Saturday, April 29, 2023

Can Growing Associational Membership Be a Bad Thing for Liberal Democracy?



Antifa, a violent network of left-wing agitators, is back at it again.

On Sunday April 24th, a small cadre of antifa members physically assaulted peaceful anti-drag time story hour protestors outside a pizza joint in Fort Worth, Texas. 

In a surveillance video recording, Samuel Fowlkes, a member of the domestic terrorist organization, is seen pepper spraying the peaceful protestors. Other antifa activists brandished firearms. 

Ultimately, Fowlkes and two other antifa militants were detained and subsequently arrested by Fort Worth police. 

This got me thinking: Antifa, though obviously deranged, is still an example of civic associationism, no?

These young and troubled people are engaged in group activity. And antifa and other fringe political organizations form their own activist communities, wherein they socialize, communicate with one another, and establish norms of trust and reciprocity. 

And while I and other self-proclaimed Tocquevilleans extol the virtues of civic engagement and associationism, it is evident that not all forms of group activity are good for the broader society. In fact, groups like antifa emit, what some might call, negative externalities. That is to say, these groups, though maybe trusting amongst their members internally, are distrusting and even hostile towards outsiders and people whom they deem to be a threat to their group. 

 Francis Fukuyama wrote about negative externalities and strong group ties in his 2001 essay for Third World Quarterly titled, Social capital, civil society and development:

A society made up of the Ku Klux Klan, the Nation of Islam, the Michigan Militia, and various self-regarding ethnic and racial organisations may score high in terms of average group size, numbers of groups, and cohesiveness, yet overall it would be hard to say that such a society had a large stock of social capital. Group affiliation can therefore produce negative externality which we can think of as the radius of distrust. The larger the radius of distrust, the greater the liability that group represents to the surrounding society...

While antifa is not an ethnic or racial group (though they tend to be overwhelmingly white), they are, undoubtedly, clannish and pose a significant threat to their surrounding communities. 

Aside from Fukuyama, whom I quote invertetely, others too have questioned whether Tocquevilleans are correct in asserting that robust civic society is always a sign of a healthy and liberal democracy.

I was recently reading an incredibly thought-provoking essay by Columbia University professor Sheri Berman, wherein she makes the daring assertion that the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany was facilitated, not by a dearth in civil society, but rather by an abundance of it. At first glance, her thesis seemed preposterous to me. How, I wondered, could a vibrant civil society possibly lead to something so evil? After thoroughly reading the essay multiple times, however, I began to find some serious merit in her argument. 

Burgeoning civic associations during the era of the Weimar Republic were, in large part, a response to the citizenry's deep-seated distrust of the new democratic government, which they thought was unresponsive to their needs. Instead of looking to the government to solve their problems, Germans in the 1920s formed voluntary associations, sometimes referred to as intermediate associations, to effectuate change. These groups, Berman asserts, did not contribute to the robustness or health of liberal democracy, but rather undermined it. So, these groups, which harbored utter disdain towards the Weimar government, ultimately received Hitler and the Nazi Party well. 

Context, however, matters a great deal here. This obviously was not the case for America. The America of the early 20th century, for instance, already had an established groundwork of democratic institutions. Therefore, there was never any danger of a rogue civil society giving rise to a Nazi-esc government. Berman notes this in her essay:

A striking implication of this analysis is that a flourishing civil society does not necessarily bode well for the prospects of liberal democracy. For civil society to have the beneficial effects neo-Tocquevilleans posit, the political context has to be right: absent strong and responsive political institutions, an increasingly active civil society may serve to undermine, rather than strengthen, a political regime.

In essence, the pure Tocquevillean thesis that civic associationism leads to a more vibrant democracy falls a tad short. A seasoned democratic institutional foundation is an absolute prerequisite. Communitarian-types would be well served to include this caveat. 

So while antifa and other groups may emit terrible negative externalities, they ultimately will not give rise to an American Third Reich... 

 

 

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

More Defenses of Community...




I was going through my ever-expanding trove of books the other day and found a couple of passages about community that I'd like to share. 

Warning: libertarians and those who subscribe to a rugged individualistic worldview will find these passages hard to bear. 

