Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Becoming a Communitarian: A Guide of Sorts

Lately, I've been reading a lot of Amitai Etzioni, the late Israeli-American sociologist, sometimes referred to as "The Godfather of Communitarianism," and I've come to realize that he was not a man content with mere theoretical pontifications: he was a man of action. 

Often, after describing a societal problem, he will offer readers some practical prescription. While coming up with answers to deep-seated problems may seem like a daunting task, it doesn't mean we shouldn't at least try.

All of my pieces for National Review conclude with at least a few sentences of prescriptive measures that we can take to improve our current situation. None of the measures I suggest for combating loneliness - like throwing dinner parties, joining softball leagues, or talking to people in the supermarket - are particularly novel, but they sure can't hurt. 

For a few months now, I've considered compiling a short, comprehensive list of communitarian acts that we can all employ in our daily lives. This is, by no means, a complete how-to guide, but rather, a simple blueprint for conducting yourself in a more communitarian way. While I've been putting these ideas into practice in my own life, I thought I'd share these tips and tricks with anyone interested in reading. Amitai Etzioni in his 1999 book The Limits of Privacy writes, "...we are not merely rights-bearing individuals but also community members who are responsible for each other." We ought to listen to Etzioni... 

Here are seven tips for becoming a communitarian:

1. Always hold the door for people. This is an easy one. There is never an excuse not to hold the door for someone, especially if they are carrying groceries or some other heavy objects. This applies even if the person in question is far away. When opening a door, you should always look behind you and see if there is anyone coming. This simple action can make someone's day. 

2. Acknowledge customer service workers.  Again, this shouldn't be a tall order, but unfortunately it is. I've worked as a barista, making coffee all over the city for years, and I can tell you: people can be cruel. Perhaps the worst form of cruelty is indifference or apathy. When you greet a customer, and they say nothing in response, it makes you feel utterly invisible. The people who bag your groceries at a supermarket or bus your table at a restaurant deserve to be seen. Always make it a point to greet and thank them. They matter too. 

3. Listen without inserting yourself. I've heard David Brooks articulate this point before. Often times when a friend is grieving or telling you about a problem they are experiencing, we find it useful to, in turn, respond by offering them our own personal anecdotes. This is a rational response. We are attempting to relate to them by, in effect, saying, "you are not alone." This approach, while seemingly innocuous, is actually quite selfish and me-centric. We should, instead, just listen. If a friend's cat died and she is mourning, don't tell her about the time your cat died; just listen and be with them.  

4. Avoid saying "no problem." This one might strike you as odd, but I am totally adamant about this: when someone asks you for a favor and you reply with, "no problem," you are, in effect, insinuating that there might have been a problem. Or, at the very least, you are implanting the idea of a problem into their head. Instead, you should reply with, "my pleasure." I would highly recommend reading Micah Solomon's article on this. 

5. Send the elevator back down. My dad repeats this one ad nauseam. If you take the elevator up to the tenth floor, you should make it a habit to send it back down to the first floor as you get off. This is a small deed, but a thoughtful one. 

6. Shame your friends for littering. We ought to take pride in our communities. There should, therefore, be zero tolerance for littering. Most littering, I would wager, is not deliberate. Your friend, for example, may go to toss an empty bottle of water into a garbage can, only for it to miss and land in the street. Indifferent, your friend may just keep on walking. Don't let them. Tell them to go back and pick it up. Try not to sound too sanctimonious when doing this, though. 

7. Always answer your phone. We've become accustomed to texting our friends, "can I call you later?" when we can't answer the phone. This deprives the caller of your human voice, an important part of social connection. Instead, pick up the phone and tell your buddy that you'll call him back later. I've blogged about this before here.   

I encourage readers to send me your tips for living like a communitarian. I'd love to read them! 

 


Tuesday, March 26, 2024

The Rise of TikTok Influencers: Exploring Fame and Fashion in the Digital Age


In recent years, TikTok influencers have risen to prominence, captivating audiences worldwide with their creativity, charisma, and authenticity. This phenomenon has transformed the landscape of social media, reshaping the way we consume content, interact with celebrities, and perceive fame. But what are the factors driving the popularity of TikTok influencers? What is the genesis of the mechanisms to their success, and their impact on contemporary society? We are going to do a brief analysis and breakdown.

TikTok, a video-sharing platform known for its short-form content and algorithm-driven feed, has provided a fertile ground for aspiring influencers to showcase their talent and build a loyal following. Unlike traditional celebrities, TikTok influencers often come from diverse backgrounds, ranging from amateur dancers and comedians to makeup artists and fitness enthusiasts. This democratization of fame has allowed individuals from all walks of life to attain celebrity status, resonating with audiences who crave authenticity and relatability.

One of the key reasons for the popularity of TikTok influencers is their perceived authenticity and relatability. Unlike polished and curated content found on other social media platforms, TikTok videos often feature raw and unfiltered moments that reflect the everyday experiences of ordinary people. This authenticity fosters a sense of connection and intimacy between influencers and their followers, leading to increased engagement and loyalty.

