Contrarian's Notebook

Disquieting Thoughts on Matters Cultural and Personal

On the Eating of Laundry Soap: The Tide Pod Challenge

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Years ago, my wife and I attended an exhibit of the original drawings of cartoons published in the The New Yorker . One I still remember is below.

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It’s funny because the cartoonist has captured something real about our society, especially about the sophisticated, career-driven set who read The New Yorker. Using the clown’s privilege of telling hard truths others would be punished for telling, the cartoonist is pointing out the neglect of children rampant in our materialistic, secular culture.

As society has become more secular, more focused on success, more obsessed with material acquisition, relationships of all kinds have become strained. This is particularly true for familial relationships. A simple look at the divorce rate confirms this, as does a simple observation of the millions of young people who, in one way or another, are trying to burn a message about their need for love wherever someone might see.

And it’s not just the children of the crowd who reads The New Yorker. Working class families are equally fragile, perhaps more so.  

The cartoon above draws our attention not just to the prevalence of child neglect, but also to something else equally disturbing. The cartoon also exposes the many parents who blind themselves to the damage neglect does to children. When the child acts out, that behavior is dismissed by parents. They don’t take it seriously. They refuse to see their children’s need for love even when it is emblazoned unmissably on the very walls of the home.

This denial is not merely individual, but societal. Our society’s children signal their messages about their need for guidance, stability and values in increasingly extreme ways and few take them seriously.

Consider the development, recently revealed in the news media, of young people eating laundry soap as a means entertainment in what is being called the Tide Pod Challenge. Essentially, young people have been inserting small containers of laundry detergent into their mouths and biting down, releasing the contents. Presumably, most don’t swallow.

Those taking the Tide Pod Challenge document this dangerous behavior in order to post the video online and enjoy the resulting wave of affirmation.

The revelation of the Tide pod challenge has produced a number of media stories warning people of the possible dangers of ingesting laundry soap and urging them not to participate in the fad.

As incredible as it is to need to say this, it is, apparently, necessary, so here goes : a society that must undertake a massive media campaign aimed at teaching its young people not to eat laundry soap is not a healthy society. The American anti-culture has created a generation so broken, anxious, ignorant and desperate, some are literally poisoning themselves.

On the other hand, what would we expect from the young in a society unwilling to nourish them spiritually and emotionally? It’s inevitable  that some of them would, in the search for the solid food of soul-sustaining faith and tradition, try almost anything.

Our materialistic, secular, atomized lifestyles have, in other words, produced young people starved for what really matters. Still, most don’t see. We are like the woman in the New Yorker cartoon, blandly denying the child’s legitimate need for attention because acknowledging it would disrupt her agenda.

Even now, most people will dismiss the Tide Pod Challenge as something the crazy kids are doing, as if eating laundry soap in an attempt to gain affirmation and attention from strangers on the Internet were akin to their parents’ passing fascinations with pet rocks or Rubik’s Cubes.

It’s not the same. The Tide Pod Challenge is more. It is a sign of collapse, sign of decadence, a sign of a society limping toward its own demise. A society that, rather than offer its young resources for cultivating meaning,  literally motivates them to poison themselves has arrived at its end.

The best we can do is to cultivate places of refuge where we can: in our homes, in our churches, in our hearts.  We can protect our children from the ravages of an anti-culture bent on their destruction. We can nourish ourselves and others with the faith handed down to us and the treasures of our now fading civilization.

The cultural rot surrounding us need not spread to the culture in our home. We can pay attention to our children. We can mentor others. We can resolve to snatch what few we can from the coming destruction. We can make available to them the satisfying riches and wisdom of the best of what has come before and, in so doing, prepare for those around us, in the middle of a sick and malnourished society, a feast.

We Have Created an Anxious Generation

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Photo via Miranda Fowler

Given that many college students learn nothing during their years in higher education, one might not immediately think of them as a bunch of perfectionists. But, according to some new research, they are. Coverage of the study in USA Today says:

 

(The study’s) lead author Thomas Curran of the University of Bath and co-author Andrew Hill of York St. John University describe perfectionism as “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.” In their study, published Dec. 28 in the journal Psychological Bulletincollege students from 1989 to 2016 took a test to measure self-oriented, other-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism.

Modern-day students, the study found, display more characteristics of three types of perfectionism

I believe this.

Our culture has created a generation of young people who are characterized primarily by their outsized sense of what is expected of them and, paradoxically, a desire to avoid taking the kind of chances that lead to real achievement.