But, regardless of your ideology, there is simply no denying the ubiquity of groups in everyday life. And, furthermore, just because you are a part of a larger collective, doesn't mean your individual character is trivial. 

Here's a bit from Deborah Stone's Policy Paradox:

Influence, cooperation, and loyalty are powerful forces, and the result is that groups and organizations, rather than individuals, are the building blocks of the polis...people belong to institutions and organizations, even when they aren't formal members. They participate in organizations as citizens, employees, customers, students, taxpayers, voters, and potential recruits, if not as staff, managers, or leaders. Their opinions are shaped by organizations, and they depend on organizations to represent their interests.

Stone is not downplaying the role of the individual here, but rather elevating the the reader's awareness of the role of groups. 

I think, from my observations, that there is a misleading and, ultimately, false dichotomy between individualism and communitarianism in American discourse. Though it is true that communitarians see individuals as being part of something larger, and not just atomized, self maximizing units - they don't discredit the role of individuality in society. Communities, after all, are comprised of individuals. And this communitarian view is not out of step with classical liberalism. It is, however, radical libertarians who have far over-emphasized the role of isolated individuals. 

American culture is unique in its susceptibility to radical libertarian thought. Even in the context of the Western world, we represent a unique position. You won't see the English, German, or French, for example, waving around "Don't Tread on Me" flags. Nor did we see them resist the COVID-19 lockdowns anywhere to the extent that we did. 

America, perhaps because of our initial struggle against the monarchical British, has an especially rebellious culture. We are a nation of punk rockers, and that is both good and bad.

On the flipside, there is something immensely admirable about the collectivist nature of other non-Western cultures. 

On that note, here's something from Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order:

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. 

The lesson here: culture matters. 

As Westerners, we are more inclined to view the world through an individualist lens. This isn't necessarily wrong, but we must also utilize our complimentary communitarian lens. I wrote about this in National Review a while back. 

Before I sign off, I would like to share a great communitarian website I just discovered: https://www.frontporchrepublic.com/

Lots of great content there!

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Read, Read, Read...

Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington



It occurred to me recently that there are many foundational texts in the political science literature that I have carelessly glossed over. 

As I skimmed through my bookshelf, I found a plethora of books that I love, but that are perhaps somewhat unimportant in the larger context of American and geopolitical affairs. While I am a proponent of finding your niche and delving in deeper, it is also necessary to develop a rudimentary understanding of certain works that have contributed greatly to the Western canon. Doing so expands the mind and intellect of the reader, and allows him to participate in a broader range of conversations concerning political discourse. 

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a friend about Francis Fukuyama's earth-shattering literary masterpiece, The End of History and the Last Man, a book that I am very fond of. During our conversation, my friend mentioned Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, a work that he claimed was antithetical to Fukuyama's thesis about liberal democracy as a prevailing global ideology. 

As he continued to speak passionately about Huntington's contributions to the global conversation surrounding culture and ideology, I began to feel a sense of shame: I had never read that book. 

Having only an elementary conceptualization of Huntington's thesis, I became reluctant to contribute further to the conversation. I knew that I had to get my hands on that book. 

Reading it now, I understand why Henry Kissinger called it "...one of the most important books to have emerged since the end of the Cold War." In fact, even Francis Fukuyama praised it, calling it "dazzling in its scope and grasp of the intricacies of contemporary global politics."

I regret arriving so late to the show... This should have been required reading during my schooling. Huntington's insights are remarkably perceptive and interesting. The empirical rigor is also beyond impressive. 

The lesson here: read everything. Now, obviously, this isn't possible in the literal sense. We are mortal beings, and reading everything would take a long time, I presume. But, for students of political science, or even just individuals with a thirst for knowledge about global affairs and competing ideologies, there are certain books that are paramount. 

Huntington's book, needless to say, is one of them. 


No Prescription for Organic Community

 



Following Frank's interview with Alan Ehrenhalt, I thought especially about the desire to be prescriptive in so many books, particularly found in those on politics and society. Ehrenhalt is right when he says so many authors look silly. After 200+ pages diagnosing the problem, people feel that there must be a "call to action," an offering of how we can turn back the tide of whatever issue we say is ruining our society. 