TikTok's user-friendly interface and diverse array of editing tools have empowered influencers to unleash their creativity and innovation. From choreographed dance routines to comedic skits and DIY tutorials, TikTok influencers have embraced a wide range of genres and formats to captivate their audience. This emphasis on creativity and originality has enabled influencers to stand out in a crowded digital landscape and garner attention from brands and marketers seeking to collaborate with trendsetters.

The algorithm-driven nature of TikTok's feed has played a crucial role in propelling influencers to fame and fortune. TikTok's algorithm analyzes user behavior, preferences, and engagement patterns to curate personalized content tailored to each individual user. This algorithmic discoverability has enabled lesser-known influencers to go viral overnight, reaching millions of viewers and catapulting them to stardom. The potential for virality on TikTok has leveled the playing field, allowing newcomers to compete with established influencers on equal footing.

As TikTok influencers amass large followings and attract attention from brands and advertisers, they have unlocked lucrative monetization opportunities. Brands are eager to collaborate with influencers to leverage their reach and influence to promote products and services to a highly engaged audience. From sponsored content and brand partnerships to affiliate marketing and merchandise sales, TikTok influencers have diversified their revenue streams, turning their passion into profit.

Beyond entertainment and commerce, TikTok influencers wield significant social impact and cultural influence, shaping trends, driving conversations, and advocating for social causes. Influencers have used their platform to raise awareness about important issues such as mental health, body positivity, and environmental sustainability, mobilizing their followers to take action and effect change. The ability of TikTok influencers to catalyze social movements and spark meaningful conversations underscores their role as cultural tastemakers and influencers.

Below I have provided my own take and a list of negative aspects I find to be concerning and detrimental to societal progress. This is a short list of five negative connotations I have experienced, and many of my peers have experienced, since downloading the app in 2022.

Mental Health Struggles: TikTok's emphasis on perfection and popularity has exacerbated mental health issues among young users. The constant exposure to curated content, comparison culture, and unrealistic beauty standards can lead to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and depression. Moreover, the pressure to gain likes, followers, and validation from peers can fuel a sense of worthlessness and self-doubt, contributing to poor mental wellbeing.

Body Image Concerns: The created culture of idealized beauty and body standards has perpetuated unrealistic expectations and body image concerns among young users. Influencers often showcase their flawless appearances and filtered images, creating an unattainable standard of beauty. This can lead to body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, and a negative body image among individuals, especially impressionable teenagers.

Cyberbullying and Online Harassment: Anonymity and lack of accountability have made TikTok a breeding ground for cyberbullying and online harassment. Users, particularly young people, are vulnerable to bullying, hate speech, and harassment from peers and strangers alike. The platform's comment section and duet feature can be used to target and ridicule individuals, leading to psychological distress and social withdrawal.

Addiction and Screen Time: The addictive nature and algorithm-driven feed can lead to excessive screen time and smartphone addiction among users. The platform's endless scroll feature encourages users to spend hours mindlessly scrolling through content, often at the expense of real-life interactions, hobbies, and responsibilities. Excessive use of TikTok can disrupt sleep patterns, impair concentration, and negatively impact academic or professional performance.

Social Comparison and FOMO: TikTok fosters a culture of social comparison and fear of missing out (FOMO) among young users. The highlight reel of curated content and glamorous lifestyles can lead individuals to compare their own lives unfavorably, feeling inadequate or left out in comparison. This constant need to keep up with trends and peers can fuel anxiety, insecurity, and a sense of social isolation among users.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Reflections from Jerusalem


Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to travel to Israel and be immersed in a truly unique society with a set of traditions (and circumstances) that have kept communitarianism stronger than in the rest of the Western world. 

First, Israel’s mandated military service brings people from different walks of life together and keeps loyalty to country above domestic political quibbles. While Israeli politics have been unusually divisive in recent years, and especially since the government pushed sweeping judicial reforms last year, the Israelis I spoke with stressed that all of that is put aside in the military. 


It was not obvious that would be the case. Many Israelis on the left were so opposed to the reforms that they vowed to refuse service if the reforms passed, but when push came to shove after the October 7th attacks, the military’s needs were not only met but exceeded, with reservists reporting for duty at a rate of 120%.


The threat Israel faces is existential, and existential threats leave no time for luxury beliefs. As tense as politics are at home, there are far more dangerous enemies abroad. Additionally, this forced interaction with the other side humanizes political opponents, something sorely lacking in the United States. Israeli civil society is much stronger and healthier than American civil society. 


This is not to say that the United States should mandate military service, Israel does so out of necessity, not to build community. That said, Americans would do well to get out and interact with those they disagree with, and to find some way to give back to their country. It need not be military service, but being involved in a church community or volunteering could have some of the same effects. 


