Category Archives: Marketplace of ideas

The nonreading public, and the media that serve it

George Will had a good piece yesterday. It offered multiple levels upon which you could enjoy it.

There was the headline, of course: “Josh Hawley, senator-as-symptom of a broken news business.” But it’s not really about that insufferable little twerp — although you may enjoy the link Will provides toward the end (rendered above in gif form), showing him skedaddling away from his good friends in the Jan. 6 mob. (Frank Bruni had some fun with that as well, in light of Hawley’s new book, which is, hilariously, about being a man.)

It was more about… well, here’s the most appropriate excerpt:

… (T)oday’s journalism has a supply-side problem — that is, supplying synthetic controversies:

“What did Trump say? What did Nancy Pelosi say about what Trump said? What did Kevin McCarthy say about what Pelosi said about what Trump said? What did Sean Hannity say about what Rachel Maddow said about what McCarthy said about what Pelosi said about what Trump said?”

But journalism also has a demand-side problem: Time was, journalists assumed that news consumers demanded “more information, faster and better.” Now, instantaneous communication via passive media — video and television — supplies what indolent consumers demand.

More than half of Americans between ages 16 and 74 read below the sixth-grade level. Video, however, requires only eyes on screens. But such passive media cannot communicate a civilization defined by ideas. Our creedal nation, Stirewalt says, “requires written words and a common culture in which to understand them.”…

The first part of that provides a certain understanding of what is wrong with today’s political journalism, and we can talk about that all day. Will employs the analogy I’ve used a gazillion time in recent decades about how reporters cover politics the way they would sports — there are only two sides to anything, and all we care about is which of the two wins, to the extent that we care.

Of course, that’s an insult to sports, the more I think about it. Actual sports contain far more nuance, variety, color and humanity than the ones-and-zeroes coverage we get of politics these days.

But the thing that really grabbed me was this one sentence:

More than half of Americans between ages 16 and 74 read below the sixth-grade level.

It grabbed me not simply because such low levels of literacy are distressing in themselves. It’s because of the larger point Will is making, which is that in an atmosphere of such plunging intellectual engagement, we’ve seen political journalism change “from reporting what had happened to reporting what was happening, and now to giving passive news consumers the emotional experience of having their political beliefs ratified.”

And that’s the essential problem, or at least one of the essential problems. To engage with politics meaningfully and constructively requires the active mental process of reading. The passive mob, engaged only to the extent of its members’ sense of identity with one of the two sides (and there can only be two, under the current rules of the stupid game), cannot possibly maintain a healthy, vital republic of the sort our Founders established.

To be a citizen, you can’t just twitch. Nor can you merely go about feeling strongly about this or that. You have to think. And of course, we don’t see very much of that anymore…


The Hero’s Journey

Sometimes in this distracted age, our myths let us down.

I got to thinking about that this morning:

OK, I remember that Obi-Wan let Darth win. It was a deliberate sacrifice, which I’m sure means a great deal in the theology of the Force, or would if there were such a theology. For us caught up in the film, I suppose the point was that it was so important to let the guys rescue Princess Leia, and even more importantly, destroy the Death Star (remember what it did to Alderaan), that he was willing to give his life to make it happen. (I’m not entirely sure why he couldn’t do all that and beat Darth, too, but I suppose Darth needed to live so there could be another movie, and so Anakin could be redeemed in the end.)

But anyway, he lost. And in this case, I’d rather see Rep. Cheney win and You-Know-Who lose. But I guess we can’t have everything.

My point, if I have one, is that this reminded me of something I’ve thought about a good bit lately. Actually, I’ve been thinking about it for several years, but I’m not asking you to be impressed — I suppose others have thought about it for millennia. It was when I was reading Rubicon by Tom Holland.

And as always, when I read about those days, I’m struck by how much the Trojan War comes up. Over and over and over again. It’s like the Greeks just had this one story they kept going back to, and of course, the Romans — as industrious as they were in so many other ways — couldn’t be bothered even to come up with one story of their own, so they stole the Greeks’. Which was their way.

If they came up with another story — like the one about Odysseus/Ulysses — they couldn’t even separate that new one from the big one. Sure, that’s about him and his boys being lost for years on the way home — but they were on the way home from… the Trojan War.

It even comes into the Romulus and Remus story, although I’m always forgetting how exactly.

Seems like they could have come up with some other stories. But they didn’t. They liked that one, and they stuck with it. Sort of makes me feel bad that I’ve never read the originals — not the Iliad, or for that matter the Aeniad. But you see, I have no Greek beyond Kyrie Eleison, and my Latin — despite the best efforts of the legendary Mrs. Sarah T. Kinney of Bennettsville High School — remains inadequate to tackling literature. I mean, I know that Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, but I don’t know what comes next.

And yes, I know millions of people over the ages — or a lot of them, anyway — have contented themselves with translations, but it just seems that after all this time, I could have made myself learn Greek. But I didn’t, so I leave it alone. I know the basic story, though — that horndog Paris caused a heap of trouble, and it went on for a bunch of years, and ended with a fake horse. I content myself with that. At least I don’t have to study Communism or Nazism or anything to get what the war was about. Pretty basic, really, even though it’s a bit hard for a modern mind to fully grasp why most of those other people went along with having a war over it.

That’s not my point, though. My point is that I started thinking about it again lately when I read a piece in The Wall Street Journal headlined, “The Power of Our New Pop Myths.”

Yeah, I know — the paywall. Actually, it’s getting in my way at the moment, too — some problem with my password I’ve had for about 20 years. Which I’m not going to change. But anyway, the subhed is “Marvel, Star Wars and other franchises have become central to our culture by returning to a primal form of storytelling.,” and it begins like this:

And so forth. It’s sort of related to a complaint I frequently voice about Hollywood being unable to come up with fresh stories. They just keep recycling the same yarns. (How many Spider-Man origin movies have we had in the past few years?)

Kind of like with the ancient Greeks and Romans, but at least we have more than one story. There’s Marvel, there’s Harry Potter, there’s Bilbo Baggins, and Dune if you like. There’s the Matrix. All of which are at least entertaining, the first time you hear them.

And of course, between the Trojan War and Peter Parker, we Westerners who have at least paid some attention to the actual bases of our culture have had, with the help of the ancient Hebrews, the rich stories of the Bible, and a religion that speaks to me and many others of eternal verities, which if you’ll forgive me, I find even more meaningful than learning about the Kwisatz Haderach.

Which brings me back to Bishop Barron, who as you know continues to impress me with the power of his Sunday sermons.

He had a good one this week, in which he got all Jungian on the way to teaching an important lesson about what God wants from us.

His title was “Go on a Hero’s Journey,” and in it he gets into such stories as “The Hobbit.” It’s about how comfortable Bilbo was in his Hobbit hole, as hobbits tend to be, and beyond that about the inconvenient fact that that’s not what God wants. Like the dwarves who invade Bilbo’s sanctuary, and like Gandalf, he wants us to get out there and have an adventure, one that actually matters.

Anyway, I’m not going to recite the whole sermon to you; you can watch it below. I recommend it highly…

Ways to talk to each other about a tough issue

In my last post, I expressed my appreciation to Nicholas Kristof for his efforts to remind us that we can work together and find solutions, even to the hardest of issues.

I thought that today I’d share a couple of examples of how that is done. Just a couple, because I haven’t been saving them up or anything — these moved in the last few days. And they deal with the same issue as Kristof was writing and talking about — guns.

Gail Collins

I’ve praised in the past the regular exchanges between Gail Collins and Bret Stephens that the NYT posts under the heading of “The Conversation.” They’re not only instructive, but fun to read. What we have here is a pretty orthodox liberal — but with a sense of humor — and a never-Trump conservative who obviously enjoy interacting over issues upon which they disagree.

Their latest installment moved Saturday and is headlined, “One Nation, Under Guns.” This one is not a classic left-right discussion, because Stephens isn’t wedded to the extremes of the right. For instance, he says such things as:

The United States seems to have a not-so-secret death cult that believes that the angry god known as the Second Amendment must be periodically propitiated through ritual child sacrifice….


You know, it used to be that Republicans weren’t all bonkers on this subject. I remember George H.W. Bush quitting the National Rifle Association over some outrageous comments it made back in the 1990s — and the N.R.A. actually apologizing to him. I also remember when people could support the general principle of a right to bear arms without thinking it was a limitless principle, just as conservatives used to claim to appreciate the idea that rights had to carry corresponding responsibilities in a sane and civilized society….

Between her usual wisecracks (which make her fun to read), Gail seizes the opportunity to try to move her colleague a bit further in the direction of agreement:

Once again, we are in accord. But let me push a bit. If the real problem is mental health, isn’t it time to produce a big, bipartisan, Senate-ready bill appropriating a serious amount of money for mental-health treatment? Something that would let teachers, counselors, sports coaches and other caring authority figures easily summon up services for troubled kids?..

And it works, because Bret responds, “Sign me up for that. It should be a national priority, especially postpandemic.”

Bret Stephens

No, this isn’t a classic pro-gun-vs.-anti-gun debate. But that’s because they are intelligent, thinking people, not flat cut-outs who think it helps somehow to yell at each other. I bring it to your attention as much as anything to invite you to read these “Conversatons” regularly, if you can get past the paywall. (I subscribe, so I don’t have that problem. I assure you I have found the subscription worthwhile, although it’s not cheap.)

For a more stark contrast, check out “We Clerked for Justices Scalia and Stevens. America Is Getting Heller Wrong.” It’s written by Kate Shaw (who clerked for Stevens) and

Their subject is District of Columbia v. Heller, “in which the court held for the first time that the Second Amendment protected an individual right to gun ownership.”

