Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day, 1924

Considering my moniker on this blog, it should come as no surprise that I am a great fan of Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States. Admittedly, for a long time this appeal stemmed from the commendable pithiness of his pronouncements, and the wit he frequently employed in them. As an individual who is rather taciturn and fond of the driest bon mot, I feel an affinity for Silent Cal.

But recently, it is the content and not the style of the man’s public service that has drawn my admiration. Last July 4th in the Wall Street Journal, Leon Kass wrote about Coolidge’s address commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Kass’s piece illuminated the ideas of the 30th president and showed their relevance to our time. He is often written off as the ultimate laissez-faire leader, whose fanatical devotion to small government in a time of excess led to the Great Depression. Surely these critics never read Coolidge’s Independence Day oration, in which the same man who once said “the chief business of the American people is business” warns against a spirit of “pagan materialism,” I wonder if they would understand the message even if they did read it.

Fortunately, Coolidge took the opportunity offered by other national holidays to elucidate his ideal of American society. In 1924, Memorial Day still took place on May 30, the day set aside by the Grand Army of the Republic for decorating the graves of fallen comrades “with the choicest flowers of springtime.” That Memorial Day, the 30th president spoke to a crowd at Arlington National Cemetery on “Freedom and Its Obligations.” Coolidge began his address by rooting the day they observed in its historical context. Memorial Day arose as a way to pay tribute to the dead of the Civil War, so the president recounted the issues that led to the separation of the states and the conflict that ensured. Instead of limiting his discourse to the specifics of the Civil War, however, Coolidge recognized the larger questions that drove the conflict and survived to his day, and ours: “How can the Government govern and the people be free? How can organized society make and enforce laws and the individual remain independent?” Coolidge noted that even when individuals could be absolved of any responsibilities, they would naturally infringe on the rights of others, betraying their very independence. The solution, the president argues, is membership in a community, and deference to its best interests:
When each citizen submits himself to the authority of law he does not thereby decrease his independence or freedom, but rather increases it. By recognizing that he is a part of a larger body which is banded together for a common purpose, he becomes more than an individual, he rises to a new dignity of citizenship.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Saturday Morning Odyssey

Before beginning our tale, permit me a confession and a caveat.

Confession: I am not entirely sure what the point of this essay is. In its genesis, I had a clear thesis in my mind, one which will be revealed in due course. However, events themselves upturned my ideas and left me muddled and confused, rather more so than usual. So I will leave you to draw a message from my story, because I cannot come up with one, except perhaps the great moral truth that “people are weird.” But we hardly need another addition to the literary canon to drive that point home.

Caveat: What follows occurred in that twenty-first century Twilight Zone dotting the suburbia in our broad land – the Wal-Mart. Last night I finished rereading The Great Gatsby, in which F. Scott Fitzgerald considers the Dutch sailors first laying eyes on the New World as “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” In the light of this morning’s events, I’m not so sure. Were old F. Scott with us now, I’m sure if he decided to drag Zelda up to West Egg’s Wal-Mart at 2am to grab a frozen pizza, his capacity for wonder would be heavily taxed.

Anyway, to our tale. A Saturday morning, a week after graduation, nothing to do at the moment (the time between graduating and grad school seems to be a Twilight Zone all its own). A local store offers a sale on custom framing. My mother urges me to get my diploma framed now, so it can sit in my bedroom, still the bedroom of my childhood, and silently mock me for having nowhere suitable to place it without feeling pretentious. Seeing the logic in her proposal, I agree, and we go up to the mall, decide upon the diploma’s framing future, and leave it to its fate.

Mom treats shopping on Saturdays as I imagine Eisenhower treated the Normandy invasion: aware of the dangers and obstacles (in Mom’s case, other drivers and long lines; in Ike’s case, German fortifications and troop reserves), familiar with savagery of the enemy (fellow shoppers; Nazis), planning for the worst (parking on the frontiers of the lot; 20,000 dead), having to deal with a stubborn and uncooperative ally (me; the French). She thus draws up a battle plan while expecting resistance in force. This morning, our Orders of the Day call for us, after dropping off the diploma, to stop at the nearby Wal-Mart and pick up a few items for a Memorial Day barbecue. Reluctantly, I agree to this plan of attack.

