Threats

In celebration of the year, I’m coming back to Stephen Kinder’s April op-ed. It’s not optimism to say that America can be secure in relation to its neighbors. It’s reality:

When Americans look out at the world, we see a swarm of threats. China seems resurgent and ambitious. Russia is aggressive. Iran menaces our allies. Middle East nations we once relied on are collapsing in flames. Latin American leaders sound steadily more anti-Yankee. Terror groups capture territory and commit horrific atrocities. We fight Ebola with one hand while fending off Central American children with the other.

In fact, this world of threats is an illusion. The United States has no potent enemies. We are not only safe, but safer than any big power has been in all of modern history.

Geography is our greatest protector. Wide oceans separate us from potential aggressors. Our vast homeland is rich and productive. No other power on earth is blessed with this security.

Our other asset is the weakness of potential rivals. It will be generations before China is able to pose a serious challenge to the United States — and there is little evidence it wishes to do so. Russia is weak and in deep economic trouble — not always a friendly neighbor but no threat to the United States. Heart-rending violence in the Middle East has no serious implication for American security. As for domestic terrorism, the risk for Americans is modest: You have more chance of being struck by lightning on your birthday than of dying in a terror attack.

Promoting the image of a world full of enemies creates a “security psychosis” that misshapes our view of the world. It tempts us to interpret defensive steps taken by other countries as threatening. In extreme cases, it pushes us into wars aimed at preempting threats that do not actually exist.

We should be more concerned with our own communities than with the happenings of distant nations. In the new year, it’s worth thinking about how we can make the places we live and love as special as this time of year.

Shaping communities

One of the things that Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City impressed upon me is how much the narrative of cities as blighted, troubled, or hopelessly corrupt environments was simply the product of serially poor policy making. City Lab illustrates how to effectively deal with policies that inhibit growth:

Comes now Andrés Duany, the cigar-chomping, Cuban-born architect who was a founding member of CNU, with yet another addition to the planning lexicon: lean urbanism. Funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation, Duany is currently on the lecture circuit in an attempt to raise awareness about the red tape that so often stands in the way of even modest projects to improve urban neighborhoods. …

The lean urbanism concept, he says, is like a software patch, or a workaround – ultimately a guide or a tip sheet to navigate the complicated, and often very expensive, maze of working in the built environment in the U.S. “It’s about knowing that with certain building types, under a certain threshold, you don’t need an elevator. Or a sprinkler system. A lot of developers know that, and we want to daylight that. We want to present that thematically.”

A sort of public policy Wikipedia for people who want to improve their properties or their neighborhoods. Duany makes his point by comparing the lack of sophisticated city development policy with the sort of latitude frequently granted to private, suburban developers:

“The master developer of a planned unit development in the suburbs – all of that has been pre-negotiated,” to bypass all kinds of rules. “We don’t do that in cities,” Duany says.

And an illustration of who is really served through policy “modernization:”

“Infrastructure has become so gold-plated and extraordinarily expensive,” Duany says. “Now, they will say the rules are necessary to protect health and safety. But we’re going to do the empirical studies to show that’s not the case. Take the electrical code. Most of us are living with the old electrical code, and we’re just fine. Electrical wires run in tubes, originally 30 amps, then 60 amps. You could pull it through the same tubes. Now it’s 120 amps, and the wires don’t fit in the tubes anymore. If you have an apartment or an apartment building and you want to renovate, you have to rip up everything. How many are being burned alive under the old code? Nobody. The rationale is to require things that are gold-plated. And the people who show up at the hearings are the electricians.”

Public policy matters because it shapes our neighborhoods and towns and cities. It shapes our civic identity. If Duany can help demystify some of the policies that complicate smaller-scale development, we’ll be better for it.

Harmony

Peter Thiel writes in Zero to One that despite our innovation in the specific area of information technology, we’re actually living through an era of overall technological stagnation. “Technology,” Thiel says, used to encompass everything from computers to rockets to energy. Today it means Silicon Valley, info tech, etc. It’s a narrower thinking.