Israel is also a demographic anomaly. Its fertility rate runs far ahead of all other OECD countries (in fact, it is now the only one above replacement level). Additionally, while most Western nations are becoming more secular and liberal, young Israelis are conservative and religious. Not everything in Israel is applicable to America. For example, Israel’s more socialist founding makes it the cool thing to rebel against rather than a trendy ideology, but it is clear that Israel’s more communitarian structure and strong civil society are having a tangible impact. It should not be taken as inevitable that young people will be secular liberals. 


Looming in the background (and increasingly, the foreground) of conversations about both the military and demographics are the Haredi, or Ultra-Orthodox. They are a largely isolated part of the population who were a small minority at the time Israel was founded. However, given their sky-high fertility rate, their population is growing rapidly and making it much harder for the state to keep the exceptions it made for them in place. 


The key exceptions are twofold. First, Haredi are not required to serve in the military. This both isolates them from the community-building that the rest of the country is doing and limits the capacity of the armed forces. 


Second, the state has to subsidize their communities because their men stay home and study the Talmud instead of working. As of 2019, 51% of Haredi lived below the poverty line, and that’s with large state subsidies. This combination of not serving the country and consuming state resources has caused some Israelis to become resentful of the Haredi, and their arguments are not entirely unfounded. 


The Haredi are both the most and least communitarian people in Israel. On the one hand, they exist in tight-knit, highly religious communities. On the other, they are almost completely detached from their country. Their way of life should be respected, not insulted, but they also have to begin to integrate. The October 7th attacks and the military’s need for more soldiers appear to be pushing things in that direction, with a bill in the works that will penalize those who do not serve.


Integration will be good for both Israel and the Haredi. It will at least slow the accusations that the Haredi are free-riders and allow them to share their lifestyle with secular Israelis, while grafting them into the country’s institutions. 


Being in Israel, especially during this time, was inspirational. The love of country and sense of service was deeper than what I typically see stateside. By investing in civil society, Israel has become a healthy democracy with strong bonds to community, country, and religion. It is an anomaly in our secular, individualistic Western world. We should defend it, try to learn from it, and apply the lessons to our own nation. 


Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Against AirPods & Alienation

 

When you take the train as much as I do, it's hard not to become a bitter Luddite. Everyone - or, at least, nearly everyone - on my daily commute into the city is hopelessly tethered to their screens. It's actually impressive how they manage not to look up once the entire ride. Their phones have become an appendage. 

These commuters have a fundamental inability to sit still, alone with their thoughts. If deprived of their phones for even a minute, they fidget, knowing not what to do with their liberated hands. 

Many of these train-riding automatons no longer have any use for wired headphones. Now, they use the dreaded Apple AirPods. I can't stand these darned things... They are awful little white ear boogers. When you wear AirPods, you are telling those around you that you cannot be bothered. You become a cyborg, cocooned in a digital microcosm. 

This digital microcosm is a lonely, anti-social place to be. No longer are you experiencing your surroundings, your fellow humans, or your thoughts. Instead, you are enwrapped in an endless scroll of Instagram Reels, advertisements, and text messages. 

You can probably tell that all of this bothers me. 

To be sure, I too am guilty of accruing too much screen time on my phone. Often, I lose track of time when watching YouTube videos or scrolling X. In small doses, it's fun and amusing. In copious doses, it's tedious and draining. 

I recently finished reading Sherry Turkle's 2011 book, Alone Together. She makes many of these same points about the anti-social nature of the modern digital age. Very importantly, however, she urges prudence and understanding of our times, rather than a reactive rejection of technology. She admonishes readers not to give in to the "Luddite impulse." 

I completely agree. Technology isn't going anywhere. We'll have to learn to live with it. Our relationship with technology, though, must change. 8-hour screen time isn't sustainable for people. We must curtail our use. 

At this point, I'm sure you've come across this image of a man using a Virtual Reality headset on the train:


This is dystopian. I'm afraid we are in the early stages of normalizing such anti-social behavior. 

We need to pump the brakes and return to real human connection. 


 



Saturday, February 24, 2024

The More Christianity Comes Under Attack, the More I Am a Christian

 


It's been a rough couple of decades for Christianity in America, a rough last century nearly for it in Europe. The modern world and postmodern secular age is a fact of life that most of us grew up with. A new default. While I had the basics of a faith passed down through the family life in the small town where I grew up (baptism, confirmation, attended young life often as a teen) it's more accurate to say I'm a cultural Christian, but one who aspires to be more than one. But this bad Christian has read enough history, especially the story of Western Civilization, and seen enough of modernity and postmodernity to make a determination by the second act. 

Postmodernism and the secular age has been a tremendous mistake. Thoughtful people know this. Even thoughtful people who are more or less agnostic know it.

