‘A principle of periodic reduction of bureaucracy’

I caught the 5:05pm Amtrak from Washington to Philadelphia this evening, and am heading to Bismarck early in the morning for a bioethics seminar at the University of Mary the rest of this week. The flags outside of Union Station were at half mast in honor of President George H.W. Bush.

As I walked through Old City later in the night I took this photo of Independence Hall. I think it pairs well with Camille Paglia’s commentary on the illiberal nature of bureaucracy:

As government programs have incrementally multiplied, so has their regulatory apparatus, with its intrusive byzantine minutiae. Recently tagged as a source of anti-Trump conspiracy among embedded Democrats, the deep state is probably equally populated by Republicans and apolitical functionaries of Bartleby the Scrivener blandness. Its spreading sclerotic mass is wasteful, redundant, and ultimately tyrannical.

I have been trying for decades to get my fellow Democrats to realize how unchecked bureaucracy, in government or academe, is inherently authoritarian and illiberal. A persistent characteristic of civilizations in decline throughout history has been their self-strangling by slow, swollen, and stupid bureaucracies. The current atrocity of crippling student debt in the US is a direct product of an unholy alliance between college administrations and federal bureaucrats — a scandal that ballooned over two decades with barely a word of protest from our putative academic leftists, lost in their post-structuralist fantasies. Political correctness was not created by administrators, but it is ever-expanding campus bureaucracies that have constructed and currently enforce the oppressively rule-ridden regime of college life.

In the modern world, so wondrously but perilously interconnected, a principle of periodic reduction of bureaucracy should be built into every social organism. Freedom cannot survive otherwise.

Most local news isn’t

I saw this report shared someplace recently, Assessing Local Journalism: News Deserts, Journalism Divides, and the Determinants of the Robustness of Local News. It’s as much about journalism as it is about the health of American communities. From its executive summary:

Drawing upon an analysis of over 16,000 news stories, gathered over seven days, across 100 randomly sampled U.S. communities, this study found that:

  • Eight communities contained no stories addressing critical information needs.
  • Twelve communities contained no original news stories.
  • Twenty communities contained no local news stories.

In addition, this study found that:

  • Only about 17 percent of the news stories provided to a community are truly local – that is actually about or having taken place within – the municipality.
  • Less than half (43 percent) of the news stories provided to a community by local media outlets are original (i.e., are produced by the local media outlet).
  • Just over half (56 percent) of the news stories provided to a community by local media outlets address a critical information need

“Only about 17 percent of the news stories provided to a community are truly local…”

It seems to me that the near death of our civic and social life, of even our ability to be aware of what’s happening in our communities, is both much worse than we realize and also a much bigger practical crisis than the drama of our national politics.

When most local news isn’t, that means that the conglomerates presenting easy-to-obtain and cheap-to-free national content through formerly local brands are simply running out the clock until those brands are completely dead. That means there’s opportunity in creating news and media brands that will contribute to the civic and social health of particular communities now, so that they’ll be firmly in place when the old brands finally die.

George H.W. Bush, RIP

George H.W. Bush, rest in peace. The 41st president died in Houston last night. Rod Dreher shared Joshua Treviño’s H.W. reflection, and I’m sharing that same reflection here because I think it’s one of the best:

Here is the one thing you need to know about him, among all the things of his crowded and extraordinary life: his most enduring legacy is the war that did not happen. It is a commonplace that his predecessor in the Presidency defeated the Soviet Union, and there is truth to it, but it is not the whole story. President George H.W. Bush was the man who managed, deftly and successfully, the Western portion of the implosion of the Soviet empire. It was a perilous passage — the abrupt collapse of an imperium and a pillar of world order — that would have almost certainly produced great-power war under nearly any other circumstance. It did not largely because of the men who were President at the moment: President, that is, of both the failing USSR and the ascending United States.

Think back to the revolutions of 1989, and the triumphant scenes of Europe liberated at last, of the Second World War reaching its final conclusion after six long decades. Think back to the realization that Soviet Communism, the specter haunting free men throughout most of the century, was in its death throes. Then think back to what you didn’t see: American triumphalism in Europe, the imposition of terms, the march of Western armies to the Oder and Vistula, the spiking of the ball.