But the reality is that even such recommendations fall short of an organic change. A prognosis can never be natural if it is constantly deliberated, and who actually decides to stop watching television after reading Bowling Alone? What society is missing is not a prescription for the future: I think that we already have an idea what kind of future we want to live in. We don't need visions of infrastructure and technology to know that Western Civilization is dying because of its lack of organic community and associations. We've become so estranged from one another—ironically, particularly those in big cities who live so near each other but look the other way when someone is struggling—I guess that's just the con of overstimulation. 

Western Civilization is dying because we have simultaneously grown too estranged and too intertwined with those who we believe are most like us. We've associated ourselves, not with bowling leagues and chess clubs, but with politics and causes. Identities that rely on such fickle and superficial foundations of support are destined to survive only by creating the reason for their survival. In our case, indicative across the globe, that reason is that we are all enemies, split into warring teams. 

And you know what? We are. 

Friday, April 21, 2023

Individualism, Community, and the Tocqueville Problem: A Chat with Alan Ehrenhalt


Alan Ehrenhalt

 

On Wednesday, I had the awesome privilege of interviewing the great Alan Ehrenhalt, author of  The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America, and former executive editor of Governing Magazine. Mr. Ehrenhalt is, without question, one of the most important figures in social capital literature. His writing on the decline of American community is of utmost importance and should be read alongside the work of Putnam, Fukuyama, and Etzioni. 


Frank Filocomo: American discourse right now, both on the right and the left, seems to be overemphasizing the "I". There's a lot of libertarian thought and hyperfocus on individualism. Do you agree that we are ignoring the "we" in American discourse?


Alan Ehrenhalt: Well, when I wrote The Lost City, I definitely felt that we had descended into me-first individualism. I predicted, perhaps out of desperation, that in the next generation there would be a return to community and communitarian values. And what I would say now is that what we really have is a split. On the one hand, libertarianism is very strong. Gay marriage, for example, was unthinkable 30 years ago. There's a lot of emphasis on personal freedom in the younger generation. Yet, the interesting question to me is: to what extent does the use of social media reflect the desire for community? That's one question. And the second question is: is that a real community? You get various answers to that latter question. I think the social thinker Leon Kass at the University of Chicago made the argument a couple of years ago that this really was a search for community. That people were getting together and that people who were interested in butterflies, for instance, can get together with others who are interested in butterflies. That's one of the more innocent things. But then the question is: what if that becomes a robust vehicle for people relating to each other but, at the same time, there's a decline in physical community? In certainly seemed, in the 1990s, that we were developing suburbs in which people didn't know their neighbors and people were living relatively atomized lives. Is that still true? I don't know. Critics of that point of view talked about book clubs, soccer leagues, and so on...My kids are way into adulthood now but, we're friendly with people my daughter played soccer with 20-25 years ago. So, I think, to some extent, I underestimated the extent to which community ties, while initially weakening at the neighborhood level, strengthen when people's kids go to school. We made most of our friends after our daughter started going to school. So, I think I maybe underestimated that, even in what we would consider the most soulless of suburbs, people forge relationships with other parents. I don't see any reason that that has atrophied. And it is a form of community. 


FF: So, you write about how in the mid-20th century, these small communities were incredibly close-knit and house moms acted as the de facto neighborhood patrol. Do you think that some of the atomization and the overemphasis on individualism today is a rebellion, or rather, a reaction to that kind of close quarters living?


AE: Yeah, I don't think many people in any neighborhood now would want to discipline the neighbor's kids, which at one time was quite acceptable. I mean, we wouldn't do that. So, there was a reaction against that kind of close-knit neighborhood feeling, and yet there's a nostalgia for it. People feel like they've lost that feeling. 


FF: Right, well that is what's confusing to me. There's a nostalgia for the good old days of American community, but at the same time it seems like people are rebelling against it. The baby-boomers have definitely rebelled against it. So how do you square that?


AE: Well one way I would square it is by saying, in every generation in American history going back to the 18th century, people, especially as they got older, lamented a community in decline since their young years. I started to write a book about that, but it never happened. Nostalgia for community is a given in modern Western life. And yet, when you look at the way that things were in the 1950s, it's not a matter of crying wolf. If you look at the 1950s, there really were tight networks of community and it was not a delusion. So, on the one hand, we're always worried about that. And, on the other hand, it really does seem to be getting worse. 


