Cultural Erosion and the Death of Shared Experiences

NFL Protest
Like many of our ultimately insignificant political tempests, I was tempted to dismiss the endless debate about the NFL anthem protests as so much noise. As I saw it, the President, in his crude attack on the players, further soiled his office to benefit from the subsequent controversy, while the players had fallen into his trap by looking as if they were disrespecting the flag. (Though, as Jonathan Last noted, silently taking a knee is just about the most respectful, dignified protest one can imagine.) The media, for its part, continues to pretend as though it is resisting Trump while it really enables him, focusing on whatever issue he raises to chase the accompanying ratings.

The more I thought about it, though, the more it seemed to me that these protests, whether justified on the merits or not, mark another significant milestone in the race to destroy our nation’s culture. A culture can only be said to exist if there are certain norms and rituals that bind people together. If every moment of communal life is subject to constant negotiation, if nothing is assumed, then there is no culture, only individual preference and the law.

I’m writing this in New York City, so let me give you a tiny example of what I mean by culture. If you are on the subway in New York, no matter how crowded it gets, no matter how interested you might be in the person next to you, you do not stare, try to get her attention, or engage in random small talk. The culture of the subway eliminates the awkward question of how to act when in a crowd of strangers is pressed uncomfortably close together.

Lots of little “cultures” like this exist in specific communities, among practitioners of certain religions, and within families or groups of friends. When we feel immersed in a familiar culture we generally feel happier, more at ease, more sure of ourselves. But our larger social units are losing these cultural norms, replacing them instead with a singular focus on our rights.

At the risk of being dramatic, sports—and especially football—is a ritualized form of violence. Fandom lets us vicariously feel the thrill of confronting an enemy and prevailing, or the angst of losing. But part of that ritual are the moments at the beginning and the end of games when we acknowledge that we are not enemies. This is why we make our children shake hands at the end of a game, and why it is mildly scandalous when professional athletes avoid doing so. It is also why the national anthem matters so deeply to so many. Honoring it as one means we are together and united, not among rivals. So when some of the athletes we are focused on refuse to join us in the ritual, they not only set themselves apart, but force everyone present to consider whether they want to be a part of the community of those who take off their hats and stand, who affirm that their country deserves their loyalty. The ritual is smashed, and we are left disoriented and unsure of ourselves.

The argument about free speech is irrelevant to how we feel not because it isn’t important but because it is insufficient. Rights are fundamental because they define what the state cannot do to us. Donald Trump cannot have anyone arrested for kneeling during the anthem. The government cannot ban the NFL from the airwaves until the anthem protests cease. They also serve as a guide to how we should make decisions. Though NFL owners have the ability, legally, to fire a player for protesting, the fact that we have enshrined free speech as a right can and should make them more hesitant to do so. But our law and legal traditions can only define what can be done, not what should be done. And it is our feelings about what should be done, about what is proper, that defines our emotional response to the actions of others.

This is closely related to the idea of the “realm of manners”: that there is a level of society between individual freedom and legal compulsion which defines our daily interpersonal obligations, but is only enforced by how those around you perceive, judge and treat you. But we have lost the ability to simply dismiss someone as a boor or a rascal (how old-fashioned those words sound!) and to ignore them, denying them entry into certain rarified areas of society.

Our egalitarianism has eliminated many of those rarified domains altogether, and undermines the prestige of those that are left. And our recent fetish for non-judgmentalism teaches us to ignore behavior that is crude or offensive but “legal”. Someone can be nasty and crude, but if they are on the right side of the law (and especially if they can be portrayed as the victim of some sort of –ism or –phobia) the behavior is forgiven if not outright condoned.

But because we have lost the ability to check bad behavior with these non-legal mechanisms, we’ve both made life less pleasant and increased the intrusion of the law into places where it is a blunt and unsuitable instrument. We have no common culture that guides behavior, but cross certain lines—or just cross a particularly litigious sort of person—and you’ll find yourself in court.

One common rejoinder, one made by writers I respect like Jonah Goldberg, is that we all need to have a thicker skin. But we can’t have a thick skin all the time or we will (almost literally) become calloused individuals—hard and rough. We need places where we feel at ease, where we know the unwritten rules and can expect others to follow them. As our culture frays, we have fewer such places. Sports has now left the realm of manners and entered the realm of law, which is—at best—an awkward fit.

