale. It is very difficult for one individual to stand up to an entire community, and when everyone knows one another, grudges can be even more toxic than when the enemy is a bit more abstract. These troubles can always be overcome, but they also require careful attention, and mean people have to think beyond the most convenient aspects of community as well.

A more benign trend among localists is a tendency to tip toward escapism. This is what religious conservatives will call the “Benedict Option,” though it’s not hard to find secular or left-leaning equivalents: people with a shared sense of morality retreating into their communities to hide from or wait out the collapse of the fallen modern world around them. If you want to be one of those people, be my guest; as long as you’re not shooting at those who don’t join you, you have that freedom, and the global economy isn’t going to take a hit because fifty people retreat into a self-sustaining commune or a homeschooling cooperative. I respect that, and I think the rest of society stands to learn from methods used in alternative schools or from Zapatista “good government” practices or the Amish freedom from being eternally plugged in.

I’m just not going to join them.

Why not? With a few obvious exceptions, those idealized communities never really last; the best we can do is pick and choose a few things from them that are worth adopting. Humans will always dream, and unless one has been within the culture for generations, people will grow restless and head out to explore the world on their own terms. It’s no secret that I’m a loyalist to community, but I didn’t come to appreciate that without spending an awful lot of my childhood dreaming about being somewhere else. I still do. I still love to travel, and I keep up with international news and pop culture and major sports. That makes it an awful lot easier to find common ground with people who aren’t from one’s little tribe, and so long as one has faith in one’s lifestyle, it isn’t going to corrupt anyone in some terrible way. I have less fear of moral decay than many religious conservatives, or even a healthy number of bourgeois liberals; somehow, it seems like you can always find people saying we’re all going to hell, and yet somehow, human nature seems to survive intact. The cloisters are a lovely place for a weekend of reflection, but there’s a bit too much Athens in my Jerusalem for me to stay there, and the same is probably true for most people out there. I can’t run away from the world. Yes, there’s an awful lot wrong with it, but it’s the only one I have.

Staying in touch with the world beyond my little fishbowl also keeps me from falling too far into blind obsession. I’ve shared some very pointed words about school board levies and local politicians on this blog, and I’m glad I have; Duluth is small enough that I’ve actually been able to dialogue with some people about these things and now have a modest readership. I’m proud of that, and I want to keep building on it. But I also don’t want to sit here preaching to a choir that nods and smiles, and I need constant reminders that there are other things out there that make all of this seem trivial. This blog’s wanderings into hockey or Greek philosophy or global affairs may seem like random whims, but there’s a design here: I’m trying to keep myself from ever being too caught up in these delightfully petty political circles I’m floating around in. And if need be, if Duluth doesn’t work out in the long run, I’m ready to pull up and move somewhere else. Roots aren’t easy to grow, but as long as the soil is halfway decent, they have a chance in most places.

There is wisdom in seeing life as an ongoing pilgrimage or journey from one place to the next, but too often that strikes me as a defense mechanism; a regrettably necessary means of making peace with roots that have rotted away. Sure, there are some people who just have a lot of wanderlust, or their own roots are among perpetual wanderers. Like the old line says, not all who wander are lost. But plenty of them are, or may be fully aware that their wanderings stem from old burdens or an inability to properly go home. The Jews did an admirable job of surviving, even thriving, when they were wandering the desert or scattered across Europe, but they always yearned for Israel. And while that home may seem a fleeting one when held up against the sweep of history, for our equally fleeting time on earth, it can make all the difference in the world. If life is a journey, it’s a much happier one when we have a warm bed to come home to at the end of the day’s adventures.