Contrarian's Notebook

Disquieting Thoughts on Matters Cultural and Personal

Category: Character (Page 1 of 8)

A Different Kind of Life Is Possible

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We take so much for granted. We assume the way things are is the best way things could be. This problem is so grave, we tend never to even question the structure of our lives and the societies that shape them. Indeed, most of us find it impossible to imagine a life not built around corporate work, the acquisition of consumer goods and the atomistic, self-centered pursuit of pleasure. In short, a life built around place, family, faith and tradition is literally unimaginable.

Seeing an example helps.  Here, take a look at this:


I discovered the film above a while back on YouTube.  It aired originally on Irish television in 1980. Produced by famed Irish filmmaker David Shaw-Smith, it is truly a joy. Everything about it, both in form and content, is counter-cultural.

The quietness it captures is striking. Unlike most contemporary films, even documentaries, there is no attempt here to gin up excitement through loud music, flashy transitions or weird camera movements.  Instead, we see half an hour of people speaking almost in whispers. Quiet people are now such a rarity that they still draw us into the film almost 40 years later.

The placid soundscape is mirrored in the simplicity of the shots: lots of simple, locked down, eye-level images, beautiful landscapes and cutaways. The world we see seems to offer silence and stability and rest. The feeling of the piece is captured about two and a half minutes in when, in her voiceover, Dolores Hogan says “There isn’t much more you’d want than a lake out in front of you and mountains all around you…freedom to walk up the mountain, freedom to walk down by the lake, nice people. There’s peace, peace.”

The content is, of course, even more important than the film’s form in making that peace tangible. The movie is a profile of former philosophy student Joe Hogan who, after graduating university, decided to move to a rural part of Ireland to farm a small holding. To supplement the family income, Joe decided to take up a trade and turned to basketmaking. He’s still working. Buy a basket from him here.

This is a life most people now can’t imagine: a life of independence where the family income depends on the work of one’s hands. For most of us, work has become a meaningless exercise. We are alienated from the activities to which we devote the majority of our time. Work is just something we endure in order to pay the bills.

The rootedness of the life the Hogan’s have chosen is equally hard for most of us to understand. Early in the film, Joe speaks derisively of the modern habit of uprooting oneself from time to time. That kind of commitment to place is profoundly anti-modern. By tying himself to one place, Joe traded off opportunities and excitement for the deeper rewards of stable connections and a fuller knowledge of land and neighbor. That’s a gamble almost nobody today has the guts to take.

One feature of the Hogan’s lifestyle is that families spend time together, especially parents and children. In the film, the Hogan’s son Daragh plays around his parents’ feet while they work. While such an older style of life may not yield the same level of riches as a life of corporate slavery, at least children know their fathers. And that, everyone knows, is itself a kind of wealth.

The Hogan family chose this life, the narrator says, because even in the late-1970’s, the rest of the world seemed to be accelerating toward conflict and chaos. How much further we are now down that road! The more the modern world collapses in upon itself, the more urgent and desirable is the kind of life we see in this film.

Joe repeatedly says that his farm is no utopia. No sensible person would imagine otherwise. But, the life Joe Hogan and his family model in this film offers possibilities modern people yearn for: the possibility of stability, of independence, of connection. For all the gadgets and baubles modern life affords us, millions crave these other, more profound satisfactions.

Unfortunately, the system of modern life traps us. Joe Hogan, at least in 1980, didn’t appear to have the pressure of student loan payments or cable bills. Perhaps he had a kind of freedom we now deny to the young. Who knows?

What is obvious, is that he made a decision for a certain kind of life when he had the chance. Most of us are not so wise. For us then, the film is valuable insofar as it makes us mindful of what opportunities for improvement we do have, makes us mindful that a different kind of life is even possible. If you doubt me, watch the film and see for yourself.

The Solution to Our Sexual Misconduct Problem is Chastity

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Behind our ongoing rush of sexual misconduct allegations is a crisis of ideals. We cannot know what constitutes appropriate sexual behavior because we have separated sex from its ends. When sex is purposeless and the only ideals we value regarding it are those of maximum pleasure and an ever-shifting definition of “consent”, we should expect the kind of sexual chaos that now besets us. The current set of revelations are, above all, an indication that the ideals of the sexual revolution simply do not work.