They both revere their former bosses, and they disagree to this day on their interpretations of the 2nd Amendment:

We continue to hold very different views about both gun regulation and how the Constitution should be interpreted. Kate believes in a robust set of gun safety measures to reduce the unconscionable number of shootings in this country. John is skeptical of laws that would make criminals out of millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens who believe that firearm ownership is essential to protecting their families, and he is not convinced that new measures like bans on widely owned firearms would stop people who are willing to commit murder from obtaining guns.

Kate Shaw

Kate believes that Justice Stevens’s dissent in Heller provided a better account of both the text and history of the Second Amendment and that in any event, the method of historical inquiry the majority prescribes should lead to the court upholding most gun safety measures, including the New York law pending before the Supreme Court. John believes that Heller correctly construed the original meaning of the Second Amendment and is one of the most important decisions in U.S. history. We disagree about whether Heller should be extended to protect citizens who wish to carry firearms outside the home for self-defense and, if so, how states may regulate that activity — issues that the Supreme Court is set to decide in the New York case in the next month or so….

But they agree on one important thing: That Americans, from lawmakers to the rest of us, have misunderstood Heller, and seen it as a barrier to effective gun control, which it should not be.

Heller does not totally disable government from passing laws that seek to prevent the kind of atrocities we saw in Uvalde, Texas. And we believe that politicians on both sides of the aisle have (intentionally or not) misconstrued Heller. Some progressives, for example, have blamed the Second Amendment, Heller or the Supreme Court for atrocities like Uvalde. And some conservatives have justified contested policy positions merely by pointing to Heller, as if the opinion resolved the issues.

Neither is fair. Rather, we think it’s clear that every member of the court on which we clerked joined an opinion — either majority or dissent — that agreed that the Constitution leaves elected officials an array of policy options when it comes to gun regulation….

They go on to quote Scalia himself in mentioning measures are not at all prevented by Heller, and that could be quite effective in preventing horrific shootings.

John Bash

Anyway, I urge you to read it if you can. I think it’s a very helpful piece, and particularly hope lawmakers on both sides of the issue will read it and learn from it.

This is the way grownups talk about difficult issues — not yelling to try to shut each other up — but looking for the ways forward to solutions.

I’m going to try to be more alert than ever to such examples, and share them with you, to the extent that I can…

Can ‘baby steps’ keep guns from killing babies?

By Don Holloway via Wikimedia Commons

As y’all know, I seldom write about gun control. That’s because I have long seen the problem as hopeless. We have another mass killing, and we talk about various legislative proposals — background checks, red flag laws, whatever — and the “remedies” seem like nothing compared to what they’re up against.

What they are up against is a number: 400 million. That’s how many guns we have in this country in private hands. We have 329.5 million people, and 400 million guns. As long as that is the case, anybody who is really set on getting his hands on a gun — including the monsters who have the urge to go shoot up a school — will be able to get one. It’s an economic problem: Too many lunatics chasing too many guns.

And of course, reducing the number of guns is just the most extreme, most politically impossible gun control measure of all. It’s the “horrible” thing that the most extreme defenders of the bloody status quo raise to argue against even discussing doing anything about the problem: They want to take our guns!

Of course, sensible people who want to do something always immediately say, Oh no! We don’t want to do that! as they trot out another idea for incremental change. Another idea that, in my view, will do nothing to prevent something like what happened in Uvalde, Texas.

But I’d love it if y’all could convince me I’m wrong, because God knows we’ve got to do something. And it seems the place to start would be at a point that lies somewhere in the vicinity of being politically possible.

Nicholas Kristof has tried to convince me a couple of times lately. Remember how I mentioned running across a column from him in another recent post? Well, that column was headlined “These Gun Reforms Could Save 15,000 Lives. We Can Achieve Them.” A headline like that sort of demands that a pessimist like me listen to what he has to say. Because while we might not save everybody, it would be profoundly worthwhile to save 15,000 lives. Which would be about a third of annual gun deaths.

After I saw that, I listened to a Kara Swisher podcast in which her guests were Kristof and another guy named Frank Smyth. I wasn’t familiar with Smyth — a gun enthusiast who isn’t afraid of gun control, and author of The N.R.A.: the Unauthorized History — but he seemed to be a pessimist along the same lines as me:

There’s no — I don’t see any hope for gun reform now despite this disgusting shooting and these series of shootings and the racist shootings and other shootings by incels and others by different motivations, but the common denominator is easy access to guns….

Kristof disagreed. He thinks taking what Smyth called “baby steps” is worthwhile:

I would say that when you’re already 400 million guns out there, then simply dealing with new guns has limited effect, but you were critiquing baby steps. And I just wanted to speak in favor of baby steps.

I think of a model for — whenever I write about gun policy, then people — I get hostile emails. People say, look, cars kill about as many Americans each year as guns do, and you don’t ban cars. No, but cars are a great example of the public health approach that we should be taking with firearms, and since 1921, we’ve managed to reduce the fatality rate per 100 million miles driven with motor vehicles by more than 90 percent. And it was no one thing. It was a whole series of baby steps. It was — [“seatbelts,” Kara Swisher interrupts to say, before Kristof resumes] — It was airbags. It was padded dashboards. It was divided highways, better lighting. It was roundabouts rather than left turns, and the graduated driver’s license, crackdowns on drunk driving. And I think in the same way that there are baby steps in the world of firearms that they’re not going to be transformative overnight, but I think they are politically feasible. And I think they would save lives and, perhaps, turn the trajectory around…

That makes a great deal of sense to me. Kristof almost always does. Which is why I hope he’ll soon be back at the NYT on a regular basis.

Kristof is very consistently what I strive and too often fail to be.

All my life, I’ve believed in reasoning with people, that’s it’s something that makes a difference. It’s a belief that our system is based upon here in this country. And too few people believe in it now, which is why the system is falling apart.

This belief is what undergirded my newspaper career, and it’s what this blog is about. It’s about having a place where people with different views can discuss issues in a civil and constructive manner. It’s been an uphill battle making that happen since I started blogging 17 years ago, and it’s gotten worse lately.

But I’m going to keep trying. Nicholas Kristof keeps trying, even after he was barred from running for office after he gave up a spectacularly successful career in order to do so. He’s a guy who says things like this:

This will be painful for many of my fellow liberals, but I suggest that we work harder to engage centrists, talk about “gun safety” rather than “gun control,” and jump into the weeds. Social scientists suggest “complexifying” an issue to reduce polarization, and, sure enough, I find that I can (sometimes) have productive conversations with gun enthusiasts if we focus on technocratic details….

A guy like that is worth listening to, worth engaging with. And thanks to him, I’m going to try to be more optimistic on gun control. Saving a third of the people who die unnecessarily due to guns in this country is a worthwhile objective. Saving just one of those children who were murdered the other day would absolutely have been worthwhile.

So I’m willing to try. How about you? As Kristof says in his column:

The truth is that we’re not going to ban guns in the United States any more than we ban alcohol, motorcycles, hunting knives, cigarettes or other products that can be deadly. Screaming, maximalist fights about “gun control” versus the “Second Amendment” have created a political stalemate as we continue to lose 45,000 lives a year to guns. That’s 123 lives lost a day.

This does not happen in other countries. Japan typically loses a single-digit number of people to gun murders in a year; we lost twice that in a single school on Tuesday…

So let’s do something…

Yes, we do have a ‘scorn problem’…

Thought I’d share this op-ed piece I found in the NYT this morning.

It’s pretty much dead-on in describing the problem, as I frequently try to point out here on the blog. I also try to address the problem by providing a civil forum for discussion — a project that is, at best, a work in progress. Ahem…

Anyway, the headline is “America Has a Scorn Problem.” Here’s an excerpt:

A Scientific American report on political polarization noted that Americans increasingly hold “a basic abhorrence for their opponents — an ‘othering’ in which a group conceives of its rivals as wholly alien in every way.” It continues, “This toxic form of polarization has fundamentally altered political discourse, public civility and even the way politicians govern.” A 2019 study by Pew said, “55 percent of Republicans say Democrats are ‘more immoral’ when compared with other Americans; 47 percent of Democrats say the same about Republicans.”

We find one another repugnant — not just wrong but bad. Our rhetoric casts the arguments of others as profound moral failings….

Please read it, and discuss. With a minimum of scorn, if you can manage that… (Oops; was I being a little scornful there myself? I hope not, because I’m very concerned, and discouraged, about the problem…)

The lady writes from a religious, clerical perspective (starting with a parable from the Gospel of Luke). I do that sometimes myself. Although I don’t think you have to be a believer to act like a grownup in dealing with other people. For that matter, I’d really like to see some of our “Christian” brethren learn to get along better, with each other as well as others.

Anyway, seems to me she’s with Jesus on this point. And I’m with both of them. At least, I try to be…

I agree, but do such signs make for good neighbors?

Here’s an interesting twist on the whole business of posting political signs, a practice that you know I have embraced since 2018.

I hope the Post doesn’t mind my using the image above — after all, I’m using it to encourage people to go read the whole story, which is headlined, “Battling yard signs on a quiet corner in Alexandria.”

Anyway, obviously, I agree with the sign on the right. As you know, if I’m about anything, it’s about expressing oneself at op-ed or greater length, not via bumper stickers. And the collection of blunt, emotion-invoking blurbs in the sign on the left is definitely in bumper-sticker mode.

But it’s still not enough to make sure viewers understand what the homeowner is saying, is it?

Hence this passage from the story:

They started to wonder what that second sign, available on Etsy for $31.95, was supposed to say. Was it a direct rebuke of the idea that all were welcome in their community? Was it an attack on the messaging of the Democratic Party, which often uses such phrases as rallying cries? Or was it just trying to be funny?

