The World Our Parents Left Us

Roosevelt and Churchill, 1941

Roosevelt and Churchill, 1941

On this day after the majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union; in this absurdly long American electoral season when the presumptive nominee of a major political party threatens to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery of an international order created after the most devastating war in human history; in this world in which nationalist sentiments are being brought to a boil by ranting opportunists  who seek to turn a sensible patriotism into virulent chauvinism; in this age when the possibility of a decent global comity of nations is being threatened by fearmongering and the most abject zero-sum thinking—at this moment, in short, when the best lack sufficient conviction and the worst truly brim with passionate intensities, I feel shame for those generations (my own boomer one, as well as those that followed) that have variously enjoyed the incalculable benefits of the relative security and prosperity bequeathed to them by those who fought through and prevailed in that now-distant war and who, afterwards, went about building, if often imperfectly, a set of institutions and ideals intended to avert the recurrence of a similar global catastrophe.

We legatees may, in good will, differ strongly on what is good or bad about the order that was left to us. And many of us have pitched in and done our parts to sustain and improve it, even at the highest cost. But for all that we have done, too many of us have fallen short in what we should have done, through failures of commission or omission.

Of such failures, the worst may have been the selfishness and self-indulgence that contributed to the rise not just of the Me Generation but also of a more enduring cult of the self, one that comported all too neatly with the dominant consumerist and therapeutic strains of our national (and then our increasingly global) culture.

This failure might properly be laid at the feet of middle-class boomers, the earliest and fullest beneficiaries of the postwar order, raised in the secure idyll of the fifties and early sixties, coming to think that anything or any experiment was possible, yet believing, far too uncritically,  that we would always have a secure and predictable world to return to if our experiments failed. I say this not in self-loathing or in disparagement of the good that came out of the pushing, testing, and venturing—including the contributions to the long-overdue victories in civil rights for people long denied those rights—but in honest reckoning with the harms that were done through the excesses of so much heedless thinking and doing, heedless, above all, of how so much self-indulgence might give rise to a culture of self-indulgence, and of the harms that such a culture might inflict on the larger—and not so privileged—society.

Those harms have come to roost, in the growing fragility of institutions, families, and communities, and in the loss of faith in the values that shore up such institutions. As we lost a sense of the importance of human ties, first in our families and communities and then in our nation, and as this loss engendered a further decline of confidence in the world beyond our own individual heads, the nation’s leaders and elites came to be viewed as what Daniel Bell called “a class apart,” out of touch with their fellow citizens, out to serve their own interests above all others.  (The growing suspicions of these elites and the meritocratic system that creates them is the subject of the forthcoming summer issue of THR, “Meritocracy and Its Discontents.”)

Throughout an increasingly fractured nation—and not just America, but other Western nations—too many citizens felt that they were being left behind, left out, even cast aside, in the name of a booming global prosperity from which only the privileged elites were benefiting. If the postwar order was only a neoliberal construct built upon technocratic schemes to maximize free trade and commerce to increase productivity and growth—and, above all, to increase the wealth and privilege of the cosmopolitan elite at the top the global casino economy—then were resentment, distrust, and fear not bound to be the eventual and growing consequences?

This, I realize, is far too sketchy an account of our failings, of why we have come to such a scary pass in modern history, when gaping social and economic divisions are not just weakening trust  within nations but also destroying comity and aggravating tensions among them. My account only gestures toward the deepest cultural failing: namely, the erosion and neglect of beliefs and ideals (including the very idea of truth) that sustain our institutions, from the most intimate and local to the most distant and global. The price of ignoring that cultural failing—not only for the world our parents left to us but for the one we hope to leave to our children—is far too great to imagine. But the signs and warnings should be clear.

Jay Tolson is editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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Lessons from the Ring—Then and Now

Photograph by Mike Powell, Allsport Concepts; Getty Images.

Photograph by Mike Powell, Allsport Concepts; Getty Images.

Years ago, I had the honor of interviewing David Mamet, who, in addition to being a fine playwright, is a longtime practitioner of the martial arts. After our conversation, I asked him to give me one piece of advice I might pass along to my students. He said, “Tell them to pick some physical art—ballet, boxing, judo, yoga, whatever—and to stick with it. It will make them feel grounded and better able to deal with adversity and rejection in this world.” By moving your body in a certain way, he was saying, you will shape the way you feel and who you are.

Philosophy professors (including me) assume that we learn to negotiate these things only by reflecting on them. It is as though we have become oblivious to the lessons we can learn on the path leading from the body to the brain. Once, I confided about an emotional problem to a yoga teacher. She replied, “The answer to the problem is just to breathe.” At the time, I was deeply and rather unreflectively committed to the belief that it is only by thinking that we can solve problems. The yoga teacher’s words awakened me to something I should have known already.

After all, I had been training boxers for decades, learning and imparting some of the lessons Carlo Rotella writes about so eloquently in Cut Time: An Education at the Fights:

The deeper you go into the fights, the more you may discover about things that would seem at first blush to have nothing to do with boxing. Lessons in spacing and leverage, or in holding part of oneself in reserve even when hotly engaged, are lessons not only in how one boxer reckons with another but also in how one person reckons with another. The fights teach many such lessons…about getting hurt and getting old, about distance and intimacy…boxing conducts an endless workshop in the teaching and learning of knowledge with consequences.

