Power within a vacuum

Vaclav Havel dresses down ideology in his 30,000 word, October 1978 piece The Power of the Powerless. If you’re interested in understanding what made Communism ultimately so brittle, and what makes any form of statism vulnerable to what Havel calls “the fifth column of human potential,” it’s an essay worth your time. Excerpting a few parts:

The post-totalitarian system [meaning “totalitarian in a way fundamentally different from classical dictatorships, different from totalitarianism as we usually understand it] touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance. Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.

When words have lost all their meaning, or indeed become the opposite of what they once meant, some sort of revolution is inevitable. Confucius understood this in describing the rectification of names: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”

In the post-totalitarian system, truth in the widest sense of the word has a very special import, one unknown in other contexts. In this system, truth plays a far greater (and, above all, a far different) role as a factor of power, or as an outright political force. How does the power of truth operate? How does truth as a factor of power work? How can its power-as power-be realized?

Individuals can be alienated from themselves only because there is something in them to alienate. The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence. Living the truth is thus woven directly into the texture of living a lie. It is the repressed alternative, the authentic aim to which living a lie is an inauthentic response. Only against this background does living a lie make any sense: it exists because of that background. In its excusatory, chimerical rootedness in the human order, it is a response to nothing other than the human predisposition to truth. Under the orderly surface of the life of lies, therefore, there slumbers the hidden sphere of life in its real aims, of its hidden openness to truth.

The singular, explosive, incalculable political power of living within the truth resides in the fact that living openly within the truth has an ally, invisible to be sure, but omnipresent: this hidden sphere. It is from this sphere that life lived openly in the truth grows; it is to this sphere that it speaks, and in it that it finds understanding. This is where the potential for communication exists. But this place is hidden and therefore, from the perspective of power, very dangerous.

Names both describe and supply an order that is either legitimate or illegitimate exactly because there is such a thing as truth. Whatever the words used in any generation, living the truth is a worthwhile quest.

The profound crisis of human identity brought on by living within a lie, a crisis which in turn makes such a life possible, certainly possesses a moral dimension as well; it appears, among other things, as a deep moral crisis in society. A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system, whose identity is dissolved in an amalgam of the accouterments of mass civilization, and who has no roots in the order of being, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society.

Living within the truth, as humanity’s revolt against an enforced position, is, on the contrary, an attempt to regain control over one’s own sense of responsibility. In other words, it is clearly a moral act, not only because one must pay so dearly for it, but principally because it is not self-serving: the risk may bring rewards in the form of a general amelioration in the situation, or it may not.

And finally, on the value of refusing labels in favor of actually living life:

People who live in the post-totalitarian system know only too well that the question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being.

To shed the burden of traditional political categories and habits and open oneself up fully to the world of human existence and then to draw political conclusions only after having analyzed it: this is not only politically more realistic but at the same time, from the point of view of an “ideal state of affairs,” politically more promising as well.


Matthew Becklo writes that Westworld is a metaphor. It’s a metaphor relating to the show’s tagline/ambition to tell a story about “the dawn of artificial consciousness and the future of sin.” Becklo suggests this boils down to a lesson “about the swiftness with which we develop human-like objects, but also about the inhumanity with which we objectify each other.” I’m continuing to watch Westworld for now, and Becklo’s piece does a good job conveying why there might be more meat on its bones than it looked like at first.

In his piece Becklo cites Edward Feser’s thinking on intentionality:

“The term ‘intentionality’ derives from the Latin intendere, which means ‘to point (at)’ or ‘to aim (at)’ – hence the use of the term to signify the capacity of a mental state to ‘point at,’ or to be about, or to mean, stand for, or represent, something beyond itself. (It is important to note that intentions, for example, your intention to read this chapter, are only one manifestation of intentionality; your belief that you are reading a book, your desire to read it, your perception of the book, and so forth, exhibit intentionality just as much as your intention does.) The concept was of great interest to the medieval philosophers but Franz Brentano (1838 -1917) is the thinker most responsible for putting it at the forefront of contemporary philosophical discussion. Brentano is also famous for regarding intentionality as the ‘mark of the mental’ – the one essential feature of all mental phenomena – and for holding that their possessing intentionality makes mental phenomena ultimately irreducible to, and inexplicable in terms of, physical phenomena.”