Either way, many neighbors said, the dueling yard signs made public a sort of tension that is rarely articulated in an area proud of its understated brand of liberalism….

Speaking of that bit about “liberalism”… The contrast between the sign on the left and the one on the right helps illustrate a point I frequently make in passing on the blog, and which is frequently misunderstood. The sign on the left illustrates a “woke” approach — a “ones and zeroes” way of looking at the world, making emotional arguments that set up a dynamic in which one can conveniently condemn anyone who fails to agree 100 percent. The other is more of a “liberal” approach, inviting a dialogue that could, if one is optimistic (and liberalism is optimistic), lead to people on opposite sides of an issue understanding each other and maybe even finding some things to agree upon.

Unfortunately, in this case, there was no such dialogue:

The 33-year-old man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his privacy, said he moved into his townhouse on Oronoco Street in January and noticed the “Black Lives Matter” sign in an adjacent front yard. He worried it spoke for his property, too, and wanted to separate himself from the words that he felt oversimplified issues that should be discussed with nuance.

So naturally, he googled “political yard signs” and looked for a placard for his side of the yard. He found one on Etsy that perfectly expressed his beliefs, soon placing the “Simplistic Platitudes” poster on his side of the grass. He said he tried to position it as far away from his neighbor’s as possible — out of respect.

A few weeks later, the third sign appeared countering his reply, and the man realized his sign might have bothered his neighbor. But he said they never talked about it, nor did he ever try to engage them on the cultural issues he thought were better addressed in person.

“We didn’t talk a whole lot before the signs,” he said. “But I admit, I don’t think the signs were a positive step there.”…

Yeah, probably not. That’s too bad. Fortunately, the neighbor says, “we are on pleasant terms with our neighbors.”

So maybe there’s still time for talking to each other…

The Stupid Decade, and how it happened

Well, I just used up my last free read on The Atlantic — if I were to take out one more subscription, it might be that one, but I’ve really been overdoing it, so I’m holding myself back — and the piece was worth it.

One of y’all — was it Barry? — brought it to my attention the other day, and I just got around to reading the rest of it. The headline is, “WHY THE PAST 10 YEARS OF AMERICAN LIFE HAVE BEEN UNIQUELY STUPID.”

Which they have, as we all know. Or at least, all of us who were adults long enough before the last 10 years that we can tell the difference. If we were around that long, and really, truly paying attention, we know that a lot of really crazy stuff went down before the past 10 years, as a sort of a warmup, but we can tell that these last few have truly been stupid and yes, uniquely so.

Here’s a key bit that sort of sets up the piece. I include the subhed because always like to pat people on the back for citing Yeats. That poem has been profound since it was written, but more and more now the human race is living like we’re determined to act it out fully:

Things Fall Apart

Historically, civilizations have relied on shared blood, gods, and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow. But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?

Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three. To see how, we must understand how social media changed over time—and especially in the several years following 2009….

Yep, you see where it’s headed, right? We’re getting back to the Rabbit Hole.

And each time someone explores the Hole more thoroughly, I nod a little more, as it becomes clearer that this explains so much of what had been puzzling me since 2016.

You know that book I keep talking about, Sapiens? This piece makes similar observations, such as the fact that before all this stupidity, human history could be largely summed up by saying, “there is a direction to history and it is toward cooperation at larger scales.” Yep, there was. But this piece is about how things suddenly — extremely suddenly — went wrong.

I was rereading Sapiens a bit more today, and suddenly realized that Harari didn’t realize that this megatrend had hit a major snag. That’s because his book was written in 2011 (and came out in English in 2014). So the unique stupidity hadn’t kicked in yet. In fact, Jonathan Haidt, the author of this piece in The Atlantic, considers 2011 sort of the arguable “high point of techno-democratic optimism.” Then things fell apart.

Anyway, if you’re already with me on the whole Rabbit Hole thing, you don’t need to read all of this to be convinced — although you might enjoy it.

But I know some of you aren’t convinced yet, so I urge you to read the whole thing. Yeah, it’s more than 8,000 words, but as newsroom wags used to say about an overly long piece, it reads like 7,000….

I’d like to find some more books like ‘Sapiens’ to read

The most impressive bit of prehistoric art I’ve ever seen, from the Cave of the Hands in Argentina.

Or to spread it more broadly, like that — by which I mean Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari — and like some other, similar books I’ve read in recent years. They include:

  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond.
  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann.
  • 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, the sequel to the previous.

Remember how I said my New Year’s resolution was that I would finally start reading all those many fascinating books I had put on my Amazon list in recent years, and my loved ones had so kindly given me? I said I would start with the ones I received for Christmas (pictured on the post), and go on from there.

In that post, I mentioned that I had just finished, on New Year’s Eve, reading Sapiens. And stated my intention to charge forward and spend the whole year reading other interesting new books that would broaden my mind, instead of rereading things I’d read multiple times before, such as the volumes of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novel series.

So what have I been doing? Well, the last few days I’ve found myself rereading Sapiens. And I’m again being thoroughly fascinated by all the interesting things I had already forgotten, even though I had read it so recently. (An aging thing, I guess. I never had trouble in school remembering things over summer vacation. But I guess I don’t retain things that easily now, being less “impressionable.”)

Just this morning, I was reading again how we humans messed up our lives with this whole Agricultural Revolution thing. And how we couldn’t help ourselves. But this time I took time to leaf to the back to check out a footnote, and found it was referring to… Guns, Germs and Steel. Yeah, I thought I had read something else that told me giving up hunting and gathering was a raw deal… not that we can do anything about it.

There’s a connection here somewhere to my decreasing interest in the “news” of the day, and the same stupid, overly simplistic arguments about what’s going on around us being offered by “both” sides — you know, the ones and zeroes people. (Not that I ignore current events entirely. For instance, this morning I learned a lot from a piece in The Wall Street Journal about the shadow war being conducted between Israel and Iran — something I had known next to nothing about.)

More and more, I’m interested in the Big Picture. I’m more fascinated, for instance, by how sapiens outlived (and quite likely of course, killed off) the Neanderthals — except for a few bits of DNA that I and other people of European ancestry are anachronistically carrying around. That interests me more than, say, how the billionahuhs are exploiting the proletariat — or, if you prefer the “other” interpretation (among the two and only two that we’re allowed), how the job-creators are building a better world.

I’m not sure that what I’m talking about here is “Big History,” which I’ve heard a good bit about recently. A lot of that has to do with all those billions of years before our ancestors came along and started walking on two legs. And those eons seem a bit… sterile… to me. I’m more interested in the last few million years — and particularly the millennia between what Harari calls The Cognitive Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution (between about 70,000 and 10,000 years ago), and what happened in the few millennia after that, shaping the world we now live in.

The books I’ve listed at the top of this post fit right in that sweet spot. So, to some extent, does one of those books I asked for for Christmas: The Discovers, by Daniel Boorstin. I started to read it long before I developed this recent interest, and remember being impressed at his description of one of the greatest bits of “progress” that has ever oppressed us: the measurement of time. But before I finished it, I misplaced my copy, and have been wanting for all this time to get back to it.

I also want to read those novels in that small stack as well. I mean, I know what happened to Thomas Cromwell, but I’m interested to find out how Hilary Mantel tells the tale.

But I want to read more in what I think of as the Sapiens category — the story of how humans got from hunting and gathering to where we are.

I’m particularly hoping Lynn Teague reads this, and has some good ideas. She’s the only archaeologist I know, and these books fit largely within her field…

So you’re saying it’s the Raskolnikov Syndrome? Maybe, but that doesn’t explain 2016

Georgy Taratorkin as Raskolnikov in a 1969 Russian film adaptation.

As you know, people have been bat-poop crazy lately. We’ve discussed this a good bit.

It’s complicated by the fact that we’re looking at two separate developments, and sort of running them together.

I’ve been searching ever since 2016, trying to understand how this country elected — to the presidency — someone who at any previous time in our nation’s history would have been laughed off the stage the first time he stood up and said “I’m running.” A guy who had been known as a famous doofus since the ’80s. Elected to be the most powerful person on the planet.

I still haven’t arrived, although I did feel I got a lot closer to the answer when I heard that “Rabbit Hole” podcast.

Over the last year or two — starting in 2020, the year we (at least for a little while), corrected the 2016 insanity — we’ve been talking a lot about something else, which is the deleterious effect of the pandemic on human behavior.

I just read another good, thoughtful piece on that in The Atlantic: “Why People Are Acting So Weird.” It begins:

Everyone is acting so weird! The most obvious recent weirdness was when Will Smith smacked Chris Rock at the Oscars. But if you look closely, people have been behaving badly on smaller stages for months now. Last week, a man was arrested after he punched a gate agent at the Atlanta airport. (The gate agent looked like he was about to punch back, until his female colleague, bless her soul, stood on some chairs and said “no” to the entire situation.) That wasn’t even the only viral asshole-on-a-plane video that week.

In February, people found ways to throw tantrums while skiing—skiing. In one viral video, a man slid around the chairlift-boarding area of a Canadian resort, one foot strapped into his snowboard as he flailed at security guards and refused to comply with a mask mandate. Separate footage shows a maskless man on a ski shuttle screaming, “There’s nobody wearing masks on any bus in this goddamn town!” before calling his fellow passenger a “liberal piece of shit” and storming off.

During the pandemic, disorderly, rude, and unhinged conduct seems to have caught on as much as bread baking and Bridgerton. Bad behavior of all kinds —everything from rudeness and carelessness to physical violence—has increased…

You see what happened there? As you will find if you read on, most of the piece is a discussion of what’s happened “during the pandemic.” But the political problem that predates the pandemic by four years comes up as well: “…before calling his fellow passenger a ‘liberal piece of shit’ and storming off.” Do you wonder who that guy voted for? I don’t. I mean, I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure I know.

