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.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Answering the Phone: A Communitarian Gesture?


Phone calls can be inconvenient, awkward, and even anxiety-inducing. That's certainly a sentiment shared by today's zoomers, who are painfully introverted and conversation-averse. Rather than hear your friend's voice on the other end of the line, we opt instead to shoot a lazy text, perhaps accompanied by an emoji or two. While texting is easy and time-effective, it is an action devoid of real human interaction. When we pick up the phone and engage in dialogue, however, we are hearing the unadulterated sound of the other person's voice, and that is inimitable. 

In an op-ed published in Business Insider yesterday, Mia de Graaf remarks on the Gen-Z phenomenon of letting incoming calls go to voicemail:

When I see a call from a non-relative flash on my phone, I might pick up, but I often don't. I'm working, or making food between meetings, or lost in a social media rabbit hole that I'm simply not ready to extract myself from. Sometimes I'm sitting smooth-brained, unprepared for an unexpected social interaction. If it's a friend calling, I assume it's not an emergency because there's surely a lot of people they would call before deciding I'm, in fact, their savior. I'll text to ask what's up.

What's more, de Graaf goes on to say that answering the phone is a boomer trait. Boomers, for example, have the tendency to answer an incoming phone call, even when they are unavailable. "Hey, I can't talk right now. Can I call you back?", they'll say. This courteous and un-arduous gesture is, to zoomers, superfluous and even cringe! And, as de Graaf rightly notes, "one thing millennials and zoomers don't want to be is cringe." 

de Graaf's interview with U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, is instructive:

"Number one, I've heard that just picking up the phone when friends call, even if it's just to tell them for five seconds that, 'Hey, I'm tied up. Can I call you back later?', that that actually makes a big difference compared to silencing the call and texting them back," Murthy said. "The reason is because you're hearing the sound of their voice, they're hearing your voice, and that connection is stronger even if it's brief."

The key word here: connection. Murthy, who earlier this year scared the bejesus out of everyone by reporting that "the mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day", is absolutely spot on in his prescription. I, personally, have had many substantive and fulfilling conversations over the phone. These never would have translated over text. 

So, in short, the next time your phone rings, answer it, unless my friend Spam Risk is calling...

Friday, December 22, 2023

The Miracle Victory at Trenton: Washington Crosses the Delaware on Christmas, 1776

As the Christmas holiday fast approaches, modern Americans everywhere largely enjoy the celebrations historically dedicated to the birth of Christ from the safety of their homes. Spending the occasion in relative comfort and convenience, while enjoying plentiful food, an abundance of presents, warm and tolerable housing conditions, and overall the general ease that comes with modern living, it is fair to say that the minds of most contemporary citizens are far removed from remembering the plight of their ancestors some 247 years ago. The plain truth of the matter is that had it not been for the sacrifices, courage, and bravery of General George Washington and a ragged band of scantily clothed and barefoot American patriots, the modern state of Christmas affairs in America would likely appear much different. In fact, it is likely there would never have been a United States at all. Therefore, the author found it to be fitting and proper, as we approach the Christmas holiday, to remember the feat of our American ancestors, who crossed an icy Delaware river from Pennsylvania into New Jersey on Christmas night amidst a blizzard, marched 9 miles through the snow and ice (with many in bare feet), and achieved a nation-saving victory at the Battle of Trenton on the early hours of December 26th, 1776. Without these men and the leadership of General George Washington, America would not have survived as an independent country and the cause of independence would have likely been lost shortly thereafter. Below is a narrative of this action and the plight of the Continental army in the weeks prior to its miraculous execution. This year, as Americans enjoy the holiday in ease and relative peace, it would do them well to remember the courage and fortitude of their ancestors and to give thanks and reverence to them, for many of the comforts enjoyed today would not be possible without them.

In mid-December 1776, the remnants of Washington’s ragged Continental army encamped along the Delaware River. The men remained poorly equipped, clothed in tattered summer garments. With little food, no tents, and limited blankets, they braved the elements along the Delaware. Hundreds were sick, and many simply died of exposure and illness while encamped along the Delaware. Washington and the American army had endured months of repeated defeats at the hands of the military might of the British empire. The ragged, citizen soldiers who had so boldly rebelled against the crown and had celebrated the “birth” of their nation with an official declaration of independence by the Continental Congress in July just months prior faced a seemingly hopeless situation. After being obliterated in New York, Washington had no choice but to retreat through New Jersey towards Pennsylvania and the American capital in the face of a vastly superior force in late November. With the weather worsening, the desperate remnants of the army retreated through New Jersey.