A few years ago I sat with Michael Novak in Ave Maria, Florida where his wife’s “Archer” print hangs on the wall across the dinner table. We got to talking about the Archer and what he means in Aristotle’s thinking. To paraphrase Novak, the Archer is aiming for a distant target (maybe the Greek’s eudaimonia) and has to act with intention, precision, sensitivity, and focus in light of his own nature in order to succeed in hitting the target—or at least coming close. Living a good life takes intention and work, in other words. I have The Archer because of how much I want to think on this.

In The Archer and Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean, Glen Koehn writes that the Archer conveys “that moral virtues lie in a middle region between pairs of opposing vices.” While Koehn’s academic paper deals with different types of thinking on the questions the Archer raises, Novak’s point is simpler: the slightest change in stance or taughtness of the bowstring or change in the wind can throw the Archer from his target. The seemingly smallest thing can result not just in slightly missing the target, but in fact wildly missing it because of the dynamic nature of things.

At a higher level, the Archer points to what Feser writes about intentionality—about the capacity of the mind to “point at” something “beyond itself.” The Archer’s attempt to hit a distant target is its own proof for the world beyond the ego.


Philip Jenkins, on what it means that America will become a majority-minority country at some point in my lifetime:

For some 15 years now, I have been writing about the idea of the U.S. becoming a majority-minority country, in which no single ethnic or racial group constitutes a majority. … That idea has recently become quite standard and orthodox, and is an increasingly familiar element of political rhetoric, especially among liberals and Democrats. But at least as the idea is appearing in the media and political discourse, it is being badly misunderstood, in two critical ways. …

Firstly, and obviously, “minority” is not a uniform category.

After the recent election, I saw plenty of articles saying this was the last gasp of White America before whites lost their majority status, maybe sometime around 2040. Well, 2040 is a long way off, but let us look at the projections for what the U.S. population will look like in mid-century, say in 2050. The best estimate is that non-Latino whites will make up some 47 percent of that population, Latinos 29 percent, African-Americans 15 percent, and Asians 9 percent. Allow a couple of percentage points either way.

In that situation, “whites” will indeed be a minority. But the future U.S. will be a very diverse nation, with multiple communities whose interests might coincide on some issues but not others. …

Also, what do we mean by “white”? Historically, the category of “whiteness” has been very flexible, gradually extending over various groups not originally included in that constituency. In the mid-19th century, the Irish were assuredly not white, but then they became so. And then the same fate eventually befell Poles and Italians, and then Jews. A great many U.S. Latinos today certainly think of themselves as white. Ask most Cubans, or Argentines, or Puerto Ricans, and a lot of Mexicans. Any discussion of “whiteness” at different points in U.S. history has to take account of those labels and definitions. …

The second point specifically concerns the book The End of White Christian America, by Robert P. Jones…

Reading some post-election comments, it seemed as if commentators were expecting the “white Christian” population to evaporate, which it won’t do. Firstly, non-Latino whites will of course remain, and will still, at least through the 2050s, constitute by far the nation’s largest ethnic community. A 47 percent community still represents an enormous plurality. Actually, the scale of “white Christian” America will be far more substantial even than that figure might suggest, given the de facto inclusion of other groups—especially Latinos, and possibly Asians—under the ethnic umbrella. Intermarriage accelerates the expansion of whiteness.

In other words, the precise racial/ethnic nature of America will be somewhat different in the future than it is now.

I wish we could talk less about racial politics, and more about what it is that we’re all doing together as Americans to perpetuate the best of the country that we have. If we could stop measuring, segregating, and identifying one another and every historical generation from the other, we might realize we’re all in this together: generations of Americans across time, putting together the pieces as best they can through a common Constitutional heritage toward a culture, toward communities, and toward a way of living that continues to be good, on the whole.

In writing about how he thought of the past, Will Durant spoke of it in a way that I think of America as one-nation-across-time: “a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach, and carve, and sing.”


George Weigel, many years ago:

“The creativity of John Paul’s analysis of totalitarianism and his prescription for effective resistance was its recognition that culture is the key to history. A people in firm possession of their historic culture could mount an effective, nonviolent resistance to totalitarianism; they could say ‘no’ to communism, for example, on the basis of a higher and more compelling ‘yes’–for example, to the Catholic culture of Poland. This culture-first reading of history gave a new form of power to the powerless, attacked communism at its maximum point of vulnerability, and demonstrated that a revolution of conscience could ignite a nonviolent political revolution that led not to a new form of tyranny but to the restitution of civil society as the basis of democracy. That is what John Paul II did in east central Europe. That is what he tried to do in Cuba. And that is why the Communist leadership in Beijing has blocked his access to that country.”