Talking about this story in today’s episode of his daily podcast, The Briefing, Albert Mohler picks up on the section of the USA Today story where the author suggests that social media is behind this phenomenon. Mohler says “no one goes on social media to post ‘I’m not doing anything special at the moment’” everyone appears to be doing something very special . The idea Mohler seems to be getting at is that young people look at social media and see the highlight reels of others lives and respond by feeling they must be perfect in order to live up to the idealized images presented there.

There is undoubtedly some measure of truth to that, however deeper factors are also at play. Social media is a vehicle, a conduit through which cultural values are imparted and cultural contexts affirmed.  To really understand the predicament of contemporary young people, we have to examine both those values and the context in which young people are trying to live them out.

Young people today have come of age in an era of brutal meritocracy. As the spiritual center of our society has ceased to hold, people have turned to emphasizing external achievements as a source of meaning. The not-so-subtle message is that the best life is the one whose end product is the overstuffed trophy case, resume or bank account.

At the same time, young people are told they have a moral obligation to seek as many affirmations of their personal value as possible through competition and activity. Winning a sports tournament no longer means simply that you are good at sports, but that you are a good person deserving of love and attention. The burden then is placed on every individual to prove his worth through winning. To refuse to play is to be deemed an immoral loser before the game has even begun.

We see this mindset everywhere. This is the mindset of the metric obsessed technician. It is the mindset of those who would reduce education to the standardized test. It is the mindset of the corporate culture of continuous improvement that has infected every area of our working lives.

When you combine this sort of ruthless reductionism with the “nobody’s-feelings-get-hurt-and-everybody-gets-a-trophy” attitude equally pervasive today, young people can’t help but be confused. Many have become paralyzed, unable to strike out on their own, to pursue personal goals without the permission of authorities. Instead, they become people racked by worries over being good enough, who simultaneously believe they need not expend much effort to be considered extraordinary.

The loss of the family, especially of the role of the father, is another factor in the development of these attitudes. Because the world has always been an arena of competition for resources, the family should be a refuge. In the family, we are, ideally, loved and rewarded merely for existing. Membership in the family should be achievement enough to grant us attachment, support and love.

The role of the father, when fathers existed, was, partly, to orient children, particularly boys, toward the outside world. Dad’s job was to pass on the necessary knowledge for competent living within a framework of familial love. At the same time, Dad set reasonable standards for behavior and rewarded appropriately. A good father was a man who had expectations, but expectations that were clear and could, with some effort, be satisfied. At the same time, a good father communicated that his love was not conditioned upon the perfect meeting of those expectations.

As the role of both faith and fathers faded in young people’s lives, people other than Dad, education bureaucrats, corporate executives, and politicians,  began setting the bar, and doing so in a manner that primarily served their interests. The result is young people on whom the expectations of school, corporate life and peers hang heavily. These young people, then, find themselves prey to the twin vices of anxiety and sloth, a situation that far too often gives rise to a kind of hopelessness in them with which we are all growing familiar. The irony here is that in its pursuit of ever better results, our secular, atomized culture has produced a generation increasingly frightened to produce anything.

None of this can be changed without a return to the healthier patterns of the past: a return to faith, a return to family, a return to a sense of sanity in what constitutes good enough. As with so many things in the modern world, the path forward here is, simultaneously, the path back.

Legal Weed is Dumb Indeed

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The other day Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a lot of people’s hopes for quickly increasing marijuana legalization up in smoke. He announced he would rescind an Obama era policy of loosey-goosey federal enforcement of marijuana law. This was, apparently a total downer for a lot of people.

Isn spite of Sessions decision, many still seem very high on legalizing pot. That’s a  terrible idea. But, terrible ideas are often popular ones. So, let me explain.

The claim of liberalism is that the state should serve as a referee and allow its citizens the freedom to experiment with personal and political structures. The role of the state under liberalism is, ostensibly, only to referee the legal processes involved and to safeguard the rights of individuals. First order questions like “What is liberty for?” and “What is the good?” are, under liberalism, mostly relegated to individuals or private groups.

However, contrary to what liberalism teaches, states which are not oriented toward The Good cannot last. For a state to flourish, it must constantly reference some notion of The Good that transcends and justifies it. Liberalism undermines the state’s ability to do this, and that is one of its flaws, likely a fatal one.