For a long time, I bristled at criticisms of Wal-Mart as a display of humanity at its worst. This denial grew out of my distance from an authentic Wal-Mart experience. During high school and summers home from college, the time I was most likely to show up at the place was in the middle of the night with friends on the hunt for snacks. True, there were a few oddballs in Wal-Mart then (besides those of us strangely drawn to the place in the middle of the night like some sort of oasis in the desert), but that made complete sense considering the hours. Surely the vast majority of shoppers during normal hours were perfectly sensible soccer moms interested in bargains. This illusion came crashing down last summer, when I visited Wal-Mart during normal business hours for literally the first time in years. The wailing children, the yelling parents, the strange outfits, the bizarre bulk purchases . . . the horror . . . the horror . . .

So no, I do not particularly want to accompany my mother to the super-size Slough of Despond. But the heat of the day is ghastly, so waiting awkwardly in the sweltering car in the farthest reaches of the parking lot somehow seems less appealing. I steel myself and go in, determining to make the most of the opportunity as Mom picks up her items. A recent discussion with a friend revealed to me my disgrace in not seeing the classic John Wayne film The Searchers. Today shall be the day I start to rectify this error. Uneasily, hesitantly, I move to the back of the store, where electronics are kept. Passing the food aisle, I hear a mother berating some sort of father figure on leaving their child unattended in the cart in the next aisle. Keep your head down, I tell myself, walk fast, no eye contact with anyone. Proceed past the women’s clothing section – everyone, man and woman, has to pass by such sections at some point, but the awkwardness never lessens. Destination in sight . . . arrived in electronics. Safety, at least temporarily.

I feel sure that I’ve seen The Searchers before on one of the discount racks, and it doesn’t take long to vindicate my sense. Seven dollars. Success! I snatch the DVD case and walk around the shelf towards the register.

And there, behind the register . . . ugh. A face I haven’t seen since graduating on that sunny June night almost four years ago, perhaps then seen with a sense of satisfaction that I’d never have to see it again in my life – the face of Timmy Wilson (the name has been changed to protect the guilty). Timmy was unanimously agreed to be one of the most obnoxious kids in our high school class, a distinction consented to by many who themselves vied for it. A tiny child, who if he surpassed the height of five feet, did it just barely. What he lacked in physical presence he made up for in shrill, annoying vocal presence. If you were to hear his voice, you would marvel at how perfectly it seemed to match his appearance – an ear-shreddingly high-pitched yet somehow raspy tone, which he would use to make insults outdone by elementary school kids and ask questions answered on Sesame Street. I think of the class I most distinctly remember having together with him, World Cultures in eleventh grade, where his obnoxiousness was on full display, mitigated only by the fact that the teacher basically gave the rest of the class free rein to tell him to shut up. Thoughts of some of the better retorts bring a smile to my face – but it disappears quickly, because his face, once forgotten, is right there, and it obstructs my path to owning The Searchers.

What exactly is he doing? He is in front of the computer, crouched down and looking up at the screen, his hand on the mouse. Timmy rocks back and forth on his feet, a look of panic on his face. He looks terrified, as if he accidentally pressed a button that ignited a self-destruct sequence of this very Wal-Mart, and nobody had yet noticed their impending doom. In short, he looks just as I would expect him to in the real world – completely out of his depth, totally incompetent, utterly overwhelmed.

I look at the copy of The Searchers in my hand, a movie considered by many to be the greatest Western of all time. I look at Timmy, the only employee at the register, who in his evident panic hasn’t noticed me. I look at The Searchers, containing the finest performance of John Wayne’s storied career. I look at Timmy, still completely absorbed in whatever bad news the computer screen brings. The Searchers . . . Timmy . . . The Searchers . . . Timmy . . .

I look for a final time at the DVD in my hand, slowly turn around, walk back to the shelf that had contained it, and replace The Searchers on the rack.

Slouching even more than normal in despair at my complete and utter defeat by Timmy Wilson, the kid who quite possibly graduated at the very bottom of our high school class and doesn’t look to have risen since, I shuffle to the front of the store to meet Mom, who only needed a few things for the barbecue. Fortunately she is also making her way to the front of the store. I meet her and we get in the express line.

