Death of a White Oak

Bruce Shipkowski reports from Bernards, New Jersey (an hour west of Manhattan) on an incredible White Oak tree that lived for more than 600 years and became a part of American history:

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A white oak tree that has watched over a New Jersey community and a church for hundreds of years began its final bow Monday… Crews at the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church in Bernards began taking down the 600-year-old tree that was declared dead after it began showing rot and weakness over the last couple of years. …

“I know it seems funny to some to mourn a tree, but I’m really going to miss seeing it,” said Bernards resident Monica Evans, recalling family photos during weddings and communions.

The tree has been an important part of the community since the town’s inception in the 1700s. Officials say it was the site of a picnic Gen. George Washington held with the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Rev. George Whitefield, a noted evangelist, preached to more than 3,000 people beneath the tree in 1740.

Arborists say the tree had stood for nearly 300 years before the church was built in 1717. It stands about 100 feet tall, has a trunk circumference of 18 feet and has a branch spread of roughly 150 feet. …

“It has been an integral part of the town, that’s for sure,” said Jon Klippel, a member of the church’s planning council. “It has always been there, even before there was a town, and over the years many people have met there, been photographed there, had a meal under the tree. We’ve been blessed to have it here.”

But there is a silver lining for tree fans: Another white oak cultivated from the old tree’s acorns was recently planted at the church, so its legacy will continue at the church.

Trees like this are natural landmarks, and special symbols of our country. I’m reminded of the old idea of planting trees at the founding of a new institution or public initiative as a symbolic act of the hope that whatever new thing takes root as the tree does, and flourishes for generations for the betterment of the people.

Trees matter.

Journalists should be skeptics

Walk into almost any news room or journalism class in the country and probably a majority will say something about the importance of objectivity in reporting. It’s not that they think they don’t have biases, but rather that they believe they will be impartial in their reading of events, placement of data, and interviews with sources as to provide an “objective” picture of reality. But what if the notion of objectivity in journalism were its great weakness?

“Objectivity” presupposes an impartial observer able to share a “view from nowhere.” A journalist’s mission is to synthesize the raw materials of a situation into a coherent portrait of the truth. But as a reporter learns more about a subject, cognitive biases will take hold on what information is deemed important or relevant.

Elizabeth Murphy, Penn State’s Daily Collegian editor, wrote a few years ago on her organization’s having received a court order to remove articles from their site and why they refused to agree. She provided a glimpse into the objectivity mindset of journalists:

The Daily Collegian will not yield to intimidation.
The Daily Collegian does not answer to the government.
The Daily Collegian reports the truth as it happens, day in and day out.

What happens when the newspaper reports information that turns out not to be the truth? Or only a partial picture of the truth? Does careless research not threaten to obscure the truth each day? Does lazy interviewing not threaten to obscure the truth each day? Does simple need to fill out a minimum word count not threaten to obscure the truth each day?

A better standard to adhere to as a journalist would be to acknowledge our tendency toward bias and proclaim that journalists should be naturally skeptical—rather than claiming the mantle of objectivity and truth. Skepticism is a useful attitude for journalists because it gives them a freer hand to investigate, to maintain relationships with contentious public figures, and to share what they know without having to climb onto the high pedestal of objective public good every time they publish.

Skepticism rather than objectivity insulates journalists from the sort of attacks their credibility suffers every time something is reported incorrectly.

In 2003, Jesse Walker explained a problem with the objectivity approach:

There’s a reason that Fox News, whose very selling point is its reliable slant, would adopt a slogan like “We report, you decide.” And there’s a reason why Ann Coulter and Eric Alterman, scarcely objective writers themselves, would attack the media not merely for being wrong but for being biased. The rhetoric of “objectivity” is far too useful a tool, for denouncing your enemies or for patting yourself on the back, to expect everyone to give it up.

Jack Shafer at Slate took on the notion of the “objective” war reporter that same year.