General George Washington (as Commander in Chief) faced a dire situation. When the new year would begin on January 1st, 1777, every remaining enlistment in Washington’s army would expire. In sum, his army, demoralized, starving, shoeless and ragged, would all but cease to exist in a little more than a month. The situation was dire. As the historian David McCullough stated:

“In August, Washington had an army of 20,000. In the three months since, he had lost four battles- at Brooklyn, Kips Bay, White Plains, and Fort Washington- then gave up Fort Lee without a fight. His army now was now divided and... he had only about 3,500 troops under his personal command. That was all.” (1776).[1]

[1] David G. McCullough, 1776 (London: The Folio Society, 2005), 249.

British General Sir William Howe, triumphant and confident that the war was nearly finished, retired with the bulk of his army to New York. Holding the Americans in contempt, Howe left only a scant number of troops to defend western New Jersey. Most of these men were Hessians, or German mercenaries, with several thousand soldiers being encamped in and around the towns of Bordentown and Trenton, the state capital. At these two posts, troops under the command of Colonels Johann Rall and Karl Von Donop were positioned in a defensive posture, preparing for winter quarters. Encamped with some 3,500 men in early December near McConkey’s Ferry, Pennsylvania, Washington knew something miraculous needed to occur to save his disintegrating army. In just weeks, every remaining enlistment would expire, and the army would effectively cease to exist. Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, arrived at Washington’s headquarters on December 23, 1776. Rush noted that the General was depressed. One can only imagine the thoughts and emotions Washington must have felt when facing the seemingly fatal conditions of his army and his country. Rush recorded that Washington sat at his writing desk, scratching the same phrase over and over again onto scraps of paper. Rush wrote:

“While I was talking to him, I observed him to play with his pen and ink upon several small pieces of paper. One of them by accident fell upon the floor near my feet. I was struck with the inscription upon it. It was ‘Victory or Death.’”[1]

This was no exaggeration. Washington knew that unless a monumental and daring action was taken that resulted in an American triumph, the war was likely over, and with it, the cause of a free America and the lives of every person who still dared to fight for it. On December 20th Washington received much needed reinforcements when 2,000 men that had remained under the command of the newly captured General Charles Lee were marched into camp by General John Sullivan. Additionally, 600 men under the command of General Horatio Gates and some 1,000 Pennsylvania militiamen under the command of John Cadwalader arrived. With these troops enjoining his skeleton force, Washington could now muster about 6,000 men. Now convinced that the time was at hand for an attack, Washington decided to attack Trenton. In a bold move, he would cross the icy Delaware river and attack the Hessians under the command of Colonel Johann Rall. After arriving on the New Jersey shore, his men would march nine miles south to Trenton, where he hoped to annihilate the entire enemy force and procure much needed supplies. Washington wrote to his aide, Joseph Reed:

“Christmas day at night, one hour before day is the time fixed upon for our attempt on Trenton… For heaven’s sake keep this to yourself, as the discovery of it may prove fatal to us, our numbers, I am sorry to say, being less than I had any conception of—but necessity, dire necessity will—nay must justify any Attempt.”[2]

On December 23rd along the Delaware river in Pennsylvania, the impoverished writer Thomas Paine wrote his most inspiring piece of revolutionary penmanship. Having authored the famous and widely circulated “Common Sense” pamphlet earlier in the year, Paine now wrote “American Crisis”. The infamous opening paragraph was a call to action, and it did just that. With their spirits flagging, their stomachs growling, and their bodies shivering incessantly in their slovenly clothing, the courageous few American troops who continued to brave the elements in the face of all odds read aloud his new passage:

“THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of every man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives every-thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price on its goods; and it would be a strange thing indeed if an article so celestial as FREEDOM should not be so highly rated…”[3]

The next day, Washington ordered these words read aloud to every soldier in the army. Inspiring the men, the cold, ragged souls that remained in Pennsylvania prepared for an assault on Trenton. All was at stake. Washington planned to cross the river in three locations. A group of men under John Cadwalader would cross directly below the town of Trenton at Dunks Ferry, blocking the roads south of town. Another group under the command of James Ewing would cross at Trenton Ferry, also to the south. The third and most sizable contingent would cross 9 miles above the town and march south. These 2,400 men would be led by Washington. On the morning of December 25, Washington ordered his army to prepare three days’ food and issued orders that every soldier be outfitted with fresh flints for their muskets. At 4 pm Washington’s army turned out for its evening parade, where the troops were issued ammunition, and even the officers and musicians were ordered to carry muskets. They were told that they were departing on a secret mission. All men were told not to speak, not even in whispers.

