Wise as serpents, innocent as doves, resilient as water bears

Recently read an interesting piece in The Atlantic and came across an excerpt that, to me, was one of the more striking things Obama has said (if he did, in fact, say it):

In private encounters with other world leaders, Obama has argued that there will be no comprehensive solution to Islamist terrorism until Islam reconciles itself to modernity and undergoes some of the reforms that have changed Christianity.

Now, having heard many opinions on this very same topic, given my background and experiences, I can relate that some would argue that Islam, being a Christian sect of sorts in some views, will never cease being prone to exploitation by militaristic, fringe elements, simply because it is a sect that is irrevocably shaped by its own history and explicit association with military conquest. Much like some versions of Communism, so this argument goes, Islam can only succeed via expansion, typically military.

Being neither a theologian nor a deeply learned historian, I can offer the highest cultural and scientific achievements of primarily Islamic states – e.g. the Golden Age centered in Andalusia – as a counterpoint to that view. Others would go further, and argue that primarily Islamic countries could be no different than, say, Protestant England, and consequently could overcome tribal divisions and end the sectarian warfare, eventually, that characterized England prior to unity as Great Britain.

Frankly, in my never-ending quest to please no one, I think both arguments have good points, but I have to admit that, much like the Obama depicted throughout that Atlantic piece, I lean toward the realistic approach that in the end, countries afflicted with such tribal divisions and resulting sectarian violence will have to, by and large, sort it out themselves.

The role of America is not to bring peace, necessarily, unless atrocities on a large enough scale are occurring, but help foster the conditions for peace to flourish. Additional violence is unlikely to bring that about. But that view must be tempered by the fact that self-defense begins not at home, but abroad. Obama is accordingly employing drone strikes, which I am still deeply ambivalent about. I am a Catholic, after all, and one of the clearest commandments is about killing. Such unilateral actions as drone strikes really seem to me to stretch the boundaries of what can be constituted as legitimate self-defense. The sad truth is that drone strikes are an improvement over, say, sending in American troops or even an assassin. And an even sadder truth is that it’s simply not feasible to extract people determined to foment terrorism and imprison them somewhere, as opposed to simply offing them.

But continually questioning whether or not drones should be used is what is crucial. It goes hand in hand with the only way to prevent processes and strategies from falling into ruins – continual tinkering, updating, refreshing and critically examining what is working, what hasn’t, and what can be improved. American foreign policy all too often swings like a pendulum, as the article illustrates, and even if we are in a period of retrenchment right now, especially when we consider Donald Trump’s isolationist, xenophobic rhetoric, we must not abandon being open to helping other nations and groups within nations.

As stated in the article, exertion of military power is actually a sign of weakness. The essence of power is to be able to get what you want without having to strive for it, after all. I agree with a greater focus on Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, as Obama calls for in the article, particularly as economic alliances, shrewd investment and fostering of relations (e.g. increased student visa allotments, tax breaks for multinationals investing in infrastructure, etc.) are precisely the kind of soft power that Americans don’t necessarily seem to focus on nearly as much.

Fear is dominating headlines because, well, that’s what we’re hardwired to respond to by evolution. Accordingly, we focus on military action to the detriment of adopting more dovish policies whenever possible. Don’t get me wrong, I do think it is necessary for the U.S. to have the most powerful military in the world simply because it’s the world’s best bet for peace (unless someone like Trump gets elected), but the hyperfocus on where and when to conduct military actions and/or the agonizing over our current, long-running wars is damaging as it skews perspectives.

By nature, being an irrepressible optimist, even if deeply pragmatic, colors my outlook. But, as I’ve seen in the course of my travels and reading, my counterparts abroad have wondered where, exactly, ordinary Americans seemed to lose the sense of optimism and resilience that characterized us in both our own national narratives and our depictions abroad. Was it 9/11? Or was it the ensuing decade of neverending warfare and a brutal economic crash? Probably both, but if any one people in the world can and should reclaim that sense of ourselves, it’s Americans. It is difficult, in the face of increasing income inequality, and a growing sense of helplessness, particularly as fringe veins of rage and racism rear their ugly heads again this election cycle, but it is imperative that we do so.

Being the leader of the free world isn’t just about what elected officials in D.C. do. In an increasingly hyperconnected world, it’s about what we, as individuals, can do. It’s about engaging even on a personal level, or a local level, much like James Fallows shows in another Atlantic piece. It’s tough, and I, for one, am all too often about finally finishing the latest House of Cards season, instead. But simply participating in local elections, or seeking to stay informed in civic discourse, being unafraid to debate in a courteous fashion, is all crucial, particularly as Americans. The best of the ideals this nation was founded on are comprised of those key notions, after all.

Striving for Diversity in a Polarized World

Many others have already expounded on the potential dangers of a Trump presidency. Louis C.K.’s is one of my favorites. Others, like Robert Reich, have also written on what the campaigns of both Trump and Sanders portend for the “establishment”. In short, most of what I would say on those two topics has already been said, but they lead me in a roundabout fashion to, once again, the subtle, insidious curse of modern media consumption and centralization, which is directly contributing to the political polarization which has helped produce both Sanders and Trump.

The funny thing about the nigh-unlimited array of content anyone with an Internet connection can now consume is that it’s 1) very limited in ownership and 2) very likely to produce choice paralysis, a peculiar kind of pain.

To address the first point, it’s common for many to decry how few corporations control so many media outlets, and they have a fair point, in that if those who own such companies could agree on subtly altering people’s perceptions of issues, they could very well exert a huge influence on what you or I think. (Maybe this is happening – I’d argue in some ways it is.) I wouldn’t go so far as to cry Big Brother just yet, as instead these companies simply wish to attract more attention leading to advertising revenue, hence the sensationalism or easily palatable content that dominates nearly the entire web paired with ever-more clever algorithms that track every online path you take and try to present you with what you would like the best, based on your search and/or purchase history.