The past is a reminder that those who are in control today will not be in control for long. Conserving our own past is the people’s most powerful weapon against the political and social fashions of their era.

I was talking with a friend a few years ago who shared something he learned from a local in Eastern Europe who told him: “We’ve been ruled by empire after empire. If it wasn’t the Soviets, it was the Ottomans. If it wasn’t the Ottomans, it was the someone before them. For thousands of years, empires have come and gone. And in this town, for thousands of years, we’ve been living right here and drinking together in this pub.”

That’s folk wisdom in a nutshell, and I think it’s mostly right.

1 percenters in history

Kevin Williamson writes:

Whoever wins the election on Tuesday, conservatives will be in our customary unhappy position: explaining to people who are unhappy with the state of their lives that there is not really very much that we can do for them, because they are adult human beings with particular responsibilities of their own rather than livestock or pets to be cared for out of self-interest or sentimentality.

What should we tell these unhappy voters?

A few suggestions:

A great deal of what happens in your life is going to be determined by factors beyond your immediate control. You have certain natural gifts and talents, and those are not going to change very much no matter what you do. You can develop them, but there are real limits on that development. It isn’t true that anyone can become a concert pianist or a chess grandmaster or a Fortune 500 CEO if only he wants it enough and is willing to put in the work. You do have to want it, and you do have to put in the work, but those are necessary, not sufficient, conditions. If you were going to dance with the Bolshoi or play in the NFL, you’d probably know it by now.

Beyond your own endowments, a great deal of your happiness and advancement in life is going to be influenced in one way or another by the family in which you are raised. How much money your family has is a part of that, but it is not the only part, or even the most important part. Some of you have wonderful families that will encourage and advise you intelligently, helping you to make good decisions and to make the most of the gifts you have. Some of you have horrifying families marred by addiction, neglect, abuse, and worse. Government can step in and remove minors from the most extreme situations — putting them into foster homes or institutions that may or may not prove an improvement — but, for most people, the family you have is the family you have, a lifelong blessing or burden.

None of that is fair. But most of the unfairness — the vast majority of it — is working in your favor. Modern human beings have existed for about 200,000 years, and you, as a 21st-century American, are a member of a blessed minority, a true 1 percenter among all the human beings who ever have lived. You have ways of developing yourself and enjoying your life that were literally beyond the imaginations of most of the people who have lived, and indeed well beyond the dreams of most people 50 or 60 years ago.

A post-election humility is so necessary, regardless of the political party that wins and regardless of the ideology that wins. I read somewhere recently that Marxism truly triumphed in Western politics (despite the failure of Soviet Communism) in the sense that the Marxist push to politicize every aspect of everyday life has saturated Western culture. Every word is scrutinized, every expression judged and weighed on the scales of political/social/moral/ethical/cultural sensitivity. We’re the 1 percenters in terms of human history, and we’re spending our time bitching at each other about the way we think and speak.

Mount Nittany memories

I told Catie Simpson at Onward State a few years ago that I don’t think climbing Mount Nittany is an experience that should be treated as a bucket list item—as something to be checked off as complete in a one-and-done manner. Mount Nittany is a beautiful and historic part of Central Pennsylvania’s Nittany Valley, and it’s something that one should have the opportunity to come to know over many visits and much time spent together.

As I’ve been thinking about the Mountain, and the need to get back and hike it soon now that it’s getting colder, I revisited some of the reflections that Onward State readers shared with me about Mount Nittany a few years ago. I’m sharing those here:

I’ve always loved Mt. Nittany and what it means to Penn State. My favorite memories of the mountain are climbing it with the Blue Band. Finding things to do with such a large group are hard, but this was one of the easiest to get people involved. It was a great time becoming closer with different people in the 300+ band and having fun enjoying the wonderful views the mountain gives with everyone. It is one thing that never gets old doing. – Matt Wagner

I’ll always remember the first time I climbed Mount Nittany, the summer before my freshman year. I was a bit uneasy preparing for the ‘college experience’ but ultimately very excited. The view from the top of Mt. Nittany at dusk, the setting sun covering State College in a hue of sunset orange, is an incredible sight It left me feeling secure and calm. Any incoming student who is a little anxious or worried about the years ahead should take the time to hike up to the top of Mt. Nittany at dusk and enjoy the tranquil experience. It can really make a difference and calm any concerns. – Kieran Carlisle

We had the perfect afternoon a few days after a snowfall in February. The skies had cleared up, it was sunny and a warm 45 degrees. The ice on the trail made it an adventure to get to the top! The view was incredible that day. Snow blanketed the valley and it was calm and quiet. We will never forget that day and what led to many more hikes/races to the top! – Clark H.