By the time the Americans arrived from their camps at the McKonkey’s ferry landings, it was already an hour past sunset. The weather was horrid; the temperature was freezing, and an icy mix of sleet and snow poured from the sky. The wind howled tremendously. The men, still in ragged tattered summer clothing and many barefoot, suffered. Colonel Henry Knox was in charge of the logistics of the crossing. In addition to the 2,400 men that needed to be ferried across the river, Knox also had to ensure that horses and 18 pieces of artillery were also transported across. Knox exerted himself to near exhaustion; according to one account, had it not been for the powerful lungs… of Knox, the crossing that night would have failed.[4] The infamous Marblehead fisherman of Colonel John Glover’s brigade would largely man the oars. These mariners, braving the ice and snow, once again proved their skill and mettle, delivering thousands of men to the shores of west Jersey. Ice jammed the river. Due to this, the other two groups of men that had been supposed to cross further downstream under the commands of Cadwalader and Ewing were unable to navigate the river and had no choice but to remain in Pennsylvania. Washington and his 2,400 men would have to assault Trenton alone. Washington was among the first of the troops to cross, going with Virginia troops led by General Adam Stephen. These troops formed a sentry line around the landing area in New Jersey, with strict instructions that no one was to pass through. The password was “Victory or Death”.

By 4am, hours behind schedule and after nearly ten hours, the entire group was on the New Jersey shore. Washington was faced with a dilemma. Due to the time lost in crossing the river, the Americans would be forced to reach Trenton and attack during daylight. Without any real alternative, he ordered the march to begin. Through thick snow, the American troops began the nine mile march to Trenton. At least two men would die of hypothermia and exposure. In the late evening, a loyalist farmer learned of the American landings in New Jersey. Racing to Trenton, he attempted to warn Colonel Rall, but was not allowed into his quarters. Eventually, he was able to procure a sheet of paper, and after writing his findings on it, he handed it to a sentry, who then passed the note to Rall himself. Rall would simply place the note in his jacket pocket, and never read it. The next day, he would die, never knowing that if he had simply glanced at the message placed in his jacket, he may have lived a long, lively life.

On the nine mile march, Washington divided the army into two columns. In one column, Washington and General Nathanael Greene would lead men down the Pennington road. In another, General John Sullivan led men down the River road into Trenton. In a parallel line of march, these two columns would sweep into Trenton and in a swift maneuver quickly seize the town. The plan worked miraculously. At 8am on December 26th, Washington personally led the opening moments of the assault. Americans attacked a Hessian outpost outside of town and dispersed the enemy. Washington then ordered a group of German speaking infantry and Pennsylvania riflemen to block the road to Princeton, neutralizing any escape northward. Pushing the Hessians into the town of Trenton itself, the Americans rushed forward. Henry Knox quickly formed artillery on Kings and Queens streets; these guns would fire effectively on the enemy. The ragged Americans rushed into town with a fervor and spirit not seen in months, letting out a tremendous battle cry. Henry Knox wrote: “The troops behaved like men contending for everything that was dear and valuable”.[5]

General Sullivan entered Trenton on the River Road and blocked the only crossing over the Assunpink Creek to cut off the Hessian escape. A few lucky Hessians would swim across the creek before the Americans would secure it, along with 20 British dragoons. As Greene and Sullivan’s columns pushed into the town, Washington moved to high ground north of King and Queens streets. At the same time, artillery under the command of John Cadwalader fired across the Delaware river from Pennsylvania, devastating the Hessians. Colonel Rall, arriving on the scene in a delayed fashion, ordered his soldiers to form and advance on the American cannons positioned on Kings and Queens streets. While the Hessians charged at the Americans, they were gunned down by the fire of the guns themselves and also from men under the command of General Hugh Mercer, who fired on their left flank from houses. In the face of withering fire, Rall ordered two three pound cannons to attempt to return fire at the Americans; in just a few short minutes, over half of the German artillerymen were killed by American fire, and the guns were captured by the Americans.