(Quick aside: it needn’t be all sensationalist content, of course, as, say, the Financial Times is just as likely to send ads your way about behavioral science seminars if you’ve shown an interest in longer, more rigorous pieces. But even if slightly more middle or high-brow, what they want to sell is narrative, not necessarily fringe, so there is an unconscious impetus for the messiness of reality to be smoothed over, which, when exacerbated, can turn into something as bad as the media cycles in presidential election years, which gloss over far too many truths and peddle half-lies to serve things that cohere with what you already believe…avoiding antagonizing you much. Okay, maybe not that quick an aside after all.)

The problem is that when you take that barrage of attention-courting content, you get choice paralysis, which people naturally sort by gravitating toward either what their friends like (as many people now consume content through their social media feeds) or by finding what’s most comfortable. Discomfort is pain, after all. Why endlessly scroll through a feed dominated by opinions you find distasteful, confusing, hard to understand or unfunny?

Well, the unfortunate reality is that doing that at least part of the time is the only way I know how to prevent personal polarization of the sort that’s helping create the political environment of today. I don’t like to read anything that is pro-Trump, but in order to even begin to understand where his supporters are coming from, I have to delve into not only his speech transcripts but also his supporters’ Twitter feeds. Many do not approve of my positions on drug decriminalization or abortion, but if they want to see where I am coming from, they will have to dialogue with me.

A diverse diet is crucial to bodily health; a diverse diet of content is essential for mental balance as well. Seclusion within, say, my circles of Catholic, somewhat socially liberal, somewhat fiscally conservative friends would make my life easy and mental stress (from defending my opinions) negligible. But how does someone like Trump even get to where he has gotten? A lack of honest dialogue between opposing camps that hesitate to venture outside the comfort of their own circles, where rural blue-collar workers feel increasingly disenfranchised and traduced by coastal elites who sneer at their religious beliefs and social customs, or, in turn, where tight-knit societies maintain prejudices for decades, relating immigration to their own economic circumstances.

This really isn’t anything new. We aren’t different from our forefathers, who ran political campaigns in the early 1800s that were as vicious, maybe even crude, as anything we see today. We have different prejudices drawing from different fears, perhaps, but otherwise, we simply have the ability to cultivate exactly what we see and hear to an extraordinary degree, and too often take it.

I do that all the time, just scanning my curated Twitter feed rather than seeking to challenge myself. When I’m being somewhat better, I read The Atlantic, New York Times, Salon, National Review, Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, Economist, Financial Times, Reason, Al Jazeera and a few others throughout the week. What’s even better is when I don’t pay as much attention to daily or even weekly news, but rather go back to books. The sheer volume of daily content is exhausting to try to keep up with, and, moreover, perverts your focus away from more accurate forecasting of longer-term trends. Sometime’s it’s good to take a step back, and see how much the daily dribble of news has shifted your long-term focus, and what your long-term beliefs have been…that’s another insidious facet of polarization nowadays, as you don’t notice how much your opinions change when they shift only every little bit.

It’s not much, but it’s a start.

A final note: One interesting side-effect produced by polarization is that either you withdraw into tighter and tighter circles, if you like to air your opinions vehemently, or you suppress to some extent, if you still wish to engage with wider circles (there are other options, of course, but those seem to be the main ones I see). Potentially, the latter can lead to the type of explosion that we are seeing evidenced in, say, Trump and Sanders. The latter seem more vocal, at least in the circles I frequent, given that I live in Seattle. But I’m willing to bet there are quite a few people I know who may never admit it, but who are somewhat rooting for Trump. They don’t feel comfortable doing so in any of their circles – an odd aftereffect of social media’s promotion of a lack of diversity as it offers many avenues for exposure, for people to pounce on “the other” and, unwittingly, succumb to the same types of nativist fear that they may well decry in those who denounce immigrants.

A return (hopefully) to more regular posting: The pandering primary season

Man, it’s been quite a while since I wrote a post here. Reasons why range from the fact my job got considerably more intense (and, as my job is very writing-intensive, I preferred to devote my spare time to practicing guitar) to my increased activity on Twitter in the hope that such micro thoughts would serve the same purpose as my brief posts here.

But they don’t. Sometimes, ideas need more than what could end up being 10,000 characters (although, if TWTR does end up doing that, who knows what hell will break loose on that platform). And one of those ideas that I have been kicking around in vague form recently was how this U.S. primary season has seen even more pandering than, well, the last primary season (which looks like Bernard Shaw in comparison).

This image kinda contradicts what I’m about to say below but I just love Futuram a bit too much to not use this.

The political pandering has been on both sides of the aisle, by nearly all candidates. To save time, I’m going to go after the usual suspects. So many bytes have already been devoted to laying out how Sanders and Trump are both tapping into what veins of populist anger remain in the U.S. that I don’t need to do that. What I do need to add is that since neither candidate has produced anything in the way of detailed policy proposals that are either realistic (Sanders) or, in actuality, serious (Trump), and one of those two has almost nothing in the way of actual political experience, it’s clear they are pandering to the general populace.

Now, this is where many people, including myself, often fall on nonsensical self-congratulatory mental pats on the back that range from “Well, maybe other people will get fooled by that” to “Of course it will work on some, but us better-informed voters know what’s really going on”. Truth is, everyone is biased and has their own particular interests to defend. Rural blue-collar voters may well benefit, in their view, from Trump’s policies, while young urbanites may deem the “democratic socialism” proposed by Sanders more reasonable and just than the status quo. Regardless, many have entirely legitimate grievances and, accordingly, are expressing them by flocking to either Trump or Sanders. Whether that’s wise or not, well, that’s not definitively for me to say.

However, I don’t think that anyone is really fooled, at least all the time, by the realities of what Sanders and Trump are proposing (or vaguely sketching out, with air quotes). Maybe some are actually fooled or I am missing something, but I think that the storyline of this primary season is that people are willing to take being pandered to over being ignored, which is what I’m guessing a fairly sizable amount of the U.S. population feels happened in 2012. Primaries are the season to pander, after all, as can be seen by the rhetorical lurches from flourishes suiting New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Iowa. It’s one of the weaknesses of election cycles in the current evolution of mass media that such pandering feeds into ever-strengthening narratives that, fairly or unfairly, can come to exert an outsized influence on campaigns. Let’s take Jeb Bush as an example of someone who many say just stood no chance against Trump, when it comes to political instincts. Maybe that’s true, but I also think that since he was unwilling to pander, or at the very least bad at it, Jeb didn’t stand out enough to survive media narratives that were all too eager to court Trump’s increasingly ludicrous statements. (Quick shout-out to an excellent Slate article about Jeb, and one of the reasons I was quite sorry to see him go.)