I climbed Mt. Nittany many years ago as a child. I don’t really remember getting to the spot where we could look out over State College, but I do vividly remember the view. One of these days, I’m going to have to climb it again with my kids so they can remember the view too. Several years ago, just after Mt. Nittany Middle School was built, I drove up to road next to the school and took a photo of the mountain. That single picture has served as quite a few backdrops on various things I’ve created over the years. It’s such an icon. – Scott Barbara

Most non-Penn Staters ask me what’s a “Nittany Lion?” I’m so proud to tell them every time the story of how the famous Nittany Lion nickname came about. I’ve only climbed Mount Nittany once but if you’re going to do it, try doing it while also carrying a wooden pallet up with you for a small campfire cookout with friends. In the fall of 2009, myself and 34 other THON Rules & Regulations Captains made climbing Mt. Nittany one of our team building exercises. On a nice weekend morning, we helped each other climb to the top with the wooden pallet, some hot dogs, marshmallows, and all of our cameras or camera phones for that picture every Penn Stater should take at the top with the Happiest Valley in the world in the background! – Brian Martin

My first trip up Mt. Nittany was in the spring of my junior year. After hearing so much about the awesome views at Mt Nittany and experiencing a few other trails in the area, namely Shaver’s Creek and Whipple Dam I knew it was time to climb Mt. Nittany. Being a newcomer to the trail, I ended up taking the long way around to the look-out point of Happy Valley. Hiking the entire trail wasn’t disappointing at all (not that I expected it to be) and I found it to be quite refreshing to get a different view of the area surrounding our beloved Happy Valley. So many times you hear 45,000 students, small mountain town, etc– but to see it from the top of Mt. Nittany really showed me how big our community was. I loved looking through my binoculars and pointing out Beaver Stadium, Old Main, west campus (where I lived at the time). These were all of the Penn State staples and for the first time I really got to put into perspective how immense our campus is and thought about how so many diverse activities could fit into such a relatively small area. I had always heard our campus referred to as the “Penn State bubble”, but from this view it didn’t necessarily seem like a bad thing. – Jackie Dunfee

Holy ambivalence

James K.A. Smith, author of You Are What You Love, writes:

Imagine being a people who don’t think a presidential election means either the salvation of the universe or the end of the world. Imagine being a people who have a loooooong perspective on such matters, who are tied to an ancient people that have managed to “live peaceful and quiet lives” across the centuries, whether in kingdoms or democracies, under persecuting tyrants and benevolent queens. This news cycle, this election season, this year, this Congress — these are all blips in time for people who are looking for kingdom come. And so we shouldn’t be surprised by anything. We shouldn’t feel like our world is collapsing. We should, instead, cultivate a kind of healthy distance — not being aloof or indifferent, but nonetheless exhibiting a kind of “holy ambivalence” that isn’t so absorbed by the present moment. We are a stretched people who are older than this campaign and look for a kingdom well beyond it.

Or another way to put, in the words of a friend of mine: Are people ever going to shut up about the election?

Soul > process

A Book of Elements: Reflections on Middle-Class Days” by Michael Novak was released in 1972. It’s a fascinating book from a young liberal who’s today an elder conservative. From the original Kirkus review, these lines stick out:

Novak collaborated with his wife, artist-sculptor Karen Laub-Novak, in this series of explosive pensees concerning “the reliable elements of life.” … In impulsive prose which ranges from the quick insight to the self-indulgent sprawl, Novak explores, as a middle-class paterfamilias-suburbanite, concepts of being and self; political and social ethic; domestic living; and the awareness of God above and through humanity. He comments on the American way of life which he sees as mechanistic-bound, “not at all on the human scale.”