As these Hessians retreated and reformed in fields to the south of town, they were shocked to find Americans under the command of General Sullivan blocking their escape. For perhaps one of the first times of the war, American troops under the command of John Stark performed a bayonet charge, breaking several lines of Hessians. Now bottled up with nowhere to turn, the Germans suffered tremendously, taking heavy casualties on all sides from American musketry and cannon fire. Some confused Hessians that had been ordered to join an attack to the north attempted to break out to the south across a bridge over the Assunpink creek after marching in the wrong direction. Men under the command of John Sullivan quickly broke their attack, inflicting casualties and forcing them to surrender. In one final attempt to break out of the American entrapment, Rall reformed his men in a field and led them against the American flank near town. Attempting to advance up Kings Street, the Hessians received more American fire from three directions. Despite this, they were successful in recapturing their lost cannons and attempted to fire them at the Americans. Henry Knox, seeing this, ordered six of his men to charge forward and retake the guns. After a brief hand to hand struggle, the cannons were recaptured by the Americans. At the same time, Washington led some men forward to crush the last pockets of German resistance, riding at the front of his men, yelling “March on, my brave fellows, after me!”[6] In this final flurry of activity, Colonel Rall was mortally wounded, shot in the thigh and abdomen. Completely surrounded and with their leader ailing, the Hessians surrendered. The battle of Trenton was over.

The Americans had achieved their first true battlefield victory, and it was perhaps the most important in the history of the nation. In total, the Hessians would suffer 22 killed, 83 wounded, and 896 captured. 500 Hessians would escape across the Assunpink creek south of town. Colonel Rall would die later that day from his wounds. He was buried in the graveyard of Trenton’s First Presbyterian Church. Unbelievably and miraculously, not a single American was killed in the action, with only 5 men wounded. Among these men was an 18 year old named Lieutenant James Monroe, the future president of the United States. Besides the two souls who froze to death on the march to Trenton, not one American perished in the battle. The Americans also captured thousands of rounds of ammunition, firearms, and most importantly, hundreds of pounds of flour, salted meat, and other foodstuffs. Tents, shoes, blankets, clothing, and much needed medical supplies also were seized by the Americans. These items were much needed by the ragged remnants of the Continental Army.

They had braved the freezing cold, ice, snow, and sleet. They had marched in silence along the snow covered roads to Trenton. In their tattered clothes and on empty stomachs, these courageous men had somehow achieved a miracle victory at Trenton. Defying all logic and rational reason, 2,400 ragged, starving and half-shoeless Americans had braved an icy blizzard and saved their country from the brink of utter defeat and ruin. The entire country was reinvigorated. The cause of freedom and independence, which hours before had seemed all but lost, was alive and well. Historian George Bancroft noted “Until that hour the life of the United States flickered like a dying flame… (Trenton) turned the shadow of death into morning”.[7] Washington, against all odds, in the face of adversity unrivaled by perhaps any world leader in history, had saved his army and his nation from utter collapse, defeat, and death. Historian John Fiske wrote “At this awful moment, the whole future of America, and of all that America signifies to the world, rested upon Washington’s single titanic will”[8]. Triumphantly, the Americans and their captured enemies marched back to the Delaware river, nine miles north of the town, and repeated the crossing, arriving to the safety of Pennsylvania. Exhausted beyond description, these men had been awake for over 24 hours when they finally arrived back in their camps in Bucks County. And yet, the campaign was far from over.

Every year, when celebrating the Christmas holiday in safety, security and hearty peace, remember the fortitude and unspeakable courage of these few thousand souls, who against all odds, saved their nation and changed history forever. Without them, Americans through the ages, and the world at large, would never know or enjoy the prosperity and liberty that marked the ages since. With their all at stake, they prevailed. In sum, as G.M. Trevelyan so poignantly stated: “It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater or more lasting results upon the history of the world”[9]. God bless them, and God bless America.

[1] David G. McCullough, 1776 (London: The Folio Society, 2005), 273.

[2] David G. McCullough, 1776 (London: The Folio Society, 2005), 272.

[3] David G. McCullough, 1776 (London: The Folio Society, 2005), 251.

[4] David G. McCullough, 1776 (London: The Folio Society, 2005), 274.

[5] David G. McCullough, 1776 (London: The Folio Society, 2005), 282.

[6] Mark Maloy, Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, December 25, 1776-January 3, 1777 (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie LLC, 2018), 58.

[7] Mark Maloy, Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, December 25, 1776-January 3, 1777 (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie LLC, 2018), 150.

[8] Mark Maloy, Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, December 25, 1776-January 3, 1777 (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie LLC, 2018), 150.

[9] Mark Maloy, Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, December 25, 1776-January 3, 1777 (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie LLC, 2018), 150.

Supermarkets, New Urbanism, and Remembering Etzioni: A Chat with Alan Ehrenhalt


On Wednesday, December 20, I, once again, had the awesome privilege of interviewing Alan Ehrenhalt, author of The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America, and former executive editor of Governing Magazine. When we last spoke in April (you can find that interview here.), Communitarian pioneer, Amitai Etzioni, was still alive, and the "loneliness epidemic" was still largely unreported. Alan and I had much to catch up on...