Exacerbating the problem is that, against its many virtues, one of the weaknesses of democracy is that it is unable to create culture. In a monarchy, the behavior and preferences of the royal family and aristocracy become cultural norms. (I’m reminded of the story I was told in high school Spanish, that the difference between pronunciation in Spain versus most Latin American countries is due to courtesans copying King Philip’s lisp.) Because democracy gives everyone an equal voice, it is not well-suited to create non-compulsory traditions that have deep meaning and the power to bring people together. So we are losing our cultural inheritance, and have no source of new cultural norms to replace it with.

If I am honest, I can’t admit much hope that we will restore our nation’s cultural cohesiveness any time soon. But maybe that shouldn’t be the goal. Maybe we should try to rethink our politics so that the little cultures I mentioned can grow stronger, with less interference from on high. What that will require, though, is acceptance of sub-cultures in our midst that we don’t particularly like, a kind of benign disdain that we don’t believe in today. I’d like to think we can get there, but intensifying cultural warfare seems more likely than cultural armistice.

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Two Murdered Women

Steinle and Heyer

Two years ago, Kate Steinle was murdered in San Francisco by an illegal immigrant, and Donald Trump used that tragedy to fuel his rise in the Republican presidential primaries. A bit over a week ago, Heather Heyer was murdered in Charlottesville by a white supremacist, and he was much more circumspect, talking about bad people on both sides, and saying he wanted to “know the facts” before he spoke out.

I find it pathetically predictable that Donald Trump would act hypocritically in this regard. He is a lousy person and a horrible president, and it will be a relief when he no longer darkens our public life. Using a murder as material for his rambling campaign rally speeches will, sadly, rank low among the many indecencies he has inflicted upon our country, but it is worth remembering he did so.

Donald Trump at least has his cynical reasons for amplifying one tragedy while rationalizing the other. But there are millions of people throughout this nation who aren’t trying to get elected, and yet seem unable to resist the temptation of doing essentially the same thing, either to support their side’s narrative, or because they don’t even realize they’re buying into a narrative at all.

The Narrative, the new term for what used to be called the “party line”, corrodes both decency and clear thinking. People see the narrative being pushed by their opponents and react to it with scorn, while not appreciating that the other side is seeing through their narrative in the same way. Not only are liberals and conservatives talking past each other, they both are increasingly disgusted with the cynical manipulations of the opposing group, while ignoring their own side doing the same thing.

Here’s a classic example: Treasury Secretary Mnuchin was called upon to resign by some of his fellow Yale alumni, and responded with a press release that was celebrated by many on the right as a takedown of the liberal narrative. (In the interest of clarity, I will say that “Trump is a Nazi” is narrative, not truth.) Look at how Mnuchin concludes his piece:

“Our President deserves the opportunity to propose his agenda and to do so without the attempts by those who opposed him in the primaries, in the general election and beyond to distract the administration and the American people from these most important policy issues – jobs, economic growth, and national security.”

Pure narrative! If you read a lot of conservative media, you’ll quickly pick up the theme that Trump is, behind the scenes, doing a pretty good job, but it is going unnoticed by all those dastardly reporters who fixate on the crisis of the day. Mnuchin’s contention that the administration and the nation are being “distracted” from this important work neglects the fact that Trump is the distracter-in-chief. (There is another narrative that Trump’s tweeting and general craziness is part of his genius plan to drive the media insane so it will discredit itself. Some commentators manage, illogically, to believe that both of these things are true.)

When a young woman is senselessly murdered, we should focus on the tragedy of that loss of life, and the absence in the lives of her family and friends. We ought to demand justice be done and allow the judicial process to work. If we believe some political action should be taken to prevent a similar future tragedy, we may use the crime as part of the case we make. (Though perhaps allow at least some period of mourning and reflection before you wave the bloody shirt.) But if one woman’s death leaves you ready to take to the street in protest, and the other leaves you shrugging  your shoulders, you have subordinated truth and moral sense to the Narrative. You have made politics more important than life and death.