So yeah, behavior has been pretty bad during COVID, but that doesn’t explain 2016.

However, I did pick up something interesting that I hadn’t though of before, in terms of explaining the pandemic craziness, and that’s why I’m posting this. It comes up here:

We’re social beings, and isolation is changing us

The pandemic loosened ties between people: Kids stopped going to school; their parents stopped going to work; parishioners stopped going to church; people stopped gathering, in general. Sociologists think all of this isolation shifted the way we behave. “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened,” Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who studies social disorder, told me. “When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.”

The turn-of-the-20th-century scholar Émile Durkheim called this state anomie, or a lack of social norms that leads to lawlessness. “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings,” Durkheim wrote. In the past two years, we have stopped being social, and in many cases we have stopped being moral, too….

Though it’s been a lifesaving tool throughout the pandemic, mask wearing has likely made this problem worse. Just as it’s easier to scream at someone on Twitter than in real life, it’s easier to rage at a masked flight attendant than one whose face you can fully see. “You don’t really see a human being so much as you’re seeing someone masked,” Sampson said. Though one study found that face masks don’t dehumanize the wearer, another small experiment found that they do impair people’s ability to detect emotions….

I read that, and it hit me: Whoa! They mean the Raskolnikov Syndrome! Why didn’t I realize this before? After all, I’ve been thinking about it, and sometimes talking about it, since I was in college — although I don’t think I actually wrote about it until 2012. Here, in part, is how I set out the idea at that time:

I’ve long had this theory that people who do truly horrendous things that Ordinary Decent People can’t fathom do them because they’ve actually entered another state of being that society, because it is society, can’t relate to.

Quite simply, people like James Eagan Holmes are able to spend time planning a mass murder, prepare for it, gather guns and ammunition and explosives and body armor, and actually go to the intended scene of the crime and carry it out, without ever stopping and saying, “Hey, wait a minute — what am I doing?” because they’re not interacting enough with other human beings.

This allows their thoughts, unchecked, to wander off to strange places indeed — and stay there, without other people making social demands on them that call them back.

I think there’s a quality in the social space between people that assesses the ideas we have in our heads and tells us whether they are ideas worth having, or so far beyond the pale that we should stop thinking them. This vetting doesn’t have to be conscious; it’s not like you’re overtly throwing the idea out there and seeking feedback. I think that in your own mind, you constantly test ideas against what you believe the people around you would think of them, and it naturally affects how you regard the ideas yourself. I think this happens no matter how independent-minded you think you are, no matter how introverted in the Jungian sense. Unless, of course, you are a true sociopath. And I believe a lack of sufficient meaningful interaction with other people you care about plays a big factor in turning you into one of those.

Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov was the perfect case, fitting all the criteria we keep hearing about. Brilliant young mind, but he suffered a series of setbacks that embarrassed him and caused him to draw away from his friends. Living hundreds if not thousands of miles from his family, he was forced by lack of money to drop out of school. Rather than make money doing the translations his friend Razumikhin tried to throw his way, he fell to brooding in his ratty garret, or wandering alone through the crowded city, thinking — and not sharing his thoughts.

His murderous plan started with a provocative, if not quite mad, idea that he wrote an essay about — setting out the theory that extraordinary people who were destined to do extraordinary things for the world had a right, if not a duty, to step over the normal social rules and boundaries that restricted ordinary people. Had he been in contact with friends and family, they would have challenged him on this, as Razumikhin did late in the book, when he learned of the essay. Maybe they wouldn’t have changed his mind, in the abstract, but if he had been having dinner each night with his mother and sister, and going out for drinks regularly with Razumikhin, it would have been impossible for him to have carried it to the next level…

I explained further, including sharing the passage that “proved” the theory to me, and I’d love for you to go back and read the whole thing. But that’s the essence.

So yeah, the piece in The Atlantic is referring to a form of that Syndrome. Which is cool, and helpful. I feel like I understand the pandemic-behavior problem a bit better now.

This is particularly an eye-opener to me because, as an introvert, I haven’t minded the isolation of the last two years at all. I haven’t found it stressful, and in many ways — such as not going to an office every day (or at all, really) — I’ve seen it as pretty awesome.

But I had forgotten about my own theory about Raskolnikov. Now I get it.

But to repeat myself, that still doesn’t explain 2016, or the fact that so many millions of people did that again in 2020, and can’t wait to do it again in 2024, whether the pandemic is still affecting our lives or not.

So, I’ll have to keep looking. Because helpful as it is, “Rabbit Hole” doesn’t explain it all — does it?







How Will Smith brought out tribal sensibilities with that slap

I almost didn’t read this piece this morning, because of the headline, which said, “The Will Smith slap says more about us than him.”

Molly Roberts

There was nothing wrong with the headline. It perfectly fit what Molly Roberts was saying. My problem was that I misread the word “us.”

I thought this would be written from the perspective of one of the many cultural and political tribes into which our society has divided itself, and would tell us — as individuals — whether we were good or bad people based on which of these tribes the writer belongs to.

But no, it was a way of decrying the fact that we have divided ourselves this way. It invited “us” — as a society — to realize how stupid we have been to thus divide ourselves. So I liked it, and recommend it.

Some excerpts:

Some takes surely came from the heart, but a lot of others appeared to come from the head, with everyone sorting through the slew of mini-screeds online to determine what was the right thing to think. A young woman… might have balked at the sound of flesh hitting flesh, but then reconsidered when she saw a post about Black hair, and then reconsidered again when she saw another about toxic masculinity…

Society has separated into so many groups with so many identities that sometimes we spend more time scrambling to ensure we’re aligned with whichever we consider ours than we do figuring out what we actually believe. How are we supposed to reconcile our anti-violence, and our anti-racism, and our anti-anti-feminism, all at once?…

Indeed. So we have the feminist decrying the fact that Will robbed his wife of her “agency,” and reminding us that she could defend herself just fine. And inevitably we also have the advocate of “toxic masculinity” — someone we once might have referred to as “a guy” — saying, “Yeah? I didn’t see her doing it,” which leads to a thousand indignant tweets in response as the guy struts back and forth making Tim Allen noises.

And all sorts of other people anxious to demonstrate that they’ve got their minds right, according to the standards of this or that group. So we are again reminded that social media are seldom about the expression of thought, and too often about the signaling of conformity.

Or, to use the terms I so often use these days, telling people whether we’re a one or a zero.

Here’s how the column ends:

The reaction to an event so strange, so personal, really does take place in the gut, and there’s little point in trying to take it out and put it somewhere else. The way we feel about things doesn’t always have to prove that we’re progressive, or conservative, or a crusader for or against cancel culture, or woke or still asleep. Sometimes it proves only that all of us are human.

Absolutely. And as I say even more often, people are complicated

The end of work as we knew it? And is that a bad thing?

Ah, the Dignity of Labour!

The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.

Actually, the headline of this long piece I read today in The New York Times was “The Age of Anti-Ambition,” with the subhed, “When 25 million people leave their jobs, it’s about more than just burnout.”

It was actually the word “ambition” that grabbed me. It’s one of those apparently simple words that I ponder in my own strange way and find far more complicated than most people would expect. You know, like “friend” and “freedom.”

Whenever I try to apply this particular word to my own experiences in life, it occurs to me that I’m not sure I ever was ambitious — although I’m sure plenty of people thought I was — in the way I think most people mean it. I know I’m not that way now, and I look askance at people — usually much younger people, of course — who seem to fit the description.

But back when I myself was young, and eager, and I suppose hungry — and even you might say somewhat inclined to run right over people who stood in the way of what I thought ought to be done at a given moment — I don’t recall having any specific longing for this or that title, or money, or power, or status. But I did have a very strong sense that there were certain things I was better at than than I was at other things — and better at than most other people were, for that matter, however limited that range of things might have been. This guided me from position to position, occasionally. When I arrived at The State in 1987, it entered my head that the best job at the paper for someone who was good at the things I was good at, and I suppose bad at the things I was bad at, was to be editorial page editor. Eventually, others agreed, and I was doing that job 10 years later. It was a good fit, until it didn’t exist any more. So I count myself lucky to have had that chance. Not everyone gets it.

Some — Brutus and the rest — might call that ambition. Maybe it was; I don’t know. But it still seems slippery enough to me that the word grabs my attention.

But the thing is, I don’t think it’s necessarily the word that sums up this interesting piece in the NYT. It’s more about… the way work, and our expectations of it, have changed. It’s about millions of people wanting to do something else — or do it very differently — with all those waking hours.

It’s about the way the pandemic has changed things over the last two years, if course, but it also correctly notes how those changes were coming about before we all started using Zoom so much.

An excerpt:

Essential or nonessential, remote or in person, almost no one I know likes work very much at the moment. The primary emotion that a job elicits right now is the determination to endure: If we can just get through the next set of months, maybe things will get better.

The act of working has been stripped bare. You don’t have little outfits to put on, and lunches to go to, and coffee breaks to linger over and clients to schmooze. The office is where it shouldn’t be — at home, in our intimate spaces — and all that’s left now is the job itself, naked and alone. And a lot of people don’t like what they see.

There are two kinds of stories being told about work right now. One is a labor-market story, and because that’s a little dull and quite confusing, it’s mixed up with the second one, which is about the emotional relationship of American workers to their jobs and to their employers. The Great Resignation is the phrase that has been used, a little incorrectly, to describe each story.