By encouraging its population to use recreational drugs, our state moves even further from being oriented toward The Good than it already is. Marijuana should not be legal for the same reason that there should be no state-run lotteries: because the state must be oriented toward The Good and must encourage good behavior among its citizenry. As distasteful as many people find this truth, the state must be in, indeed is always in, the business of making moral judgments.  Reversing the judgment on the legality of marijuana isn’t about merely allowing individuals to decide for themselves whether to consume it. Such a legal reversal also implies a reversal of the antecedent moral judgment.

In moving to legalize weed, the state also endorses a way of thinking. The underlying idea behind the use of recreational drugs is that sobriety and rationality are burdens man must bear. The truth is that far from being burdens, they number among our glories. Sobriety and rationality are qualities mature people cultivate in order, through them, to make wise decisions, to connect with others and to build strong families and communities.

By legalizing recreational marijuana use, the state gives its imprimatur to the idea that sobriety and rationality are, at best, irrelevant to the conduct of a good life and a just state. In so doing, it further weakens the bonds that hold people together as both individuals and communities, driving us even further into decadence.

Also, there’s cash on the line. Encouraging a dissolute and intoxicated populace, while detrimental to the long-term prospects of any society, is a short-term boon to those who run the current show. Billions of dollars wait to be made by creating a legal market for marijuana. Eventually, marijuana will be another corporate product for big business to commodify and distribute as one more means of pacifying the agonized masses.

Naturally, a chemically euphoric people, the edges of whose rationality have been dulled, are easier to govern than a population of rational, self-reliant and sober citizens. There is a reason some people in power are eager that everyone get a little buzzed. It makes their jobs easier. In the end, our mammonite ruling classes are eager to push marijuana legalization purely because doing so benefits them, not out of some commitment to principle about individual rights or whatever,

Of course, this country has, in recent years, overreacted to marijuana use and production. Lengthy mandatory sentences and so on have been an offense against justice, but we need not pretend that our only choices here regarding this issue are either all out war or total surrender. We have other options and should choose one that encourages stability, sobriety, rationality and the inherent dignity of human beings.

The use of the worst excesses of the war on drugs to justify legalization of pot is fallacious. Unfortunately, fallacies carry more weight in our time that valid arguments. You can chock that up to our failing education system and our preference for emotional slogans over sustained reflection. We are not a serious, reasonable people. Adding legal pot to the mix is unlikely to make us any smarter.

Sorry to harsh the national mellow, dude, but you know it’s true.

Rod Dreher, Liberalism and Edgardo Mortara

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Rod Dreher is a man given to strong reactions and this article at First Things seems to have precipitated another one. The article is a defense of an 1858 decision by Pope Pius IX to remove then six-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish family.

Mortara had, as an infant, been ill. His parents and doctors believed he could not recover. In response, the family’s Catholic nanny secretly baptized him. The child lived. When it was discovered that he had been baptized a Catholic, papal authorities removed him from the care of his parents to live with representatives of the church in order that the he might receive a Catholic upbringing as the law stated all baptized Catholics should receive.

What has upset Mr. Dreher is the notion that this move was anything other than wholly atrocious. That there is an element of atrocity here can not be denied. Even Romanus Cessario, the author of the article defending the decision acknowledges this, writing:

No one who considers the Mortara affair can fail to be moved by its natural dimensions. It is a grievous thing to sever familial bonds.

Still, Mr. Cessario believes Church authorities did the right thing.

I do not.

Surely, some compromise could have been reached in which the child could have received a Catholic upbringing without being removed from the custody of his parents. The reason this didn’t happen are probably complex and bound to the specific historical circumstances of the time, which, no doubt, were complex as history always is.

Nevertheless, the case raises some important questions to which Christians like Mr. Dreher should offer an answer. For example, the nanny who secretly baptized the child did so because she believed what her church teaches about baptism, specifically that it sets the indelible mark and seal of Christ on the baptized, a mark without which admission to eternal life is not possible.

Given this, when she saw the child on the threshold of death she moved to ensure this non-Christian child life eternal? Was this not an act of mercy? Should she, given her Catholic frame of reference, have refrained from this act?

When the child lived, should the Church have refused to intervene given that those involved were convinced a Catholic upbringing was better ultimately for the child? If we agree that removing him from his parents was not proper, what level of intervention would have been acceptable?

Most important here is the claim that baptism creates an ontological change in the baptized. According to church teaching, Mortara was a different kind of creature after his baptism than he was before. There was no going back. What then would have been the right way of dealing with this situation?