This is news most refuse to hear. Instead, the tide of allegations and the concomitant pain and humiliation rolls on, sweeping away those who once seemed immovable. The latest to fall is Aziz Ansari, the comic and actor who first rose to prominence playing the shallow and self-centered Tom Haverford on Parks and Rec.

In an account published a few days ago, an unnamed woman claims she went on a date with Mr. Ansari that led to her going back to his New York apartment with him where he became sexually aggressive. At no point, however does she claim that Mr. Ansari forced her to do anything against her will.

Rather, she says, simply that she felt uncomfortable, and that he was not good at reading her non-verbal signs of discomfort.  She admits that when she later told him via text message how she felt, he said he was sad to hear that she had been uncomfortable and apologized for failing to understand how she was feeling.

This is not a case of a stranger jumping out of a bush and raping a woman. It is not a case of a powerful man demanding sex in return for professional opportunities. It is the case of a young woman who voluntarily went on a date with a very famous man who, it turned out, was less than entirely gentlemanly.

Ansari’s behavior as described in the incident should not to be excused. It was louche. It was loutish. I would never want any man to behave in that way toward either of my daughters were one of them foolish enough to return with him alone to his apartment.

But, such behavior is also normal given the default values and ideals about sex in our culture.

The only way to begin to curb these incidents is to change those default attitudes.  We must, collectively, admit that the only workable ideals for sexual behavior in our society are chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within it.

These ideals alone empower. The woman accusing Mr. Ansari did not have the power simply to leave his apartment because the ideal of chastity had not been ingrained in her. Had she been taught to value chastity, she would have had every reason to refuse to be in his apartment alone with him. The whole situation could have been avoided.

Without such an ideal, people like this young woman are left adrift, confused about how to traverse the wilderness of contemporary sexual relations to arrive at some safe and profitable destination. Without such an ideal, men like Mr. Ansari have no criterion by which to determine an acceptable level of sexual aggression.

Having such cultural ideals in place is, of course,  no guarantee that people will live up to them. In fact, human nature assures they will not. Still, having them is valuable. Ideals serve the same function in human life as “North” does on a compass, they give us a fixed point. They calibrate our measurements and orient us in the right direction.

The problem in this instance isn’t with ideals as such, but with THESE ideals. Human beings, especially young ones, simply don’t by nature want to be chaste.  Teaching them to practice this virtue and erecting social structures and limits to aid its practice is the role of culture. As our culture has collapsed and the social structures which once were intended as an aid to virtue have been removed, the ideals they were designed to reinforce have themselves receded.

In an essay on this matter Caitlin Flanagan gives an example of how culture once reinforced this ideal by publishing stories of young girls who fell short of it.  These stories, she says, pointed out that:

in one essential aspect…that we were strong in a way that so many modern girls are weak. They told us over and over again that if a man tried to push you into anything you didn’t want, even just a kiss, you told him flat out you weren’t doing it.

The sort of strength a girl needs to stand up for herself comes from having the support of a culture that encourages her to be chaste. The young woman in the story was not merely up against Mr. Ansari in the moment when she failed to refuse his advances, she was up against an entire culture that has failed to provide her any reason why she should.

Tragedy abounds in stories like this one. This young woman’s disappointment is palpable in the account of her evening with the star. It’s clear she was hoping for more. She probably imagined becoming the girlfriend of the famous man. Unfortunately for her, she lives in a culture that has renounced the old ideals, that has renounced the idea that there is something special about girlfriends, and something even more special about wives.

The young woman in this story, having learned the hard way, had to do something with her broken heart. And, like so many women scorned by a heartless culture devoid of the right ideals, she determined that since she could not be this man’s his special girl, she would at least become the woman who destroyed him. It is a sick and dying culture that demands such a transition.

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.

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.

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.