Oh, wait. A new incident looms on the horizon, although not at the crisis level. I happen to know this cashier as well. Really, she’s a nice girl, one who graduated a year before me, but I haven’t seen her since then, and I hadn't talked to her all that much before anyway. We’re Facebook friends, like that means anything, and I’m pretty sure she’s had a kid in the intervening years. This is just going to be awkward. One of us will ask, “So, how have you been?” The answer will be a simple “Fine” and uncomfortable silence, or the truth and uncomfortable details. It’s not like my story is that great, either. I went to college. Now I’m back. Didn’t I get “Most Likely to Succeed” as a senior superlative? My conception of success at the time entailed me never coming back to Springdale again. So already, fresh out of college, I’m a failure. And then there’s the fact that my mom is right there, and she’ll make some comments in her standard chipper manner, and that will only heighten the discomfort . . . ugh. This could be pretty bad, too.

Unexpectedly, my mother becomes the instrument of my immediate salvation. As I search desperately for a plausible escape, she puts her few items in the bag she brought in and asks me to replace the shopping basket at the front of the store, where I can wait for her as she goes through the line. With pleasure! I take the basket and do as instructed. Then I go by the door and wait. There is still another patron in front of Mom, so I will have to pass a few more moments, but that’s going to be easy. I will stand here and put on my sunglasses to further mask my identity and my approachability if identified. But, as I stand straight up, hands behind my back, scanning the store with a faint sneer to drive home that I would be quite unpleasant to talk to, I feel relief. There is no one in sight anymore whom I know or recognize. Almost there.

Mom gets through the line and starts walking toward me. Yes! I take a step forward.

“So, Georgetown? What’s your connection?”

A man comes up towards me, looks to be in his fifties, wearing khaki shorts and a striped polo shirt, pointing at my shirt emblazoned with the name and seal of my alma mater. Is this a fellow Hoya? An individual who, bearing the same credentials as me, must surely be above all this around us, a figure of reason and reasonableness who, like me, has been cruelly ordained by the Fates to spend precious minutes of his life in such a hellhole?

I tell the man that I graduated last Saturday, to which I get a “Hoya Saxa!” Whaddya know? He, too, is a Georgetown graduate, and he asks my major. I tell him History and Government.

“So you want to work for the Evil Empire?” he remarks pleasantly. A fellow Hoya and a fellow skeptic of big government! I mention that I could see myself going back to DC for a few years, although it’s no place to spend an entire life.

“I spent eighteen years of my life in DC. It’s an evil town.”

A bit strong, but honestly not much, if at all, stronger than the rhetoric of some recently-departed Republican presidential candidates.

The man, still pleasantly, takes out his wallet and removes a dollar bill. “Let me show you what I mean. See this dollar bill? Just a typical old dollar bill, not like the Monopoly money they print nowadays. Did you ever look at the seal on the back?”

Rather perplexed at this turn of events, I stutter something about being familiar with the seal.

“Now why would a free republic have a pyramid on its seal?” I attempt to look interested, but my mind goes to a History Channel documentary I once wasted a Fourth of July with, “Secrets of the Founding Fathers,” which absurdly but at least hilariously explained away the very existence of the United States as a conspiracy of the Freemasons. Great, I think, so I’m dealing with a guy who’s watched National Treasure once too often.

“Look above it. Why would a free republic have an ‘all-seeing eye’ on their Great Seal?” The man puts the dollar bill in my hands and urges me to discover for myself these truths he has worked out. Now I just start mumbling things like “I don’t know” and “That’s interesting,” when I do know that somewhere between the Hilltop and Harmarville this guy lost his marbles and that this stuff, in fact, is not interesting.

“See the motto?” the man asks, pointing to Annuit Coeptis. “Can you read Latin?” I attempt a crack about how I wish I did, so I could read my diploma, but he’ll mix no levity with his deathly serious purposes. “It says, ‘Our undertaking is favored.’ Whose undertaking? This is from four years of Latin at Georgetown.” Hoya Saxa, indeed.

He shifts attention to the other side of the seal on the bill while I slowly shift towards the door, where my mother awaits. “Look at the stars above the eagle. Do you notice anything about them?”