FF: So, in a lot of the social capital literature that I've read, there is a big emphasis on Tocqueville. Authors often speak about Democracy In America and the vibrant community life of the 1830s with all of the voluntary associations. Theda Skocpol, however, wrote an essay called The Tocqueville Problem wherein she dismisses the premise that America, at that time, had a weak state accompanied by little social groups. What do you think about her thesis? 


Theda Skocpol


AE: Well, I have to admit that I am one of about three people in the entire world of this subject that is not an admirer of Tocqueville. I mean, I think he was writing a work of philosophy. Tocqueville wasn't much of a reporter. He knew what he wanted to find and he found isolated examples of it. I think, as a work of reporting, it's typical French academic writing. It's all deductive and not based so much on experience. I mean, Tocqueville had interesting things to say, and the writings are part of the intellectual landscape, but I think there is a Tocqueville problem. 


FF: That's interesting that you say that, because all of the literature seems to center around Tocqueville. I mean, the term "Tocquevillian" has become synonymous with community. 


AE: He was making a case for community. The question is: how much of it did he see during his relatively limited time in this country? But yes, we did form associations in the 1830s; I'm not trying to dispute that. Putnam talks very convincingly about these associations that we had in the 1950s. The interesting question to me is: are we replacing those in any significant way? Are we replacing them with things like book clubs or with parents groups. Parents are getting more active, for better or worse, in the management of schools. And, whatever else that does, it has the function of bringing parents together as more of a community. And, then again, there's the question of: what has the internet done to community? 


FF: Right, and part of my problem with the literature is that it's very long in description, but short in prescription. When you read Bowling Alone, for example, you get this very gloomy picture of American community and social cohesiveness in decline. But what's the upswing in your opinion? Normatively, what's something that you think ought to happen, or could happen? 


AE: Well, I try not to be prescriptive very often. Putnam, if I got one piece of prescription from his writing, says to stop watching so much T.V. He even tied it to a percentage of community and institutional decline: the more you watch T.V., the less contact you'll have with your neighbors. But many of these problems work themselves out as generations go on. It's very hard to say, "If we only did this, community would return". You know, fortunately, in the books that I wrote, I was never asked by the editor to tell people what they need to do in the last chapter. So, I never did that. But, if you read a lot of books, which are otherwise good, authors wind up looking kind of silly in the last chapter because they're full of recommendations that the writer doesn't have any idea are going to do anything. Society's change, I won't say glacially, but gradually. There's an exception in the way that the internet and social media have changed American life, I do agree with that. I didn't mention this but, I wrote a book about the desire of young people to live in the center of cities. And, to some extent, it was truncated by COVID. But the population of downtown and central cities has gone up in the last couple of years. And it's not that were going to have a vast movement into the center, but we're going to have an affluent center of cities surrounded in the suburbs by an increasingly poor population. And that started to happen before COVID, but I think that it's resuming now. But, cities are not, by and large, losing population in the downtown areas. And as office building cease to serve their previous function, they should be converted into residences, and there are people who would want to live in them. There are a lot of technical difficulties involved with doing that based on how the buildings are built but I think that's where we're going. So that's one sense in which a younger generation wants, if not community, the vibrancy that they get from living in the center of a city and going out to bars and restaurants, and shopping at boutiques. It seems pretty clear that affluent people want that. 


Empty office space


FF: I would agree with all of that, and I find it funny what you say about the office because I'm in one right now and it's totally empty! 


AE: I read recently that there is an increasing number of, particularly young people, but affluent people wanting to live near their offices even though they only go there a couple of times a week.   


 




Thursday, April 20, 2023

Discovering a New National Identity





A nation without borders is not a nation at all. And a country without common cultural denominators and at least a patchwork set of shared objective moral principles undisputed in the public sphere cannot hope to foster a healthy society for it's people and their posterity. 

The writer is not a political academic in the professional sense. He is not a cosmopolitan, nor an affluent member of society privy to the company of elite members of the wealthy social caste stationed comfortably behind gated estates, immune to the chaotic and sometimes troubling scenes of ordinary contemporary American life. Hailing from a working class background, he is an honest, blue collar and humble man. He offers only his forthright opinions on a current social problem from the perspective of a youth reared in a conservative, christian, patriotic and traditional American family.