Whatever one thinks of Christianity, I've noticed we're just recreating it anyway through secular terms. Much of the so-called woke culture is simply co-opted Christian culture ran through a secular lens. A libertine lens. But the depravity and decadence of our time is not fooling anyone. 

Earlier this week on MSNBC, Politico investigate reporter Heidi Przybyla warned MSNBC viewership about the danger of "Christian Nationalists" and was a textbook example of today's secular progressive worldview: "they believe that our rights as Americans, as all human beings, don't come from any earthly authority. They don't come from Congress, they don't come to the Supreme Court, they come from God." 

Yes Heidi. That is exactly what not only any Christian would believe growing up in the actual country but also any American. It's literally what Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. 

Here's a few excerpts:

"...to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them..." 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

We've now tried a post-American America, and a post-Constitution and post-Republic America... it ain't working. A post-Christian America is just another mistake to add to the tally. 

In a choice between our Rights coming from God, and from Government -- I choose God. Because God gave us life and Government sends us to war and takes our property. 

In a choice between Christian grace and forgiveness, and the new secular one that has merely re-created Christianity on its own terms and agenda without the redeeming qualities of grace and forgiveness -- I choose Christianity.

And when faced with an X/Twitter biography space and character limit, I'll remove my law degree and masters degree in international relations to make room.  

So for me, it is Christian --> in, and my graduate degrees of JD and MAIR --> out. The future of this country will depend on the strength, resilience, and goodwill of Christians, good, bad, and cultural. With an assist from other faith traditions that also see the danger of a government and a political ideology that believes it can become and elevate itself above God. 

The secular world is interested in power, coercion, and control. No thanks. Return to tradition. Return to wholesomeness. And we will have a chance. 


Troy M. Olson is an Army Veteran, lawyer by training, and the co-author (with Gavin Wax) of the upcoming book ‘The Emerging Populist Majority.’ He is the Sergeant-at-Arms of the New York Young Republican Club and co-founder of the Veterans Caucus. He lives in New York City with his wife and son. Follow him on Twitter at @TroyMOlson and Substack at

A Republic, We Will Restore It

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Is Technology Really Making You Lonely?

 

I've been thinking: perhaps we are too quick to blame technology and social media for the exacerbation of our loneliness epidemic...

The iPhone seems like low-hanging fruit. 

Yes, I agree that there is something inherently anti-social about most new technology, but, ultimately, we are the users. So, if we are accruing 6 hours of screen time a day, it is because we are allowing the devices to control our behavior. 

Pro-gun advocates religiously echo the platitude that "Guns don't kill people; people kill people." In that same vein, I'd like to proclaim that "devices don't control people; people allow devices to control people." 

Social media, in particular, is often made out to be the culprit when examining the loneliness epidemic. From what I've observed, though, social media can serve as an essential facilitator to social connectedness. The Bumble BFF app, for instance, has facilitated many a platonic relationship. And Facebook groups often don't live exclusively online. These digital communities frequently come together to organize in-person meet-ups. 

To be sure, remote work has generated a lot of remoteness in society. It is, after all, called remote work. 

But there are hopeful indicators that social media, while initially blamed for igniting remoteness, can actually assuage it. 

Katherine Tangalakis-Lippert, writing for Business Insider, reports on a new app start-up called Groove that may help "de-remote" remote work: 

Groove, a digital coworking app that recently completed its public launch, offers structured hourlong meeting times for business owners and entrepreneurs to connect while working remotely. 

The small-scale chats, with just four users each, have five-minute intro and debriefing meetings, bookending a 50-minute window for workers to conduct their businesses. During the chat sessions, users are encouraged to describe their work, share their wins and struggles, and build business connections with others working solo.

This is a sanguine sign that the market can engender creative new ways to combat loneliness. Groove and other new apps are responses to increasing social atomization, perhaps made worse by the proliferation of new technologies. 

We ought to applaud these developments. 

I would like to reiterate, per my last post, that people have always been lonely, to some degree. This is, unfortunately, a human condition. Please read Alan Ehrenhalt's latest article for Governing, which prompted my blog post. 

But, while this condition of loneliness definitely isn't new, I will of course acknowledge that the modern age - characterized by Uber Eats deliveries, Netflix, and TikTok - has further complicated things. Our response, though, should not take the form of a sort of neo-luddism, wherein we shun technology. Rather, we ought to use this medium to our advantage.  


 

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Will the Lonely Always Be With Us?

 


I don't care if I sound like a broken record. I will continue to say it: People need each other. Today, though, we live as inward-looking automatons. 

But...perhaps this isn't just a problem of today. Perhaps people have always felt lonely to some degree...

Alan Ehrenhalt, who I believe to be one of the authorities on the subject of social capital and communitarian thought, wrote a fascinating piece in Governing last month. In the past few months, we've experienced a burgeoning output of articles detailing our current "loneliness epidemic." Just about every publication has written about it. The release of U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy's report in April of last year certainly sparked a lot of content on the matter. Before that, the Covid-19 pandemic elicited a myriad of op-eds.