One last point. I imagine someone reading this could get to this point and feel I’m guilty of moral preening. Perhaps that’s true. But the entire purpose of The Grumpy Aristotelian is to figure out how we can pursue virtue in a world that puts very little value on doing so. And it strikes me that the smug belief that only one side of the political divide is legitimate, and your opponents are either Nazis/racists/theocrats or Communists/globalists/atheists, enables people across the political spectrum to act wickedly in the pursuit of victory. I have very little hope that either group will escape its narrative bubble, but I will risk a bit of preening to add my voice to those trying to help our nation step back from the ledge.

Conservatism Isn’t Enough

Russell Kirk

I am a conservative by temperament. The things I love are old and proven, while I am resolutely skeptical that anything new is as good as its boosters claim. When someone wants to change something, my first instinct is to see the flaws in what they propose. Most people who think they can improve society, especially through law and government, are egomaniacs and hucksters who should be resisted: this I believe, and it is a belief at least as much emotional as rational.

But I also know that this is insufficient either as a moral code or as a theory how government should work. And the flaws of conservatism as a theory have become more clear to me as I’ve read one of the most authoritative defenses of conservative thinking: Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.

Kirk starts his survey with the man most commonly credited with the creation of conservatism as a coherent political theory: Edmund Burke. One of the things Burke does is offer a defense of prejudice, meaning the default cultural assumptions of most men at any given time. He argues that prejudice is the distilled collective wisdom of the ages. It may be wrong, but it shouldn’t be assumed to be wrong. There are likely to be good historical reasons for man’s reflexive preferences and dislikes. Tradition is the inherited wisdom of the generations, not just a set of cultural habits.

My vigorous head-nodding stopped a few chapters later, however, when I reached Kirk’s overview of the thought of John Randolph and John Calhoun. Kirk begins this chapter on conservative thought in the antebellum south by asking us to put aside his subjects’ views on slavery. He then sympathetically reviews their arguments on states’ rights and the needs to protect the views and prerogatives of minorities. (It is important to note that they were arguing for the rights of a minority of white men in the south against the tyranny of the more numerous white men in the north.) In the abstract, these are good and useful arguments: a government that is mobilized by a statistical majority to oppress others is an immoral government, which is why the nation’s founders implemented so many checks on the majority.

But these arguments were not made in the abstract. They were made by men seeking to uphold slavery, and who (at least in the case of Calhoun) believed that institution was a positive good. Randolph and Calhoun were wrong, and their arguments are deeply tainted by their immorality and by the evil they were attempting to preserve. For my conservative readers who aren’t convinced, imagine reading a book on liberal thought that approvingly cites Stalin’s insights on eliminating inequality and building a socialist state, while trying to dismiss the Gulag and mass starvation of dissident populations as incidental to his brilliant thinking.

I’m not, by the way, trying to say that we have nothing to learn from men such as Randolph and Calhoun. In fact, we conservatives can probably learn more from them than we can from Burke, because reading Burke will largely leave us reassured in our beliefs. But if we can look at the arguments of a man like Calhoun, accept that they are, to some extent, our arguments, and see how they led him to support evil, then we can refine those arguments to avoid his fate, or at least be more wary about the dangers of our position. Celebrating tradition is often good, but the wisdom of our ancestors is indeed imperfect and carries within it the same sinfulness that taints every other aspect of life on earth.

Similarly, we conservatives should be wary when we hear our fellows decry the unique awfulness of modern culture, or describing the moment as uniquely threatening to religious belief, or writing off our entire government as a wicked brew of corruption and incompetence. It does not take a great deal of historical knowledge to unearth the cultural failings of past ages, or find times when it was much more dangerous to be a believer (even if it was other believers doing the persecuting in those days), or revisit the depths to which our government and others have sunk in the past.

Conservatism, by itself, offers the possibility of resisting novel forms of evil and stupidity, while accepting the preservation of evil and stupidity from our past. More is needed. If, like me, you wed your conservative temperament to Christian faith, then what is needed is the prayerful discernment to know what in modern life is truly wicked versus what is simply new and uncomfortable. It is worth remembering that God presides over the world today just as he did when the Romans were persecuting Christians, when Protestants and Catholics were massacring each other, and when much of historically Christian Europe was overrun by murderous neo-pagans who believed they were a master race. We have not, perhaps, made much as much moral progress over the centuries as some would like to think, but neither have we sunk to an unprecedented moral low point.