In the presence…

Rod Dreher shared the comments of a Muslim reader of his last month, and I made a note to share the entire comment (on the subject of The Benedict Option) to share. It’s beautiful:

I went to Manhattan College in the Bronx, NY.  It is a Catholic college run by the Christian Brothers of the Order of De LaSalle.  All students are required to take three classes on religion during their four years of undergrad studies in order to graduate.  It just so happened that my first religion class was also the first class on my first day as a freshman.  It was taught by Brother Robert Berger (who is still a good friend two decades later).  And he began all his classes (as I came to learn over the years) with a simple prayer – “Let us remember that we are in the presence of God”.  When I look back on my awesome college experience, i am struck by how the most important truth I learned during that time was communicated to me in that prayer in the opening moments of my fist class at the school.

The BenOp, for me, is a way for Christians to actualize this truth…this awareness of God’s active presence in our lives, and to make it inform everything they do…how they worship, how they love, how they work, their mercy, kindness, honesty, how they control anger and other temptations, how they are resilient, etc. It is not about retreating to mountaintops but it is about building communities that can enable individuals to mutually encourage and reinforce this God awareness in their lives.

The BenOp puts God at the center of a christian’s universe again.  God stops being a means to an end like political victories or commercial success, and instead resumes being the End that Christians should strive for.  The BenOp also forces hard choices around how to live in this world.  It is not about disengaging from it but it definitely lays down markers for what’s acceptable and what’s not.  It moves away from thinking of Christian faith as some kind of a la carte menu (something for everyone here), and instead challenges and asks Christians to commit fully to their faith and its demands no matter how they diverge from social and commercial norms.

I also like how the BenOp essentially gives primacy to the spirit and soul over the intellect.  In our culture today, we obscenely fetishize innovation…the ability to use the intellect to solve problems and satisfy needs. We valorize those we think are innovative, disruptive, builders of stuff that is new and different.  The BenOp is a recognition that an innovation focused intellect is just an endless spinning down an unending rabbit hole..that the spirit is more important, and it can be nourished, strengthened, and made beautiful by rediscovering and dedicating oneself to the timeless and essential truths that God has provided us with through the Faith He has revealed to His creation.

The Quran tells us that God does not change the condition of a people for the better till they first change themselves.  The BenOp is about trying to get Christians to do the latter.

I wish you best of luck and success with the book.

Kamran

Graeco-Christian

In Will Durant’s closing section of Our Oriental Heritage, the first of eleven volumes in his The Story of Civilization series, he works to tie in the broad histories of ancient Asia with Greece as a transmitter and transformer civilization. (The Life of Greece is the second in his 11-volume series.) Excerpt:

From Egypt and Mesopotamia Greece took the models for her doric and ionic columns. From those same lands came not only the column but the arch, the vault, the clerestory, and the dome, and the ziggurats of the Near East have had some share in molding the architecture of America today. Chinese painting and Japanese prints changed the tone and current of 19th century European art and Chinese porcelan raised a new perfection for Europe to emulate.

The somber splendor of the Gregorian chant goes back age by age to the plaintive songs of exiled Jews, gathering timidly in scattered synagogues. These are some of the elements of civilization, and part of the legacy of the East to the West.

Nevertheless much was left for the classic world to add to this rich inheritance. Crete would build a civilization almost as ancient as Egypt’s and would serve as a bridge to bind the cultures of Asia and Africa and Greece. Greece would transform art by seeking not size but perfection. It would marry effeminate delicacy of form and finish to the masculine architecture and statuary of Egypt and would provide the scene for the greatest age in the history of art.

It would apply to all the realms of literature the creative exuberance of the free mind. It would contribute meandering epics, profound tragedies, hilarious comedies, and fascinating histories to the store of European letters. It would organize universities and establish for a brilliant interlude the secular independence of thought. It would develop beyond any precedent the mathematics of astronomy, the physics and medicine bequeathed it by Egypt and the East. It would originate the sciences of life and the naturalistic view of man. It would bring philosophy to consciousness and order, and would consider with unaided rationality all the problems of our life. It would emancipate the educated classes from ecclesiasticism and superstitution, and would attempt a morality independent of supernatural aid. It would conceive man as a citizen rather than as a subject. It would give him political liberty, civil rights, and an unparalleled measure of mental and moral freedom. It would create democracy and invent the individual.