About that Man Dragged Off the Plane

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So, a man got kicked off an airplane and the incident sparked an uproar. Let’s review the facts. As we understand it now, a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville was entirely booked when some United crew members showed up and said they needed to be on the flight. The airline then asked for volunteers willing to give up their seats in return for a $500 voucher and a hotel stay.  No one responded. The airline then upped the offer to a $1000 voucher and a hotel stay. No one volunteered.

Airline employees then announced the four seats would be chosen at random and the passengers in them would be expected to leave the plane. Well, one of them, Dr. David Dao refused. When he refused long enough, airline security personnel and officers from the Chicago Police Department forcibly removed him, dragging him by the arms down the center aisle of the plane. The man and other passengers were screaming during the entire ugly incident. Somehow, the doctor’s face was bloodied in the tussle.

Not all the reaction to the incident has been sympathetic to the Dr. Dao. Consider this troubling tweet from conservative commentator Matt Walsh.

Walsh has managed to wrap a lot into these few words. He dismisses the significance of the incident, implying that outrage over the airline’s behavior is trivial at best, immature at worst.

That’s wrong. The outrage over this behavior stems from only one thing: the fact that this behavior is outrageous.

Just because something is outrageous, does not, unfortunately, mean it isn’t perfectly in step with the underlying structure of our times. This incident is an image of the heart of our moment. A man being dragged kicking and screaming somewhere he doesn’t want to go by agents of government and big business is a metaphor for much of our social and political life.

All of us, now, whether we know it or not are dragged around by these same forces. Every aspect of our lives is, in some way, under the sway of either government or corporate entities. No aspect of our lives including, apparently, whether we volunteer to take a later flight is outside the bounds of these institutions’ control.

The involvement of the Chicago Police Department proves this. These officers, ostensibly public servants who receive a salary provided by taxpayers, were called upon to enforce not just the law, but United’s corporate policy. Law and corporate policy are now indistinguishable.

Mostly, we are supposed to accept this situation without much protest. We are meant to shrug and say “Well, what do you expect?” when we see corporate misbehavior because we’ve been told relentlessly that the goal of profit trumps all other concerns. Our assent to the notion that corporations may do whatever they like because they are exempted from all moral limits in the pursuit of wealth is now foundational to our society. If we ceased to believe this, society would cease to function.

As part of our conditioning regarding corporations’ exemption from moral boundaries, we have been taught concerns for other goods: family, virtue, tradition, the environment, even basic human dignity, are unrealistic impediments to the real business of life. The real business of life, as everyone knows, is converting every other value, every other commitment, everything soft, warm and good to cold hard cash.

This is why Walsh’s tweet was so troubling. Walsh, who has made his fortune on his conservative opinions, seems not to understand that dismissing United’s mistreatment of Dr. Dao is not at all conservative. The idea implied in Walsh’s tweet is exactly what I have just described: that people complaining about the airline’s behavior are exaggerating the significance of this situation and ought to simply accept that people who interfere with the acquisition of corporate wealth will be viciously assaulted.  If even our conservative leaders fall prey to this indoctrination, what chance is there for the rank and file to resist?

And yet, resist we must. The only way out of this situation is to begin to carve out social and psychic space for other values to thrive. We must each find some small way to do things that are inefficient and less than cost-effective. In undertaking such tasks, perhaps we can open up space once again for more humane values to flourish outside the grip of large, inhumane institutions. If we refuse to push back, we can only expect to be, like Dr. Dao, further dragged where we do not want to go. And, unlike Dr. Dao, there will be no outrage for us when we disappear.

Traditionalists Must Oppose Military Action

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Photo via Moyan Brenn

Traditionalists and modernists differ in that traditionalists don’t believe the world can be perfected. We don’t even believe it can be substantially improved with regard to basic human nature. Sure, we can invent some new gadgets, but we will never eliminate greed, callousness and the blind love of power from the world.

Modernists, however, believe the world is on its way to an ever-improved state of affairs. They think things are going to get better and better. The belief that the world can be made more humane and just and pleasurable forms the core tenet of the modern secular faith which is predominant in the West. Believers in this faith are never reluctant to take action to push the world further down the road to utopia.