Actually, I do see now. He’s not anti-Masonic, just anti-Semitic. Couldn’t I have just run into a Nicolas Cage wannabe? I’m pretty sure his character is supposed to be a Georgetown grad anyway. Things would have been so much simpler.

“It’s in the shape of a hexagon, a Star of David. Why would there be a Star of David on our seal?” We walk out the door and he builds to the conclusion. “The seal of the United States has been changed only once in our history, in 1932. There’s a reason for that. Do you know what the biggest lobbying group in our country is, besides the National Rifle Association and AARP? The Israeli lobby. They’re the ones pulling the strings.” I have no idea how the year 1932 is connected with AIPAC, unless they were responsible for installing Franklin Roosevelt as an Israeli Manchurian candidate before there was an Israel. Which would be an impressive achievement to pull off and then keep under wraps, coming from the same group which apparently put all of their plans on the back of our most common currency. Perhaps they didn’t account for the possibility of taking four years of Latin at Georgetown.

I make clear that I am going now. The man, who has maintained a pleasant, if increasingly intense, demeanor throughout, shakes my hand and wishes me the best. And so our dialogue, inquiring after truth in a western Pennsylvania Wal-Mart, ends, and the twenty-first century Socrates walks off into the midday sun.

Heading to the car, I meet my mom, who clearly had no idea what was going on and asks if I knew the man from somewhere.

“Nope. He was just another Georgetown graduate who saw my shirt and made the connection.”

“Oh, how nice.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On the Local Economy and The Hunger Games

Katniss Everdeen: Local(ist) Hero

The comments presented forthwith do not necessarily represent the opinions of the author, nor any reasonable human being. On the other hand, inspired by this meisterwerk (subtitle: "A Critique of Pure Treason"), this essay may be a product of a voice of some generation at some point whose collective tongue cannot be extracted from its collective cheek. The author also posts here with less silly (but still somewhat silly) thoughts.

Wendell would live in District 11
The world of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games could be cited as the frightening result of Tocquevillian democratic despotism. The Capitol, bent only on rapid materialism and consumption, is lulled into abandoning their mores and is oblivious to questions of the morality of pitting 24 adolescents against each other in a fight to the death as long as they are entertained. Katniss and Peeta, the flawed heroes of our tale, are bent on bucking the system, refusing to be a “pawn in their Games” and eventually becoming the symbols of resistance for the impoverished Districts who have become artificially dependent on the Capitol’s kindness for their very existence. Besides their growing role as reluctant leaders in the resistance against the evil President Snow, Peeta and especially Katniss show fierce loyalty to their home, District 12. In this essay, I will examine how themes of localism pervade Collins’ kid lit series and the “total economy” of Panem is a means of destroying the local character of the Districts.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pricing Sacred Stuff

Here's an interesting study, The Price of your Soul: neural evidence for the non-utilitarian representation of sacred values. Of course, every study has some design problems. Notably, possible payments for selling out were capped at $100.

Abstract below.
Sacred values, such as those associated with religious or ethnic identity, underlie many important individual and group decisions in life, and individuals typically resist attempts to trade off their sacred values in exchange for material benefits. Deontological theory suggests that sacred values are processed based on rights and wrongs irrespective of outcomes, while utilitarian theory suggests that they are processed based on costs and benefits of potential outcomes, but which mode of pro- cessing an individual naturally uses is unknown. The study of decisions over sacred values is difficult because outcomes cannot typically be realized in a laboratory, and hence little is known about the neural representation and processing of sacred values. We used an experimental paradigm that used integrity as a proxy for sacredness and which paid real money to induce individuals to sell their per- sonal values. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we found that values that people refused to sell (sacred values) were associated with increased activity in the left temporopar- ietal junction and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, regions previously associated with semantic rule retrieval. This suggests that sacred values affect behaviour through the retrieval and processing of deontic rules and not through a utilitarian evaluation of costs and benefits.
A study like this could easily be used to malign those who promote policies based on economic efficiency. Indeed, given sacred values, economic theory has a hard time. The idea of utility-maximizing agents forms a fundamental part of economics. However, we can describe deontic preferences in a utility-maximizing framework via lexicographic preferences. From the article, "Similarly, deontic processing tends to be absolute and independent of outcomes, while utilitarian processing depends on the relative valuation of outcomes. Utility theory has emerged as a normative framework for the latter, and when applied to decisions over sacred values, suggests that the expectation of consequences for violating these values is a deterrent to certain behaviors. Lexicographic preferences, in which an agent infinitely prefers one thing to another, have also been used to model sacred values within the utilitarian framework."