Ehrenhalt, however, ably notes that much of the literature on this topic long predates the 2020s. Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, easily the most widely recognized work in this area, was published in 2000. Ray Oldenburg's The Great Good Place, which details America's decline in "third places" - sources of community, such as taverns and cafes, which are separate from home and the workplace - was published in 1989. 

Ehrenhalt points to literature from as far back as the 1920s: "The historian Roderick Nash wrote that 'the typical American in 1927 was nervous. The values by which he ordered his life seemed in jeopardy of being swept away by the forces of growth and complexity.'"

So, I guess this is nothing new...

Societal anxieties about rising loneliness have been with us for the past century, but a combination of trends and events in the last two decades have made the anxiety worse, and probably made the underlying problem somewhat worse as well.

Unlike many authors, though, Ehrenhalt offers some prescription:

Over the years, our parks have accumulated quite a few anti-social pieces of infrastructure: They have built unnecessary fences, placed spikes on sittable ledges and taken out benches instead of making them more inviting. Reversing those sorts of decisions would be a decent start.

West Palm Beach, Fla., has installed moveable chairs in its parks; research has shown that to be a modest incentive to sociability. Salem, Mass., has installed what it calls “happy to chat benches.” Some intimidatingly large apartment buildings have experimented with music corners and tiny libraries to bring residents together. Some supermarkets in Europe have put in slow checkout lanes that encourage customers to make conversation with the checkout clerks. Sounds bizarre, but maybe it does some good.

Ehrenhalt goes on to say that the lonely have always been with us. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be proactive in taking steps to help curtail their increasing atomization. 

Far too many of us today feel deracinated from our families, places of work, and various third places. 

As I noted last year in National Review:

A new, troubling study, however, finds that Americans are now beginning to feel a detachment from civic life. Last month, “The Belonging Barometer,” co-produced by the American Immigration Council and Over Zero, concluded that the majority of Americans feel a lack of belonging to their “family, friends, workplace, and local and national communities.”

This level of detachment is simply unsustainable. Complacency isn't an option. 

Sure, Ehrenhalt is right: some of these New Urbanist remedies do sound bizarre. But they might just be bizarre enough to work... 




Sunday, January 21, 2024

Can New Urbanism Help Restore American Communities?

 


Since I started my research into America's seemingly unexplainable malady of civic disengagement - or, what I prefer to call, "social hibernation" - I came to the conclusion that this was a mostly internal problem. People will only be able to ameliorate this epidemic of loneliness - I, maybe erroneously, proclaimed - when they undergo a kind of spiritual reawakening: an "Aha!" moment wherein they collectively understand the merits of family cohesion, committed relationships, local civic engagement, and club membership. 

Much of what I read reaffirmed this hypothesis. Marvin Olasky, in his pivotal work, The Tragedy of American Compassion, rejects the idea that environmental change could have a meaningful impact on human social behavior:

The new view saw folks as naturally good and productive, unless they were in a competitive environment that warped finer sensibilities. In the new thinking, change came not through challenge, but through placement in a pleasant environment that would bring out a person's true, benevolent nature... When a major economic crisis emerged in the early 1930s, it seemed not only natural but inevitable to rely on governmental programs run by professionals and to emphasize material transfer rather than individual challenge and spiritual concern. 

To be sure, Olasky's book is a fantastic contribution, especially in the realm of welfare reform in the 1990s. I reviewed his book favorably in the Russell Kirk Center's University Bookman (read here). Recently, however, I have become somewhat dubious of Olasky's offhanded dismissal of external factors and their capacity to influence people's behaviors. 

Olasky's book, of course, is primarily about combating poverty and pauperization, but the overarching principle remains more or less the same: that an individual's ability to change comes from within. Again, there is certainly a strong case to be made here, and Olasky makes it very persuasively. But perhaps there is an equally convincing case to be made for the role of environmental change and government initiatives...

My latest interview with author Alan Ehrenhalt was eye-opening:

Frank Filocomo: You know, I hear a lot of the need for a spiritual renaissance or a spiritual reawakening, but do you think a lot of this is just external impediments to community?

Alan Ehrenhalt: Yes, I think a lot of it is. Good things are happening in cities. Not all good things, but a lot of good things. And they're not based on any spiritual revival on the individual level; they're based on public decisions. Infrastructure determines behavior. I think we've known that for a long time. Transportation determines behavior. I just read in a book about San Francisco and its Ferry Building, and the history of the Ferry Building. In the 1930s, they got rid of the ferry because the Bay Bridge opened. So, people who used to take the ferry into San Francisco from Marin County didn't know quite how to behave because they used to spend twenty minutes with the same people every day for the twenty years they had been commuting, and now they were in their cars and they weren't seeing them. That's a case in which infrastructure is determining human behavior. 