The actions they are willing to take include the use of military force. The modernist sees military action, when undertaken by a secular, modernist government ostensibly for the purpose of making the world safer and more democratic, as good. In their minds, military conflict, while tragic in the short term, is a means to establish long-term harmony by imposing the values of the rational, democratic secular West on societies that have failed to embrace them. The modernist tends to excuse this sort of intellectual and spiritual imperialism in light of the positive consequences he is certain it will bring.

Traditionalists don’t buy it. We doubt that human beings are wise enough to predict the consequences of large-scale disruptive actions. We are fully convinced that the world will always be home to evil, oppression, and cruelty. We know that the slaughter of innocents is a feature of unchanging human nature. The best we can do is build safeguards against such things when we can.

Since this is so, traditionalists are less inclined to exercise military might than are modernists. Obviously, the categories “traditionalist” and “modernist” do not entirely align with the categories “conservative” and “liberal” in the American context and certainly not with the categories “Democrat” and “Republican.” Many Republicans, in their enthusiasm for warfare, show themselves totally in thrall to the modernist vision of an ever improving world.

Traditionalists tend to resist the use of military force for other reasons too. Traditionalists see the family as morally sacrosanct and its preservation as the purpose of society and government. On this ground alone, traditionalists oppose the easy use of military force. If the purpose of government is to support and protect the family, then a government that destroys those families through the forced separation and death military action entails defeats its purpose and becomes superfluous or, even worse, illegitimate.

Because traditionalists see human being as profoundly flawed and unable to realistically assess our decisions because of our hubris and other moral failings, we are reluctant to embrace the destruction war inevitably entails. We are less confident than our modernist counterparts that the losses incurred can ever be recovered.

War always entails damage to the environment, the loss of tradition and the disruption of communities, all things traditionalists value more highly than an abstract vision of a world made perfect through the forceful imposition of secular, modern values. Traditionalists resist war because we believe the world that rises organically out of the human struggle to cope with reality and to safeguard families and communities is superior to one engineered and imposed through force by modernists gorged on abstractions.

This is not to say traditionalists always oppose war. There are instances where, due to the corrupt nature of human beings, large-scale conflicts are unavoidable. However, traditionalists see only defensive wars as legitimate. Wars to defend home and family, to preserve a culture and tradition against a ruthless aggressor are, while still tragic, acceptable.

The widespread use of military force that has characterized American foreign policy in recent decades does not qualify for support from traditionalists. Instead of striding across the world leaving in our wake a legacy of death and destruction all in the hopes of realizing some naive globalist ideal, we traditionalists want to see our nation turn toward home.

Send those soldiers back to their wives, back to their children, back to the towns and lands that birthed them, we say. Let them invest in a craft, in work, in learning to lead those in their charge, and in doing so, engage themselves in those mundane disciplines of life and heart that actually do make the world a better place, or at least a place that is as good as it can be.

We Are Mostly Blind to the Suffering of the World

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Photo via Jerry Ferguson

My wife’s phone rang a couple of times last night. First, it was the pastor of a church in the area asking her to play piano for a funeral later this week. A few minutes later, someone from our own church called to say one member had a friend in the hospital and another had a couple of friends who were suddenly dead.

A little while later,  I bumped into a neighbor whose wife died a few months ago. He told me about a medical scare he’d had that is going to involve long-term rehabilitation.

All this happened in a few minutes on just a single day. Multiply these terrible occurrences by every minute of every day, and you begin to get a sense of what real life is. We all hear stories like these all the time.

Mostly, we ignore them.  In spite of the pervasiveness of such suffering, it’s easy to go through life not seeing how much the tapestry of human life is woven with dark threads. Our culture, with its emphasis on atomistic individualism and consumer hedonism, obscures the reality of suffering and loss from our vision most of the time.

Jordan Peterson is fond of talking about how difficult life is. He repeatedly says this obvious thing because most of us are only half-conscious of it. Most of the time, we are mostly ok. When we are not, the modern salves of distraction are there for us. Very little disturbs our comfortable dream.

One reason for this is that we don’t really know our neighbors. Our family heard all this bad news last night because we have made a concerted effort to live our lives connected to members of the communities we’re part of.  That’s not the case for people living more culturally conformed lives. Our culture encourages isolation. Isolated people tend not to see the sufferings of others.