Frank Filocomo: I wanted to start by asking you about some of your recent work in Governing. I just read your article, Is there a Place for Super Market Socialism? I'd love to know how that came about. 

Alan Ehrenhalt: I saw a small news item about the mayor of Chicago considering city-owned supermarkets. From there, I looked into the fiasco involving Whole Foods going into an underserved neighborhood, and there was a lot to say about that and why that happened and whether something could be done about that in the form of a public option. 

FF: I wonder if there's a civic engagement element to supermarkets. Can they serve as community hubs? I recall earlier this year, you wrote something on cafes losing their status as "third places" and becoming "utilitarian caffeine dispensers" after COVID. I wonder if there is a Communitarian element to a supermarket. 

AE: Well, I think there could be, but if you look at what's going on in supermarkets, we have a lot of self-checkouts that we didn't have twenty years ago. That's kind of an icon for things that are going out of society. I don't find, when I go to the grocery store, I don't find the checkout clerks especially friendly. But, I also have read that in some other countries, there are supermarkets that have established slow lines so you can talk to the checkout clerk and you're not expected to move very fast. Well, maybe that's a move in the direction of so-called "weak tie" relationships. 

FF: On that note, do you think that automation is playing an adverse role in facilitating social interaction? 

AE: Well yeah, I think that the more things that we buy online, the fewer retail workers we are going to come into contact with. One of the nice things I used to like about book stores, and still do to some extent, is that you can go in and have a conversation with the person behind the counter. And that person, especially in the old days, new quite a bit about books. When you order from Amazon, however, you're not having a relationship with anybody. So, in the commercial world, we've already come across two ways in which interpersonal contact has declined.  

FF: I was just recently at my local Walgreens and the man behind the register had a name tag and he saw my name pop up when I processed my credit card. "Your name is Frank", he said. "I'm Luis, very nice to meet you." I was completely taken aback by that. Do you think that name tags could bolster a Communitarian spirit? I know it sounds so trivial...

AE: Well, it could. The clerk at the grocery store I go to is named Diane, and when I get up to the line I say, "hello, Diane" or "good morning, Diane," and she never says anything! So, I guess it depends. 

FF: I've come across that too, and I think that's probably the norm. 

AE: Yeah, I think so.

FF: I remember reading in your book, The Lost City, how people used to patronize the mom and pop stores that they felt a loyalty to, even if the prices were comparatively lower at the bigger chain stores. It seems like that behavior is declining. 

AE: Well it's funny, I'll offer a contrarian point of view: When I was a kid, we had a mom and pop grocery store around the corner of our street. My mother would send me there to get a loaf of bread in the afternoon. But the guy who ran it was terrible! He was rude, arrogant, and you didn't want a relationship with him even though you had one. I mean, people would always grumble about Sam. How was he going to stay in business? And, of course, eventually he didn't stay in business. But I don't think that was because of his personality. My mother was glad when she could go to a supermarket and not have to deal with this guy. So, it kind of works both ways. But I think that's an exception, rather than the rule. 

FF: Well, I'm sure you also established some positive weak tie relationships with some of these workers too, right?

AE: Well, in this particular mom and pop store, Sam's Food Store, I can still remember the names of the clerks! And we're talking many decades ago. Carl was the young guy, who was probably studying to be something else; and then there was pop, who was Sam's father, and he was okay. So, it may lead to the conclusion that relationships, even if not completely enjoyable, are still better than no relationships.

FF: Yeah, I think so too. I think even just hearing your name mentioned, or saying the other person's name, is powerful. 

AE: Yeah, and I try to do that all the time. At the pharmacy that I go to, I know the names of all of the technicians, and they know my name, and I actually find that rather comforting. 

FF: I don't know if you've read it yet, but I just finished David Brooks' new book, How to Know a Person...

AE: Frank, I haven't gotten to it yet. I should read it. 

FF:  It's really tremendous and he remarks that the power of saying someone's name is indicative of you seeing them and seeing their humanity. You're saying "I see you and I acknowledge your existence." And it appears to me that in a lot of these chain stores, there's a lack of seeing people, and everything is just purely transactional.  

AE: Yeah you know, Dale Carnegie wrote in How to Win Friends and Influence People, that the single, most sweetest sound to most people is the sound of their own name. I don't endorse everything Dale Carnegie wrote, but I think he was right about that. 

FF: Another article that really struck me, that you wrote, was the one about the designated public drinking areas that I think are primarily in North Carolina, right?

AE: Well that's the capital of it yeah, but they're now also in Michigan and Ohio. 

FF: Yeah, is there any update on those areas? Are they getting traction? Is it proving to be a successful recipe for facilitating social engagement? 