It is obvious to any American with a rudimentary knowledge of national and cultural history that the United States is not the same country, culturally or ethnically speaking, that it was a half century ago. Indeed, comparing the cultural composition of an average community in the United States from 1776-1965 in comparison to the United States from 1965-the present will reveal a myriad of differences at many levels. It is no secret that there are many challenges that the nation faces in the present from a foreign and international standpoint; these include a rising and aggressive communist China, declining military capabilities and a nascent cooperative relationship between Iran, China, and Russia forming in opposition to America on the world stage. These are troubling developments.

But the writer would argue that the problems the country faces at the domestic level are far more dangerous to the future of the United States than any foreign predicament. These domestic problems include but are not limited to: rising divorce rates and declining marriage rates, a slowing birth rate and a decline in the white population in the 2020 census for the first time in the history of the country, and a decline in religion and christian influence amongst the general population. Symptoms of these larger issues include a sharp increase in deaths of despair (mental health and suicide), an addiction epidemic amongst the nations youth propelled by fentanyl, heroine and other opiates, the canker of modern feminist culture which has created dysfunction in youthful romantic relationships and destroyed traditional dating etiquette, the indoctrination of American children in public schools, an overly sexualized education curriculum in many states at the grammar school level, the disparagement and revision of American history, and the assault of the nuclear family. 

Compounding all of these issues amongst the already established and native American population is the unfettered and uncontrollable surge of millions of illegal alien migrants from south America and across the world through a porous southern border. Make no mistake; while immigration in both legal and illegal terms into the U.S. from continents outside Europe has steadily increased since 1965 and the effects of this immigration has created more problems than benefits, the recent tide of illegal migration into the country brought about by the feckless Biden administrations border policies has created an unprecedented issue. It is estimated that over 4 million illegals have crossed the border since 2020 alone; this number is likely higher. The reader may be asking- what does illegal immigration have to do with the established American community and its problems?

This begs the question: What is a nation? Is it simply a speck of land on a geographical map? Is it an economic machine and an entity simply existing for profit? 

Or is it perhaps a culture, fostered, carried, and comprised by its people- who, bound together by a shared language, customs, and faith, with a reverence for and a tangible connection to their history, existing over a defined geographical area which also holds a larger and deeper meaning in the generational, historic and spiritual sense? 

For a moment, let us step away from the philosophical, and return to reality. The writer will now use an example of a deep-rooted and distinctly American community to illustrate national identity. 

In the writers hometown, there has been significant social and economic changes in the region over the last four decades. But nonetheless, the roots of this community, in cases dating back to the early 19th century, in some areas have been resilient enough to remain intact in the present day. For the sake of anonymity, the names of a family used as an example of community will be changed to the letter "B". 

The "B" family has lived in Monmouth County, New Jersey for over ten generations. With a proud family history dating back to the 1670s in the region, the "B" family has carefully preserved the knowledge of their lineage and roots. Grandfathers served in the New Jersey Militia during the revolutionary war and aided Washington and the Continental Army during the nearby battle of Monmouth, and another fought for the Union in the New Jersey Calvary in the Civil War. A church which the current members of the family still attend to this day was built by their ancestors in 1861. The youngest male in the "B" family often says with a source of pride that his "ancestors literally put the nails in the roof of my church". Generations of family members have been buried in the churchyard, side by side, for over a century. The "B" family boasts a long lineage of hardworking, land owning men; from farmers, to teachers, to machinists, to mechanics, in every generation they have been employed in professions of skill, discipline, and humility. Generations of women have been loving mothers, valuable and influential community members, and charitable and impactful at every level. These women were responsible for communitarian charitable efforts and the proper raising of generations of contributing citizens and moral men and women. Some held professions of their own- as school teachers, nurses, clerks and other jobs. Across town, many locally recognizable surnames intermingle, each with a distinct root- some were Dutch, others English or Irish, or German. In one region of town, black Americans whose ancestors arrived in the area following the Civil War still remain in family homes passed down for generations. And while many farms have been paved over for housing, many others still remain- the soil still rich, the farmers still tilling and planting, the roots of the families still strong on the land their forefathers settled. 