What isolated people do tend to see is the glowing representation of reality put forward in the media. The average American now is so transfixed by the corporate, consumerist vision of life that he believes wholeheartedly the products pumped out by the unreality machine are maps of the way things truly are.

There is no suffering in the vision of reality these people consume. Instead, it’s all style and cheap laughs, youth and clear skin. There is no room for people who die suddenly or suffer long-term debilitating illnesses. The result is that people caught up in our common, consumerist hallucination cannot see suffering in the real world, even their own. A globally mediated vision of a secular, consequence and suffering-free utopia represses their awareness of the sadness and pain in their own hearts as well as in those of others.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Naturally, we can’t fall into deep grief over every sad story we hear. But, we can stop to notice. We can acquaint ourselves more intimately with the real. We can free ourselves from  false narratives long enough to grasp the actual nature and texture of life and, when we have seen the ubiquity of suffering, respond with a redoubled effort to relieve it through disciplines of  compassion and hospitality. And by accepting these disciplines, lighten our own suffering as well.

A Brief Defense of Sleep

Undated

Photo via SimpleInsomnia

My dog had to go on medication a couple of weeks ago. It makes her thirsty. She laps water by the bowlful. Consequently, she has to run outside every few minutes. A couple of times we’ve come down in the morning to find puddles on the floor beneath the dining table.

To try to prevent more of the same, I’ve been getting up in the middle of the night to let her out to do in the yard what no one wants her to do in the living room. Most mornings, this happens around 2:30.  A few minutes later, I am back in bed, but settling down again takes time. I don’t wake up refreshed later. For the sake of my dog, and the living room rug, I’ve  struggled through a lot of sleepy days lately.

I am not alone. CBS News reported earlier this year that our national lack of sleep costs us dearly. “Reduced productivity and an increased risk of death linked to lack of sleep among U.S. workers cost the nation’s economy as much as $411 billion a year,” they claimed. According to the CDC, more than a third of us aren’t getting enough sleep.

Clearly, we are a nation of non-sleepers. This isn’t the case because millions of people own incontinent dogs. There are other reasons.

People are busy. They have obligations. They have to work. On the other hand, many just stay up too late surfing the web, watching Netflix, playing video games. Whatever our individual reasons for staying up late, it is undeniable that prioritizing sleep contradicts our cultural values.

Sleep represents a limit. We cannot go forever without rest. We cannot go even for long periods without it. Most of need to rest after a mere 16 hours or so. Beyond that, we get miserable. The quality of what we produce at that point suffers. We can’t ignore our need for sleep forever. We suffer when we try.

Our culture, on the other hand, is a “no limits” culture. We loathe anything that gets in the way of the instant fulfillment of even our basest, fleeting desires. If we didn’t have to sleep, we would be free to pursue our pleasures without interruption, and yet, our very bodies conspire against us to slow down our consumption. We stay up late because we have internalized the cultural message that the point of life is consumption and sleep forces us to step away from consuming for hours at a time.

Just as sleep halts our consuming, it forces to take a break from producing. The flip side of a society obsessed with consumption is an unbalanced emphasis on production. We work long hours to pay for all our stuff. A lot of our training from childhood focuses us on being “productive” members of society. The point of schooling is to leave learning behind and emerge into the world of work where overtime is rewarded and your value is measured solely in the amount of work, often meaningless, trivial work, you complete.

A good night’s sleep contradicts the spirit of our work-obsessed professional culture. Turning in at a reasonable hour is a way of declaring, “I have done enough.”  Pulling the blankets up around your shoulders sends the message that you are secure enough in what you have accomplished to still your hands from their frantic quest to grasp one more morsel, one more coin, one more accolade and to rest.  Such daring action requires courage.

For both these reasons, going to bed at a reasonable hour is an act of cultural rebellion. When we commit to getting sufficient sleep we commit to the renewal of not just our bodies, but of our civilization. When we take the rest we need, we reject the conditioning that tells us to be 24/7 consuming and producing machines, and declare ourselves men instead.