President George H.W. Bush, unnoticed and uncredited by his nation, steered a victorious America — flush in the defeat of its sixth empire in just over seventy years, standing upon the precipice of global hyperpower — with restraint, prudence, and even modesty in its moment of triumph. It was an exemplary achievement not just for the virtues inherent in those qualities. It was an exemplary achievement because of the people who lived.

Under nearly anyone else, in nearly any other era, the generation of 1989 would have been sacrificed to wars of succession, wars of revision, and wars of revenge. Under George H.W. Bush, these men and women lived, and their children are with us today.

It is a curious thing to have as the most enduring achievement a thing that did not happen. The former President understood it. The American people did not. They still don’t.

I was a small child living with my mother in Bayreuth, West Germany in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall began to fall. She was on a Fulbright there, and I was along with her. We visited Berlin, and we brought back a piece of that wall when we came home. Here’s a photo of us in Bayreuth’s Hofgarten from that autumn:

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In reading Joshua Treviño’s reflection, I think about how easy it would have been for President Bush to have “spiked the ball” in some way that would have blown up in our faces. Even in Daniel McCarthy’s blunt epitaph for a man he believes essentially created our present geopolitical dilemmas, he points out the sort of restraint Bush demonstrated in presiding over the U.S.S.R.’s collapse:

Bush refused to encourage Ukrainian efforts to break free from the Soviet Union in summer of 1991 and warned of ‘suicidal nationalism’ on the part of Ukraine. Bush was right, not because the Ukrainians did not deserve their independence—which they soon peacefully obtained—but because US involvement would have been a goad to Russian nationalism and could only have complicated the necessary work of dismantling the Soviet Union, work that could only be carried out by Soviet subjects (including Russians) themselves.

I was in Kennebunkport, Maine over Memorial Day in 2010 with friends, and we had the chance to meet Bush briefly. He had a tradition of coming out for the Memorial Day parade there. It was one of his last years before age and disability made a wheelchair a necessity, and he was milling about and greeting everyone in a low key way. Shaking his hand and offering him a simple “thank you” for his service was a memorable moment, the sort that I hope continue to exist even despite the increasingly imperial nature of the U.S. presidency. I hope, through the countless number of Americans who have similar experiences with our presidents, that the best instincts of an older America are carried forward for generations to come.

Sources of national purpose

Earlier this month, just as the midterm elections were taking place, Kevin Williamson wrote something that’s been sitting in my browser since I first read it. “Against ‘Unity'” presents a provocative-seeming but actually rather conventional invitation to seek tolerance and pluralism, not a politically-achieved sense of moral-therapeutic feeling of social unity:

For what I guess are obvious reasons, the past couple of weeks have been heavy with discussions and columns on the theme of President Trump and “unity.” “Trump can’t unite us,” says the headline on a discussion between Ross Douthat and Frank Bruni in the New York Times. “Can anyone?”

One possible answer to that question is: “I don’t care.”

Nobody has ever explained why it is we need to be “united” to begin with, or made the case that we are somehow seriously disunited. There’s a great deal of histrionic howling and stupidity surrounding our politics, which is really only a proxy war for deeper underlying cultural differences. There’s some cause for concern there, but the cure for that division isn’t “unity” — it’s the opposite of unity: Live and let live. A great many of our problems come from the desire to forcibly recruit people whose lives and interests are unlike our own into the pursuit of our own narrow visions of the good life. The whole point of our national arrangement is that we can be pluribus and unum at the same time. That’s why the states didn’t cease to exist when we created a federal government. “Unity” means “oneness,” and trying to push people into oneness when they want different things will always cause tension. If there’s “unity,” then somebody wins and somebody loses. Plurality, on the other hand, means that we don’t all have to live the same way or hold the same things dear.

There are things to be concerned about, of course. But the country is trucking along just fine, our institutions are robust, our communities functional. …

And even if such “unity” were necessary or desirable, why should it come from the chief administrative official of the federal government? We have a president, not a prince. The president isn’t the country. He isn’t even the government. The purported need to bask in the glow of solidarity under his benevolent gaze is gross and unworthy of us as a people.

We aren’t here to be bent by the government to some national purpose. The government is here to be bent to our purposes. … Government is there to fix potholes and mind the borders and keep the peace. It isn’t there to give us a sense of purpose, or to make us feel good about our neighbors and fellow citizens. And if you can’t endure your neighbor because you’re so torqued up about whoever won the last election or whoever’s going to win this one, then you have problems that no mere politician can solve. …

We should try to get a government that functions better as a government rather than try to make it function as some kind of national moral totem.