Each year in this community, on the fourth of July, the Declaration is read aloud at 9 o'clock in the morning at the center of town. A street is barricaded and closed to traffic, and local residents gather, together reciting the words of the document that put clearly to paper the sentiments of a fledgling nation searching for identity, creating the voice of the American Revolution. In this annual activity, with reverence for their founding generation, the members of this community not only display patriotism and national pride, but they reaffirm their belief and commitment to the ideals set out in the declaration, which created the bedrock of traditional American culture. Throughout the summer, there are community days open to the public, boasting car shows, amusement rides, and musical performances. The battle of Monmouth is re-enacted every year, and on memorial day, volunteers place flags on the graves of local veterans. For the Christmas season, carolers are sometimes found on main street outside the town hall of records, and the streets are adorned with lights and wreaths. Church bells still ring. In ordinary life, local bars which have operated for decades welcome the same locals after the work day. Several bowling allies operate, and are filled nightly with enthusiastic individuals participating in local leagues. In the local municipal building, the local government holds a weekly meeting and residents often arrive to partake in the practice of local governance. On Sunday mornings in the spring, summer, and fall, a small farmers market is held outside the building, where local farms sell their produce. In this town, even with all the development which has occurred and continues to alter the landscape of the area, even with all the influxes of people moving in from out-of-state (and in some cases even out of country), fragments of community and social cohesion still remain, alive and well, accessible for all who seek them out. 

In a long manner, the writer is attempting to paint a picture of an average American community which in the present still retains a somewhat traditional identity. In communities across the nation, the writer is certain a similar picture can be envisioned, no matter the state or region. And while every one of these communities, including the one discussed, faces issues aforementioned (especially amongst the youth), the challenges in themselves are not insurmountable if the community is allowed time to reform and assimilate new members into the fabric. 

Much like a glue which dries and connects objects to one another in an art project, the American community which faces serious problems and a decline in social cohesion at many levels can be saved, IF the community at large is allowed to "solidify"- that is- to form a new identity without the disturbance or significant alteration in composition over a short period of time. 

Therefore, in a long rambling conclusion, the writer asserts the notion, that in order to save the historic American culture, a sense of social cohesion and national identity, with the hopes of once again creating a vibrant and unified public free from the divisive, toxic and polarizing times of the present, that the federal governing body of the United States fulfill its constitutional duty to provide for the security of the nation by strongly countering the waves of illegal migrants arriving at the southern border. Should this initial step be accomplished, congress should then seek to reform legal immigration policy in America. 

As Teddy Roosevelt stated: 

"There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all... The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities... each preserving its separate nationality, each at the heart feeling more sympathy with... that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic. There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else."

Whatever the nation of origin, and wherever the ethnic enclave may exist- matters not. If America is to survive, immigration in all senses must be significantly restricted in the immediate future- so that we may hope to have the posterity of the many groups of people who have immigrated here over the past several decades be able to assimilate into the fabric of existing American culture. As a nation, we are at a crossroads, and the American youth at large is misguided, lost, and empty.

Let me be clear- the American Community of the 1950s is dead. But perhaps, with the help of providence, the right governance at the Federal level, and the willpower, patriotism, and shared civic efforts of Americans across the nation who understand what it means to live in the lifestyle of that historic culture, we may build a new cohesive national identity.

This identity, must originate within the community. From every city block, or country road, Americans must unite and persevere.

"One of the signs of a great society is the diligence with which it passes culture from one generation to the next. This culture is the embodiment of everything the people of that society hold dear: its religious faith, its heroes... when one generation no longer esteems it's own heritage and fails to pass the torch to its children, it is saying in essence that the very foundational principles and experiences that make the society what it is are no longer valid. This leaves that generation without any sense of definition or direction, making them the fulfillment of Karl Marx's dictum, 'A people without a heritage are easily persuaded'. What is required, when this happens and the society has lost its way, is for leaders to arise, who have not forgotten the discarded legacy and who love it with all their hearts. They can then become the voice of that lost generation, wooing an errant generation back to the faith of their fathers, back to the ancient foundations and bedrock values..." 
-Winston Churchill.  





Thursday, April 13, 2023

Those Were (And Still Can Be!) the Days!