It’s true that we’re in the midst of a “quitagion,” as this paper has jauntily termed it, citing the record number of people (4.5 million) who gave notice in November alone. An estimated 25 million people left their jobs in the second half of 2021; it’s all but certain that this is the highest U.S. quit rate since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking those numbers in 2000….

The piece isn’t always on target. It sort of gets lost in some things I find inconsequential, such as unionization among white-collar types such as the author herself. And I’m not sure such things are central to what’s going on.

But it’s interesting. If you have access (I’m never sure what people who don’t subscribe can see) and have the time to read the 4,000-plus words, I recommend it.

And after you do read it, let’s talk about it. As I say, I don’t really have “ambitions” or whatever you call them for myself going forward, but my kids and grandkids have to earn their way in this world, so I feel pretty invested still in what’s going to happen.

Here’s another good excerpt, then I’ll close:

It’s not in just the data where the words “job satisfaction” seem to have become a paradox. It’s also present in the cultural mood about work. Not long ago, a young editor I follow on Instagram posted a response to a question someone posed to her: What’s your dream job? Her reply, a snappy internet-screwball comeback, was that she did not “dream of labor.” I suspect that she is ambitious. I know that she is excellent at understanding the zeitgeist.

It is in the air, this anti-ambition. These days, it’s easy to go viral by appealing to a generally presumed lethargy, especially if you can come up with the kind of languorous, wry aphorisms that have become this generation’s answer to the computer-smashing scene in “Office Space.”…

I had to quote that because, you know, “Office Space”…

Bonhoeffer and the stupidity factor

You know how I have made this resolution to finally start reading all the good books around the house that I have asked for over the years? I don’t know how many there are, because they’re all over the place and I haven’t done an inventory.

But there’s one I need to move up on the list: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas.

I say that because something about the martyred theologian has been brought to my attention a couple of times in recent days.

It’s the fact that he considered stupidity to be more dangerous than evil. And in my book, when a guy who stood up to the Nazis and was executed for trying to rid the world of Hitler says something like that, we should sit up and take notice. Because he knew a thing or two about evil.

Here’s a quote:

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it. Reasoning is of no use. Facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved — indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied. In fact, they can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make them aggressive. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.”

This addresses a question I’ve been pondering a good bit over the past six years — since, you know, 2016. I haven’t written that much about it, because I don’t feel like I can answer my own question — and raising it just gets people so upset. So what’s the point?

Oh, I’ve referred to it in passing. Deep down in a post, you can find me saying things like, So which is it: Is Trump evil, or stupid? Or rather, since he’s obviously both, which is the main problem? What are we dealing with?

Then, of course, the next logical step is to ask the same question regarding his supporters. Because Trump isn’t the actual problem. Trump was an idiot, and a slimeball, for decades, and we all knew it. He was famous for these characteristics. But no one took him seriously. He was just some gross clown at the edges of our society. Sort of a Kardashian, or one of those people on Jersey Shore.

Then, in a complete reversal of American political history up to that point, people started voting for him. So the question becomes, what happened to them — these voters? Yeah, we’d had a long buildup of gross, mindless partisanship for two or three decades leading up to it, and a lot of it was ugly, but what caused it all to go off a cliff in 2016?

I’ve written a good bit about that. But I’ve generally avoided that one question that keeps occurring to me: Is it evil, or stupidity?

Whenever I’ve been about to tackle it with some determination, I dismiss the question as itself being stupid: Obviously, both things are at work. There’s a lot of foolishness out there, and a lot of plain, rotten meanness.

And does it matter what label we put on it? Well, yes, I think so, at least on a moral plane. Being stupid doesn’t make you a bad person, does it? And yet, people often get more offended at being called stupid than evil, don’t they?

So why go there? These folks seem angry all the time anyway; why make it worse? The thing to do is try to think of something to do or say that would make things better, not just increase the massive heap of ill feeling in the world.

In fact, that’s the last thing I want. I want to turn down the temperature, calm everything down, get people to stop being furious and start listening to each other and learn how to live together. To stop thinking in terms of ones and zeroes, and start seeing each other as fellow humans.

But the fact that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these things makes it worth trying to understand better what he was thinking. He wasn’t some idiot Twitter partisan sniping at the “other side” to elevate his own side (“You people are stupid!” “No, we’re not; you are!”). This was a thinking, spiritual man willing to wrestle with moral complexity, and to give everything in that cause.

And there he was, face-to-face with the greatest evil of the past century, if not of all history. And he sat there in his prison cell and wrote that as bad as evil was, stupidity was the greater danger.

Of course, some of why he did this is self-evident: Nazism was stupid. It was an ideology for brutish, ticked-off people, for brawlers battling in the streets, outraged at their lot in life between the wars and wanting something that would show the rest of the world how wrong it was.

But of course, it was also evil as all get-out. Which parts were mainly evil, and which parts mainly stupid? And what was the relationship between the two factors, as they worked together to make horrors happen?

Seems worth exploring. So I need to read that book…

Why I like listening to Bishop Barron

I’ve really gotten into the weekly homilies of Bishop Robert Barron lately. For instance, I just now got around to watching his sermon from Sunday, and enjoyed it. That’s the one above.

He was commenting on the foolishness of the notion that faith and science are somehow at war with each other. It’s a foolishness that seems obvious to me — I see no conflict at all. But to millions on our planet today, it seems just as obvious that there is such a conflict, and it is inherently irreconcilable.

Which brings me to something I comment upon frequently in reference to politics. Those folks see things the way they do because they subscribe to the “ones and zeroes” view of the world. Everything, and especially everyone, is either good or bad — all good or all bad — and it is our duty to choose a side and love one tribe and hate the other. Here’s a place where I commented most recently upon it. Here’s a post in which I went into it a bit more fully.

Increasingly in the discordant world in which we live, this goes far beyond politics — to culture, to aesthetics, to worldviews that aren’t really about left vs. right. In a particularly silly version of intersectionality, people are increasingly convinced that if I vote this way, I perceive reality in this way and this way and this way.

Thus they determinedly convert themselves into unthinking automata.

Yet they remain convinced that they are right.

Anyway, I’m not going to go on and on about that. (I did go on and on about it, actually, but then deleted it all as distracting from the point I mean to address). My purpose is to bring up another recent sermon from the bishop that I meant to write about over the holidays, and didn’t get to. But I’m not going to comment on it in detail. I’m just going to urge you to listen to it (embedded below), and let me know what you think about it, and we can go from there if you are so inclined. Here’s a small sample of a couple of the main points, which the bishop included in his daily reflections on the day’s readings during Advent:

Friends, today’s Gospel again tells of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. I’ve always been fascinated by Mary’s “haste” in this story of the Visitation. Upon hearing the message of Gabriel concerning her own pregnancy and that of her cousin, Mary proceeded “in haste” into the hill country of Judah to see Elizabeth.

Why did she go with such speed and purpose? Because she had found her mission, her role in the theo-drama. We are dominated today by the ego-drama in all of its ramifications and implications.

The ego-drama is the play that I’m writing, I’m producing, I’m directing, and I’m starring in. We see this absolutely everywhere in our culture. Freedom of choice reigns supreme; I become the person that I choose to be.

The theo-drama is the great story being told by God, the great play being directed by God. What makes life thrilling is to discover your role in it. This is precisely what has happened to Mary. She has found her role—indeed a climactic role—in the theo-drama, and she wants to conspire with Elizabeth, who has also discovered her role in the same drama. And, like Mary, we have to find our place in God’s story.

There’s a lot more to it than that. It’s an excellent homily. Of course, I may be prejudiced. After we watched it together, I said something about how awesome it was to my wife. She agreed, but added: “Yes, you like Bishop Barron because he says exactly what you already believe.”

And that’s true. Perhaps that suggests I need to work harder at freeing myself of my own ego-drama. In fact, I know I do. Perhaps that’s the essence of what God demands of us. But I wouldn’t want to oversimplify…

Freedom as another word

It’s hugely important, but is freedom THE word that sums it all up?

Editor’s note: Y’all, this was supposed to post last night and somehow it did not. Don’t know what happened. So here it is. I’m not going to read through it yeah again to make sure there are no “today” that should be “the other day.” Just, you know, here it is…

Yeah, I know that headline is not the lyric. But while I wanted to suggest it, I didn’t want to say exactly what Kristofferson did: that freedom is “just another word.” The thing is, it’s not just another word. It’s a pretty important word — one of the most important ones we have in our culture.

But in terms of the way we use it, I’m not sure it’s always the right word. And that’s what I want to talk about.

It’s something I think about a lot, mostly when I hear someone try to sum up what America’s all about — particularly when describing what our soldiers have fought for in this conflict or that one — and they just say that one word, and I wonder, “Is that really the right word in this instance?”

But I’m bringing it up today because of a podcast I listened to while walking a couple of days back. Actually, I read about it first, and it read like it would be a good examination of my point. I read:

Maggie Nelson is a poet, critic and cultural theorist whose work includes the award-winning 2016 book “The Argonauts.” Her newest work, “On Freedom,” pierces right into the heart of America’s founding idea: What if there’s no such thing as freedom, at least not freedom as a state of enduring liberation?

And more than that: What if we don’t want to be free? Perhaps that’s the great lie in the American dream: We’re taught to want freedom, but many of us recoil from its touch….

Nelson describes herself as a “disobedient thinker,” someone who enjoys looking at “the difficulty of difficult things,” and this conversation bears that out. We talk about when and whether freedom is hard to bear, the difference between a state of liberation and the daily practice of freedom, the hard conversations sexual liberation demands, what it means to live in koans, my problems with “The Giving Tree,” Nelson’s disagreements with the left, the difficulty of maintaining your own experience of art in an age when the entire internet wants to tell you how to feel about everything, and more.