The problem with Mr. Dreher’s answer to these questions is his invocation of liberalism.  Mr. Dreher writes:

“For all liberalism’s serious faults — which I regularly catalog in this space — one of its great achievements was to separate Church from State, so that men like Pius IX and his clergy could no longer do things like what they did to the Mortara family.”

A sentimental attachment to liberalism is an undercurrent in Mr. Dreher’s writing. It crops up again and again, as if he still believes, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that through it men might learn to live together in way that make these difficult situations avoidable.

Liberalism’s official answer to this situation, of course, is that religion ought to be a wholly privatized and individual matter and, as such, the question of whether one is Catholic or Jewish is entirely irrelevant to the state and the apparatus of power. So long as those involved do not use their religious convictions as grounds for contesting the dominant liberal narrative, the promise is, they will be left alone.

Surely, this is what Mr. Dreher wants, for religious families to be left alone. His notion that that great achievement of liberalism the  “separation of church and state” will somehow ensure this is, unfortunately, naive. Liberalism’s official answers are never the real answers. Liberalism, despite what it claims,  is not some neutral means of governing that imposes no ideological content of its own. It is instead the ascendent form of religious faith in our time, as imposing, but certainly less charitable, than the Catholic church of Pius IX.

The idea that liberalism is somehow immune to the kind of insensitivity the church showed in the Mortara case is obviously false. A perusal of the news makes this clear. A few months ago, the liberal state permanently removed Charlie Gard from the care of his parents through murdering him. Going back several years, let us not forget that it did the same to the parents of Terri Schiavo. This couple in Norway had their children removed for opposing the tenets of Liberalism, the global religion.

Liberalism, contra Mr. Dreher, has not separated church and state, but rather melded them even more closely. Liberalism, in denying that it is a religion or even an ideology with formal content, uses the power of the state to destroy families with greater relish and fervor than was displayed in the Mortara case. And, it leaves in its wake this destruction, not because eternal life is on the line, but only because what is at risk is its own diabolical power.

Three Practices for Cultivating Outcome Independence

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Photo via Ozge Gurer Vatandas

You’re nervous, I get it. You want things to work out. Somehow, you think that if you plan enough, push enough, manage every little detail just right, things will go your way. You invest a lot of energy in trying to make that thing you’ve got in your mind a reality.

Half the time, it doesn’t work. When it doesn’t, you’re crushed. Your disappointment knows no limits. Weeks flow by. You remain depressed and listless, deflated by having gotten a result you didn’t want. Self-pity sets in. You start to wonder if you’re cursed, if maybe the world is against you, if you were marked from birth for a special sort of suffering.

Well, you weren’t. Your problem is a common one. And, the good news is that it has a solution. The problem is that you are too dependent, too caught up in outcomes. The solution is to cultivate a different attitude, one of outcome independence.

Outcome independence isn’t apathy. Instead, it is a result of building your sense of security on things you can control, on things that cannot be taken from you. It means shifting from hoping other people will like you and give you something you want, to figuring out how you can take the initiative to create value that attracts rewards. It means that once you have done your duty, given the best you have to offer in a situation, been responsible in all aspects of planning and execution, you are able to relax and to take joy in knowing you’ve made your best effort whatever the outcome.

Adopting an attitude of outcome independence then, obviously, requires adjustments in your mindset.

  • First, you must let work be its own reward. Every goal you achieve requires planning and doing. Every reward you earn, you earned through accomplishing many other small tasks. Focus on enjoying these. Apply yourself in such a way that you can earn your own respect. When you are working on solo projects, you have more control over the outcome than you do on projects that require the participation of others. Every time you have an opportunity to undertake a task alone, give yourself to it fully. Doing so allows you to take satisfaction in your contribution to the larger process, whatever the ultimate outcome might be.
  • Second, you must increase your skills. Nothing reduces your worries about outcomes like confidence in your ability to handle whatever happens. When you know that you are equipped to handle any situation that arises, you relax. The goal then is to take all that energy going into fretting about the future, and put it into learning new skills.

This principle applies in multiple arenas. If you are worried about what’s going to happen at work, acquire some new skills that make you a more valuable employee. Polish your interview skills. Learn how to find work you enjoy no matter what. Choose Yourself. When you know that you have these skills at your disposal, your foundation ceases to be the will of other people and becomes instead your own well-earned sense of competence.

If your worries are more personal, say, about finding and sustaining a relationship that might turn into a family, well, that’s a matter of skills acquisition and value creation too. Most people don’t think so, but success in the personal arena is often as much a matter of developing and employing a specific skill set as it is in the professional arena. Fortunately, there are resources to help you.