When we lie down as men we can rise refreshed, ready for battle. Whatever struggle the day before us holds, we are more likely to come out of it victorious if we meet it with our full strength, something that can’t happen without adequate sleep. So, whatever you are doing now at night, you must ask yourself whether it is important enough to require you to face tomorrow at less than your best. Probably, it isn’t. You should probably be in bed. And, unless your sick dog demands otherwise, you should probably stay there a while.

American Culture is an Anti-Culture

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 11: Lady Gaga attends Glamour's 23rd annual Women of the Year awards on November 11, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Glamour)

As a child in Sunday school, I learned a song that went:

“Be careful, little hands what you do.

Be careful, little ears what you hear.

Be careful, little eyes what you see.”

The goal, I assume, was to give children a catchy way of reminding themselves of the importance of self-discipline, of keeping oneself free from bad influences.

The message is still relevant. We have reached a point where American culture actively works to undermine any efforts to cultivate self-discipline or any other virtue for that matter. People who give themselves unreflectively to American culture give themselves over to destruction. That is rough sentence containing a sad sentiment. Yet, it’s true.

Those who follow the culturally approved path are almost certain to find themselves beset by all sorts of calamity: spiritual, emotional, relational and financial. The only prudent approach now to the mainstream narrative of the good life is vigorous skepticism.

Without this vigorous skepticism, one cannot flourish. Imagine a man who comes to his doctor and complains of not feeling well. His doctor asks him if he’s changed his habits at all recently. The patient says no except that, for the last three months, he’s gotten up every morning and drunk a thimble full of poison.

Just as the doctor would rightly tell that man to stop drinking poison if he wants to return to health, so the conscientious commentator must now encourage his readers to leave American culture behind. Getting up each day and imbibing it will only ruin you.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say America no longer has a culture. We have an anti-culture. A culture is a set of institutions and practices that inculcate a shared worldview and set of values. When a human being is exposed to a functional, viable culture he comes into contact with the best his group has to offer. The effects of this exposure can’t help but be salutary. While every culture has aspects that aren’t ideal, the thrust of a working culture uplifts the human soul and improves human character.

None of this is the case in contemporary America. Instead, regular exposure to American institutions and culture, especially American popular culture, leads to despair and corruption. The masses don’t see this. Someone is watching those ”Real Housewives” shows. Someone, a lot of someones apparently, is buying music by Rihanna and Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus.

Every hour spent sucking up this material is an hour spent in a kind of school. Above all, culture teaches. Sustainable cultures teach people to defer gratification, to cultivate fidelity, to view themselves as a part of a larger community. When a culture teaches indulgence, chaos, and narcissism it has ceased to behave in a way that secures itself a future.  When a culture ceases to secure a future for itself, it has become an anti-culture.

The only reasonable response to an anti-culture is to withdraw from it. This bothers some people. It smacks of defeatism, of giving up. But, a plan to withdraw from our anti-culture isn’t about surrender. It is about survival and long-term victory.

Just as ceasing to start one’s day by chugging a cup of poison is not surrender, but a means of strengthening oneself, so too is withdrawing from a poisonous culture a means of strengthening one’s soul, one’s family and ultimately, one’s civilization.

The question is what this withdrawal should look like.  The answer is necessarily squishy. The contours of cultural withdrawal will vary from individual to individual. The principle that we must cease submitting to the anti-culture is ironclad. How that is carried out will depend on many factors including personality, financial resources, religious background, level of commitment and many others.

For our family, for example, this withdrawal looks like homeschooling and not having cable. It doesn’t mean going full-on Amish. Mostly, it means having a clear idea of what our values are, and of where those values conflict with the dominant narrative. When our values conflict with those advocated by the anti-culture, we do what we can to separate from it. I suppose this is what Rod Dreher has been calling the Benedict Option.

There is too much at stake not to resist. What kind of adults our children will become is on the line. Whatever contentment and peace we have managed to find are put in danger by the values the anti-culture promotes. The cost of protecting these things is that we are rarely among the “cool” people. We are estranged from the mainstream, aliens in our native land. And, it is when we are surrounded by such dangers,that we see it is critical to remember our Sunday school lessons and to be careful what we see, hear and do.

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