Ehrenhalt is a firm believer that the implementation of New Urbanist principles could help revive atomized American communities. Subscribers to the New Urbanism movement believe that community-friendly city design - verdant walkways, front porches, balconies, and so on - can help restore the Communitarian nature of localities around the country. The more I read thoughtful publications like Governing and Public Square, the more I am convinced of the efficacy of New Urbanism. 

This piece by Robert Steuteville in Public Square is especially good. He writes about The Ember, a small "pocket neighborhood" in Edmond, Oklahoma, that serves as a remarkable case study for community revitalization through urban design. 

Steuteville writes:

Pocket neighborhoods designed around mid-block cottage courts are a notable trend in New Urbanism. They have several advantages, especially on infill sites. The houses are sited on small lots, taking advantage of a high-quality open space serving all residents. They achieve decent density, due to the lot size and efficient parking, which is typically grouped together. Pocket neighborhoods also create a strong sense of community, offering a 'missing middle' living choice often lacking in the larger neighborhood. The mid-block design allows for a cozy urbanism that avoids street design problems that frequently plague existing city blocks.

He explains that the final design of The Ember was "chosen so that every resident would feel connected to a central gathering space at the heart of the project, reinforcing social bonds." 

While I still maintain that it is incumbent on Americans to undergo a kind of spiritual reawakening, I realize now that I was leaving out a crucial component: urban design. 

The realization of these two variables, in tandem, would facilitate a remarkable boon in social connectedness. 



 

Monday, January 15, 2024

The Civil Rights Movement and the American Communitarian Spirit

 


Today we remember and celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. 

King, a black man living in a racially segregated America, stood tall in a sea of hate, bigotry, and divisiveness. 

But, while he was no doubt an integral part of the Civil Rights movement's success, nothing would have been accomplished without the laborious and persistent efforts of organized activist groups. 

There is perhaps no better example of this than the case of the Freedom Summer Project. I've blogged about this before (read here), but the lesson bears repeating. 

In the summer of 1964, a group of young Civil Rights activists traveled to heavily segregated Mississippi to stage various demonstrations in the midst of hostile inhabitants and law enforcement. Individuals from these networks of black and white college students were beaten, kidnapped, and, in some cases, killed. 

Doug McAdam, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, contributed the defining study of Freedom Summer for the American Journal of Sociology in 1986. In it, McAdam details the high-risk activism that took place during these demonstrations:  

Within days, three project members - Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman - had been kidnapped and killed by a group of segregationists which included several Mississippi law-enforcement officers. That event set the tone for a summer in which the remaining volunteers endured beatings, bombings, and arrests. Moreover, most did so while sharing the grinding poverty and unrelieved fear that were the daily lot of the black families who housed them. 
These young people demonstrated the power of collective action. As I've stated before, isolated individuals could have never effectuated this social change. 

We ought not forget about what these activist networks achieved. It should serve as an important reminder of what social capital can accomplish. 

Now, most problems that we face on a day-to-day basis are not nearly as grave as combating racial segregation in the 1960s. Most things that concern us are, in fact, very micro: a city block that needs to be repaired, a traffic sign that ought to be installed at a dangerous intersection, or other comparatively trivial community services. But the same lessons can be applied here, too. 

In Better Together: Restoring the American Community, Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein explain, through various case studies, that people engage in social capital, not for the sake of social capital in and of itself, but to accomplish some shared goal:

For the most part, the people and groups we describe here seek better schools, neighborhood improvement, better contracts with their employers, economic advantage, or some other particular good, with social capital a means to those ends and an important fringe benefit but not in itself their main aim.
The late Amitai Etzioni once wrote that America ought to be a "community of communities." We should aspire to this every day. 
 




Saturday, January 13, 2024

Examining Social Connectedness Abroad

 


Non-Western countries are known to be more collectivistic and group-oriented, especially when compared to Western countries like Great Britain and America. 

Lawrence Mead, my former professor and thesis supervisor at NYU, articulated this cultural difference in his 2019 book, Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power:

...Western culture is individualist, while non-Western cultures tend to be conformist. Westerners take action largely to fulfill personal goals and values, if necessary, changing the world to do so. In this sense, they live their lives from the inside out. In the non-West, by contrast, most people take their cues largely from without - from their immediate associates, higher authority, or tradition. They adjust to their environment much more than they seek to change it. They live their lives largely from the outside in. 

Professor Mead is easily the most valiant and intellectually honest professor that I ever had the honor of taking. He received an enormous amount of flack for his book, mostly by leftist academics who erroneously accused him of engaging in racist arguments. Mead, however, explicitly states in the book - which, I have to assume, many of his harshest critics did not read in full - that his thesis is a cultural one, having nothing to do with race. All this said, his distinctions between the West and the non-West are instructive. 