AE: At the time I wrote the article, it seemed to be gaining support and becoming more successful, but I haven't really gotten into it since then. 

FF: I've never been to New Orleans, but Bourbon Street looks like a social hub. 

AE: It's true, although most people don't realize that over there drinking is only legal in the French Quarter. If you do it in another neighborhood, it's technically against the law, but you aren't going to get thrown in jail for it. 

FF: Do you see these efforts to establish designated drinking areas as a response to our current loneliness epidemic?

AE: Yeah, I think there are some responses to it. I just read an article that said that the way you arrange benches in public parks has a lot to do with sociability and breaking down loneliness. And it said that benches should be set at angles to each other. That promotes the most social activity. So, maybe that's true. The managers at the park distributed primitive walkie-talkies so people on one bench could talk to people on another bench. 

FF: But why not just sit next to the person?

AE: Well, that's a good question. Maybe that just shows you where we are in this society where a walkie-talkie is more like social media. 

FF: It seems to me like the urban planners are among the most proactive people when it comes to creating communities that are conducive to social interaction. Do you get that impression too?

AE: Yes well, William Whyte basically revived Bryant Park in New York by convincing the managers of the park that the benches should not be fixed; you should be able to move them wherever you wanted to. The use of Bryant Park increased dramatically after people were allowed to seat themselves in whatever way they wanted to. So, there are little things that are being tried, and parks are kind of a ground zero for that. Parks used to be where people would socialize. My parents, for their social activity on Sunday afternoons, would go to the park and sit down on a bench and talk to their friends. That's what they did. They would maybe listen to a ball game too. That was social interaction. And in the evenings, people would congregate on the sidewalk...

FF: I was just going to mention that. 

AE: I mean, they would just stand around on the sidewalk. There were no front porches or anywhere else to stand, so you would just stand on the sidewalk, and that doesn't happen anymore.  

FF: Well, it strikes me that infrastructure is an integral component here. And I think that it's very sad commentary that, as you pointed out in the article, that there are communities where there just aren't viable sidewalks. It's actually dangerous. There are traffic accidents and things like that. 

AE: Well, many suburbs have no sidewalks at all. 

FF: You write that you and your friends would spend hours on the sidewalk. 

AE: We would, yeah. 

FF: I also remember reading about Lake Wales, Florida, this small community that was being reinvented by urban planners. They are incorporating front porches, balconies, verdant walkways...

AE: And those are all aspects of the New Urbanism movement, and have been since Andrés Duany essentially created it the 1990s. 

FF: Do you see this New Urbanism movement playing a pivotal role here in terms of revitalizing civic engagement?

AE: Actually, I do because if you look at almost all city planning departments now, they, whether they know it or not, are imbued with the New Urbanist principles, that is: pedestrian friendly, breaking down zoning barriers. I mean, that's just the conventional wisdom in cities now. That comes out of the New Urbanist effort of the last thirty years. 

FF: So, that would imply to me that a lot of this is external. 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?

AE: 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 everyday 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. 

FF: Before I let you go, I believe Amitai Etzioni was still alive the last time we spoke. 

AE: He was.

FF: I thought you could just say a word about him and the impact he had on the Communitarian movement. 

AE: Well, I had enormous admiration for Amitai Etzioni. He really created the Communitarian movement, to a great extent. And, because of his academic credentials, he made it credible. I think a lot of this comes out of his boyhood in Israel. He lived on a kibbutz and he saw social connections based on his years in Israel, and he tried to translate it to modern America. He really provided the intellectual basis for what we are now trying to do with Communitarianism. Andrés Duany did it in a different way with the New Urbanism. 

FF: I recall him saying in an interview that Communitarianism is a term that very few people know, but something that many of us still practice. Do you think that the term Communitarian could ever really penetrate the lexicon of most people?

AE: I don't think it has so far, but the idea has penetrated the mindset of the people who make city planning decisions. It's very prevalent. Whether they call it Communitarian or not, to try to advantage pedestrians over cars is a Communitarian gesture. And whether they use the word Communitarianism or not, I don't think really matters a great deal. 

FF: I think that's true. So what are some good Communitarian publications that people ought to check out? Governing has been my go-to. You've also referenced Public Square: A CNU Journal

AE: Yes, that's still a good one. The one that comes out of Oregon, City Observatory is great too. 

FF: There's also Front Porch Republic. But it seems like there needs to be more writing about this. 

AE: The more, the better. 

FF: I occasionally will write some pieces for National Review, and I plan on writing more. 