There is a famous principle of conservative thought known as Chesterton’s Fence. It is based on the following quote from G.K. Chesterton:

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This is a wise principle, but sometimes conservatives forget that the fence might be outdated, or might have been erected by evil men who wanted to stop travelers on the road and rob them. It is also worth remembering that, even though a fence is torn down wrongly, it can be rebuilt. It might not be the same as the old one, and us lovers of the past may miss that which is gone, but there is a joy in building something new and good as well. We should embrace that opportunity with the same fervor with which we protect the beloved treasures of the past.

Let’s Skip to the Part Where You and I Fight

political fight

I’ve been struck by how angry much of the world seems to be. Of course, this is not a novel observation: everyone who can pluck at a keyboard seems determined either to justify why they are angry, or explain the real reasons someone else is. (If the explainers would just take people’s word about why they’re so ticked off, it might save a lot of time, but I guess that would put a lot of pundits out of a job.) At the risk of over-intellectualizing what is a primal emotion, I’d like to offer a reason why it seems like our nation—and really all of the western world—feels like two hostile armies shouting at each other across a battlefield.

We can’t handle the incredible, horrible truth that there are seven billion minds and souls just like us sharing our planet.

Think about what it is to be you. Think about the incredible complexity of emotions you feel on a daily, even an hourly basis. Think about the number of thoughts running through your head during a typical conversation. Think about the memories, the influences, the formative experiences that contribute to your sense of self. You are, quite simply, a marvel.

Now think about how hard it is to fully appreciate and honor that complexity in the people around you. If you’re married, think of the fights you have with your spouse: you hurt each others’ feelings, misunderstand, say things that you know come out wrong and cause things to get worse. That can be either because you really can’t understand what’s happening in the other person’s head, or because you are viewing her as a tool to achieve your desires rather than as an equal. And that person is the one human being—out of seven billion!—who you chose to love and cherish and spend an entire life with.

Now think about that guy you hate at work.

But even the obnoxious coworker, who makes every day a little grimmer and chips away at your happiness, sanity and composure, is still recognizably human. (If barely.) You can figure out what makes him tick, navigate around his insecurities, or just figure out that it is best to avoid him near the end of the day because he’s going to dump work on you as he heads out the door.

Then there’s that guy who keeps popping up on your Facebook feed. The friend of a friend whose politics you can’t stand, who seems to delight in trolling, who has nothing better to do than argue some tedious point until you’re ready to throw your laptop through a window. It is impossible to see him as a human being, isn’t it? He’s a picture and a few typewritten words seemingly designed to piss you off.

THAT guy, that obnoxious thorn in your side, is actually a complex, contradictory mix of good and bad, just like you. But if you acknowledge that, then you have to think about why he says and does what he does, and attempt to judge him charitably. And you have to do that for everyone, which is exhausting.

Much easier to sort people into groups, label the groups good or bad, and make assumptions about them accordingly.

I’ve come to believe that many people (ok, virtually all people) simply must have an enemy, and that the best we can hope for is that our enemy is far away and not relevant to our daily lives. But in the United States we have decided the enemy is the person who voted for the other team. We loathe the guy walking down the street in the “Make America Great Again” hat, we feel a surge of disgust when we see the Subaru with the Coexist bumper sticker next to “Ready for Hillary”. We think Obama was a closet socialist who actively tried to undermine America’s power and wealth, or that Donald Trump is a budding Hitler. The people who support the other team’s leaders must be stupid or evil because…just look at them!

At the risk of being repetitive, this might be inevitable if the alternative is to be open-minded, compassionate and sympathetic to everyone, because I don’t think we can handle it or even truly believe that all those others are really sentient beings like us who operate based on complex thinking and emotion, who have a complex history who makes them who they are and colors every interaction they have every day. How many people in your life do you really think about that way? A dozen? For me, it is my wife and children, and maybe my parents, brother, sister and best friend. I try with everyone else, from time to time, but it doesn’t really stick. I categorize, stereotype, simplify and sort into easy buckets. And even though I’m aware of it and fighting against it, I feel the anger and disgust lurking when I think about the groups that I consider on the other side.