While Mead's book is clearly a full-throated defense of the Western individualist ethos, he does remark on some if its drawbacks:

...the West has a relatively weak sense of community. It does have a capacity for collective effort; a moralistic culture, in fact, generates stronger government than the non-West, including social programs for the needy... But the capacity is still limited... By becoming more open and individualized, the West has attained much greater wealth, power, and security, at the risk of greater isolation and meaninglessness for many people. 

The great Samuel Huntington, in his magnum opus, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, makes a similar argument when examining East Asian culture:

For East Asians, East Asian Success is particularly the result of the East Asian cultural stress on the collectivity rather than the individual. 'The more communitarian values and practices of the East Asians - the Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, and the Singaporeans - have proved to be clear assets in the catching up process,' argued Lee Kuan Yew.

While I of course think that individualism is an integral component of America's success, I think that, in large enough doses, it can prove fatal for a civilization. 

Charissa Cheong, in an article for Business Insider, remarks on some non-Western cultures who appear to be unscathed by the current loneliness epidemic. Various TikTokers, she notes, have been documenting the vibrant community life in their respective countries:

Posts about social life in the US's neighboring country of Mexico are particularly common. In May, a user who goes by Anna shared that in the US, she's noticed people often decline her requests to meet up because they already have plans with someone else. She compared this to her experience in Mexico, saying that she always felt welcome at social gatherings regardless of who else was attending: 'I could ask someone to hang out, and they'd be like, oh, I have my friend's friend's tutor's second cousin's wedding, but you can come if you want.'

It is about time that Westerners adopt this non-Western mentality of community and solidarity. It is, as I see it, the most potent remedy to today's plague of social atomization. 

 


Saturday, December 30, 2023

Cooperstown is Calling and the Endless Argument is Here

Cooperstown, New York. For non-baseball loving Americans this is a small town in upstate New York but for baseball aficionados it is a sacred place. One of the four or five considerations when picking out the eventual location of our family cabin upstate will be its proximity to Cooperstown (within two hours), where The National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum is at. It's a place I've still never been to. And am waiting until the children are old enough. 

As we turn the calendar to a New Year, and a pivotal year, so to another Hall of Fame class to be inducted gets voted on. Who votes on it? Initially and exclusively, baseball writers. What a gig that would be, huh? Thankfully, in the last decade or so many reforms have been done to allow a veterans committee (made up of Hall of Fame players to give passed over players a second chance) and a legends committee (to consider players from eras long past) to balance out the writers. That being said, from most accounts the baseball writers who do vote on recently retired players for Hall of Fame consideration take the job very seriously. With that out of the way, my favorite part about this whole process is actually the fan debates and engagement on a topic and process we have literally no control over. Nor should we. Although if I had it my way, I don't think I'd have most baseball writers vote on it either. It would be strictly Hall of Fame players and managers and owners that would do the voting, with only some voting allowed by those who have covered the game for a long period of time. 

The advent of saber metrics and analytics, fan blogs, and social media have made the debate even more fun to watch. I'm a very patriotic American and engaged citizen, but I receive immensely more joy out of watching the secret (well to a point, some writers publish their ballots) ballot of annual Hall of Fame voting where I have no vote and no say than I do with my ballot as a citizen. In politics and government, I have a legal say in theory but am most often left unfulfilled. Where as the Hall of Fame vote is a place where the baseball fan has no say in theory but is left either fulfilled (if you get what you want) or disappointed, yet still engaged in debate (if you do not). 

The instructions on the ballot for voting say: "voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."

Based on this one sentence where the vast array of the baseball statistics world is just one-sixth of the criteria one can imagine how an endless argument baseball fans have no control over springs eternal, like the game itself. 

Debating the 2024 Hall of Fame Class 

Unlike football, baseball is much more of a stat head game. Championships are tie-breaker considerations perhaps, but a distant second to thorough analysis of what they did on the field as measured by the most complex and interesting statistics in sports. Baseball. This is one thing where America's pastime comes out ahead and will stay ahead. A close second, but downstream consideration from yearly stats is the hardware, awards. Stats and hardware. 

IMO - what makes a Hall of Fame player? 

Assuming all of those other considerations are present, integrity, character, etc., I break it down to your era, your position, and the best seven seasons you had in comparison to the best seven seasons for other players, especially other Hall of Fame players. 

- Era 

This helps avoid comparing across eras and holding certain things against players that they had no control over. The structure of the Hall of Fame voting largely protects for this factor, as recently retired players must have a minimum of ten years of service time to even be on the ballot, and they must receive at least 5% each year to stay on the ballot, and they are only on the ballot for ten years, and must receive 75% from the Hall of Fame voters (baseball writers) to be elected to the Hall of Fame. That's a tall task that is going to sort out the vast majority of players right there. 