OK, those are not exactly the things that I was thinking, but it sounded like a conversation that might go where I wanted it to.

It didn’t. In fact, some of it got pretty silly. Sometimes the conversation sounded sort of like possibly my favorite scene from “Love and Death”:

SONJA: Perception is irrational. It implies imminence. But judgment of any system of phenomena exists in any rational, metaphysical or epistemological contradiction to an abstracted empirical concept such as being, or to be, or to occur in the thing itself, or of the thing itself.

BORIS: Yeah, I’ve said that many times….

And now that I go back and read the description again after listening, I realize I should have seen that.

So let me start my own conversation about what American mean when they say “freedom,” and whether it’s the right word.

But first, three words from the French Revolution: Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Of course, freedom comes first, but it is implied that at the very least, these are equally worthy goals for a civilization. But are they?

If you’re on the right in America — or at least the more libertarian neighborhoods of the right — you will insist vehemently that liberté is what it’s all about, and the one main thing we need. Freedom, baby.

If you’re on the more woke, Bernie and AOC portions of the left, then the main thing is égalité, and we need to spend all our political energies fighting to overcome the billionayuhs and make everybody equal in every way, whether they want to be or not.

But when I look around and think about what we most need in our society, that quality that’s most painfully absent from our country, I tend to focus on the third word. We need to get along, more than anything else. Brotherhood is what we should and must pursue, or this whole experiment is over. What sort of label should be slapped on that kind of thinking? Communitarian, I suppose. Or Catholic, maybe, taking it beyond the here and now. That’s what the pope would say, and in fact did say last year in Fratelli Tutti.

But that’s not to dismiss the importance of liberty in the sense of having a liberal form of government, or the critical principle of equality before the law. But here’s the thing: We have those things in generous plenty. Our nation’s history is basically a story of ensuring and broadening the guarantees of such things. What we’re hurting for is something our system doesn’t even legally mandate, fraternité.

But that’s not my point here today. That is in fact my second digression, counting the one about the podcast. My third, if you count “Me and Bobby McGee.” If I didn’t have all the room in the world — say, if this were print — I’d be showing more discipline. Eventually. My columns in the paper would initially be written more or less this way, but when I got serious about getting the paper out, I’d ditch everything above, and the published column would start right about here, after the warming-up exercises….

In this country, in this culture, freedom is a very important concept, to be sure. It’s something our way of life can’t do without.

Unfortunately, the word is often used to excuse an abandonment of adult responsibility that might make a child in the Terrible Twos blush. It’s used to defend hating government — which means hating the system that enables us to live together as a civilization, to dwell together in the hundreds of millions without randomly killing each other. It means hating the thing that makes rights — freedoms — possible. (Here we could have a big philosophical argument — and we may — over whether the Bill of Rights were necessary. Some opposed them on the grounds that rights are natural, God-given, and that to spell them out would be to limit them. I don’t think so. And if you think such things exist in a state of nature, you need to study the record of our species more closely. In fact, have any of you read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari? I’m still reading it, but when I’m done I’m going to write a post or two about it. There’s some nonsense in it — some of it insulting, if you’re, you know, a Homo sapiens — but a lot of interesting stuff as well.)

Often, another word meant to appeal to our sense of the importance of freedom — choice — is used in our politics to defend ideas that would be a tough sell on their own. Hence abortion is sold as “choice.” So is the execrable practice of diverting public money away from public education. So yeah, go ahead and call me “anti-choice,” since you’re going to do that anyway. I certainly am against “choice” when you’re using it to mean, “I get to do any damned thing I choose to do, and I have no responsibility to anyone else concerned whatsoever.” But since I suspect relatively few of you would agree with me on both those points, I’ll just move on…

But not without saying that “freedom” gets used in exactly the same way — such as to defend otherwise indefensible things such as banning mandates on masks or vaccines. Yeah, it’s stupid and horrible, but it’s about freedom, so…

Beyond that, though, is freedom what we’re all about, in the sense of being a one-word answer that completely does the job? I don’t think it does. It expresses a lot of what we’re about, but it sort of cries out for elaboration, if you’re going to truly understand the country and what makes it what Madeleine Albright and I would call the indispensable nation, or — to use a term many of my friends hate — if you’re to explain what makes us exceptional. We can argue all day about that word, too. But my point is, when people pick a word to express that exceptionalism, they tend to fall back on “freedom.” Which I don’t think gets the job done. (And of course, a lot of you who are offended by “exceptionalism” think people who believe in it are idiots who want to oversimplify anyway, but that’s another side argument.)

Let’s look at our history, starting with the Revolution. Of course, as long as I’m being picky about words, in my mind, “revolution” has always been a bit of a misnomer. Compared to real revolutions like the French or the Russian, it’s pretty tame stuff. It wasn’t about the peasants rising up to overthrow the brutal overlords (or however those folks saw their elites). Basically, the guys who were already running these colonies wanted to be left alone to run them, and didn’t like the way London — the Crown or Parliament or whomever you want to blame the most — was interfering.

If you want to go by the best-known oversimplification of the time, it was more about representation than freedom. (And no, my libertarian friends, it wasn’t “no taxation.” It was “No taxation without representation.”) You can say they wanted to be free of the king. But if I recall correctly (and I confess that in college I studied the period right after the Revolution far more closely than that just before), they had very much liked being British subjects, but they felt like they were starting to lose some of the benefits of that status. Hence the fight for independence.

Let’s move to 1861. In the great scheme of things, that was certainly about freedom. But interestingly, most of the soldiers were fighting not for freedom for themselves, but for the freedom of other people who weren’t even allowed to take up arms until late in the process. Also, I’m not sure how many of those fighting — or supporting the fighting on the homefront — would have said that’s what they were fighting for. But certainly “freedom” played a huge role in the memes of the day, and with more justice than during other periods of our history.

In later conflicts, we saw that pattern repeated. Often, Americans fought and bled and died for freedom — but as often as not (in fact, probably more often than not) it was for other people’s freedom. Which is one of the most exceptional things about us.

Take WWII. When the Japanese attacked, were they trying to take over the United States and repeal not only the Bill of Rights, but the Constitution? Or were they just trying to grab as much of the western Pacific Rim and its resources as they could, and correctly saw us as an obstacle to that? And the Germans were certainly taking the freedoms of Europeans, but at what point was there ever a real possibility of their marching into Washington or New York? Had Hitler won the war, I think the U.S. would have existed in a less free world, and that would have put huge strains on our own system. (Like the Cold War, only much worse.) But was it really about our freedom?

This brings us to Afghanistan. If you’re an Afghan woman, you bet it was about freedom, and you can rely on someone like me to use that reason a lot in explaining why we needed to be there. And I’m not trying to mislead you: I’m a big believer in using our strength to help oppressed people everywhere, when possible and practicable. You may have noticed that.

But is that why we were there? No. The Taliban had allowed their country to be used as a safe base for, well, the Base, and that presented a shockingly demonstrated physical threat to the United States — the kind of threat to which an oppressive country would likely have responded more or less as strongly as a “free” one.

Mind you, I’m not saying “freedom” is a bad word for what we’re about. I’m just saying we’re about so much more.

It’s kind of like “democracy.” People use that much the way they use “freedom.” But if I thought “democracy” summed up what our system is all about, I’d be slightly alarmed. I’m not a fan of direct democracy. I think having a system in which we all voted online on yes or no questions regarding major policy issues would be utterly insane. What we have is something more accurately described as “representative democracy” (to bring up that concept that seemed so important at the time of our revolution) or, in a Madisonian sense, a republic. And thank God for that.

This bothers those who smell “elitism” when they hear things like that. Well, their noses aren’t working right. I don’t believe for a moment that people who are elected to make decisions are by definition wiser, or in any other way better, than those who elect them (although I certainly respect them more than people who say they “hate politicians”). It’s about the process more than the people. If you just grab people at random off the street, and send them to Washington to study issues and engage in debate with people of various views, you will get better laws than if you simply ask those people on the street to state their uninformed, gut preference on a complex issue (which is why I’ve always hated “man-in-the-street” interviews — they make me embarrassed for the human race).

This is why I am so dismayed by Trumpism, and the extreme partisanship that was ruining our politics before Trumpism. When you go out of your way to elect people who are so aggressively idiotic that they will not engage in debate in good faith, the system cannot possibly work, no matter how “free” we say we are. (I’m stopping myself here from returning to another tangent, about the “freedom” to refuse vaccines and not wear masks, thereby killing thousands of your neighbors and destroying our economy. If you use “freedom” that way, you are definitely on the wrong track.)

Bottom line, I’m an American, and I cherish my freedom. It is worth fighting for and dying for, and I am profoundly grateful for everyone who has ever done that. Which anyone who has followed what I write knows. The least the rest of us can do is speak up in favor of it.

But does the word by itself sum up what I love about my country? No. You have to use other words as well, carefully and thoughtfully. And you have to insist that when people say “freedom,” they use it correctly and respectfully. Or else you’re missing what our country is about.

Speaking of words, I’m going to stop at 2,464…

Gail Collins and Bret Stephens take on the Rabbit Hole problem

You ever read “The Conversation,” a weekly opinion feature in The New York Times? It’s very good.

It just consists of two Times opinion columnists — former NYT Editorial Page Editor Gail Collins and former Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens — kicking around a number of issues of the day, and having fun doing it. Even more than that, enjoying each other’s company. (I use “company” loosely — I think what they’re doing is writing back and forth to each other via email or instant messaging. If they’re just talking and saying these things, they’re both even smarter than I take them to be.)

Even though one represents the “left,” and the other the “right.” More than that, they represent different generations — she is 28 years older.