I think what helps our “future building” efforts is a greater rootedness in historical learning and specifically human learning. In other words, in the humanities. Steve Jobs famously shared his vision for Apple “at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts.” This puts it pretty well: the new in harmony with the old. Coherence; that’s what culture and civilization are, at heart—a vision for the human good that’s kept in harmony.

If more of us grew up understanding who we are, and what unique place that’s been carved out for us in the universe, we might develop a more comprehensive sense of what is worth building. 

The best things are consciously built on the foundation of human experience. There’s no better place to become acquainted with the human experience than in the record each generation leaves, and that awaits discovery in the humanities.

Deciding what’s meaningful

When Alexis Madrigal started working at Fusion, he shared his perspective on the future:

My animating belief is that politicians and bullshitters and ideologues have taken the idea of societal change and replaced it with a particular notion of technology as the only or main causal mechanism in history. Somehow, we’ve been convinced that only machines and corporations make the future, not people and ideas. And that’s not true. …

This is not to denigrate the importance of technology out there in the world or call for a return to pre-industrial or pre-Internet society. Because all the other types of change are being mediated by our phones and networks, artificial intelligences and robots. And those dynamics are really important.

But if you really want to know what the future is going to be like, you can’t just talk about the billions of phones in China or paste some logarithmic growth charts into your Powerpoint. You have to go to the places where people are experiencing bits of the future—living the changes—and use that reporting to weave together a multivalent portrait of our possible futures. You have to get the many ways of thinking about the future into the same space, so you can see how they fit together.

What machines can surface is mostly raw information. It’s a raw intelligence, and so thoughtfulness, insight, history, and context are still vital to understanding whether there’s anything meaningful in the pile of data that’s generated for you to look at.

What are we doing with our lives? If we think information technology or the machines that power it often provide meaningful answers to those things, I think we’re forgetting that meaning comes from within. What are you going to do with your future?

Leisure

A few years ago I contributed to Academic Questions, a quarterly journal of the National Association of Scholars. Academic Questions focuses on the “vices and virtues of the contemporary university,” and my contribution was a part of their 2013 “Ideas for Higher Ed Reform.” Of the suggested topics, I chose “Advise students on one way to make the most of their college experience.” I’m sharing that contribution here, because it ties in with intention, suspension, and relationships:

Recovering a Disposition for Leisure

As you alight the steps from your last class of the day you instinctively attend to your iPhone. A few missed calls. Two voicemails. A few e-mails. A text message. Assorted notifications. Nothing pressing, though. There’s still time to enjoy the fading day as afternoon turns to evening, so you recline on a grassy spot beneath some graceful willow, pulling your iPad out to read a bit. You’ve get a few hundred words in before the iPhone is ringing, nagging again. Ignore. Then your iPad reminders kick in, finally and irrevocably pulling you from your reading, and from the evening.

This is our life now. There is so little room for quiet or leisure or silence. In The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton reminds us that “our word for school comes from the Greek word for leisure. Of course, reasoned the Greek, given leisure a man will employ it in thinking and finding out about things. Leisure and the pursuit of knowledge, the connection was inevitable…”

What a still radical and revolutionary insight—leisure, rather than programming or activities, as the context for discovery and learning! Even in Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional world The Diogenes Club was a necessary refuge from loudness and distraction.

Can we build physical, explicit spaces for leisure on our campuses? Where no devices are allowed? Where questing is the goal? Where eternal rather than ephemeral labors are sought?

What better way to make the most of a college experience than by intentionally retreating from noise? The gift of college is the opportunity to retreat from the world prior to commencing lives within it.

A bit of the wisdom of the Greeks is calling to us, if only we have a moment to think it over.