The trouble is, lexicographic preferences aren't mathematically continuous. Bummer, I know. If you recall the first welfare theorem of economics, markets are efficient (ie lead to an outcome where nobody can be made better off without harming another person). The discontinuity is bad news though. The mathematical proof of the first welfare theorem assumes continuous preferences. So, the next time you encounter a doctrinaire free-market utilitarian, watch them tremble upon hearing these two words, "lexicographic preferences." Still, this doesn't mean they would necessarily be wrong. It's unclear how significantly these preferences factor into our understanding of economics and to what degree some sacred values are even desirable. I can just imagine a bigoted shopkeeper insisting they will only serve a certain kind. We just know there's a flaw in economic theory (but even the economists knew that, as the assumptions for the first welfare theorem are generally not expected to be met perfectly).

Also, one study participant was apparently quite eager to sell their sacred values. "One participant was excluded from the analysis because they submitted bids of $1 for all items, and thus no contrasts could be formed." What a jerk.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Brief Defense of my Short Attention Span

For the time being, I have a lot of free time. To fill out such a leisurely schedule, I've been scouring high and low for good nonfiction books to separate my hour-long email refreshing sessions. Among my picks is Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice. I don't think I'll finish it though. Reading a book by an academic, not strictly intended for other academics, involves some risk. As I peruse Amazon suggestions, I remain guarded upon noticing an interesting book. Upon being seduced by reviews and a description, I inevitably meet a deal-breaker–pages. Sen's books clocks in at about 400, this being at the lower end of the spectrum. That's an awfully long wait before I can stick my nose in the air and talk about "this book I just read." I'm not one to toil through a book once I've started either, once quitting a book after 400 pages.

It's not that all those pages causally scare me. It just gives me a good idea that the thing is overwritten. Kevin Drum knows what's up. He gets at the needless padding in nonfiction. In the case of Sen and other academics, I have a feeling they share several anxieties leading to the length. Implicitly at least, many believe length to proxy for importance or that a convincing argument requires a tome. Still, I don't quite understand the verbosity in a passage like this,
To illustrate, if we are trying to choose between a Picasso and a Dali, it os no help to invoke a diagnosis (even if such a transcendental diagnosis could be made) that the ideal picture in the world is the Mona Lisa. That may be interesting to hear, but it is neither here no there in the choice between a Dali and a Picasso. Indeed, it is not all necessary to talk about what may be the greatest or most perfect picture in the world, to choose between the two alternatives that we are facing. Nor is it sufficient, or indeed of any particular help, to know that the Mona Lisa is the most perfect picture in the world when the choice is between a Dali and a Picasso. 
Perhaps is unfair to single out this passage; there are worse offenders. Still, I think we could do without the last few sentences. They help a bit, but if the whole book were written in this manner we could cut it in half without losing the message. And the message is all I want. I'm not trying to become an expert.  Instead, I'm looking for some food for thought across several subjects. Long books have their place, but there exists an unfilled niche in books requiring a commitment somewhere in between that required for Freakonomics and The Wealth of Nations.

But, overwriting imposes unfortunate barriers to entry for such thought fodder, and it's a shame. Consider how inaccessible many important topics are made by an academic author's intellectual vanity. Now consider how decried the common man or median voter is. Torpor of mind is more easily excused when academics install moats around their ivory towers. The cost to learning about serious subjects for the would-be Renaissance man is simply too high relative to the reward. And so intellectual inequality and narrowness worsens.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Banality of Feigned Indignation: Some Belated Thoughts in Honor of Desmond Tutu

Apparently the Dalai Lama and China are going through a rough patch. The Dalai Lama’s objection to Chinese rule seems to stem from his vigorous insistence on quirky ideas like religion, peace, and human rights, meanwhile China responds with equal vehemence that wrinkly old men ought to wear more clothing when they travel around and therefore, for the sake of his health, they try to keep him relatively contained to his home country. Or something like that.