  • Third, you must cultivate an abundance mindset. People who believe opportunities and rewards are rare, must grasp at every one they see. Believing that chances to flourish only come around once in a great while, means that you will be focused on trying to engineer the outcome when you swing at each one.

But, opportunities to create value, to give, to serve and to see goods flow back to you are innumerable. Once you see that, you can be much more relaxed about the outcome of your attempt to profit from any particular opportunity. When you believe that opportunities are endless because you create them yourself, you are much freer to take an attitude that assumes that if one opportunity doesn’t yield the desired outcome, you’ll just move on to the next opportunity.

Putting these three ideas into practice will take you a long way toward the kind of outcome independence that frees us from our anxieties. Like all skills, employing them starts out rough and gets easier with time. Give it a try and see what happens. When you fail, don’t get discouraged. Even failure can be profitable, if you don’t get caught up in the negative outcome of your last effort and focus instead on they way it provides, yet again, another opportunity to practice.

That Time I Hung Out With Vanessa Hudgens

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You might not think of me as the kind of guy who hangs out with movie stars. If so, you’d be right.

Most of the time.

Recently though, my regular habit of spending zero time with celebrities was interrupted when I found myself standing around in the same room as actress and singer Vanessa Hudgens.

Let me explain how such an event came about. My wife enters contests online. Sometimes in the evening, we’ll sit down to watch television and she’ll enter lots of them all at once. She’s won a bunch of stuff: trips, a car, a grill.

Her most recent big win was a trip for us to Vegas to attend the Billboard Music Awards. We are not the kind of people who ardently follow the pop music scene, to put it mildly. But, we are also not the kind of people who turn down a free trip because we don’t know anything about Top 40 music.

So, we went. Part of the prize package was the chance to attend a backstage event on the Saturday before the show. When we arrived, we were ushered into a long hallway full of booths containing radio personalities from around the country. They were all sitting, waiting for some celebrity who would be attending or performing at the awards show to drop by to be interviewed.

It was pretty quiet until Vanessa Hudgens, who was co-hosting the show, walked in. Her presence generated a flurry of energy. She stalked from booth to booth in impractical heels and a flowery little dress. Once in awhile, she’d pause to have her picture taken, doing that hand on the hip, head-tilted with a coy smile that someone, somewhere has declared all models, actresses and college girls with an Instagram account must do.

The moment was surreal. People fawned over her, as if there was something in her, in her very nature that set her apart from regular people and allowed her to enter the rarefied strata of the celebrity world.

I felt exactly the lack of excitement I had anticipated. I had the opportunity to walk across the room to meet her and just felt like the effort couldn’t be justified. My apathy had been hardened when I saw the way Hudgens responded to the radio people whose job it was to joke around with her and to act as if hosting the Billboard Music Awards was a serious accomplishment.

When she was being recorded, she laughed and giggled. When the recording stopped, she put down the microphone and walked out without granting the people around her the dignity of so much as a good-bye. She carried with her the aura of a synthetic and shallow culture and it shone through everything she did.

The spirit she embodied was thrown into stark contrast a couple of minutes after I walked away from her. As I was cruising down the hallway, I noticed a face I recognized. It was Tiffany Alvord’s. Alvord is a prominent YouTuber some of whose videos I’d seen.

I introduced myself to her.  She was genuine and pleasant. The energy that came from her was the opposite of what I’d seen a few minutes earlier in Vanessa Hudgens.

In short, my brief encounter with Hudgens confirmed the worst stereotypes of empty and narcissistic celebrities. Perhaps, because she built her career outside the Hollywood establishment, Alvord’s attitude was surprisingly approachable and open. The point, I suppose, is that the personalities and agendas of our cultural influencers vary widely and are not monolithic as it is easy to suppose.

Two things stood out from the experience. First, it’s easy for those of us who dissent from the messages of mainstream pop culture to think the decadence we see is the result of a gaggle of evil masterminds manipulating the levers of cultural power. There may indeed be some of that, but the fact on the ground is that our culture is made by flesh and blood people with all sorts of flaws just trying to make it in the world.

Vanessa Hudgens, whatever her faults, is not self-consciously radical in her approach to the world. She is just a girl who stumbled into an early opportunity to be marketed to other young girls by a corporation whose ultimate interest is neither cultural nor philosophical, but commercial.