It takes effort to hold those feelings at bay, to correct them with my conscious mind when they start to bubble up. And I don’t think many people are making that effort, or even believe they ought to be. Which is why I’ve come to the conclusion that things are going to get worse.

I think when you hate your enemy enough eventually you’ll find a reason to fight him, and we’re slowly sliding in that direction. Maybe there is something in human nature that can’t abide too long a period without conflict.

The recent uptick of ideological violence on campuses across the country, the spate of racist crimes and murders, the clashes at Trump rallies, the polarization of feelings about police that have led to assassinations of officers: this is all political violence, and it is getting more frequent and more severe by the month. Intellectuals and political leaders increasingly justify or wink at the crimes committed by their side because they know the evildoers are also their most fervent supporters. To many, condemning both sides doesn’t seem like morality, it seems like cowardice or an unwillingness to stand with your team. After all, it is easy to selectively cite the outrages of the other side to make them sound worse.

People like to compare their enemies to Hitler to score cheap political points, but most forget a crucial lesson from his rise to power: it only happened because the fascists and the communists were both out in the streets, and seemed equally extreme to many people. It seemed like those groups had all the momentum, and one side or the other was going to win. A number of influential Germans ultimately decided that the communists were a greater threat, and threw their support behind the Nazis. (Yes, history buffs, I’m glossing over a lot of nuance: this is a blog post after all.) Evil was allowed to triumph because people felt they had to pick who their enemy was rather than fighting both extremes. The Aristotelian idea of the virtuous mean, when ignored, can lead to social and political disaster.

I’ve written before about the potential for the United States to split in two. That potential still exists, but I’m less than optimistic that if it happens, it will be largely peaceful, as I once thought. My current sense is that we confront four paths, only one of which avoids escalating violence.

  1. The most likely is that we have a spate of political violence similar to the 1960’s. We will have violent protests, political assassinations, domestic terrorism and maybe even small clashes between armed groups. But the vast majority of Americans will be disgusted by it, and rally around leaders who cracks down on both extremes, possibly based on a new political party. This is not a perfect outcome, by any means, because that crackdown is likely to take a significant toll on civil liberties.
  2. The second path is that we are so deeply polarized that no unifying leaders can emerge. In that case, I’d expect something like a low-intensity civil war to break out, leading eventually to a negotiated settlement that either divides the country or marginalizes one side of the political spectrum. What do I mean by low-intensity civil war? Imagine conservative militia groups clashing with liberal anarchists in unnamed “battles” that leave dozens dead, hackers launching attacks on infrastructure in the perceived strongholds of their opponents, giant street clashes over election results that are increasingly not accepted, and a federal government that can’t intervene without being accused of taking sides and triggering more violence.
  3. The third path is that our increasingly dysfunctional leadership either blunders us into a major foreign war, or we are so divided and distracted that it opens us up to a 21st Century Pearl Harbor. (I am not forgetting or minimizing the horror of 9/11, but that attack was different because our enemy had no ability to follow it up with either more attacks of similar devastation or a traditional war.) Our foreign policy has been increasingly erratic since the end of the Cold War took away the one threat large enough to focus the minds of our elites, and our current President is pretty clearly learning on the job (at best) so this is not a remote possibility.
  4. The final possibility is that the fever breaks. It is a sign of how far down the wrong path we have gone that I don’t really know how that would happen. Perhaps Trump just settles in to being a mediocre-to-incompetent President, Democrats stop protesting every decision he makes and turn instead to replacing him in four years, and we get in 2020 a moderate Democrat who tries to pass a few prominent bipartisan bills to foster a sense of unity. Or maybe the economy improves enough that people feel more optimistic and the crazies on both sides lose support and fade back into the woodwork. Just because the trends are bad doesn’t mean the trends continue. It is just hard to identify the counteracting forces that would stop them right now.