Sheer fantasy

This short exchange between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Malcolm Muggeridge from Firing Line came to my attention thanks to Kathryn Jean-Lopez’s National Review Institute emails. Here’s Muggeridge:

An integral part to belief is to doubt. Now why did this longing for faith assail me? Insofar as I can point to anything, it’s to do with this profession which you and I have followed of observing what’s going on in the world and attempting to comment thereon. Because that particular occupation gives one a very heightened sense of the sheer fantasy of human affairs. Of the sheer fantasy of power and of the structures that men construct out of power. And therefore gives one an intense, overwhelming longing to be in contact with reality. And so you look for reality. And you try this and you try that. And ultimately you arrive at the conclusion—a great oversimplification—that reality is a mystery. The heart of reality is a mystery.

Christmas

Merry Christmas. In celebrating Christ’s birth, we’re celebrating the moment our Creator became man. William Blake: “Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as He is.”

Christmas is also a day when so many of us in whom the faith lies dormant all year shines through in an act of tradition. This is largely from sentiment, but it proves that a feeling for fellowship and patrimony still has some effect on our hearts.

And there’s history: “…the 25th of December was not an arbitrary choice for early Christians. Rather, it was selected because of its connection with pagan festivals like Yule and Sol Invictus (the birthday of the Unconquered Sun), both of which commemorated the winter solstice or the longest night of the year.”

I think this proves our strength. Christians invest meaning in everything. (Hell can be understood as the one thing that lacks any meaning, hence the fear of it.) Christ redeems us personally, and also provides meaning to our culture. Even the dead past—our pagan ways—can echo with meaning.

Another example: @Pontifex. The Romans called their chief priest “Pontifex Maximus.” Like some of the vestments of ancient origin still worn in our faith, Pontifex is carried over and reinvested with meaning.

If there is a “War on Christmas,” it’s a subtle one whose effects can be judged by the extent to which Christmas introduces Christ into our lives, infusing our lives with another dimension of meaning. If Christmas doesn’t have any magnetism, if it doesn’t influence our lives beyond superficial merriment, then it means nothing.

Our lives can be carried over into the dimension of Christ especially at Christmastime —in this moment and during its twelve days. We can carry our failures and suffering and imperfection (and joy and happiness and vitality) in lives reinvested with meaning.

Christmas eve

Dark is the hour, long the night;
Hoarfrost sheds a shimmering light;
The wind in the naked woodland cries
A harp like music; the willow sighs.
But a marvelous quiet dwells in heaven—
Sirius, Markab, the faithful Seven—
For the Old Year’s sands are well-nigh run;
This is the Birthday of the Sun.

No glint of dawn; but Chanticlere
Is crowing of Christmas, bugle clear.
In waxen hive, close-wintering,
Bees a slumbrous orison sing;
Roused from their lair in dales of the snow,
Light-foot deer in procession go;
Cattle and sheep in byre and pen
Kneel in the darkness, unseen of men:
For the Old Year’s sands are well-nigh run;
This is the Birthday of the Sun.

Now houses of humans with jargonings ring;
Hautboy and serpent and flute and string,
Voices in gruff-shrill carolling—
Men and boys hunched up in the cold.
Tinkles the ice on the frozen mould.

Hesper is shining–rime on thatch;
Stag-borne Nicholas comes—unlatch!
Children stir in their dream and then
Drowsily sigh and turn over again.
Airs of the morn in the orchard flow;
Lo, in the apple boughs, mistletoe!
For the Old Year’s sands are well-nigh run;
This is the Birthday of the Sun.

Master and Man, the East burns red;
Drowse no longer in sluggard bed;
Garland the Yule log; scatter the wheat—
Feast for the starving birds to eat.
Mistress and maid, wax warm you shall—
Boar in oven, burned wine, spiced ale,
There’s quiring in heaven; and Gabriel
Wings from the zenith his news to tell;
Shepherd and king fare forth again—
Peace on earth, goodwill to men—
For, loving and lovely, in manger laid,
Dreams o’er her Babe the Virgin Maid.
Kindle then candles for your soul;
Shake off the net life’s follies bring;
Ev’n of the innocent death takes toll;
There is an end to wandering.
But see, in cold clod the snowdrop blows;
Spring’s inexhaustible fountain flows;
Love bides in earth till time is done;
The Old Year’s sands are well-nigh run;
This is the Birthday of the Sun.