Second, since pop culture is, in fact, made by normal people perhaps there is more in it that can be redeemed than I have tended to think.  By no means am I suggesting a wholesale embrace of the image-driven, materialistic ethos of pop culture. But, the mechanisms of pop culture are more accessible than they sometimes seem, whether that means holding influential conversations with members of the entertainment industry or launching a YouTube channel.

My tendency has been to think we ought to simply abandon all that, walk away from the engines of cultural power and let the thing run its destructive course. One thing I got from my time hanging out with Vanessa Hudgens is the idea that perhaps I should reconsider, that maybe turning our backs on such things is merely to abandon our duties, to give up more easily than we ought.

What We Don’t Know Will Kill Us

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Photo via J. Sutt

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many people react poorly to my saying America is doomed. Their anger and consternation, however, do nothing to change the bleak outlook for our nation. All their outraged responses do is confirm their lack of imagination.  They cannot imagine a world in which the great American experiment has failed to such an extent that our union dissolves.

They see only the facade of success: our shopping malls, our massive Interstate highway system, an entertainment industry that never pauses in pushing out all manner of material some good, some degenerate, most mediocre wastes of time. People cannot imagine that such institutions could ever fail. I mean, pretty soon Amazon is going to be delivering packages to you door with drones. Freakin’ drones, man!

Every material and technological advance reinforces their confusion, and leads them further to believe that spectacular impressiveness somehow denotes permanence. It does not.

All one has to do is to look deeper to see that our foundation is rotten. The scope of our fundamental problems is so enormous that no effort, however, herculean could contain, let alone reverse them.

These problems are numerous and most are well-known: our collapsing public morality, our overthrow of the traditional family, our distressed economy and natural environment. What gets talked about much less is the corrosive effect of our collective ignorance on our social and political order.

And ignorant we are.

In recent years, it has been reported that 1 in 4 Americans can’t name more than one of the freedoms protected by the first amendment.  This is compared to the fact that more than half of us can name at least two members of The Simpsons. Almost a quarter of us can name all five members of the famous cartoon clan.

As of 2006, most Americans between 18 and 24 could not find Ohio on the map. Two-thirds could not find Iraq. At that time, only 30 percent of college graduates could read and interpret the label on a food package.  One study found  that half of college graduates are incapable of completing everyday tasks. These numbers are certainly more grim now.

The statistics go on and on. Last year, NPR reported that the vast majority of high school seniors are ready neither for college nor career.

YouTuber Mark Dice makes a point of documenting the ignorance of the general public.  In this video, he asks people some basic questions about the meaning of July 4.

 

In this one, he documents the scope of our national ignorance.

All of this is toxic for a political system built on the idea of the well-informed voter capable of rationality and self-governance.  Together, these facts demonstrate that whatever is happening in America even now, it is not the cooperation of knowledgeable citizens hashing out a way forward through engaging the marketplace of ideas.

Instead, we are a nation of mostly ignorant consumers unfamiliar with even the basics of American history and political philosophy. Most of the slightly more than half of Americans who actually vote choose their candidates simply by consulting a mix of tribal and class loyalties, the popular media, and a vague sense of what kind of person they want their friends to think they are.

The results of this widespread ignorance are many. First, it allows those who control the national conversation, mostly through mainstream media, to achieve their agenda with almost no resistance. Those who dissent from that agenda are thrust aside where their resentment builds.

Second, the populace becomes more and more polarized as the great ignorant majority drops out of political life, mesmerized by the trinkets of consumer indulgence. Those who remain involved are the most passionate, most informed and most partisan. National life is reduced to a tug of war with a rope whose middle is quickly fraying.

Eventually, the rope will snap.  No other outcome is possible. We already have a vast,expensive institution, the public schools, whose job, ostensibly anyway, is to teach citizens the fundamentals of our system. They have obviously failed. There is now no means to undo the damage.

We must accept that in the future America, if it exists at all, will not be the America of the past. We must accept that though the walls still stand and the party inside seems like it will never end, the collapse of the foundation is certain. We must abandon the idea of reform, surrender the notion of making things better, and do what we can to prepare for what comes next.

You Are Only A Unit of Production

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Sometimes, the evening just calls for pizza. We recently had an evening just like this. I can’t remember exactly what was happening, probably some combination of children’s activities and parental fatigue, but for whatever reason, we decided to forgo our regular dinner rituals and pop over to the local franchise of my wife’s favorite national chain.

Because we buy there several times a year, we always carry a take-out card. Basically, it’s a business card someone at the store marks on whenever you pick up a pizza. After ten pizzas, you get a free one.