The one practical thing we all can do is to tell the people in our lives who are itching for a fight that they are being fools. That is not an easy thing to do, but I think people who are moderate (either in their politics or their temperament) hear their ideologically feverish friends and family ranting on and either ignore them or try to agree with their more reasonable points. We really can’t do that anymore. People who are drifting towards extremism need a reality check, not polite tolerance. They’re steering us all towards the cliff. Other than that, maybe we can all make a promise, if only to ourselves, that the next time we are told that we must vote for one of two depraved, corrupt potential leaders, we will demand another choice. Let’s be more afraid of supporting wickedness than of wasting our votes.

The Narrative Narrative

dude

Stories are powerful. A huge part of my life in advertising is trying to convince people that their brand shouldn’t just state facts, but should tell a story that provides meaning and context. When done well, it is undeniably effective.

So when I started to hear people talking about the “media narrative” or the “competing narratives of the campaign”, my initial reaction was to view it as a variation on this same exercise. There are too many facts to convey, people have a limited attention span, and the only way to make the news relevant is to distill it all into some sort of story.

But it is clear now, and perhaps should have been clear for a long time, that the obsession with narrative is not merely about organizing information into a comprehensible story, it is in fact a fight to establish “reality” for some social or political faction. And in fact the competing narratives of left and right are making some people behave as if they are in a different world than their neighbors and friends. When storytelling is weaponized, it becomes impossible to find a common ground in either truth or tradition. Instead we become angry that our reality is denied by others.

A good example of this thinking is this comment, from The Atlantic:

“…all truth is local, thus if you deconstruct any attempt at claiming an overarching truth, you’ll find a power grab.

This particularly applies to Trump’s relation with the media. If the media calls out one of his lies, it is seen by him and his supporters as not truth but a competing narrative—or, in today’s terms, #FakeNews. And so Trump has weaponized language, and any attempts at restraining him through shaming, appeals to tradition, and appeals to logic fall flat.”

The problem here is that the writer claims that Trump’s approach represents something novel rather than just the next, inevitable escalation of the ongoing attack on truth. If you are so trapped in the liberal narrative that you think I’m just a tool for Trump, go read about how Ben Rhodes manipulated the media into both misrepresenting and supporting the Iran nuclear deal. It’s hard to say the Republicans are making it up when it comes right from the horse’s mouth. Similarly, if a conservative can’t forthrightly admit that Trump is a liar, when the evidence for it is so voluminous, that person is in the grip of the populist narrative that Trump is just bringing the fight to the left and turning their own tools against them.

Ultimately, I trace the roots of this destructive tendency back to Plato, specifically with his conception of the “noble lie“. If you’re not familiar, the concept of the noble lie is that political leaders are justified in promoting myths if those false stories will promote social cohesion or the public good. Here is his example from The Republic:

“While all of you, in the city, are brothers, we will say in our tale, yet god, in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule, mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are the most precious — but in the helpers, silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen. And, as you are all akin, though for the most part you will breed after your kinds, it may sometimes happen that a golden father would beget a silver son, and that a golden offspring would come from a silver sire, and that the rest would, in like manner, be born of one another. So that the first and chief injunction that the god lays upon the rulers is that of nothing else are they to be such careful guardians, and so intently observant as of the intermixture of these metals in the souls of their offspring, and if sons are born to them with an infusion of brass or iron they shall by no means give way to pity in their treatment of them, but shall assign to each the status due to his nature and thrust them out among the artisans or the farmers.”

This is a notion that would probably go over pretty well in our modern meritocracy, except that our noble lies are about ourselves (like the lie that a high IQ or a good test score makes you some kind of an elite) rather than the gods. But what Plato is contending is that those with power are justified in telling lies that will increase the willingness of the population to go along with their schemes. This might be effective (if still morally unsavory) if power was held monolithically, but in our modern society everyone who aspires to power (which very much includes the media) feels justified in telling their own noble lies. And as each faction tries to supplant the others’ lies, the narratives get more strident, more divisive, and less connected to the messy, complicated truth.

We have reached the point where strong medicine is needed. If you are a writer “advancing the narrative” at the sacrifice of balanced truth, you should consider that a moral failing at least akin to any other lie. If your friend is posting memes on Facebook meant to “burn” the other side, you should consider talking to them about taking others’ views and feelings into account, or, if you aren’t willing to do that, question whether you are really friends with that person. If a politician on your side revels in lies and inflammatory accusations (especially if you enjoy it) you should withdraw your vocal and financial support from that politician until he or she reforms.