In 1963 Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba coauthored The Civic Culture, a paradigm-shifting work that emphasized the distinctly participatory nature of American society. As a graduate student, I often cited this book in my work on social capital. It is, in many ways, a testament to the Tocquevillian underpinnings of American culture. Up until the mid-20th century, or thereabouts, Americans essentially governed themselves without the need for a strong, centralized state. 

Every time I dust off this old cover, I yearn for a period I never experienced. 

I often wondered if there was a word for this false sense of nostalgia. It's nonsensical when you think about it. I mean, how can you yearn for the halcyon days of a time you didn't live through? But, alas, I discovered the word: anemoia. I know what you're thinking: ane-what? Well, according to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, anemoia is defined as "nostalgia for a time you've never known." Now, again, I know what you're thinking: what on earth is The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows? Well, it's a book written by John Koenig. Though I haven't read it, the overview intrigues me:

Have you ever wondered about the lives of each person you pass on the street, realizing that everyone is the main character in their own story, each living a life as vivid and complex as your own? That feeling has a name: “sonder.” Or maybe you’ve watched a thunderstorm roll in and felt a primal hunger for disaster, hoping it would shake up your life. That’s called “lachesism.” Or you were looking through old photos and felt a pang of nostalgia for a time you’ve never actually experienced. That’s “anemoia.”

If you’ve never heard of these terms before, that’s because they didn’t exist until John Koenig set out to fill the gaps in our language of emotion. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows “creates beautiful new words that we need but do not yet have,” says John Green, bestselling author of The Fault in Our Stars. By turns poignant, relatable, and mind-bending, the definitions include whimsical etymologies drawn from languages around the world, interspersed with otherworldly collages and lyrical essays that explore forgotten corners of the human condition—from “astrophe,” the longing to explore beyond the planet Earth, to “zenosyne,” the sense that time keeps getting faster.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is for anyone who enjoys a shift in perspective, pondering the ineffable feelings that make up our lives. With a gorgeous package and beautiful illustrations throughout, this is the perfect gift for creatives, word nerds, and human beings everywhere.

When I write about the Burkean platoons and the America of Alexis de Tocqueville, I become verklempt with a feeling of intense anemoia. These are times I have an incredible longing for, even though I am a product of the 1990s. 

Sometimes music evokes these feelings. Simon and Garfunkel in particular. Here's a verse from their tune, America:

"Kathy", I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh"Michigan seems like a dream to me now"It took me four days to hitchhike from SaginawI've gone to look for America

Paul Simon: singer, songwriter, and anemoia expert. 



A young Simon & Garfunkel


Going back to The Civic Culture...

While flipping through the off-yellow pages of this old, and largely forgotten, tome, I became saddened. Did things used to be this good? 

Check out this table. The question posed to survey participants: How would you feel if your son/daughter married someone of the opposite political affiliation?


Table from The Civic Culture


93% of Republicans said they would be "indifferent" about their child marrying a Democrat, and 92% vice versa. I can't imagine how much different those numbers would look today, 60 years after the publication of this book. Political polarization has destroyed long-term relationships and even marriages. According to a Pew study conducted in April of 2020, "Among Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic Party who are single but looking for a relationship, about seven-in-ten (71%) say they probably or definitely would not consider being in a committed relationship with someone who voted for Donald Trump." That is appalling and, beyond anything else, profoundly sad. 

Some, however, have pulled off successful inter-political marriages. I encourage you to look into the story of Richard Brookhiser, a conservative writer for National Review, and his wife Jeanne Safer, a liberal doctor and author. The two have been married for over 40 years. Read more about their amazing story here

So maybe there is hope. Maybe The Civic Culture can become relevant again. What, though, would this entail? To put it succinctly: openminded participation. Americans, if they wish to come together as one, unified people, must learn to trust, reject ideological platitudes, and open their minds and hearts to others. 






Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Drinking Coffee Together

Coffeehouse book club


Coffee, author Richard Brookhiser once wrote, is the "elixir of life". There is something so unspeakably good about a piping hot cup of joe (milk and two sugars, please!). My father, whose first language is Italian, will often say "paradiso!" after taking a sip of his k-cup coffee. 