Rome would take over this abounding culture, spread it throughout the Mediterranean world, protect it for half a millenium from barbarian assault and then transmit it through Roman literature and the Latin languages to Northern Europe. It would lift woman to a power and splendor and mental emancipation which perhaps she had never known before. It would give Europe a new calendar and teach it the principles of politcal organization and social security. It would establish the rights of the individual in an orderly system of laws that would help to hold the continent together through the centuries of poverty, chaos, and superstitution.

Often the phrase “Judeo-Christian” is used to almost interchangeably to refer to American/Western cultures. Yet Durant paints a portrait of Greek achievement and cultural synthesis—protected by the Romans and later European cultures—that continues to shape the majority of what we think of as a modern way of life.

In light of this, I wonder whether a firmer case could be made for the phrase “Graeco-Christian” rather than “Judeo-Christian” to better describe the development of our culture’s shared political and intellectual life. As Durant underscores, Greece indelibly shaped our sense of culture, law, and thought that came to dominate what became “Christian civilization” and Greece’s development of the individual and of political liberty continue to shape both domestic and international law.

If we need a phrase to describe the thread that binds the fabric of our culture through time, “Judeo-Christian” works in speaking of religious relationship and tradition, but “Graeco-Christian culture” might be better for describing what Durant refers to at one point as the “living cultural basis” for modern culture.

Commitment, not passion

I think one of the most misunderstood ideas today is that happiness in life comes after you decide to “follow your passion.” Steve Jobs famously encouraged young people to follow their passion in his Stanford commencement address. It’s a beautiful way to think about creating an intentional and rewarding life, but those three words paper over the stark reality that “passion” doesn’t lead to “happiness.” Steve Jobs himself elbaorated on this idea in a separate talk:

“People say you have to have a lot of passion for what you’re doing, and it’s totally true. The reason is because it’s so hard that if you don’t, any rational person would give up. It’s really hard. And you have to do it over a sustained period of time. So if you don’t love it—if you’re not having fun doing it, and you don’t really love it—you’re going to give up.”

In other words, people who are committed to their vision, or who have a strong sense of vocation or purpose in life, are the ones likeliest at least not to be discouraged by the sheer difficulty of realizing their vision. Jobs suggests needing to be irrational in pursuit of the passion, but I think it’s simpler to think in terms first acting out of a place of happiness, and second, living with commitment. Warren Buffett spoke to this many years ago:

If you think you’re going to be a lot happier if you’ve got 2x instead of x, you’re probably making a mistake. You outta find something that you like that works with that and you’ll get in trouble if you think that making 10x or 20x is the answer to everything in life, because then you’ll do things like borrow money when you shouldn’t, or maybe cut corners on things your employer wants you to cut corners on. It just doesn’t make any sense, and you won’t like it when you look back on it.

Far better to encourage young people to have a fixed ethical/moral sense, and unshakeable commitment to something concrete.

Castes v. mobility

I want to share some excerpts from R.W. Grant’s The Incredible Bread Machine, a “study of Capitalism, Freedom, and the State” published in the 1970s:

Every enterprise imaginable — dry cleaning, trucking, beauty parlor, grocery store, and on and on — is today under the thumb of the politician. ….

For those who already have capital, experience and education, the numberless “barriers to entry” erected by the state [ie – licensing, regulatory requirements] can be overcome, but to the under-capitalized poor, often with little experience and scant education, these barriers are virtually insurmountable. The illegal immigrant selling oranges at the off-ramp of the Los Angeles freeway is a truer capitalist than those businessmen who are constantly running to government for this-or-that favor or restriction.

Regulation is a necessary evil, but onerous or punitive regulation is a genuine evil in that it distorts natural relations and market activity, typically to the greatest detriment of the “under-capitalized poor.”