AE: You know, the American Conservative really is a force for Communitarianism and New Urban principles. You would not expect it, but it is. And it's worth reading. Rod Dreher writes in there all the time and I think he's a sort of Communitarian. A right-wing Communitarian.

FF: Yeah, I think a lot of Catholic publications are interested in this idea. I'm also reminded of First Things. 

AE: Yes, that's been around a long time. Marry Ann Glendon used to be very active in First Things. I doubt if she is anymore. 

FF: Well, Mr. Ehrenhalt, as always, thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I always value it a lot. You are one of my big influences. 

AE: Well, I appreciate it and I'm always glad to talk to you. 


Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Rhyming Values: Unveiling Socio-Political Parallels Between Modern American Conservatives and Rap Artists

In the realm of American music, the emergence of ghetto rap as a powerful voice in expressing socio-political concerns has been a notable development. Often associated with marginalized communities, ghetto rap artists share intriguing parallels with American conservatives in their approach to addressing social and political issues. This essay explores the surprising similarities between American ghetto rappers and conservatives, shedding light on the ways in which both groups use their platforms to articulate their perspectives on societal challenges.

While on the surface it may seem that ghetto rap and conservatism are worlds apart, a closer examination reveals shared values that form the foundation of their expression. Both groups often emphasize individualism, self-reliance, and personal responsibility. Ghetto rap frequently champions the idea of overcoming adversity through personal agency, echoing the conservative emphasis on individual freedoms and limited government intervention. "You could be famous, I got this shit out the mud and caught a lil'buzz, then QC changed it... We all God's babies, we all built with greatness."- Quavo: "Greatness." Quavo, along with many talented rappers, advocate for hard work, resilience, and the pursuit of success as the blueprint to obtaining a life of luxury. Ghetto rap often glorifies the pursuit of success through entrepreneurial ventures, encouraging self-made success stories. Similarly, conservatives champion the free-market system and entrepreneurship as key drivers of economic growth and individual prosperity. This shared appreciation for the power of individual initiative and enterprise underscores a surprising alignment between these two seemingly divergent cultural and political spheres.

Another area of convergence between ghetto rappers and conservatives lies in their shared commitment to cultural preservation. The rap-artist, Lupe Fiasco, is a leader of empowerment in rap music to which his song "We The People" asserts, "Peace to the land of the real, the home of the brave, West of the slaves and south of the caves." In this quote, Lupe critiques the contemporary state of hip-hop and the need for artists to maintain a connection to the historical and cultural roots of the genre. In the same metaphysical vein, many modern conservatives support policies and initiatives aimed at protecting and preserving cultural heritage. This includes advocating for the safeguarding of historical landmarks, monuments, and institutions that hold significance in shaping the cultural identity of a nation. While, critics may say that landmarks are tangible to physical save compared to composed music. However, you can see the overlap of respect in the individual communities for projects that they feel inspired to save or preserve. In this context, you see the passion rap music listeners get from the lyrics and beats; just the same as you see a conservative rally or march supporting a monument or institution. Ghetto rap often serves as a platform for artists to celebrate their cultural roots, portraying the realities of inner-city life and the challenges faced by marginalized communities. Similarly, American conservatives often advocate for the preservation of traditional values and cultural heritage, expressing concern about the erosion of core societal norms. Both groups, in their distinct ways, resist cultural assimilation and seek to maintain the authenticity of their respective identities.

While the methods and rhetoric of modern conservatives and gangster rappers differ, both groups share common ground in advocating for cultural preservation. Both conservatives and gangster rappers emphasize the importance of preserving cultural identity and authenticity. Whether through political discourse or artistic expression, the idea of staying true to one's roots is central to their messages. Whether through policy advocacy or musical storytelling, both groups resist the erosion of cultural values. Conservatives do so through political and social initiatives, while gangster rappers do so by resisting assimilation and challenging societal stereotypes. Conservatives and gangster rappers contribute to the empowerment of their communities. Conservatives often focus on policy measures to uplift communities, while gangster rappers use their platform to amplify voices and bring attention to systemic issues.

Critiquing government is a common thread that runs through both modern conservative ideologies and the narratives of modern day rap. Despite their apparent dissimilarity, these two groups share a skepticism toward certain aspects of government, utilizing their platforms to express concerns, question authority, and call attention to systemic issues. The nuanced ways in which modern conservatives and gangster rappers engage in critiques of government exemplify how appearances can express stark contrast, but an in-depth sociological understanding showcases more socio-political cohesion than previously thought. Both American ghetto rappers and conservatives engage in a critique of government institutions, albeit from different perspectives. Rap often addresses issues of systemic inequality, police brutality, and economic disparities, highlighting the failures of government to address the needs of marginalized communities. On the other hand, conservatives tend to critique government from a perspective of limited intervention, advocating for reduced bureaucracy and greater individual freedoms. Despite the differing angles of critique, both groups express skepticism about the effectiveness and trustworthiness of government institutions. Divergent perspectives harvested a common skepticism in terms of these social groups. While modern conservatives and gangster rappers critique government from divergent perspectives, both share a fundamental skepticism toward the efficacy and fairness of government institutions. Conservatives emphasize limited government for individual freedom, while gangster rappers critique government for perpetuating social injustices.