So when Archbishop Desmond Tutu invited the Dalai Lama to South Africa to give a lecture in honor of the Archbishop’s 80th birthday, nobody was surprised when China was displeased with the proposition. Nobody was surprised when China leveraged its position as South Africa’s premiere trading partner to manipulate the government of South Africa into holding the visa up in bureaucratic red tape. And nobody was surprised when South Africa’s ruling African National Congress South (ANC) explained, with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, that the paperwork was not in order, and for that reason and no other reason, the entry of the Dalai Lama into South Africa was rejected. Where the nonplussed demeanors ceased, however, was halfway through a press conference in South Africa with Archbishop Tutu himself reacting to South Africa’s obsequious submission to Beijing.

With all of the fervor and emotional of the black preacher that he is, Archbishop Tutu tapped into a reservoir of the brand of righteous anger that does not make for polite conversation: “Wake me up and tell me this is actually happening here. It's quite unbelievable. The discourtesy they have shown to the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama!” Tutu’s words recalled the strident condemnation of a Hebrew prophet as he gave notice of the downfall of the ANC: “Let the ANC know they have a large majority. Well, Mubarak had a large majority, Gaddafi had a large majority. I am warning you: watch out. Watch out.” The mere text of his comments do not convey a fraction of the force with which the Archbishop extemporaneously delivered them, and the reason for that is simple: he was angry. Sincerely, vehemently, passionately angry.

Contrast this response with that of the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, to one of China’s other exploits on the same day. That Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria has made a habit of engaging in systemic and egregious violations of human rights is a fact as incontrovertible as it is obvious. That the exigencies of geopolitics and the expenditure of resources in several different deserts have castrated the west and presented us from seriously intervening in Syria is a regrettable but undeniable development. Nevertheless, in a sham substitute for real action, the United States joined together with this week to sponsor a resolution in the United Nations condemning Syria for its gleeful mockery of justice and hitherto uninhibited bloodshed.

As expected, China and Russia vetoed the resolution, citing concerns about the precedent of foreign nations impinging upon the internal affairs of other sovereign nations. The blatant hypocrisy in such a claim, especially when compared against China’s direct pressuring of South Africa to bar the Dalai Lama from entry, is so patently ludicrous as to obviate serious response. This author, for one, refuses even to entertain the suggestion that China and Russia’s actions are animated by anything but the most Machiavellian calculations of self-interest. The real reason for the veto is no mystery even to the uninitiated. While the rest of the world is looking on in horror at the events unfolding on the streets of Syria, China and Russia are taking notes as to the most effective way to quash opposition. They have jointly vetoed the resolution because any international opprobrium for the Syrian security forces is a preemptive excoriation of China and Russia’s own policies in Tibet, Kashgar, Taiwan, and Chechnya.

And here is an additional atrocity on top of the Syrian murders: certain Security Council members are responding to massive human rights violations in a way that is deliberately calculated to ensure their own ability to commit the exact same sort of acts in the future. Out of the fifteen member nations of the Security Council, only nine voted to condemn Syria while four abstained (Lebanon, India, Brazil, and South Africa) and two (Russia and China) used their veto powers.

Faced with this insidious mockery of justice, the tepidity of the United States’ Ambassador to the UN’s comments is breathtaking. She commented (and here there is no need to watch the video; Ambassador Rice’s remarks were as unpassionate as could be imagined: “The United States is outraged that this council has utterly failed to address an urgent moral challenge and a growing threat to regional peace and security.” Really now? Have we really become suddenly indignant at the processes and members of the United Nations? Of course not. That I am completing this essay some days after the events described herein give me the benefit of history (at least about ten days’ worth of it), and that history, quite sadly, has proven to be enough to show that the comments both of Ambassador Rice and of Desmond Tutu have quickly been forgotten by the press, and if by the mainstream press, then undoubtedly by “America” itself as well. Consequently, the simple critique of Ambassador Rice’s comments is this: the United States simply is not outraged. Far from it. The accuracy of the resolution in condemning the attacks was that detail which was most quickly jettisoned when it became expedient to do so, as is shown by the fact that the language of the resolution was diluted three times in order to avoid the veto that eventually was used.