[T]he barriers are more complex today than they were then. For example, suppose a person in a poor area saw the need for a low-cost barber shop. One might suppose that with a few hours practice, a $15 set of clippers, a chair and a willing customer, he could go into business. Then, if her were industrious, and were truly able to provide a service of value to his neighbors, he would prosper. Perhaps one day he could open a bigger shop and hire two of his relatives. That is the way things are supposed to be in a “land of opportunity.” But that is not the way things are. In California, this is what the law says he must do.

The first step for an aspiring barber is a barber’s license granted by the state Board of Barber Examiners. But this requires either two years as an apprentice working for someone else or 1500 hours (!) at a state-licensed barber school at a cost upwards of $3,500. … Then, it costs $50 to register for the state test. And then, if the test is passed, there’s another $50 for the two-year state license. But there’s still more, for the new shop must now be inspected and approved by the Board — for another $50. Then, a city business license ($106.43 in Los Angeles). …

Now, assuming he were still in business, suppose the new proprietor hires an assistant. Deductions, contributions and fees must be accurately computed and paid. Just for starters there’s Worker’s Compensation and unemployment insurance (around 1.3% of the first $7,000 in wages) paid for by the employer. Then, in California there’s something called the Employee Training Tax, 0.1% of the first $7,000. Then there is a Federal Unemployment Tax, $56 per year per employee.

Now come the payroll deductions. State Disability Insurance (SDI) is 15% of the first $31,767 in wages. Then there’s State Withholding Tax (variable). Then come the federal calculations which include Withholding plus Social Security/Medicare (7.65% matched by the employer).

The paperwork for all this represents a severe burden even to people with a fair degree of schooling; to the person with only a meager education and perhaps only a scant familiarity with the mysteries of bookkeeping, these artificial barriers to business survival are simply overwhelming. But there is still more: most states enforce — or try to enforce — minimum price schedules. But a poverty area shop forced to charge these inflated rates would go out of business in a week!

The decision a few years ago to give the FDA power to regulate tobacco demonstrates the way in which regulation can be used to insulate existing interests from competition. Who came out on top in that case? Marlboro. Flush with cash, and with an army of lobbyists, they successfully convinced the FDA to ban flavored tobacco cigarettes on the grounds that they appealed to children. Okay…

A big maker of flavored cigarettes (a competitor) was Djarum, an Indonesian company that was effectively eliminated from the U.S. market by that protectionist regulation.

And most interestingly, Marlboro’s menthol flavored cigarettes were exempted from the flavored tobacco ban. Critics have dubbed this change in law the “Marlboro Monopoly Act of 2009.” (Black Americans are a large percent of menthol sales, and a ban including menthols would have dealt a heavy blow to Marlboro’s market share.)

It seems as if bureaucracy and regulators function well when promoting a principle, but often stumble when enforcing specific policies.

Recentering our politics

J.D. Vance on our politics:

“We need a better leadership class to set the tone for the discussion,” Vance tells TAC. “The most depressing part of the 2016 election is that the candidates often failed to show any cultural leadership: any recognition that the world of public policy was important but hardly the only good and necessary part of our shared society. They don’t talk about the church, about local community organizations, about businesses as anything more than providers of jobs.

“We’re very good at talking about the individual in American politics, and excellent at talking about the government,” he continues. “But we have little ability to even acknowledge everything that exists in the middle, and given how influential politics is on every other part of our life, I think that failure of discourse is pretty corrosive to our overall culture.”

The stakes are very high now. Vance expects the Rust Belt working-class vote to be up for grabs for the next few political cycles, with struggling blue-collar voters siding with whichever candidate, Republican or Democrat, promises the greatest change. This is a prescription for instability.

JFK is cited way too often as an example of a president appealing to the “common good” ethic of Americans to “ask what you can do for your country” rather than what it’s government can do for you. But he’s cited for a reason: he captured the spirit of that essential attitude of communal life and service pitch perfectly.

We don’t need more Americans who make a god of personal autonomy unshackled from any related ideas of relationship to their neighbors, responsibility to their communities, or reverence toward their nation. We need Americans with a sense of the “common good” again, and that starts by stopping to consider others.