While the methods of expression and the specific issues addressed may differ, the underlying values and aspirations connect these groups in unexpected ways. Recognizing these parallels contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the diverse ways in which Americans navigate and respond to the complex challenges of contemporary society.

After all... Donald Trump is the President that pardoned Kodak Black, Lil Wayne, Tunechi, AND brought ASAP Rocky back from his jail cell in Sweden. Coincidence? I think not.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

It's Embarrassing To Admit This...


It's embarrassing to admit this, but...

I really only started reading about two years ago. Before that, reading was the most mundane, yawn-inducing task I could think of. It wasn't fun or energizing; it was dull and torturous. 

When I was in high school, I wasn't particularly scholarly, to put it mildly. While I did well, I didn't excel. Most, though not all, of what I read was required for my various classes. Though, now that I think about it, there were various poetry books and short stories I enjoyed. Lawrence Ferlinghetti's, A Coney Island of the Mind; Philip Schultz's, Failure; and Nikolai Gogol's, Diary of a Madman come to mind. I also enjoyed the dystopian works of Paul Auster. 

Barring these few, but notable, exceptions, I did not read. This, in turn, effected my diction, and still does to a degree. I recall one particularly embarrassing moment in a mathematics class I took freshman year. On the first day of class - which is, of course, a prime opportunity to make a good initial impression on your teacher and classmates - the teacher wrote out a function on the dry-erase board and asked, "What does it mean to negate something?" I, confidently, but stupidly, answered, "It means to interpret directions when traveling to a desired location." The teacher, understanding that I had conflated negate with navigate, called on the next person, who answered correctly. I slouched in my chair, retreating from the room in sheer embarrassment. "How could I be so stupid?", I wondered. 

This, however, was not an isolated incident. Many a time, I found myself making similar lexicological blunders. I soon began to realize that my lack of reading was becoming problematic. 

While I did read more as an undergraduate in college, it was still trivial. I often took ages to finish a 200-page book, opting instead to noodle on my guitar (which I do not necessarily regret) or watch YouTube videos. 

It wasn't until I became a Masters student at NYU, that I started to take reading seriously. I was in the big-leagues, so to speak, and intellectual laziness was not an option. It was at this time that I began my research into social capital literature. I meticulously analyzed the works of Robert Putnam, Francis Fukuyama, Alan Ehrenhalt, and various academic journals. This all eventually culminated in an extensive 25-page literature review on the various uses of the term, social capital. 

Class participation at NYU was often competitive. Answering the professor's question accurately and with intelligent insight was of paramount importance. And the professor's approval of your answer was perhaps one of the most validating feelings you could feel. Conversely, his dissatisfaction with your answer hurt like hell. It did for me, anyway. 

Some students, though, were pitifully reticent. I never could understand this. Why would you not at least want to try to stand out? I was easily the most loquacious of all my peers. But I always made sure that my contributions were relevant and substantive. Otherwise, your contribution isn't much of a contribution at all. 

This required me to read... a lot. I spent many long nights at Bobst library going through the course material with a fine tooth comb, frequently stopping if there was a word or concept that I didn't grasp. I don't believe in glossing over something without comprehending it. I always had to hit pause, and figure it out. 

After graduating with my MA in politics, I became a real reader. My time as a fastidious studier taught me, not to read passively and with indifference, but with focused attention and enthusiasm. 

2023 has been, far and away, my most productive and plentiful year, as far as reading is concerned. I am burning through books at a rate I never thought attainable for me. I look forward to buying used books online, even if it means my queue is busting at the seems. If I don't read something this year, I will surely get to it by next year or the year after that. Reading is something I actually enjoy now.

To be sure, I still pronounce words incorrectly, make myriad grammatical errors, and often have to stop to look up the meaning of words when I read. But that's okay. I've learned to accept that that's okay. Before, I would punish myself. But now, I accept my mistakes and - as cliche as it sounds - take them as opportunities to grow. 

I wouldn't be surprised if this very blog post is replete with errors, but whatever. As I continue, I am sure I will grow.