It is no secret that diplomacy not infrequently requires us to tie our own tongues, but the danger is that we become too accustomed to our self-censure and begin to respond to the international scene perfunctorily as a caricature of our own selves. That’s why, for example, Admiral Mullen’s recent comments about the true nature of Pakistan’s ISI were striking and refreshing, and also why the strength of those comments has been undermined and eviscerated by the Obama administration. Reports are continuing to surface about Pakistani duplicity. But this is not an essay about Pakistan; it is about the abhorrently acceptable practice of feigned indignation that impresses and convinces nobody at all. So in summation: if we are indignant, let us say so. If we are not, let us play our cards face up on the table. In the case of Syria, imagine the difference in rhetorical tone a meeting of the UN Security Council would take were Ambassador Rice to stand up in those chambers and say emphatically: “No, the United States is not indignant. In fact, we are not even surprised. Russia and China have proven time and again that they are willing to sacrifice the human rights of vast swaths of their populaces in order to ensure the solidity of the ruling regime. So when protestors are dispersed with live ammunition and flattened by tanks, why should Russia and China’s complicity with Syria surprise us? It does not one bit. And in the words of Archbishop Tutu: ‘Watch out. Watch out.’”

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Reflective Musings from Behind the House

It was about 10PM last Friday evening when I laid supine surrendering myself to any force that would take me to the Land of Nod (don’t think Genesis); however, the Sandman was not having office hours.

The illuminating declarations of the Anointed Generation walking past my (is using this possessive pronoun against the Front Porch Format?) university-owned townhouse could be heard through the windows as they staggered to and from the administration-sponsored youthful debauches of the evening. But it wasn’t only the external obstacles that prevented me from meeting my slumber – the existential questions which plague the mind had kept me restless as well. What should I wear tomorrow? Will I be able to charge my blackberry? Why am I not asleep yet?

After giving it some thought, I finally had some answers – at least to the first two. Overalls. And I’ll never know, because if I asked someone at the event, the response would probably be, “What do you mean ‘charge’ your fruit?”…… and then I finally found myself in the arms of Morpheus.

Cue Saturday, the day of the Mt. St. Mary’s/ISI/Front Porch Republic Conference on Human Scale and the Human Good.

We woke up at 6AM so we would have enough time to reap the Autumn harvest before we left for the bucolic countryside of Emmitsburg, MD. Tucked away in Frederick County, the location was central: it was decently close for Washingtonians, not too far from those who call themselves Northeasterners, and south of the Mason-Dixon line, just so we can say it was.

Once we arrived on the beautiful Mount St. Mary’s campus (as their university President tactfully pointed out, “the oldest Catholic college in the 50 states”), we were given the pleasure of listening to stimulating lectures warning us of the dangers of globalization, worldly liberal education, and the impending socio-political effects of technology. I would be remiss to not at least name a few of the speakers; Mark Mitchell, Patrick Deneen, Bill Kaufman, Jason Peters, John Schwenkler, and Josh Hochschild all offered great theses. I would love to summarize the lectures of the day, but let’s just say brevity isn’t an Aristotelian virtue.

However, I had an interesting thought throughout the entire day.


What would Mr. Berry (according to the Official Count, his name was invoked 20 times in non-Q&A sections of the day) say about the day?

For some odd reason, I have this vision of him descending the stairs of the Knott Auditorium confounded at the presence of iPads and Powerpoint presentations. The vision continues: as he ironically tosses to the ground “The Peace of the Wild Things” and Jayber Crow, Mr. Berry chastising the Golden Calf of the Windows logo prominently displayed and trivializing the Crucifix hidden in the shadows of the projector (the last addition is my own).

Well, maybe I’m just a purist.

Or, maybe our hallowed prophets just believe in fighting fire with fire. Coming to the realization that small town communities are not going to organically manifest themselves is a difficult recognition, but a truth nonetheless. The audiences are on our Facebooks and our FourSquares. The audiences are “updating,” “checking in,” and finishing the sentence “Nathan Coulter is…”. In order to reach out, we must become. In order to have a conversation, we must be speaking the same language.

Granted, the task is much easier when a community is considered “too big” at 75 citizens.


Apart from my musings, I would just like to thank those at MSM, ISI, and FPR for hosting such a conference. It has certainly continued the conversation. My prayers are with each of you.

“We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:25