The question is, will such pandering survive beyond the primaries? Will, this time, given the craziness of the cycle thus far, voters be assuaged by the eventual clumsy shifts back to the middle? Some idealized middle where the expansion of the insured population under the Affordable Care Act can be reconciled with Republican animosity toward it (in some cases, justified, given the ACA’s flaws), to take just one issue?

I frankly have no idea as of yet, because even though the pandering schtick will get old, the apparent ideological divide between the two poles of the political spectrum has rarely been wider. If I had to bet, there still is room for a moderate (which is what Kasich and Rubio and Clinton are hoping to fill) compromise. Given what’s happening in the world at large, depending on how vigorously the U.S. economy remains the bright spot in terms of growth, the divide could widen, leaving more room for a moderate to stake his or her claim.

Belgium 2014: To the Family at Home

Hey family currently celebrating Thanksgiving at Aunt Gwen’s,

Hope your afternoon is going splendidly!

I apologize in part for not posting more (getting back rather late as well as Jamie’s lack of an SD card to send me relevant pics have contributed to delay), but mainly for not being present to shoot the breeze with y’all and enjoy your company and delicious foodstuffs. Despite all that Belgium has to offer (thus far: a surfeit of beers, misty cobblestoned alleys winding adjacent to gently rippling canals, cuisine based mainly on meat and potatoes, gorgeous Gothic architecture, etc. (I hate to enumerate the boons of being here but it would be dissembling to convey otherwise)), it still doesn’t quite make up for the absence of the whole family. I wish y’all could be here, and regret not joining you. If bi-location were an option, I’d select it in a heartbeat. So please drink up, be merry, and indulge in all the jokes and razzing at my expense you wish (except for that one about that thing, because it still is too hurtful), and have a great Thanksgiving. I’m extremely thankful for all of you.

Love,

A mostly sober GJB

P.S. St. Bernardus 12 is much easier to get than Westvleteren 12 (aka the best beer in the world, according to some). Highly recommended.

P.P.S. Beer reviews will be going up shortly. The list may be incomplete – some incompetent managed to forget to enter a few, for some reason.

P.P.P.S. Also, not a single item of Belgian cuisine has managed to beat most of the grub y’all will be consuming in a few short hours, so I remain rather envious.

Belgium 2014: Day 1

(This is the first of a series of posts covering a week-long jaunt throughout Belgium, a trip that is ostensibly the first of the “Beer Tour of the World” journeys I plan to take throughout my life. That “Beer Tour of the World” may never fully materialize, but the trips shall be treasured nevertheless.)

The Flight:

Thanks to my friend Jamie’s connections, we got to fly business class, just as if we were actual rich/well-off/well-connected people, not just the peasants who sit in an economical, jam-packed existence, much like a herd of lemmings waddling toward an ill-defined goal.

(Due to technical difficulties – the SD card from my camera won’t fit in the SD slot on my Chromebook unless I whittle something down, which is generally a bad idea – there are no pictures as of yet, so just imagine business class to be something akin to a pleasantly full living room, the furniture an orderly array of lazy-chairs, with valets gliding to and fro bearing trays of wine, beer, food and other delectables. Oh, and you also have your own personal TV.)

Needless to say, it was the most enjoyable flight I’ve ever experienced, so thank you, Jamie (if you ever read this). I probably came off like the uncouth lower-class denizen I was, only managing to figure out what to do with the hot washclothes and multiple forks and list of wines by following the lead of the pleasantly paunchy Gallic gentleman who sat across from me. He was a perfect example of an elderly French/Dutchman; I would have taken a picture of him, but I feared that, as we bonded over a mutual love of Daft Punk’s latest album, it could be misconstrued. (How does one say, after all, ‘Hey, did you know, you conform to a stereotype I somehow have implanted in my head, so can I take a quick photo of you, s’il vous plait?’ “)

The Train:

Similarly to my previous experiences in Europe, the train from Amsterdam to Brussels was fairly pleasant and speedy (granted, speedy wasn’t precisely the case in my epic 2009 jaunt across southern Europe, but that was mainly the itinerary’s fault), with welcoming views of endlessly flat Dutch and Belgian towns and farmland, bevies of sheep, the occasional windmill, miles and (ahem) kilometers of bike paths, and Jamie passed out in the atypical late November sunshine.

Brussels:

The hostel (Meininger, the Brussels flavor) was efficient at the onset and, so far, is quite enjoyable. Trekking there from the Brussels Midi station was a bit of an interesting ramble, as Jamie and I wended our way through a giant open-air market, where fake branded bags and multiple varieties of farm goods filled stall after stall, the sweet scent of streetmeat suffusing the air. People eyed our bags curiously, and I did my best to look poor and uninteresting (my usual tactic in slightly seedy neighborhoods). However, we soon arrived at the hostel, which welcomed us speedily (as aforementioned) and shoved us into a six-bed room, which so far contains only myself, Jamie, and a fellow called Martin. The very first Luxembourgian I have ever met, Martin, with some compadres, run a startup that, in his words, involves antiques. I have really no further details than that, so far – maybe they could be antiques of all kinds, maybe antique lace patterns, guns, windmill designs, pipes, anything. Who knows. He seems congenial enough, and, moreover, is fine with me walking around only in boxers, which is all that one can really ask of a roommate. (That, and he hasn’t stolen any of our stuff yet.)