I, for one, am an unabashed caffeine addict. Coffee, to me, is an evocative drink. That is to say, it evokes feelings of comfort, safety, decompression, nostalgia, and even...community.  

In post-COVID America, though, many of these little coffee shops have lost their unique communitarian character. 

Alan Ehrenhalt, author of The Lost City, wrote about the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on local coffeehouses in Governing

Alan Ehrenhalt

Coffeeshops are not just places to get a quick fix of caffeine; they are hubs of community life! Cafes are often venues for book clubs, game clubs, first dates, and so on...  

During the pandemic, however, cafes were stripped of their seating and converted into what Michael Berne, President of MJB Consulting, calls "utilitarian caffeine dispensers" or "UCDs". Because of COVID's easily transmissible nature, medical authorities thought it wise to undergo "social distancing" (need I remind you of this dystopian part of our recent past?). Anyway, this meant no more seating! If a cafĂ© did have seats, they were sparse and spread out in a way that was unconducive to social gatherings. 


COVID-era restaurant 

In essence, COVID sanitized (in more ways than one) coffeeshops, turning them into cold, barren places to get overpriced drinks. The social component was effectively squashed. 

Many of these, once bustling, community centers, Ehrenhalt points out, were promptly replaced by furniture-less, efficiency-maximizing coffee kiosks. These are fundamentally anti-communitarian pop-up shops. 

Perhaps you've seen them around...





With COVID now in the rearview mirror, it's time that we bring back these little caffeinated platoons, furniture and all! 



 

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Lessons From the Far-Left




In November of 2019, Jodi Dean, a left-wing professor from New York, wrote a thought provoking and surprisingly insightful article in Jacobin, a socialist-friendly political magazine which one Vox contributor called "the leading intellectual voice of the American left..."

Though I personally don't subscribe to Jacobin, I could appreciate any kind of genuine political commentary, even if it is coming from a source that would most likely hate my guts.

If you could muster up the courage to traverse the socialist, jargon-ridden word scrambles that characterize the piece, you might just take away an important message: we need each other. We are, as Dean astutely notes, stronger and more formidable as a unified collective.

Dean, of course, is coming from a serious leftward-bent, if that wasn't already obvious by her repeated use of the word "comrade". Whatever the case, the message is still applicable to those on the right, center, or wherever.

This bit sums up her argument well:

Because of our comrades’ expectations we show up to meetings we would otherwise miss, do political work we might avoid, and try to live up to our responsibilities to each other. We experience the joy of committed struggle, of learning through practice. We overcome fears that might overwhelm us were we forced to confront them alone. Our comrades make us better, stronger, than we could ever be alone.


So, in essence, if our objective is to accomplish things that we care about, it is unwise for us to go it alone. Rather, what we need is each other. Social capital, as it is commonly understood, is not just about joining bowling leagues for the sake of making friends and keeping yourself occupied on the weekends; it is about cutting down on transactions costs by forming collectives with shared goals.

If workers, for example, thought they could effectively fight for higher wages and better working conditions without the aid of their fellow man, they wouldn't unionize. But the idea of effectuating this sort of change as a lone individual is obviously silly. Who was it that said "strength in numbers"?



 
Now, I understand that those on the political right are rather uneasy about taking lessons from the far-left. That is very understandable. I, too, get a little queasy about the prospect of finding merit in Jacobin. But it seems painfully clear to me that Dean is right! If we want to further conservative causes, we can't do it by ourselves. Though I dread the word, conservatives need to organize.

I always found it odd that the Tea Party managed to do this in 2010. There's something so paradoxical about libertarian types, who extol the virtues of individualism, marching as a collective. Be that as it may, the Tea Party was successful in winning back the House and in fundamentally changing the overarching ethos of Congressional Republicans during the Obama years.




So, if right-wingers did it before, shouldn't they be able to do it again? The MAGA cadre, I suppose, has accomplished this to a degree, but in a far more disorganized fashion. The Tea Party, in comparison, was a well-oiled machine.

Without rambling on too much, I'll leave with this: there is a reason the left is so effective at dictating the cultural trajectory. There's a reason they win elections. There's a reason they dominate the media. There's a reason they've penetrated academic curricula. That reason: they understand the importance of organization and collective struggle.

Though it might sting a bit, conservatives would be well served to take notes...