That it seems absurd to expect people to do this is the surest indication that narrative has won, and the lies we tell and believe won’t even have the excuse of being noble.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Eudaimonia

aristotle-quotes

As I age, and become more and more curmudgeonly, I increasingly suspect that a good many of the problems of wealthy democracies can be traced back to our desire to be happy. It is a mistake so pervasive that it even found its way into the Declaration of Independence. I would not deny anyone the inalienable right to pursue happiness as they conceive it, but I would highly recommend a person thinks twice before throwing himself headlong into that pursuit. For it is likely to end in tears.

Happiness, as we currently define it, is essentially a transient emotional state mixing contentment and excitement. We are happy when we go to a great concert, or eat an excellent meal, or get a promotion, or sit on some exotic beach. We are unhappy when our lives feel dull, repetitive, or (in our age of social media) unimpressive. Novelty is an increasingly crucial part of being happy, which is perhaps why we imagine the single, urban world traveller to have a happy life, while we assume the middle aged parent with no passport stuck in suburbia is much more likely to be miserable.

The practical consequence of this is that people tend to be resentful of the responsibilities and constraints that accrue in their lives as they age. They struggle to believe that those burdens have any greater meaning: sure, they tell themselves that they do, but in their heart of hearts they believe that their lives were better when they were younger and carefree, that their divorced friends have it better because they have more freedom, or that their aging bodies make life less worth living.

Perhaps if we had a better word than happiness for what we want out of life, we could avoid some of this needless misery. That thought was inspired by a column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “Forget About Being Happy”. The author, Naomi Duguid, reviews Emily Esfahan Smith’s new book, The Power of Meaning. Duguid notes that people who “feel a sense of well-being” are not chasing transient happiness, but are rather relentlessly devoted to a meaning that, “gives us the energy and the will to live and to hope.”

I completely agree with the sentiment, except that “meaning” is so, well, meaningless. If you get meaning out of dressing up like a clown and scaring people, should you pursue that? To Smith’s credit, she structures her book around an attempt to define where true meaning comes from, and identifies four pillars, “belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence.” So our scary clown would have meaning if he was in a community of scary clowns, thought scaring people was important, had a good story in his head about why scaring people is important, and felt that, in scaring people, he was serving some higher purpose. In other words, if he made a religion out of being a scary clown.

The impression I get from a lot of modern writing about living a good and meaningful life is that the writer wants to conjure up a new religion with no rules: “You have to believe in something! It doesn’t matter what!” is the stripped down message, and whatever truth there is in it is overwhelmed by the need to believe in a specific thing, not in the idea of belief.

Which brings me, at last, to Eudaimonia. This is Aristotle’s word for that which we should pursue to live a good life, and it is often translated as happiness. But it more literally means “good spirit”, and to the extent it means happiness it is the happiness of a life lived virtuously and according to reason. Aristotle famously said that we cannot know if a man possesses Eudaimonia until his life is over. If this sounds a little like Christianity saying that we cannot know if a man is a saint until after his death, that isn’t a coincidence. Aristotle is pointing to a truth that comes from a higher source then our own subjective wants and feelings, and to that Christianity merely adds that the higher source is God.

Compared to subjective, emotional happiness, the pursuit of Eudaimonia puts real constraints on us. We have to use reason to learn what is best for us (and listen to the wise who attempt to guide us) and we must cultivate virtue even when it is easier or more pleasurable not to. But just like a learned skill, Eudaimonia gets stronger the more we work at it, and we gain greater pleasure from it the more we practice it.

If you are sick of our politics and sick of our culture (as I am), it can lead to despair. What can we do about it? In the short term, surely nothing, but millions of people pursuing Eudaimonia instead of happiness will, over time, be medicine for what is sick in our world.

 

The Virtues and Vices of Tending Our Gardens

Yesterday a new President was sworn in, and today there are protests and hyperbolic declarations that the country is either on the brink of doom or the verge of a new flowering of American greatness. And I haven’t really been moved by any of it. In fact, I feel a little sorry for anyone who is so inflamed.