Le Grand Cafe

Jamie and I are only here for a brief time, so it seems best to focus on imbibing as much Belgian cuisine, culture and atmosphere as possible. Consequently, at our dinner, I ordered two brand new beers: a Double Enghien Brune (slightly darker than most Belgian beers, 8.0%, a little nutty yet mostly light, full-bodied) and Bell-Vue Kriek Saison (cherry-derived, bubbly, light, faint sour taste), along with delicious meatballs with endive in a dark beer and speculoos sauce. We also traipsed several blocks to briefly view St. Catherine’s, the Stock Exchange, and Beguinage Church, all of them decent examples of Flemish medieval architecture, given their ornate stone and woodwork, ribbed arches, classic Renaissance oil paintings, and much more. (Man, those pictures would really come in handy right about now. Defeated by an SD card. Would feel more pathetic, but…well, that’d come later.)

Meininger:

Closed the night by playing several rounds of pool with two fellows who said they were from Brussels. Well, one of them did. Neither spoke English well at all. However, they destroyed us. If I understood more French, I probably could have been offended by their sympathetic laughter at our poor showing. Diplomatically, I compromised by trying to communicate in faulty Spanish, which turned out about as well as you’d expect. Of course, none of these linguistic or pool-related failures were due to the (insert random number here) of beers I may or may not have consumed (always retain plausible deniability).

In the end, a very successful day (or two days, rather) of traveling and sight-seeing. Jet lag, among other things, such as Saisons and Brusselites (pretty sure that’s the correct term), are now hitting me hard, so I’ll sign off.

ISIS and the Next “Good War”

Having just happened to tweet a thought about how ISIS’s clear proclamations of evil so helpfully delineated the lines of good and bad for the purposes of conflict narrative, I wondered, a little sadly, whether it was a reflection of the easily jaded news cycle that continued ISIS atrocities seemed to fade faster and faster, or whether it was simply a more sophisticated context. (Good heavens, what a convoluted opening sentence.) The unfortunate reality is that the international audience is overly jaded, armed with pockets of hefty context without clear solutions. Obviously, nearly everyone with any moral repute condemned the most viral repugnances ISIS publicized, and yet, arguably worse atrocities are pending with far less coverage. What’s happening here is that the international, Internet audience is still largely regional in attention, hence the American outrage over American citizens’ execution on video, and the less-noted debacle in Kobani (I say less-noted because as opposed to the original ISIS executions, Kobani seems barely to register on my trawling of American news sites).

And, what’s even more interesting, is whether that regionally inspired phenomenon is just par for the course or whether it reflects a shift in moral guidelines. After all, the average news recipient is simultaneously less informed and savvier than polls and pundits would have you think. Perhaps, say, the (mostly mythical) average American was shocked by those videos and yet hasn’t supported stronger military actions against the Islamic State because he/she/they are more noticeably wary of any such violence simply because it has become all too easy to see there are no easy solutions.

The thing is, there never have been easy solutions, it’s just that it’s easier for anyone with the leisure to explore current issues to notice that not only will American ground forces involve even more expenditure of American cash as well as blood but also it may well not solve much at all, in the end. Endless Al Qaeda videos and Baghdad bombings have a way of inuring their intended audience, after all. The question is, does this skepticism, in the face of a more clearly defined evil than has been readily available in a decade, prevent public opinion from coalescing into what could be a life-saving force? Because, in the end, defeating ISIS may well take that exact thing the current administration and many Americans seem to fear: the dispatch of American ground troops and all that goes with them.

So what it comes down to is whether people will take ISIS seriously enough, in the end, for policymakers to come to a conclusion. ISIS is the logical conclusion of a mix of warring, radical fringes borne from a potent mix of politicized religion. It wasn’t foreseen by most, but was rather bound to happen. Is it dangerous enough to warrant a return to ground action for the preeminent military power in the world? The unfortunate reality is that by the time there’s enough evidence to answer that question, it will be too late for the residents of Kobani, among many others. Even with plenty of evidence, and a clearly established narrative of good versus evil, there may not be enough reason for American and similar socio-political-economic citizens to muster support for the “Next Good War”. And that may even be a good thing, because in the end, no war is good. But sadly, some wars are necessary.

Do What You Can

Midst my ramblings on the Interwebs, I came across this intriguing Slate piece that states the very saying Do What You Love is one of the innumerable privileges that certain people enjoy and others don’t. The piece resonated to a certain extent, mainly because emotionally-hijacking slogans that are squishy and succinct always make me suspicious. And so I propose a different slogan: Do What You Can.

Why not do what you love? Because what you love is a very changeable thing. And frankly, probably involves sitting on the couch a lot, eating ludicrous quantities of chips while drinking growler upon growler of beer (at least, in my fantasy). What and even who you love is not usually something emotional. Emotions help, of course, as does a reasonable amount of chemistry between you and a person or an occupation/hobby, but love mainly consists of the decision to love something. And so I think Do What You Can is much better, because doing what I can is something I can choose to do and even enjoy, because I am capable enough to do it in the first place.

We can’t simply Do What We Do Best, because most of us aren’t really amazing at any one thing. Everyone has a particular strength in a given area, but the way the human genome and the realities of modern life collaborate means that many skill-sets can overlap. Putting in enough time in a certain field until your skills are rare enough is what can differentiate you from the norm, but that’s not Doing What You Do Best…it’s Doing What You Can until you Do It Best. (I really need to stop with this random capitalization; it’s slowing down the typing speed, and bed is calling.)

So Do What You Can. Force yourself to love it? No need to, rather, take pleasure in what you are capable of doing, and focus and hone whatever is most rewarding. And I literally mean rewarding, either in an emotional, physical, financial or mental sense. That’s where the Slate piece comes in a bit more, as it talks about how many people have to content themselves with NOT doing what they love just to make ends meet. But just because you don’t love it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy doing something at least moderately well. I do not swim particularly well, but I love swimming, and enjoy it mightily whenever it gets warm enough to take a dip.

And finally, doing what you can is better than doing what you do best because even if life is short, specialization to the point of expertise is only useful to a degree. Everyone would like to be well-rounded, but few put in the effort to truly become so. The day my older brother taught me how to change the oil in a car was rewarding, not for the grime on my fingers or the dirt on my shirt, but because I had acquired one more facet to my skill-set. Learning to cook can improve your life in so many ways it’s rather odd to me whenever I meet someone who doesn’t cook most of their meals. Everyone can do these things, but sometimes we focus too much on what we think our specialty should be, because after all, sometimes we reap the most money from it. Yet money isn’t everything; what you can do is a far better indicator of who you are. Being able to function independently on many levels is not only useful, but also comforting and rewarding. So I say do what you can, and expand what you can do as far as you wish.