If our sense of national purpose is fraying, political solutions to that problem seem unlikely to be the best remedy.

America’s vast differences

Pete Saunders writes on the idea of the American heartland, and touches on the fact that America used to think of itself in a much more diverse and creative way than it generally does today, wherein we have simply the coasts and the middle, the heartland:

The nation’s interior is the result of myriad patterns of settlement, vast differences in local climates and precipitation, the presence of local resources, and varying opinions on governance and business development. New Englanders settled much of the Great Lakes and built the manufacturing infrastructure. Appalachians and coastal Southerners settled much of the Mississippi Valley and established the natural resource-based industries. The settlers of the upper Midwest moved further west and founded the modern agribusiness model. Manufacturing still dominates in much of the Great Lakes; agribusiness and food processing remain strong in the Ohio Valley and northern Plains; energy still reigns supreme in the southern Plains and Mississippi Valley.

Why have we reduced our thinking about America’s vastness to the relatively bland options of “coasts” and “middle”? What is the American heartland if it’s not a united, cohesive sort of thing? Saunders explains:

The nation’s center has often been defined by what it lacks relative to the other parts of the nation – the elite universities, finance industry and political power of the northeast; the sun-drenched beauty of the beaches on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts; the stunning vistas of the Mountain West and Southwest; the mild climate (and climate of openness and innovation) on the Pacific Coast. I sense that this effort to unite very different parts of the middle of the nation are driven by those who want to compete with the vitality of the coasts but struggle with how to do it. …

Economic disparities at the regional level are large and growing. The economic convergence that characterized much of the twentieth century is a thing of the past, and regions are pulling away from each other. However, if there’s any lesson to be learned from the coasts and Sun Belt, it’s that each region must build on its unique strengths to recapture its economic vitality. The coasts and Sun Belt did not get to where they are today by linking their fortunes to other areas; they got there by touting their specific advantages and developing the leadership structure to promote it.

That said, there’s a path to prosperity for all of the Heartland states, without linking them together. The Great Lakes have a manufacturing infrastructure that will continue to be a foundation for its revival. That region has also a legacy of human capital investment (large land-grant universities and health care and biomedical institutions, for example) that will lead the transition toward the region’s next phase. Energy will continue to play a prominent role in states like Louisiana and Oklahoma, and the stifling lack of affordability on the coasts will increasingly force people to consider affordable options elsewhere in the nation. There is a path.

The American Heartland works better as a state of mind than as a geographic region. Ironically, its elusiveness is its strength. It can be anywhere in America. But the strengths and weaknesses of the places that make up our nation’s middle aren’t always found anywhere, and would benefit from the kind of fine-tuned understanding that led to the revival of other parts of the nation.

I think this falls apart in the last paragraph, insofar as a return to health for any of America’s middle cities in any of its regions won’t be found in a generic identification with a “heartland” ethos so much as an underscoring of the particularities of the place—the Detroitness of Detroit, the Milwaukean sensibilities of Milwaukee, etc. America’s differences are vast; we shouldn’t necessarily downplay those differences if we believe that one of the strengths of this nation lies in its diversity, and if our principles are truly binding on the consciousness of our people.

On national feeling

I spent time at the National Gallery of Art this afternoon, where I took this photo of Augustus Saint-Gaudens‘s Amor Caritas:

“Amor Caritas” represents the perfection of Saint-Gaudens’s vision of the ethereal female, a subject that he modeled repeatedly, beginning in 1880. The elegant figure in a frontal pose with free-flowing draperies and downcast eyes also appears in the caryatids for the Vanderbilt mantelpiece (25.234) and in several funerary works. Here, Saint-Gaudens made subtle changes in the drapery and added upward-curving wings, a tablet, and a belt and crown of passionflowers. He considered several titles with universal themes, including To Know Is to Forgive, Peace on Earth, God Is Love, and Good Will towards Men, before settling on Amor Caritas [Love (and) Charity].

I read about Saint Gaudens last autumn in David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, and thought this went well with something I read this week.