Far and away my favorite short chapter was 27, which opens by asking the question, “What dehydration of soul makes organization possible?” I excerpt the chapter in full here, emphasis mine:


What dehydration of soul makes organization possible? The spirit of a practical society is a bureaucratic spirit, fascinated by process, procedures, methods.

It is true, of course, that procedures affect the content of what is done. Sometimes they determine the content completely.

But it is not true that if you attend only, or even chiefly, to questions of process, procedures, and methods, you can guarantee results.

Thinking about procedures has a single goal: routine. Once we get the process down (we think), we can produce many similar contents rationally and efficiently.

At its worst, process thinking tends to imagine a world organized like a machine. It is production-line thinking.

At its best, it remains thinking from-outside-in. It views content as what is to be shaped. It concentrates on the shaping procedures. Powerful in dealing with machines, in dealing with humans it is incompetent.

For example, democracy. Many seem to imagine that democracy is a matter of machinery: who votes, when; parliamentary rules and reforms; methods for identifying interests; procedures for reconciling interests; mechanisms for handling grievances. Even radical thinkers concentrate on processes.

One can identify process thinkers early by the metaphors inseparable from their thinking: “Set it up,” “We need a mechanism,” “Operationalize that,” “Figure out the best procedures,” “Sort out the elements,” “Break it down into smaller steps,” “How to structure the committee,” “Once we get it going it will take care of itself,” “The problem is the procedure,” “Inputs,” “Outputs,” “Crank it up with,” “Safety valves…”

Process thinkers sound like auto mechanics on their day off.

It seldom occurs to process thinkers—to our elites in the intellectual and managerial classes—that democracy requires qualities of soul, in persons and in their families, and in their social groups.

If you reduce humans to atomic particles without social cohesion, without social trust, without joy in sacrifice, without social pride, democracy disintegrates.

If you reduce human atomic particles to inputs, outputs, and mechanisms of need and desire, democracy becomes an illusory dream machine and its springs snap, bolts fall off, panels rot away, organisms rust and decay…the machine ceases to function.

Democracy is not a matter of reasonable discussion merely, of intelligent consensus, of the decorum of a New England town meeting circa 1663. It includes pressure groups, interest groups, conflicts, the use of force, threats, bitter dissent.

But where persons are not proud of their own lives, independent and sturdy in their views, committed to mutual trust in their morals, larger police forces are needed. Suburban communities become, like medieval towns, walled cities. People go out seldom. No one evinces pride in work or workmanship. Each person takes what he can get, and gives a minimum. Transactions between salesgirls and customers, between agents and clients, are reduced to the most minimal mechanical forms: a grunt, a reluctant gesture of direction. Cold hostility intensifies between bus drivers and passengers, servicemen and homeowners, mechanics and auto owners. Surliness and contempt multiply. Citizens trust no government official. Officials are cynical about the people.

Where private and familial and occupational habits turn from cooperative to mistrustful, democracy dies. Not all the processes or procedures or methods in the world, even if enforced by penalties and arms, can hold a society together.

The radical disease of American life lies in a quarter no one wishes to face. Everyone wants to tinker with the system. More profound is the collapse of personal and social virtue. Humility, graciousness, warmth, trust, spontaneity, and generosity of soul are disappearing slowly but steadily from our lives. We are not humane in the small transactions of daily life. We do not, in fact, love, sympathize with, or trust most of the human beings we meet each day. We are on our guard. They, too, are on their guard.

If we become a garrison state, the sole cause will not be an industrial-military complex. Truly, if our major corporations mass-produced marshmallows instead of sophisticated weaponry, the impact of mass-production and bureaucracy would be the same: the disease of thinking from-outside-in.

A society is humane if and only if the dominant note of its private, familial, and societal transactions is reverence for what other persons are suffering: respect for thinking from-inside-out.

Each human is already lonely, trapped in the coils of his (her) own ego, unhappy, silently in pain. If you assume that this is true of each person you meet, seldom will events prove you mistaken. Why, then, would you add to the enormous weight of pain which grinds into their shoulders?

The dry bureaucratic sentiment is: Design a procedure that every one has an interest in.

The liquid democratic sentiment is: Listen to the suffering of each, and life the burdens.

The bureaucrat trusts administration. His way of making law is to fund an agency.

The democrat relies on himself and mutual trust. His way of making law is to articulate an ideal that men will agree to live under, cooperatively.