Built to Last

What if everything was built to last?

It’s easy to decry the lack of quality in today’s mass-produced items. Far better to patronize a local craftsman who puts her heart and soul into her passion, rather than trot down to the closest dollar store, even if the budget is stretched quite a bit by the former option. The craftsman will make something more beautiful, durable and enjoyable than whatever shoddy, cheap option the factory will foist upon you.

And that’s the crux of the issue, isn’t it? Quality matters, but quality costs. Durability doesn’t come cheap. Some argue that rich people do actually end up saving more money by buying better-made items that last longer, but those arguments neglect the sizable percentage of people who must live paycheck to paycheck and can’t even afford the necessary initial lump sum.

That last sentence reveals the sad truth that mass production simply works remarkably well. The giant explosion in population and material comfort in the last century was mainly the result of mass production of pretty much everything: medicines, houses, cars, clothes, food, etc. And it’s not as if the items produced were of poor quality. Rather, they are just good enough, or maybe even better than we imagine. After all, not every craftsman is actually very good at his or her job. Industrial mass production may not ensure durability or artistry, but it’s arguable that it could equal the output of smaller producers.

But it’s not a very strong argument. After all, anyone who has plopped down a sizable sum to invest in a quality pair of raw selvedge jeans knows that they simply are more comfortable and longer-lasting than your standard outlet store’s denim. So let’s just assume that individual craftsmen and smaller producers in general make better quality items due to their greater care and devotion and skill. Or if that seems too much a stretch, let’s just presume that instead of being built for turnover, items were built to last. After all, some items are built for rapid turnover; it’s simply how companies thrive, isn’t it? I make much more money for a car dealership and manufacturer if I buy a new car every few years. My clothes rip and tear; my plates crack and shatter; my hardware becomes outdated.

However, there are really only a few arguments in favor of this turnover:

Innovation: Moore’s Law and other inevitable (at least thus far) advances in skill and technology ensure that things will become outdated. Few things can’t be improved in some fashion. My Chromebook is somewhat limited in its hardware; buying a new one for a decent increase in computing power could be justified.

Profit: by spending more money on new, hopefully improved products, I may generate more income for those involved in the products’ creation.

Necessity: unavoidable accidents like tearing a giant hole in the crotch of your jeans (rest in peace, sweet New World-branded, well-worn companion), breakage, spills and the like.

The rub is that none of the above arguments need always apply. They can, but they don’t need to. My Chromebook will be perfectly adequate for the foreseeable future, despite its malfunctioning speakers. My clothes may not be as nice as they used to be, but as long as they are clean and fit reasonably well, I can ignore a small off-color stain or tear. Only a higher degree of necessity would prompt me to replace something I own.

And I’m willing to bet that most people act similarly. After all, most people don’t have enough money to consume conspicuously. Thus, we replace out of necessity, and hence we complain about poor quality that prompts such replacement. And that’s where the craftsmen versus mass producers come into play. We suspect that mass producers purposefully design items to break down…and in many cases, we may be right. The problem is, they do that for a reason, and that is cheaper items are more profitable, because we keep on demanding them.

Random note: Ellen Ruppel Shell shows in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture just how damaging discounts can be; the book is definitely worth a read.

Any product on a shelf is usually a collusion between a consumer and a producer. We want the lowest possible price for the best quality, and so we and the producers compromise…with the result being mass production. So let’s take away our demand for cheap goods as well. Let’s presume that we have the wherewithal to invest in quality items in every aspect of life. What would that require?

Well, for one, if cars and lamps and cups and chairs were manufactured to the highest possible standards, then everything would be more expensive. But we assumed we’d have the funds, so that’s settled. What next?

Profits would probably narrow for producers/suppliers, because even as prices would rise for consumers, costs of production would rise as well. And population growth and new markets would be increasingly crucial new sources of revenue. The market for innovation would probably become more exacting. After all, why upgrade from an iPhone 5 to 5S unless it has some particularly special feature? Is increased battery life really that crucial?

(At this point, it may be painfully obvious that I am not much of a gadget guy and especially no aficionado of Apple.)

Other markets would swell or shrink as income share would shift to compensate for higher prices and better quality. The proportion of income spent on food would probably skyrocket, which would be good news for farmers, since their need to depress prices by growing monocultures in bulk would slacken. Perhaps it wouldn’t be too preposterous to speculate that a taste for quality in furniture, tools and the like would translate into a demand for higher quality food as well. In that case, most mass-produced food that is demonstrably bad for you or poor quality would disappear.

Now, before we can opine upon how such quality standards could come about, let’s offer a quick defense of mass production, because as noted above, it’s not all bad. In many cases, mass production is responsible for reductions in poverty and vast increases in quality of life. The issue here is that as always with advances, some negative effects occurred (because nothing in life is free); namely the shoddiness generated in cost-cutting by substituting worse materials and lesser craftsmanship.

So it would seem that there’s a happy middle ground between the nostalgic vision of the local craftsman with a quaint shop only a short stroll away from your own door, and the mass production facility buried away in an unfamiliar country, and I, for one, think it is in an increased self-reliance and local sourcing.

The coming revolution in small, cheap 3-D printers will probably do three things: one, strike a sizable blow to the production of cheap plastic goods, two, clutter the world with discarded designs and waste plastic, and three, show people just how many household items they could craft to their own specifications. And that’s looking ahead; even now, nearly everyone I know enjoys pursuing a particular hobby or craft in order to save money and tweak things to their particular needs. My sister-in-law makes her own clothes, while my brothers have begun brewing their own beer. Nearly everyone I know saves money by cooking for themselves.

And the next logical step is to reduce dependency on other outside sources of raw materials and household items. Of course, I have neither the time nor the resources to build my own tables and such, but why not contribute to my local (state or town) economy by purchasing something made around here?