A while ago, we redeemed our last take-out card. My wife had been in once since then. On her trip, she had asked for a new take-out card. They had none, but someone said he’d just  write the date on a piece of paper and count that toward our next free pizza.

When I went in recently, I asked for a new take-out card. The kid behind the counter looked dumbstruck. He had to check with a woman I assumed was his superior.  They didn’t have any carry-out cards. I asked if she could just write the date and our order on a piece of paper. No, she said, she was not authorized to write things on pieces of paper.

I explained that someone had just done this very thing for my wife when she was in two weeks before. “Well,” the woman said, squinting her eyes and rubbing the flour aggressively from her hands, “that must have been the general manager. I can’t write anything down.”

By this point in life, I have learned not to argue with low-level employees. All it produces is tension. Most front-line retail workers are not people gifted  with high-levels of common sense or conflict resolution skills. If they were, they wouldn’t be front-line retail workers.

I acquiesced and left with my pizza and a plan to call the corporate headquarters.

Such incidents seem trivial, but behind them is a larger, indeed global, problem. As I have written before, little incidents like these in which the consumerist system that engulfs our culture breaks down, leave people feeling powerless. I felt powerless to get my take-out card and, ultimately, my promised free pizza. I don’t doubt that the woman behind the counter felt powerless to solve my problem.

I thought of all this again this week when reading James Kalb’s “ The Tyranny of Liberalism”. One point he makes again and again, is that under the global, liberal, consumerist system, we all transform ourselves into units of production and consumption in a way that serves the system. Indeed, this process of transformation now has more influence on how we understand our identities than the traditional, organic markers of identity: family, place, and religion.

This phenomenon expresses itself in peculiar ways in the retail sector. Take the experience I have just described as an example. The woman who refused to write down that I had purchased a pizza, no doubt, could see that my request was logical. But, because she is only a unit of production in the global system, she cannot act on her own. Her desire was not to cheat me out of a free pizza or to send me out of the restaurant disgruntled.

Her goal was to follow the rules. Because what I was asking for was a slight deviation from normal, she did not know how to apply the rules to this situation and decided to err on the side of not getting in trouble with her boss. This is what it means to be a unit of production in the global system.

Work has become divested of both personal significance and power. The woman I was dealing with had no investment in me, in her customers’ feelings about the establishment where she works, or in the success of the overall business. All those things are outside her role as a unit of production.

Her role is to follow procedure.

This would not be the case if she were actually the owner of the establishment. When people’s livelihood is directly dependent on the goodwill of customers, service improves. Workers have more flexibility. The current system, though it seems mammoth and unstoppable is, in fact, vulnerable because of the rigidity and apathy it engenders.

An economy of more locally owned businesses is both less abstract and more situated in local cultures. In such a situation, businesses become agents of preservation of the kinds of communities that allow traditional markers of identity: place, family, local custom etc. to flourish.

The global economy is inherently liberal in that it prefers abstraction to organic realities and seeks to make work as abstract an activity as possible. The reason the woman I encountered would not write down what I requested is that I was making a reasonable, historically-situated request and her only means of response was through the abstract, global policies of the corporation for whom she is an abstract unit of production.

Such weaknesses are causing growing ambivalence about the global marketplace. In the end, people desire to be more than merely units of production and consumption. We desire to be people  living in a personal and humane economy.  Such an arrangement satisfies the heart in non-material and intangible ways, and the service, almost always, is better.

My Appearance on the Mark Baxter Podcast

Last week, Mark Baxter and I sat down for a long chat on his podcast. You can hear it below, or on Mark’s site.

How Spring Break Destroyed America

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Sometime in the 1990’s when other college kids were off on Spring Break, I was at home watching it on television. I remember distinctly sitting in my apartment watching a report on some prime time news magazine about what students set free for a week of hedonistic pursuits were getting up to. I remember just as distinctly concluding by the end of that report that our society was doomed.

Any society that reared its young to see spending a week every year pursuing all sorts of outrageous behavior as normal, it seemed to me, could not stand. Few agreed then, but in the years since, many have come around. One reason for the change is that many have experienced the consequences of this way of living.

According to this story at the College Fix a significant portion of students surveyed regret their Spring Break behavior. The data come from a Project Know survey:

Which recently asked 889 high school and college students who have taken a spring break trip in the past five years about their activities and regrets.

When it comes to regrets, 38 percent reported that they felt bad about their alcohol consumption, while 32 percent are upset they had sex. Eleven percent also expressed remorse for drug use.