- Position 

This one has particular focus for me given this years ballot. Minnesota Twins catcher (and later first baseman in his post-prime years) Joe Mauer (2004-2018), has been one of the most debated about cases in many years. His chances of getting elected to the Hall generally, and possibly even in his first year, are greater than I would have imagined when he retired. As a Twins fan, the combination of Joe's contract (largest ever at the time for the franchise) the lack of postseason team success (the Twins had a string of playoff losses that was finally broken this year), and his general Minnesota likeability (meaning he had almost no emotional response whether he was praised or criticized in excessive amounts) made him a bit of a lightning rod in some fan circles. 

I myself did not appreciate him nearly enough when he was playing. He took his fair share of the blame for a successful team of the 2000s turning into an unsuccessful team for the first half of the 2010s. In the five-plus years since his retirement that same online, fan, and baseball writer culture that was so hard on him during his playing years has also been instrumental in diving into his entire record as a player and concluded -- if Joe Mauer is not a Hall of Fame catcher, then catchers really don't make the Hall of Fame anymore. 

- Best seven seasons compared for your era and position vs. best seven seasons of others

Adding up the best seven seasons of Mauer's career is where his case really shines. All seven of these seasons took place during his prime years from 2006 to 2013. If you look at just these years he is an easy Hall of Famer, a first ballot Hall of Famer really. Prior to concussions altering the direction of his career at the age of 30 in 2013 he was more or less on track to be a first ballot Hall of Famer. As it were, his case was summed up by Sports Illustrated today well: 

Mauer has a compelling case to be inducted in his first year on the ballot. The St. Paul native hit .306 with a .388 on-base percentage in his career while hitting 143 home runs and drove in 923 runs while racking up 2,123 hits over 15 seasons.

Mauer's career also has historical significance as he became the first catcher to win the American League batting championship in 2006. Mauer went on to win two more batting titles in 2008 and 2009, and won the 2009 AL Most Valuable Player Award after hitting .365/.444/.587 with a career-high 28 homers and 96 RBI.

Compiling stats help with borderline Hall of Fame cases the most, as do championships and post-season heroics. Mauer lacks all of these if we're to consider him a borderline case. But because he was a catcher and that is the least-represented position in the Hall due to its tasking physical demands, a great hitting catcher that also plays solid defense is a once-per-generation type talent. And you can see this within his own generation. 

There are only two more catchers, Yadier Molina (2004-2022) and Buster Posey (2009-2022) who have a Hall of Fame case in Mauer's era. Like Mauer, they admirably played their entire careers with one team. Unlike Mauer, they won championships and were contributing parts of those championship teams (two for Molina, three for Posey). That's about where the comparisons end though. Mauer has both more hardware and better statistics than both players. While Molina gets the nod on longevity and on defense, he comes in third to both for career value as measured by WAR (wins above replacement), 42.1. Posey had the shortest career of all three, has a comparable career peak to Mauer, but his defense was not quite as good and his WAR, 44.8, is behind Mauer's, who sits at 55.2 

Simply put, Joe Mauer was the best catcher, the best hitting catcher of his generation. This is true by the numbers and stats, and it is true by the hardware too. A six-time all star, three-time Gold Glove winner, five-time Silver Slugger winner (this is the best slugging percentage at your position), three-time batting champion (this has happened only five times for catchers in baseball history, and three of them were from Mauer), while also showcasing exemplary character throughout his career, a rarity in athletes these days and for many past baseball heroes as well to be fair.  

That being said, I expect Mauer to narrowly miss out on the Hall this year, but he'll be close enough to the 75% threshold to get in next year. This means Adrian Beltre will be the only player elected this year, and will be a consensus first ballot Hall of Famer, although I'd love to be surprised by Mauer being added as a second. 

Looking over the entire ballot, it appears that anyone associated with cheating, or the steroid scandal, is still going to not get in. Not rumored or loosely connected, but named in a credible report or someone who admitted to it. That seems to be the de facto standard. 

My personal standard is if you were a clear cut Hall of Famer without steroids like Barry Bonds was, the veterans committee should vote you in if the baseball writers will not. There are a few other players who fit this mold as well. Alex Rodriguez for instance. However, for those very dependent on their power hitting for their case like Sammy Sosa or Mark McGuire, these players are too one-dimensional and that dimension has been called into question too much for them to enter the Hall. 

Similarly, if your character gets in the way in other ways I have no problem with baseball writers keeping you off the ballot, especially if your case is borderline of if you're simply more a member for the "Hall of the Very, Very Good", which is still quite the accomplishment. 

Who gets in for '24: Beltre

Who should get in the year? Beltre, Mauer, and eventually... Carlos Beltran (held back by association with the Astros sign stealing scandal)

Maybe will get in/I'm torn: Andrew Jones and Todd Helton. 

...

Happy New Year everyone! 


Troy M. Olson is an Army Veteran, lawyer by training, and a co-author (with Gavin Wax) of the upcoming book ‘The Emerging Populist Majority.’ He is the Sergeant-at-Arms of the New York Young Republican Club and co-founder of the Veterans Caucus. He lives in New York City with his wife and son. You can follow him on Twitter and Substack at @TroyMOlson.