Michael Brendan Dougherty writes on nationalism and the notion that filial piety—respect and love for one’s forebears—that lends nationalism its potency are simply myths to be discarded, or that national spirit and interest are purely arbitrary and consequently disposable:

‘National identity is made up.” Thus saith the explainer journalist. But what exactly is explained by this gnomic pronouncement? The New York Times says that its new column “The Interpreter,” whose authors recently produced a four-minute video defending this thesis, “explores the ideas behind major world events. They use political and social science to explain topics from authoritarianism to arms control.”

“Use” is an apt verb. From the evidence at hand, I can see that political and social science were deployed for a purpose. A thief uses tools for his purposes too. And it could be said that a propagandist also explores ideas. …

Nationalism as a political movement was also what made democracy possible; it helped to overthrow ancient monarchies that routinely bequeathed nations with foreign rulers who just happened to inherit the chair. Further, national identity helped to create the social trust necessary to institute massive social-welfare systems. We might also note that while the Nazis made use of national loyalty, so too did the Poles, the French, the British, and the Americans who resisted and defeated the Nazi regime. And they could not have defeated the Nazis without that loyalty. …

Because national identity assumes into itself facts that derive from social interaction and history, the explainer concludes that it is a myth. It isn’t real. It’s just made up. Of course, lots of things that you can study have these properties: languages are “made up” in this way. They change over time. Their uses vary in history and social context. English shows evidence of assimilating Latin, French, and Greek vocabulary over its life. It is conditioned by history. But it would be stupid to say that English is somehow unreal. N’est-ce pas?

It indeed would be dumb to base your identity “just based on borders,” but in fact the relationship is the other way around. The identity is based on a shared homeland, or territory, along with shared law. National loyalty makes possible the kind of self-sacrifice that is necessary for living in peace with strangers. And in fact, the notable thing about national loyalty isn’t the times when, aggravated, it motivates us in war. War was very common before modern nationalism. Much more notable is the everyday peace and neighborliness that national loyalty fosters between people who may not share a tribe or a religious creed. Without nationality, we may still be trying to settle the wars of religion. With it, we were able to contribute to common treasuries whereby we provide for one other regardless of our ethnic background and religion. The border is just what you draw around this home. …

The anti-nationalist says that he wants fellow-feeling with all men, but … [t]he posited freedom to serve any man comes by dissolving his duty to his neighbors. His tragedy is that once he succeeds in deconstructing national loyalties, he will find that loyalties based on blood or creed come roaring back.

When you stop saying “nationalism”, which frightens some, and start saying something like “national feeling”, you start to get close to the heart of the thing that some claim to want to reject. Are we forgetting that national feeling does not mean either reactive jingoism or lack of charity and graciousness abroad? Are we really, broadly speaking, interested in disposing of a distinctly American national feeling? I doubt it.

Cultureless ciphers

Patrick Deneen paints a harsh but not untrue portrait of the state of American education:

My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.

It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them: they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject); they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though easy-going if crude with their peers. They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically). They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting to run America and the world.

But ask them some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks. Who fought in the Peloponnesian War? Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach? How did Socrates die? Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales? Paradise Lost? The Inferno?

Who was Saul of Tarsus? What were the 95 theses, who wrote them, and what was their effect? Why does the Magna Carta matter? How and where did Thomas Becket die? Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him? What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural? His first Inaugural? How about his third Inaugural? What are the Federalist Papers?

Some students, due most often to serendipitous class choices or a quirky old-fashioned teacher, might know a few of these answers. But most students have not been educated to know them. At best, they possess accidental knowledge, but otherwise are masters of systematic ignorance. It is not their “fault” for pervasive ignorance of western and American history, civilization, politics, art and literature. They have learned exactly what we have asked of them – to be like mayflies, alive by happenstance in a fleeting present. …

We have fallen into the bad and unquestioned habit of thinking that our educational system is broken, but it is working on all cylinders. What our educational system aims to produce is cultural amnesia, a wholesale lack of curiosity, history-less free agents, and educational goals composed of content-free processes and unexamined buzz-words …

Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends …

Even distributions and new norms

Nellie Bowles reports on the unexpected impact of new technology, namely its unequal utilization across American communities and among the young:

It wasn’t long ago that the worry was that rich students would have access to the internet earlier, gaining tech skills and creating a digital divide. Schools ask students to do homework online, while only about two-thirds of people in the U.S. have broadband internet service. But now, as Silicon Valley’s parents increasingly panic over the impact screens have on their children and move toward screen-free lifestyles, worries over a new digital divide are rising. It could happen that the children of poorer and middle-class parents will be raised by screens, while the children of Silicon Valley’s elite will be going back to wooden toys and the luxury of human interaction.