The survey also found that of those who had sex on Spring Break, 65 percent of men did it with someone they just met, and 42 percent of women did the same. The rest reported it was sex with a friend.

Certainly, it’s tragic that these young people are burdened with such serious regrets at a young age. But, they are not entirely to blame. A larger portion of the blame goes to the culture that raised them, taught them to think in the Spring Break style. Because, see, more than it is just a week of bad behavior, Spring Break is an entire way of thinking. Spring Break the event is only an outworking of Spring Break the mindset. And the Spring Break mindset is pervasive in our culture even among those who have never once visited Daytona in March.

Like all mindsets, the Spring Break mindset can be known by identifying some of its basic precepts. Let’s look at three.

First, the Spring Break mindset believes that the highest form of human life prioritizes the reckless pursuit of meaningless pleasure. Consider that for most Spring Breakers, a week of bacchanalia and tropical weather is considered a reprieve from the rest of their lives in which they must restrain their true selves. Only under the sway of alcohol and cheap airfares can their true, higher selves emerge.

Most of the time, they slog away at home living a lower form of life that consists of gainful employment, stress about exams and accountability. They struggle through this lower form of life with its concomitant responsibilities supported by no more than the weekly frat party or Thursday night bar crawl. In this life, the daily life of the real world, they are, they believe, forced to assume an artificiality which condemns them to living at a less than optimal level. It is on Spring Break, when all the restraints are removed, that real life, the life they have been trained to crave, is possible.

Most resent the fact that in the everyday world actions, at least most of the time, have consequences. That they should not is a second tenet of the Spring Break mindset. The Spring Break mindset is devoted to seeking circumstances in which pleasure can be pursued without reference to any short-term or long-term damages that pursuit might cause.

In the Spring Break mindset, the world and everything in it, from fossil fuels to the bodies of others, exist solely as products to be consumed. The notion that such consumption might entail logical and moral consequences must be repressed.

Spring Breakers find a massive corporate infrastructure eager to help in that effort. Let’s not forget that Spring Break is a multi-million dollar business. Everyone from booze companies to airlines to international media conglomerates has gotten in on the action.  In the Spring Break phenomenon we see that the universal application of free market principles ends not so much with enhanced prosperity and dignity as with your 20-year-old daughter topless on a beach making out with her roommates.

The result of all this corporate investment is a built environment and a media mythology that reinforces the notion that Spring Break, and indeed a life geared toward seeking a perpetual Spring Break, is the purpose of human existence. In an environment where such attitudes are reinforced by commercial and cultural authorities, thinking about the consequences of one’s behavior is rendered nearly impossible.

Regrets that crop up later, like the ones mentioned above, must come as a terrible shock. But, by the time people experience these, they have largely aged out of the college cohort, and their pain no longer matters because they are now too old for our cultural overlords to care.

This fact is not unrelated to the final plank of the Spring Break mindset. Underlying both the beliefs I’ve touched on here is a deeper one yet. At the bottom of the Spring Break mindset is the notion that becoming adult is a kind of death, that stepping into the world of grown up obligations and commitments is the end of joy, and that people must avoid it as long as possible.

The Spring Break mindset shares our general cultural sense that adulthood is optional. In part, this is because we have, as a culture, no definite traditional rites of passage. That doesn’t mean individual don’t desire them. We do. So, when we lack normative rites of initiation into adulthood, destructive consumerist rituals will rise up to take their place, a la a Spring Break trip to Florida. Either parents officially confer on children manhood and womanhood in some traditional ritualized fashion, or those children will come up with their own rituals which, rather than leading to dignified adulthood, lead to regretting one’s random casual sexual encounters enthusiastically undertaken at the Day’s Inn in the spring of sophomore year.

To call the Spring Break mindset “the Spring Break Mindset” is perhaps a little unfair to spring break. It is more accurate to call this mind set, “The Modern American Mindset.” Most Americans hold the beliefs I have mentioned above. If it were not so, Spring a Break as a college phenomenon would never have developed. The fruits of this mindset are more apparent than they were even twenty years ago.

But, if it was obvious to those with eyes to see where we would be today twenty years ago, the the dark future into which this mindset now leads us is equally foreseeable. Despite all promises to the contrary the world will never be an arena of endless summer, barely clad beauties and springs of intoxicating drink that never cease to flow. Instead, we will all grow up whether we want to or not. And if we have believed in the childish dreams put forward by the modern American mindset, we will inevitably wake to even more grave and terrible regrets.

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