Gail Collins

It helps that she is known for her sense of humor (not always a thing in great supply among former EPEs) and he is a particularly thoughtful never-Trumper. In other words, neither is a representative of what you see today screaming at each other from either end of the spectrum. She’s more of an old-school liberal than “woke.” He’s more of a Buckley-style thinking conservative than a troglodyte.

They do disagree. It’s just that they show us how civilized people disagree. That’s something we used to see all the time, but now it’s rare, and worth seeking out.

Anyway, I recommend the feature. I particularly enjoyed this week’s, in part because they touched upon the whole Rabbit Hole thing that I’ve spent so much time worrying about. An excerpt, as they were speaking of the collapse of consensus in the country:

Bret: Largely agree. There’s a small academic field called neurohistory, which uses neuroscience to help us better understand the distant past.

Gail: I love it when you expand my vocabulary. OK, “neurohistory” is my word for the day.

Bret: The field deserves more attention, because maybe the most important event of the past 20 years wasn’t how we changed the world, for better or worse. It’s that we created algorithms and digital platforms that scrambled our brains. The new technologies have shortened our attention spans, heightened our anxieties, made us more prone to depression and more in need of outside validation and left us less capable of patient reflection and also less interested in seeking out different points of view. It’s no accident that Trump’s favorite outlet was Twitter: The medium is perfect for people who think in spasms, speak in grunts, emote with insults and salute with hashtags.

Gail: Probably the biggest transformation since America got national mail service and people suddenly learned what folks in other parts of the country were really thinking….

A lot of people worry about whether our republic — or other Western-style liberal democracies — will survive. Well, this is the biggest reason it’s endangered. (You can make a case, of course, that the problem is rampant stupidity, but what we’re talking about here is the cause of that cognitive dysfunction.) Stephens takes it to another level, and questions the ability of our whole species to survive the Rabbit Hole, although he doesn’t use the specific term.

Bret Stephens

I think he’s right. We’re in a cognitive crisis. Technology has gotten way out ahead of our brains’ ability to evolve to deal with it constructively.

Ms. Collins disagrees, as is her wont. She basically says, Hey, kid, you don’t remember when things were really bad. After all, she remembers (better than I, since she’s eight years older) living in a country in which, for instance, racism actually was systemic.

But I think on this one Stephens has the stronger point. In any case, it’s enjoyable to watch while they kick it around, as usual. In days such as these, it’s balm for the soul to witness this sort of disagreement.

No hate-crimes law? That’s actually a good thing…

The state Chamber of Commerce and other backers of hate-crimes legislation at a recent presser.

The state Chamber of Commerce and other backers of hate-crimes legislation at a recent presser.

I just saw this story in the Post and Courier about the legislative session ending without a South Carolina hate-crimes law being passed.

Well, that’s a good thing — although I’m sure my relief will be short-lived. It’s only a matter of time before pressure from peers and well-intended others — we’re one of only two states without such a law — will have the effect I oppose.

Yes, I know that the motives of those who want such a law are generally kindly, and the motives of many (if not most) people opposing it are abhorrent.

Nevertheless, I’ve opposed the idea as far back as I can recall — here’s a post on the subject from 2007 — and I believe my reasoning is as sound as ever.

This is America, a country where we don’t criminalize thought. We punish actions, not attitudes. There’s a very important reason why all those seemingly different concepts — freedoms of religion, speech, press and assembly — are squeezed together into the very First Amendment to our Constitution. They all assert one thing: They say the government can’t interfere with our freedom of conscience. We get to believe what we want and say what we want and write what we want and hang out with whom we want. And we have a legitimate gripe against the government if it sticks its nose in.

I know that many people feel strongly that such a law is needed. But their arguments don’t add up to anything that outweighs the values expressed in the First Amendment.

I’ve written about this a number of times in the past. I summed up my position fairly succinctly in this comment back in 2009 (which I later elevated to a separate post):

Such things should not exist in America. That’s one of the few points on which I agree with libertarians. Punish the act, not the thought or attitude behind it.

Oh, and I assure you that when I agree with libertarians on anything, I strongly doubt my conclusion, and go back and reexamine it very carefully. But this position has stood up to such scrutiny.

Perhaps you can offer something that will shake my certainty, although at this late date it seems doubtful. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard all the arguments, and while I’ve often admired the sentiment involved, I end up shaking my head at the logic.

But have at it…

Do you ‘ache’ for these ‘cesspools?’ If so, why?


Here I go again asking whether you yearn to get out there amongst ’em — however you define “’em.”

And trying to understand it.

See the headline above. The picture — which I loved when I saw it a couple of weeks ago (the guy with his fist in the air seems to think he’s Henry V or something — once more unto the breach!) — is of a particularly silly event that many seemed to enjoy. Here’s the original story about it, from late April.

Anyway, the event and the apparent enjoyment it provided inspired one Galadriel Watson to wonder why: “What do we get out of them that’s worth exposure to hundreds or thousands of strangers?”

I read it today because I can’t imagine. I have no pacifistic objections to battling over the name “Josh,” particularly with pool noodles. I just don’t know why anyone would want to get out into any crowds, at any time, for any reason — concerts, street protests, eating out, what have you. Not that I haven’t willingly done it myself — I have no crippling fear of crowds. But when I have, the presence of the crowd is usually a strong argument against attending the event — one that must be overcome by a stack of positive considerations that overcome it — not a favorable feature.

Knowing that many people feel otherwise — and “feel” is the proper word, since I can’t imagine thought being involved in this impulse — I read it in part looking for a passage saying “not everyone feels this way,” and looking for the explanation of that, as a way of answering the subquestion, “What’s wrong with me?”

And sure enough, she mentions introverts, but the “expert” she quotes gets it wrong:

It doesn’t even seem to matter if you’re an extrovert or introvert. Tegan Cruwys is an associate professor of psychology at the Australian National University and a clinical psychologist. She said, “Personality might affect the kinds of events and social groups that appeal to you — for example, music festivals versus gaming conventions — but there is no evidence that these social phenomena only apply to extroverts. Introverts are not asocial.”

I beg to differ, based on actual, personal experience. It’s not that I’m asocial, or antisocial. I am, after all, a communitarian. At least in the abstract, I love the whole community. That doesn’t mean I want to be packed in with the whole crowd like a sardine.

I go into a crowd the way one enters a survival course — as an ordeal to get through. What is my exit strategy? Where are the bathrooms? (No, real bathrooms; not port-a-potties.) Is there food that I can eat, or will it be the usual junk one finds at such dubious gatherings? This is sort of perverse, but I’ve been known to approach some crowds willingly as a challenge, as a way of testing myself. For instance, I have this thing about liking to go shopping at Harbison on Christmas Eve, just to take pride in my ability to avoid the traffic as much as possible, walk from convenient parking rather than wait an hour to park at the mall itself, etc. And then congratulating myself upon arriving home the same day.

Yeah, I know that’s weird. But I think wanting to go into crowds in general is weird.

Anyway, this article did not reassure me about the motives for liking such gatherings being positive. It said things like:

  • “As a human, you have ‘a very primitive desire to feel like you’re a part of a larger collective’…” Yeah, I’ve noticed. That’s what gives us all this insanity of people seeing political parties or movements as their tribes. Very primitive, indeed.
  • “Large events also reinforce our sense of identity…” Yeah. Exactly. It’s so heart-warming to find yourself in a crowd of like-minded white supremacists, for instance. This is a portal into my dislike of Identity Politics, but I’ll close it and move on…
  • “This idea of ‘us’ also provides a sense of security. ‘I’d be more inclined to look out for you…'” Sure. Because you’re one of my “tribe.” To hell with those “other people…”

And so forth. None of which feels uplifting or ennobling to me, or even like fun.

Maybe y’all can give me reasons why it’s good to get out in a crowd, and make me feel like a selfish jerk who lacks something important that should connect him to other people — which is a position into which I sometimes talk myself.

But this article didn’t do it.

Anyway, have at it. Good luck…

I see the GOP just did an amazingly shameful thing. Again.


This is a screenshot from video of Rep. Cheney speaking after the vote, which you can watch by clicking on the image.

That’s essentially what I said on Twitter this morning about the Liz Cheney thing, and started to move on to other topics.

But perhaps we should pause on that one for a moment, seeing how I may have been a trite too dismissive of the significance of this moment in American political history.

Perhaps we should contemplate what Tom Friedman had to say in his piece, “The Trump G.O.P.’s Plot Against Liz Cheney — and Our Democracy.” He wrote it before what happened this morning, but with full knowledge of what would happen. And as ominous as it sounds, he may have been on the money:

One of America’s two major parties is about to make embracing a huge lie about the integrity of our elections — the core engine of our democracy — a litmus test for leadership in that party, if not future candidacy at the local, state and national levels.

In effect, the Trump G.O.P. has declared that winning the next elections for the House, Senate and presidency is so crucial — and Trump’s ability to energize its base so irreplaceable — that it justifies both accepting his Big Lie about the 2020 election and leveraging that lie to impose new voter-suppression laws and changes in the rules of who can certify elections in order to lock in minority rule for Republicans if need be.

It is hard to accept that this is happening in today’s America, but it is.

If House Republicans follow through on their plan to replace Cheney, it will not constitute the end of American democracy as we’ve known it, but there is a real possibility we’ll look back on May 12, 2021, as the beginning of the end — unless enough principled Republicans can be persuaded to engineer an immediate, radical course correction in their party….

Indeed. Let’s focus on that bit about these twits saying that this action against the one prominent person among them willing to speak the obvious truth is crucial to “winning the next elections for the House, Senate and presidency.”