The great thing about such local producers is that you generally can visit and inspect the items yourself, rather than trust reviews on Amazon (most of which are probably fake anyway). And not only the quality of the items, but also the person who made them, or at the very least, the factory or production facility where it’s made. Or, perhaps, you can get some clearer information on where it comes from.

For example, every once in awhile I drop by a local farmer’s market because then I get to look the farmer in the eye, see that his frozen ground beef comes from a place not quite 50 miles away, and pay knowing that the money is most likely not disappearing into the international ether. This is a bit of an extreme at times; normally, I’d be just as content buying soap from a factory located nearby, or maybe beer made from hops and brewed locally.

Of course, there are caveats to these issues. I can only type on this Chromebook because the rare earth minerals it contains are found and mined in a few places in the world. Modern manufacturing techniques and cheaper costs of living elsewhere enabled the low price of my tablet. That’s why I think that a compromise between local sourcing, self-reliance (such as making your own food or mending clothes whenever possible) and international production is probably the best option. There’s no need to drastically reverse the trend of production, but there’s also no need to abandon what worked in the past.

The most difficult thing in all of this is that taking the time and energy to find things that are built to last, or building them yourself, is arduous, at first. Like any other virtuous regimen, it takes a while to form and then still requires some effort to maintain (like running every week to stay in shape). But there’s a peculiar pleasure in making your own things that people still crave; something about stamping your own personality on an item is appealing. People point with pride to bargains or their own skill in obtaining a rare item…probably because it adds a personal touch and reflects well.

So why not explore your own talents to a larger degree? Most people can build a small table with a few lumber scraps, sand it down, polish it, and present it with pride as their new coffee table. Others, like myself, focus firmly on the culinary arts. Since we probably already do it, why not kick it up a notch? Various apps and websites are only begging us to start doing more for ourselves, ranging from self-education courses at Coursera to DIY fashion pages on Pinterest.

Perhaps, in the end, it’s the most satisfying thing of all to make something that’s built to last, because so much in this world isn’t, and what’s more, we aren’t. The unknown sculptors of Renaissance statues still live on, in a way that most of us would probably enjoy. We may not be able to sculpt, but why not make something that can at least be passed down through your family?

When I was a kid, my dad, elder siblings and I built a tree-house that still stand in my family’s yard. It’s sturdy, small, comfortable and sufficiently similar to a small tower that one can imagine all manner of scenarios while perched on its roof. For all I know, that tree-house will outlast me…and that’s a good thing.

 

P.S. There is an issue lurking around the paragraphs above, namely, the morality of consumption when it ties in with trade economics. Some would argue it’s adequate when I pay for goods made in Mexican maquiladoras, as some of my money is going to pay the wages of those who need it. Others would state I should only shop in fair trade shops, where the wages are more equitable. Obviously the latter is preferable, but what if I begin shopping more locally? Am I depriving poor people elsewhere? The even more obvious answer is that rather than sending my money through wasteful channels elsewhere, I am addressing poverty in a more cost-effective fashion by spending my income locally. With fewer channels and layers to travel through, my dollars will count more if they stay in close circulation.

 

 

 

Do the Meek Inherit the Earth?

Tissot

“Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth.”

Nobody wants to be poor. It may seem even more drastic to be poor in America, the richest nation on earth, which is why Steinbeck’s phrase stating that poor people in America see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” hits close to home. And perhaps it hits especially close to home this year, as the flurry of articles discussing the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty that greeted January 1st suggested.

Why is the poverty rate still high? Why have we not won the poverty war yet? Inequality is our most pressing and troublesome problem! We shouldn’t pay attention to the poverty rate! Those are some of the commoner themes, and since they all discuss the more obvious and pressing aspects of American poverty quite adequately, yet leave one interesting perspective out, I thought it’d be interesting to kick around the idea nobody seems to have aired: we (meaning us Americans) are all poor and meek, and thus, seem perfectly set to inherit the earth if we so choose.

This isn’t a setup to a religious fulmination. Rather, it’s a simple recognition that we are all poor in spirit most of the time (defining spirit as the non-corporeal human essence, closely tied to conscious rational thought). Few people I know actually do ooze self-satisfied contentment and peace from every pore, like a personal golden-molasses cloud, and one of them is three years old. Most people seem to dwell on a scale of “all right” or “good” to “meh” most of the time. We simply don’t have that electric vivid connection of spirit to eternity, by which I mean a deeply felt and thought recognition of our place and purpose in the world.

This phenomenon is fairly common. If earlier generations didn’t seem to have this problem, it was because they held on to a few core beliefs that were much more popular, and moreover had much harder lives. People who are scrambling for food don’t usually indulge much time in philosophical navel-gazing or existential bemoaning. The instance previous generations did arrive at a similar material status with ample leisure, odd things began to happen.

In imperial Rome, emperors began to go insane, or indulge in the most fantastic of luxuries and vices. In Renaissance Europe, noblemen and noblewomen sought to fill their poverty of spirit with scheming and extravagance, while those who were truly poor were too harried to worry about spirit. The supposedly idyllic 1950s era in America led to the deep divisions and ugly bared underside of society in the 1960s.

Thus the vicious divide cuts us in two. We have an indefinable itch to matter, belong, connect and share. Yet we connect and share to what we can touch and taste and see because we’re chained to our physicality. It’s much easier to prove to ourselves we matter when we can see we own things that other people care about, like beauty or an excellent bar or a sprawling mansion. Yet when we achieve these things, we realize that nothing matters to others for very long unless they also can possess it, and if it doesn’t connect us or make us belong, then it also doesn’t matter to us.

(Why don’t millionaires hang out with those in much, much lower tax brackets? After all, it’s not as if personalities differ so dramatically; many millionaires and billionaires have fairly modest tastes.)

Hence the happy medium. Those who are just wealthy enough to avoid the constant scramble to survive, yet not so wealthy that they possess things beyond the reach of most, possibly have it best. A study has indicated happiness levels related to income reach their peak potential at $75,000 a year. But not for very long, and not certainly.