The bureaucrat worries about sanctions and administrators and investigators. He is not entirely wrong. But he tends to neglect the soul.

Dissent in order to begin a new way of life is not the same as dissent in order to spread contempt, hatred, and distrust.

Dissent which does not lead to deeper sympathy, to deeper sinking down of roots, is a sandstorm beating leaves from living trees.

The contrast, William James wrote, is between the “soft” thinkers and the “hard.” More accurate is the contrast between those in whom juices run, and those who think only where arid methodology permits.

Visiting President Garfield’s tomb

I’ll be sharing some writings from the past few years over the next few weeks. I did that recently in sharing notes/commentary from the 2013 “Dignitatis Humanae” conference, and am doing that again now with something I wrote in May 2013 after visiting President Garfield’s tomb:

I’ve been spending this weekend in Cleveland, visiting for the first time. It’s a beautiful city well deserving of its title “The Forest City.” City tree proponents should figure out what’s been done here and replicate it.

A friend is living in Cleveland’s historic Little Italy for the summer, which is right on the city border and near the campus of Case Western Reserve University. Directly behind his house is Lakeview Cemetery, home to President Garfield’s crypt and monument. Assassinated in 1881, the building was privately financed to honor this Union Civil War hero and completed in 1886. It’s a beautiful and fascinating monument; a distinctly 19th century American symbol radiating a civic and religious enthusiasm for a fallen president.

Each of the thirteen colonies has its own stained glass window encircling President Garfield’s statue. Pennsylvania’s is depicted in the photo with this post. Both caskets lie in the crypt space below the main floor, as well as the ashes of his daughter and son-in-law. His daughter died at age 80 in 1947.

We didn’t know about this until we drove into town on Friday, but it was a great way to spend some time on a Sunday afternoon after Mass and coffee at Corbo’s, the local bakery. From The Barking Spider on Friday on campus to Great Lakes Brewery to visiting The Christmas Story house to a visit to Cedar Point to home in Little Italy, it seems like a great city with a distinct character worth experiencing.

Gifts are neighborly

Emily Post writes on bringing gifts as a guest:

A gift for your host or hostess is a lovely way to thank them for their hospitality and is always appreciated. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive; simply consider the nature of the occasion and local custom when making your choice. In some parts of the country, a hostess gift is considered obligatory, while in other places a gift is brought only on special occasions. If it’s the first time you’re visiting someone’s home, then it’s a very nice gesture to bring a small gift. If you have a few extra minutes to wrap it, even if you only use tissue or a decorative bag, it adds to the gesture.

Wine, flowers, specialty food items, and small items for the house all make good hostess gifts. Flowers are terrific too, but if you want to go beyond Etiquette 101, bring them in a simple vase (a Mason jar is fine). You could also offer to put them in water yourself when you arrive so your host doesn’t have to arrange them. If you bring wine, don’t expect your host to serve it that evening – the wines may have already been chosen for the meal. And don’t bring food for the meal unless you’ve been asked to. Otherwise you risk putting your host on the spot and upsetting the menu.

I grew up without any serious sense of social propriety for this sort of stuff. I never attended fancy events as a child, and wasn’t naturally exposed to it in high school or college. Other than the basics of a (simple dinnertime) place setting, I was lost. What changed was meeting Ben Novak, and catching a glimpse of a way of life more ordered, yet just as accessible for a person of any social class. Indeed, a way for lower status people like me to demonstrate competency among higher status people. Jeffrey Tucker asks:

How do manners like this come to be lost in the course of time? Negligence, probably. Forces outside of our control coarsen life (politics comes to mind) and reduce the connection we feel with others. We are more inclined to take without giving, extract value rather than provide value, partake in others’ benevolence while not offering our own. Forgetting manners and disregarding etiquette makes the world a less beautiful place than it otherwise would be. Nor is it in our personal interest.

Holiday season is now upon us. Why not take the occasion to try this out?Holiday season is now upon us. Why not take the occasion to try this out? Bring a gift to a party. Do it with a good heart and loving intentions. Watch what happens. See how the smallest gestures can improve our relationships.

The timing could not be better. We’ve lived through a grim and ghastly political season that has divided friendships, families, and whole communities. We’ve gotten used to the idea that life is a zero-sum game of winners and losers. Etiquette represents an opposite style of thinking and behavior. It’s a great way to fight back against the way politics coarsens life and ruins relationships.