Not for long, though. I only have this to say about it: If that’s what they believe and assert — which they have done in the last few days, in a Orwellian effort to “justify” what they’re doing to Rep. Cheney — well then none of them should ever be elected to anything, ever again. As you know, I’m willing up to a point to accept certain behaviors by elected officials that are meant purely to get them elected or re-elected, if they are worthy people otherwise. Because if you don’t get elected, you can’t do any good for anyone.

But sometimes, the thing you’re willing to do proves that you are not a worthy candidate. For instance, Lindsey Graham struggled for years to keep the yahoos from tossing him out so that he could stay in office and push hard for sensible immigration policy, or for dialing back the partisan madness that was undermining our method of selecting federal judges. But when you just give up completely, and commit yourself with slavish devotion to the worst person ever to hold high office in the country, you completely abandon any argument that the nation is better off with you than without you. Obviously, you should no longer hold office.

And any Republicans who want Donald Trump to have anything to do with their party, and are willing to embrace his outrageously destructive Big Lie in order to achieve that, are people who should not only lose the next election, but the one after that, and every election to come.

Friedman’s column continues with the ways Republicans are, across the country, trying to undermine our electoral processes so that no one can ever trust them again. In our Identity Politics era, much of the attention has been on the GOP’s efforts to discourage voting by People of a Certain Color. As dastardly as that is, it’s hardly the whole story. Writes Friedman:

There are also the new laws to enable Republican legislatures to legally manipulate the administration and counting of the votes in their states….

We’re talking about new regulations like the Georgia law that removed the secretary of state from decision-making power on the State Election Board, clearly aimed to curb the powers of the current secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, after he rejected Trump’s request that he “find” 11,780 votes to undo Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia….

As Stanford University democracy expert Larry Diamond summed it all up to me, while we’re focusing on Liz Cheney and the 2020 elections, Trump’s minions at the state level “are focused on giving themselves the power to legally get away with in 2024 what the courts would not let them get away with in 2020.”…

I’m probably close to getting in trouble with the copyright attorneys at the NYT, but I assure you I’m not trying to steal anything; I’m trying to help Friedman spread the alarm. I strongly urge you to go read the whole thing (and everything else you can find from honest, knowledgeable sources), and if they want you to pay for it, by all means pay. As I do.

It’s important because Friedman predicts that once Republicans complete the task of rigging the electoral system in their lying, malodorous favor, “both Democrats and principled Republicans will take to the streets, and you can call it whatever you like, but it is going to feel like a new civil war.”

Because what else is there to do, when our civilization is no longer held together by the rule of law, reference for the truth and profound respect for, and confidence in, fair elections?

Friedman, who covered the collapse in Lebanon, doesn’t use the term “civil war” either “lightly or accidentally.” He saw a civilized country fall apart, which is “what happens when democratically elected politicians think that they can endlessly abuse their institutions, cross redlines, weaken their judiciary and buy reporters and television stations — so that there is no truth, only versions, of every story.”

Dismiss it as alarmism if you like. Bask in the warmth of having an honest, decent, qualified president who is doing his best to serve to the betterment of his country, and enjoys high approval ratings as a result.

But keep in mind that the people who ousted Liz Cheney today have something very different in mind. They are eager to pull us all into the darkness…

Bringing back the Op-Ed page, sort of…

A random NYT Op-Ed page: Monday, April 12, 1993.

A random NYT Op-Ed page: Monday, April 12, 1993.

I don’t know whether you saw this mentioned anywhere, but the original op-ed page just died.

The other day, the current editorial page of The New York Times announced that the paper was retiring the term. There will no longer be an “op-ed page” at the Gray Lady. You may not see why this is a big deal. Op-ed pages have disappeared all over the place. The State hasn’t had one in years. In fact, The State no longer has a true “editorial page” for an op-ed page to be “op” to.

But the NYT invented the modern op-ed page, and the first one ran on Sept. 21, 1970. Of course, since five years was a long time back then, by the time I graduated J school in 1975, such pages seemed an old establishment, and every real newspaper had to have one.

A word about the term. A lot of people don’t understand it. The Times EPE explains:

It was so named because it appeared opposite the editorial page and not (as many still believe) because it would offer views contrary to the paper’s. Inevitably, it would do that, too, since its founders were putting out a welcome mat for ideas and arguments from many points on the political, social and cultural spectrums from outside the walls of The Times — to stimulate thought and provoke discussion of public problems…

Some people, I have noticed, even misunderstand it to mean “opinion-editorial” and particularly got confused when we used the term “op-ed” to refer to an individual piece that appeared on the page. As in, “I wrote an opinion-editorial for The Daily Bugle.” Well no, I’ve explained many times. You didn’t write an “editorial” of any kind. That’s impossible, since you’re not a member of the editorial board, and you weren’t expressing the official position of the newspaper. What you wrote was a guest column for the op-ed page.

This always produced an effect: A blank, uncomprehending stare. Well, I knew what I meant, and the distinction mattered to me. But life goes on.

Anyway, I mourn the loss of the “op-ed page” at the Times, even though I think the reasoning is sound. As the editor said:

In the digital world, in which millions of Times readers absorb the paper’s journalism online, there is no geographical “Op-Ed,” just as there is no geographical “Ed” for Op-Ed to be opposite to. It is a relic of an older age and an older print newspaper design…

Anyway, all that aside, I’m today reviving the concept, at least symbolically. And I’m starting with Paul DeMarco.

Some of you blog old-timers may remember Paul. He’s a physician who lives in Marion. He was one of our more thoughtful, civil commenters in the early days — the wild days when I had no civility code, never barred or deleted anything, and the unruly rambles would go on and on, hundreds of comments a day.

Paul stood out in that jostling crowd. So I was sorry to see him sort of drift away from the blog, and by the time I ran into him at a campaign event in 2018, I almost didn’t recognize him with his hat on (see below). Of course, I was so harried in those last days of the election that I was doing well to recognize anyone.

Anyway, a few days Paul wrote to me with an idea. He’d been thinking about writing guest columns for the Florence paper. And he wanted to see if I’d be interested in running some of his pieces on the blog. He sent me a sample piece, which you will see appear on the blog a few minutes after this explanation does.

I thought about it for a moment, and said sure, let’s give it a try. This was uncharacteristic of me — I’m always turning away unsolicited offers of copy by saying, “I write my own stuff.” I did this for a couple of reasons: I don’t post myself as often as I’d like these days, so this can supplement what I do offer. (Although it’s not a substitute for my own copy, as I think you’ll clearly see when I comment disagreeing with Paul’s positions.)

But I also made some caveats clear to Paul, including:

  • This is not a commitment on my part. I’m not going to run everything you send me. Even with Cindi and Warren and the other full-time, paid writers at the paper, I didn’t run everything they wrote. I didn’t run all of Robert’s cartoons. This used to confuse some people, I’m sure, but sometimes I would reach out and ask someone in the outside world to write something for us (for free) and submit it, but I would always add, “not that I’m promising to run it. I have to see how it turns out first.” An editor must always reserve the right to say “no.”
  • I’m going to edit you. Respectfully, and not capriciously. I’ll just make routine changes for style and clarity (I won’t bother to discuss replacing “over” with “more than”), and when I think you’re making an unclear, illogical or inaccurate point, I’ll discuss it with you, and it will be up to you whether to make that more substantive change.
  • I need some pictures to go with it. Which as you will see, Paul was happy to go out and shoot.

So we’re proceeding, with those rules — necessary rules on an “op-ed page” — in place.

And we’ll see how it goes.

Now, the obvious question: Will I run others on this “page?” Perhaps, now that we have this precedent. But no, I haven’t opened the gates to anyone who wants his or her own posts. I approved this plan because Paul is a good guy and I think it will be good to have him back, and he made a good pitch. So we’ll see how it goes.

I hope y’all enjoy it….

The last time I ran into Paul Demarco -- at a campaign barbecue in Florence,

The last time I ran into Paul DeMarco — at a campaign barbecue in Florence, Oct. 30, 2018.


Hunter-gatherer version of ‘You didn’t build that’

Are we really sure this farming innovation was a good idea?

Are we really sure this farming innovation was a good idea?

I ran across this quote in a WSJ review of a book about work and leisure among hunter-gatherers. A researcher in the 1960s studied a group of the few such people left, and got this quote from a member of the tribe:

“When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”

So, a culture like that one could never accomplish anything, could it? Depends on how you define that, I guess. The subhed of the review is, “If the inventions of the technological age save us labor, why do we work more than our ancestors?”

Why, indeed. Here’s what that researcher learned among this group:

He found that they managed remarkably well. Their diet was varied and nutritious. Life expectancy at birth among the Ju/’hoansi was 36; if a person was still alive at 15, he or she could expect to survive beyond 60. This was probably as good as it got in Europe until the 18th century. And the Ju/’hoansi enjoyed a lot of leisure. Economically active adults put in about 17 hours a week gathering wild plants and hunting, plus about 20 hours on cooking, child care and making and maintaining shelters and tools. This was less than half the time that the average American adult spent each week commuting, doing their jobs and managing their households…”


In Opinion pages of that same edition of the Journal, we find this headline, which is more stereotypical of what we expect from the WSJ: “Capitalism Is What Will Defeat Covid.”

I haven’t read that piece yet, but I suspect that hed was written by some young person who has killed too much meat.

I could also add that we didn’t have pandemics when we were hunter-gatherers. Such infectious diseases didn’t catch on until we started domesticating animals, working in cities, and overcrowding Lowe’s on Saturdays.

I will add this to my growing stash of evidence I’ve been collecting that suggests that this turning-to-agriculture lark that engulfed us 10,000 years ago wasn’t as great as it’s cracked up to be