Walter De La Mare

Suspension

“On week ends in summer the town empties,” writes E.B. White of New York City in his 1949 essay. “No phone rings, no one feeds the hungry IN-baskets, no one disturbs the papers; it is a building of the dead, a time of awesome suspension.” Imagine this today.

What White describes is a state of leisure. Leisure is something we lack today, because as Joe Kraus says we tend to fill up our “gap time” with mindless screen engagement. Leisure can be a context for learning—that state of “suspension” that gives us time to think.

E.B. White shares a scene he saw and truly observed during his time in Manhattan more than six decades ago. Pour yourself a drink worth drinking slowly. Enjoy.

It is seven o’clock and I re-examine an ex-speakeasy in East 53rd Street, with dinner in mind. A thin crowd, a summer-night buzz of fans interrupted by an occasional drink being shaken at the small bar. It is dark in here (the proprietor sees no reason for boosting his light bill just because liquor laws have changed). How dark, how pleasing; and how miraculously beautiful the murals showing Italian lake scenes—probably executed by a cousin of the owner. The owner himself mixes. The fans intone the prayer for cool salvation. From the next booth drifts the conversation of radio executives; from the green salad comes the little taste of garlic. Behind me (eighteen inches again) a young intellectual is trying to persuade a girl to come live with him and be his love. She has her guard up, but he is extremely reasonable, careful not to overplay his hand. A combination of intellectual companionship and sexuality is what they have to offer each other, he feels. In the mirror over the bar I can see the ritual of the second drink. Then he has to go to the men’s room and she has to go to the ladies’ room, and when they return, the argument has lost its tone. And the fan takes over again, the argument has lost its tone. And the memory of so many good little dinners in so many good little illegal places, with the theme of love, the sound of ventilation, the brief medicinal illusion of gin.

Another hot night I stop off at the Goldman Band concert in the Mall in Central Park. The people seated on the benches fanned out in front of the band shell are attentive, appreciative. In the trees the night wind stirs, bringing the leaves to life, endowing them with speech; the electric lights illuminate the green branches from the under side, translating them into a new language. Overhead a plane passes dreamily, its running lights winking. On the bench directly in front of me, a boy sits with his arm around his girl; they are proud of each other and are swathed in music. The cornetist steps forward for a solo, begins, “Drink to me only with thine eyes…” In the wide, warm night the horn is startlingly pure and magical. Then from the North River another horn solo begins—the Queen Mary announcing her intentions. She is not on key; she is a half tone off. The trumpeter in the bandstand never flinches. The horns quarrel savagely, but no one minds having the intimation of travel injected into the pledge of love. “I leave,” sobs Mary. “And I will pledge with mine,” sighs the trumpeter. Along the asphalt paths strollers pass to and fro; they behave considerately, respecting the musical atmosphere. Popsicles are moving well. In the warm grass beyond the fence, forms wriggle in the shadows, and the skirts of the girls approaching on the Mall are ballooned by the breeze, and their bare shoulders catch the lamplight. “Drink to me only with thine eyes.” It is a magical occasion, and it’s all free.

Relationships

At least some of our most meaningful realtionships aren’t evenly distributed across our lives:

 …despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life. If I lay out the total days I’ll ever spend with each…

It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.

It’s a similar story with my two sisters. After living in a house with them for 10 and 13 years respectively, I now live across the country from both of them and spend maybe 15 days with each of them a year. Hopefully, that leaves us with about 15% of our total hangout time left.

The same often goes for old friends. In high school, I sat around playing hearts with the same four guys about five days a week. In four years, we probably racked up 700 group hangouts. Now, scattered around the country with totally different lives and schedules, the five of us are in the same room at the same time probably 10 days each decade. The group is in its final 7%.

Great way to think through relationships. The takeaways that Tim Urban offers are the takeaways that should already be guiding our relationships: (1) quality time matters (2) priorities matter; intentionality (3) living nearby to your friends and loved ones matters.

The toughest things to get right in life often turn out to be the fundamentals.