Perhaps this is a good time to get to Voltaire. When I was a young man, and just getting introduced to philosophy, Voltaire’s famous prescription: “let us take care of our garden,” was treated as the cynical credo of a man who has given up, a man who had washed his hands of any responsibility for the greater good. Tending your garden meant not caring about the world as long as your basic needs were met. That conclusion, I should note, was not the basis of a close reading of Candide: we didn’t actually read Candide, but rather were told about it and told what it meant.

So at first, when thinking about my discontents with our political system and its new leader, which is matched by a loathing of both the tactics and principles of those who stand in opposition to him, my desire to tend to my own garden seemed like a moral failing. And yet it seems obvious to me that our politics have become nearly perfectly cynical, and more often than not those who engage, even with the best of intentions, wind up in folly. (If you need an example, which you shouldn’t, consider the “recount” effort which was pretty obviously an effort to enrich the Green Party and raise Jill Stein’s profile.)

So I decided to go back and read the last bit of Candide, which concludes with Voltaire’s famous exhortation. Reading it in context immediately challenges the cynical reading of the line:

“Human grandeur,” said Pangloss, “is very dangerous, if we believe the testimonies of almost all philosophers; for we find Eglon, king of Moab, was assassinated by Aod; Absalom was hanged by the hair of his head…

“Neither need you tell me,” said Candide, “that we must take care of our garden.” “You are in the right,” said Pangloss; “for when man was put into the garden of Eden, it was with an intent to dress it: and this proves that man was not born to be idle.” “Work then without disputing,” said Martin; “it is the only way to render life supportable.”

The little society, one and all, entered into this laudable design; and set themselves to exert their different talents. The little piece of ground yielded them a plentiful crop. Cunegund indeed was very ugly, but she became an excellent hand at pastrywork; Pacquette embroidered; the old woman had the care of the linen. There was none, down to Brother Giroflée, but did some service; he was a very good carpenter, and became an honest man. Pangloss used now and then to say to Candide, “There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not travelled over America on foot; had you not run the baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.” “Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “but let us take care of our garden.”

There are a few things worth calling out. First, those who are tending the garden have rejected a life of ambitious political striving and its attendant dangers. This is, no doubt, where the charges of cynicism come from. If a man risks his life for a good cause, that is praiseworthy, and we need men who will do so to serve as leaders. But many people are not ambitious to serve the greater good, but to obtain for themselves power and wealth. In which case the effort and the risk taken becomes much less praiseworthy.

The second point is that they believe honest, simple work puts them closer to a prelapsarian simplicity and virtue. One can debate whether this is true, but I believe the persistent dream of many well-to-do strivers in the great cities to retire to a country farm hints that this is a deeply felt drive.

But the final and most important thought is that this is not an individual giving up and retreating to an isolated, self-sustaining redoubt. Candide, Pangloss and the rest aren’t doomsday peppers removing themselves from the world. They are a “little society”, in which each, “exert[s] their different talents.” In other words, they’ve created a community rather than each behaving as opportunity-maximizing free agents, such as we see lurking in the halls of power. They are concretely contributing to the people in their immediate orbit, rather than using political power to “help” some abstract someone far away at the expense of someone else far away.

Our country has descended into a disgusting, cynical partisanship because we are easily manipulated into worrying that the next Supreme Court decision or Presidential election will either “destroy America once and for all” or “send us back to the dark ages when no one had rights except for rich white men.” We are susceptible to these feelings because we lack a cohesive local community, and instead rely on our identification with one of the two political tribes for the meaning we otherwise lack. If we spent more time bonding with and working with those nearest to us, we might begin to heal these divisions and have a politics we can participate in without shame.

So tending our garden seems like the cure for what ails us, except it somehow still leaves me uneasy. Because if the next Hitler does start gathering power, it is a moral failing not to act to stop him. As much as I dislike Donald Trump, I don’t think he’s that. Nor do I think Hillary Clinton was that, so I felt entirely comfortable treating the election as a tragicomic bit of entertainment. But if I’m wrong, or if that dark figure emerges on some future day, I will have to rouse myself from my garden. That is the failing of Voltaire’s advice: if it cannot guide you in the most challenging moments, it cannot serve as a true philosophy of life.