The reasons for that are rooted once again in the fact we are physical beings with superior reasoning powers (I’d use the word souls, but humanity’s higher brain function alone suffices to establish the point). We’re trammeled by time, and thus age, decay and finally die, while having spent most of our lives working to obtain that security that allows the happy medium. And while that work may be a scramble at times, or a constant fear for an unlucky sizable percentage of humanity, because we are fairly negative creatures we worry about it constantly.

And thus we discuss the poverty rate. Not only from sheer altruistic concern, but also from reasonable supposition that if we can improve the lot of our fellow women and men it’ll improve our lot as well if something were to go wrong. Plus, enriching your neighbor may possibly enrich you. Show someone the power of compounding interest, and they’ll save more, which in turn can drive up her or his fiscal health and spending power; a person who spends a bit more locally makes a difference, even if we can’t quite see it in action.

Show someone the effect on their hillside topsoil of cutting down several trees, planting monocultures and mowing with a tractor, and they’ll probably act to conserve their soil. People aren’t foolish or wasteful on purpose all the time. Generally we all want to be happy and successful and useful. Unfortunately, we don’t always stop to consider the impact of our actions, or how best to achieve happiness, or even know how to do so. Sometimes we think that the only way to get ahead is to push others down. But there are few situations in life that are zero-sum games.

It all comes down to the perception of time. A good deed done has ripple effects beyond what we can possibly hope to even imagine, and yet, they have a measurable impact not only on your mood but also on the mood of those around you. For the effect they have on your mood alone, they are worth doing…beyond the immediate altruistic motivation, of course. So how does this tie back into being meek?

Well, the fact is that meek possesses a negative connotation these days. We think of meek as weak, as the ultimate in passivity. And yet the actual dictionary definition of meek renders “quiet” and “gentle” before submissive…and is submissive such a bad thing, in and of itself? We all submit every hour of our lives to many things that are not bad at all, but rather are somewhat admirable; for instance, letting an elderly person take our seat on the bus. That is submitting to an other’s desire, yet we do it without a thought. Submission isn’t a bad word; but it’s treated as such.

And yet, isn’t being meek what could yield all the results desired from the issues we saw above? If I was more meek, to take the only immediate subject of which I have intimate knowledge, perhaps I would not only give up my bus seat, but perhaps I would also calmly submit to someone’s frustration at work. Perhaps I’d respond to some angry outburst with calm patience, or perhaps I’d hesitate from taking a long hot shower, thinking of my roommate or neighbors who may be more weary and desirous of a scalding soak than I. Would those measures really matter, in the long run? Perhaps not, and yet, perhaps they might.

They’d probably make me happier, for one. To hearken back to the point I made earlier about how we are all poor in spirit, or meek most of the time anyways, it seems pretty natural, at least. It’s not about letting go of your needs or what you deserve, but rather about calmly accepting the fact that others’ needs are equal to your own. It’s quite difficult, at least for me; I routinely will sit on the bus after standing and working all day and not want to give my seat up, or will take a long hot shower to shave and soak just to have some time to relax. Basically I resent the slightest intrusion on what I thought would be a free evening…but these are such small matters.

Everyone has far greater matters that they deal with every day, and everyone makes sacrifices daily that are usually greater than the ones I contemplate. But it’s hard to visualize the ripple effects of our actions, because we have rather limited brains and imaginations. I cannot imagine what a kind word may do to a stranger…or even if I do, my imagination is rarely up to the task of becoming a habit. It takes 21-66 days to form such a habit, and I rarely have the fortitude to establish such a practice.

But that is only due to my lack of knowledge and foresight. It’s due to my lack of perception of the importance of cycles; that which seems difficult now will seem very easy soon enough…and yet difficult once more in a little while longer. Recognizing all the factors that make habits difficult to obtain makes them those same difficulties bearable. Understanding that such habits are what build to success over time is much harder, as we all crave external recognition and yet internal recognition is all we often get.

Yet within that internal validation lies the ultimate validation of effort. Doing a job well, simply because doing it well is pleasing and worthwhile, is what really is satisfying in the end. That recognition and internal validation is powerful enough to solve the difficulties within the issues listed above. I’ll be satisfied with fewer hot showers, or only cold showers, or less meat, or maybe little to no bathing at all (at some point, I’m fairly sure that there would be public outcry), if only that means that no coal is burnt to provide energy for my building. I’ll gripe and moan to an nigh-unbearable extent, but eventually I’ll forget what hour-long hot soaks felt like, and I’ll barely miss them. (The nice perks of our inconstant brains.)

(Of course, if my building’s energy source is renewable, I’m perfectly content to turn my bathroom into a den of decadence.)

And this lack of consumption is not to simply punish. Rather, it is a practiced restraint so that natural and human resources are not overdrawn. The benefits of this are obvious; with surplus of supply and lack of use, prices go down and markets correct. Fewer people eating meat means fewer feedlots and factory farms. The more people carefully repair their gadgets and devices instead of simply tossing them in the waste bin, then the more we can conserve rare-earth metals and reduce groundwater.

Interlude

The above may sound like a rant of a vaguely moralistic Luddite. However, I am not against over-consumption, as anyone who’s seen me near a bag of salt-and-pepper chips can attest. I’ll happily over-consume many things: sunlight, swimming, books, movies, and more. The thing is, everyone knows the obvious truth facing today’s society: a sizable portion over-consumes nonrenewable resources because it’s easier than consuming just enough. In fact, what really is just enough? I don’t know, because that’s a pretty difficult measure to determine. A person with a medical issue simply needs to consume more energy and resources than I do, which is perfectly fair. It seems that we’ll simply have to determine on an individual basis what consumption is actually justifiable.

Back to the Main Point

The thing about equalizing consumption is that it benefits everyone in the long run. Right now, there’s a sizable drought in parts of California, and thousands of people are cutting back on water consumption.

By HAEYOUN PARK
Source: U.S. Drought Monitor
(copied from the New York Times website)

Isn’t that being submissive? Aren’t they all submitting to the collective need? It may seem an obvious foregone conclusion that people cut back in times of need, but my point is that being meek is not something that is alien to us, and frankly, it is something that needs to be omnipresent in our lives.