This is already playing out. Throwback play-based preschools are trending in affluent neighborhoods — but Utah has been rolling out a state-funded online-only preschool, now serving around ten thousand children. Organizers announced the screen-based preschool effort will expand in 2019 with a federal grant to Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho and Montana.

Lower-income teens spend an average of eight hours and seven minutes a day using screens for entertainment, while higher income peers spend five hours and 42 minutes, according to research by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit media watchdog. (This study counted each screen separately, so a child texting on a phone and watching TV for one hour counted as two hours of screens being used.) Two studies that look at race have found that white children are exposed to screens significantly less than African-American and Hispanic children.

“The future is already here,” said William Gibson, “it’s just not very evenly distributed.” I think what we’re seeing is that even as new technologies become “evenly distributed” across geography and demographics, norms and habits of use of that technology also change in response to the pervasive availability of those technologies.

‘This is surveillance’

Natasha Lomas reports on Tim Cook’s recent address in Brussels:

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has joined the chorus of voices warning that data itself is being weaponized against people and societies — arguing that the trade in digital data has exploded into a “data industrial complex”.

Cook did not namecheck the adtech elephants in the room: Google, Facebook and other background data brokers that profit from privacy-hostile business models. But his target was clear.

“Our own information — from the everyday to the deeply personal — is being weaponized against us with military efficiency,” warned Cook. “These scraps of data, each one harmless enough on its own, are carefully assembled, synthesized, traded and sold.

“Taken to the extreme this process creates an enduring digital profile and lets companies know you better than you may know yourself. Your profile is a bunch of algorithms that serve up increasingly extreme content, pounding our harmless preferences into harm.”

“We shouldn’t sugarcoat the consequences. This is surveillance,” he added. …

“For artificial intelligence to be truly smart it must respect human values — including privacy. If we get this wrong, the dangers are profound. We can achieve both great artificial intelligence and great privacy standards. It is not only a possibility — it is a responsibility.” …

Cook said Apple is “in full support of a comprehensive, federal privacy law in the United States” — making the company’s clearest statement yet of support for robust domestic privacy laws…

Good for Tim Cook and Apple for continuing to lead on this issue. Apple’s position is an essentially conservative one, advocating restraint on the part of both government and private entities from overzealously compiling what are, in effect, dossiers designed to coerce or otherwise manipulate.

Apple may prove to be a better protector of our Fourth Amendment rights than many whom we’ve elected to government to defend those rights.

Sandra Day O’Connor

Sandra Day O’Connor announced this week that she is withdrawing from public life. At age 88, and as a former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and the first woman to serve on the high court, her public withdraw is well earned. In her statement this week, I think she showed how citizens should act in public life:

Some time ago, doctors diagnosed me with the beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease. As this condition has progressed, I am no longer able to participate in public life. Since many people have asked about my current status and activities, I want to be open about these changes, and while I am still able, share some personal thoughts.

Not long after I retired from the Supreme Court twelve years ago, I made a commitment to myself, my family, and my country that I would use whatever years I had left to advance civic learning and engagement.

I feel so strongly about the topic because I’ve seen first-hand how vital it is for all citizens to understand our Constitution and unique system of government, and participate actively in their communities. It is through this shared understanding of who we are that we can follow the approaches that have served us best over time – working collaboratively together in communities and in government to solve problems, putting country and the common good above party and self-interest, and holding our key governmental institutions accountable. …

I will continue living in Phoenix, Arizona, surrounded by dear friends and family. While the final chapter of my life with dementia may be trying, nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings in my life. How fortunate I feel to be an American and to have been presented with the remarkable opportunities available to the citizens of our country. As a young cowgirl from the Arizona desert, I never could have imagined that one day I would become the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

I hope that I have inspired young people about civic engagement and helped pave the pathway for women who may have faced obstacles pursuing their careers. My greatest thanks to our nation, to my family, to my former colleagues, and to all the wonderful people I have had the opportunity to engage with over the years.

God bless you all.