Meekly acknowledging the demands of millions of others around us and subsuming individual needs at times is what we all do already, and it’s what’ll conserve what really matters in the end…the earth. All that we hold dear derives from two sources: human capital and the earth. We don’t take the former for granted. The meek don’t presume to take the latter for granted.

And to wrap it all up and return tenuously to the introduction, such conservation and responsible consumption is what could possibly renew the poverty of spirit that being meek supposedly engenders. If I take the time to note the quality of the soil in the pots on my patio, and I devote a few minutes every day to watering and caring for them, then I’ll feel that much more rooted to my apartment block, and neighborhood, and the earth in general. Sure, it’ll be tedious and taxing at times, but that is how value is created: sweat and devotion of our scarce time.

As for the issue of poverty, that is far too complex for me to tackle. I will make this observation, however, that is virtually a recap of what Wendell Berry has been saying for decades: poverty wouldn’t be such a pressing issue if each person could at least be assured of strong connections to their place and neighborhood and neighbors, as well as a small patch of land on which they could grow some food. He’s not alone; I’ve written about Roy Prosterman before, who advocates for land rights worldwide, which has done much to end poverty in many regions. And it makes sense. If I have a small piece of land to call my own on which I can at least reside or raise some animals or grow some crops, if I am unemployed, at the very least I may have a chance at still producing the food I require. There are a whole host of other benefits, such as community interaction, neighborliness, psychological and physical health.

The last benefit, of course, is responsible conservation, as everyone has the motivation to take good care of their own property. And such conservation may be meek, because it implies careful tending of your own property, and a reduction in what we are accustomed to…but we will have inherited the earth.

P.S. The above is mainly focused on the environmental and social aspects of meekness, yet after reading an excellent post from adfinesterrae, I recalled the possibly more positive aspect of meekness: it really is the quietness of authority and strength choosing when and where to exert that strength, or even relinquishing it for the general good.

Am I My Sister’s Keeper?

Whoever coined the phrase “control of women’s bodies” had a moment of pure genius; there is no phrase more guaranteed to make a man feel uncomfortable (based on a careful randomized controlled trial of my gut feelings). And its use in this article is perfectly placed, right after some gentle illustration/introduction to the supposed conservative position and its subsequent takedown.

Except the argument doesn’t quite hold together. The article seems to postulate that sisters and by extension women in the household are expected to do more gender-stereotyped tasks, such as cleaning, cooking, sweeping, etc. And this is based on one study. And apparently exposure to gender stereotyping translates into conservative views later in life, which actually stem from the desire to control women’s sexuality.

What about sweeping out the garage in order to attempt some wood carving? What about helping cook freezer meals? What about helping my mom assemble railroad ties in order to create raised beds for a garden? My sisters and I have all done these together.

The thing about most such tasks, and why they are terrible examples of gender stereotyping, is that they are actually rather neutral. Men and women interchangeably swap tasks when need arises, only specializing due to traditional societal roles. The traditional category of “housework” isn’t so easy to define after all; the tasks I cite above wouldn’t fall under housework, but aren’t they? Maintaining the garden outside to feed the household sounds rather like preparing food in an even earlier stage, which would usually fall under housework. Many such tasks are still only stereotyped as such because researchers and journalists presume they are, and perpetuate erroneous thinking. The difficulty with category assignation isn’t the first difficulty that the study doesn’t quite address. The researchers themselves admit to another sizable limitation of the study; no control for the gender of the siblings does not inspire great confidence.

The next example of erroneous thinking in this article relates to the immediate jump to control of women’s sexuality. The article bridges the gap with some fuzzy statements about religious tradition seeking to control women’s sexuality, and then even accusing Mr. Obama of perpetuating silly overbearing fatherly roles. The religious tradition link doesn’t quite make sense. Which religious tradition is this? To be equally fuzzy, only one, possibly two commandments in the usual suspect, Judaeo-Christian tradition, speak of coveting a neighbor’s wife outright (which seems like more of a man-shaming offense than anything else; after all, it’s not as if the commandment tells women not to covet others’ husbands, which suggests men are the focus not because they are the solution but because they are the problem). One would presume that the practice of male celibacy is overt control of male sexuality…where are the complaints re patriarchy trying to control male sexuality?

And if we take the simple secular roles of father and brother, I’m not entirely sure that the well-known impulse of fathers and brothers to protect their sisters is to prevent them having sex. After all, it’s not as if brothers and fathers prevent association with guys at all; usually they only wish to control for the quality of the gents. In nearly all the families that I know, fathers happily send daughters off to college where they can exercise their freedom, and only will interfere, to take one recent example from my personal experience, if said daughter asks about the suitability of a guy. I see no evidence of fearful control there. Perhaps there’s more exertion of control or rules in high school…and given the age range of high-schoolers, I’d say that some restriction is usually warranted.

There’s a great human impulse to find darkness as well as light, and sometimes we overextend ourselves to find subtle, malicious instincts where there really are none. I think that this is one of those cases. I can’t think of a single brother or father who really cares about his sister or daughter’s choice to have a relationship. But I do know that they care very deeply about whom that relationship is with, mainly because, much like Douthat states in his article, they care about the future and safety of the person they care about.

At this point, some might say that I am back to being just like Douthat, and focusing on sex-hungry men. I’m not so sure of that conclusion; I couldn’t care less about who dates my sisters, as long as they are decent people who make them happy and suit them well. In the end, it’s up to my sisters. I don’t control them, and they don’t control me. I can advise and suggest, and only at the utmost may intervene, but it’s up to them. They’ll be fine without my supposedly patriarchal, repressive concern, but I see no issue with them having recourse to it if they wish.

Devil’s advocate against my own points above: I do not intend to suggest more men shouldn’t do housework. Chores and work should be equitably distributed. However, the work should include the day jobs as well. If both the mother and father work full-time jobs, then it makes sense that the housework should be split evenly. Yet if the mom is stay-at-home, and the dad works, or vice versa, it does make sense the parent at home does the lion’s share of the housework during the day. It’s fairly simple labor distribution. Yet, as I can attest from personal experience, once the breadwinner arrives home, they shouldn’t be exempted from housework.