In the sweat-and-blood parlor of the boxing ring, young people deal with feelings they seldom get controlled practice with, such as anxiety and anger. And make no mistake—the kind of people we become is largely determined by the way we negotiate those dreadnought emotions. Continue reading

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Two Cultures, At Least

Imposición del Birrete doctoral Universidad Complutense (Anonymous), via Wikimedia Commons.

Imposición del Birrete doctoral Universidad Complutense (Anonymous), via Wikimedia Commons.

Earlier this year, connoisseurs of higher-education horror stories were introduced to Simon Newman, the erstwhile president of Mount St. Mary’s University. Descending on this small, Catholic liberal-arts college from the world of private equity, Newman made a few things clear: It was too Catholic and too “liberal arts.” He referred to some students as “Catholic jihadis” and—according to one tenured faculty member he’d fired—proclaimed that “Catholic doesn’t sell, liberal arts doesn’t sell.”

That’s not why Simon Newman made the news. He landed there because he’d tried to weed out students who could turn out to be low-performers—before those students had a chance to perform well or badly. Because Newman illustrated his thinking by comparing students to bunnies that needed to be killed, and because he responded to public criticism by firing tenured faculty, he found himself national news.

How does a small Catholic liberal-arts school end up with someone so unsuited to its particular mission? Why was someone from the world of private equity presumed to be so immediately suitable to the task? The answer lies in the kind of people who made up the board of Mount St. Mary’s. They, too, came from that kind of world. It is, to them, the real world of sensible people. Less important: Catholic education, the institution of tenure, the mission of a liberal-arts college, or the obligations an institution has toward struggling students.

But it’s also a truism, even to people who disapprove of Newman’s actions, that his is the real world of sensible people—that (as a friend said to me while the story was unfolding) in dismissing liberal-arts education, Newman wasn’t saying anything untrue. Even if the liberal arts (or tenure, or Catholic education, or students) are the important things, they can’t survive on their own. They require a sensible overseer. And that overseer cannot come from within the university. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: June 3, 2016

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“In Between Daze,” Michelle Dean
“I thought writing for a living would be a racket, and I’d be paid to pick out good art and go to parties, but since then I’ve learned it’s the art people who have the real scam going.”

“Gawker Smeared Me, and Yet I Stand With It,” Stephen Marche
“Such childish hostility notwithstanding, I believe that Gawker serves an essential function in a celebrity-obsessed culture, and if it were to disappear the world would be poorer and the cause of journalistic truth would be damaged.”

“Comfort and Joy,” Rohan Maitzen
“It’s hard to know how (or even whether) to try to tackle the larger problem. But one thing we can do—those of us who want a better conversation about romance—is, bit by bit, to correct the ‘error’ Regis identifies: to meet sweeping generalizations with specifics, looking not at “the romance novel,” but at particular romance novels.”

“Love on the Run,” Terry Castle
“The Highsmithian lover becomes that crazy-making contradiction: both the criminal genius and the doomed malefactor—ecstatic rebel and cast-off, terrified child.”

“Antiheroic Feminism: An Interview with ‘UnREAL’ Co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro,” Karen Tongson
“And that’s the thing I was trying to say about reality TV and its effect on the world. Sure, shows like that feel like a guilty pleasure. They even feel like fun. But when you start ripping people apart that way, you’re eventually going to turn that lens on yourself.”

“The Sun Is Always Shining In Modern Christian Pop,” Leah Libresco
“I took a look at the last five years of Billboard’s year-end top 50 Christian songs to see whether Christian pop is unrelentingly cheerful. I looked at pairs of concepts across the entire collection of lyrics (life and death, grace and sin, etc.) and calculated the ratio of positive to negative words. For every pair I checked, positive words were far more common than negative ones.”

Hedgehogs abroad:

“Nadar’s highs and lows,” Leann Davis Alspaugh
“Although Eduardo Cadava’s introduction to this first-ever complete English translation of Quand j’étais photographe positions Nadar’s photography as a form of mourning, the subject himself refuses to take this line.”

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The Hedgehog’s Array: May 20, 2016

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Noteworthy reads from the past (few) week(s):

“The Delightful Language of Commencement”
“Do these speakers, from such disparate backgrounds, have anything in common when it comes to giving advice to youth (or the confused at heart)?”

“Living Things,” Sarah Marshall
“More than evil, more then fury, more than any dark force beyond the human, Jeffrey Dahmer’s life seems to have been marked by an unbearable loneliness.”

“Expert Textpert,” James Ley
“A frank exchange of views ensued, during which it transpired that our dining companion held eminently practical opinions on all manner of topics. These included a general disdain for the various academic disciplines that fall under the rubric ‘humanities’, an unshakeable belief in the virtues of trickle-down economics, and a strong disinclination to educate poor people.”

“Sexual Freelancing in the Gig Economy,” Moira Weigel
“If you want to understand why ‘Netflix and chill’ has replaced dinner and a movie, you need to look at how people work. Today, people are constantly told that we must be flexible and adaptable in order to succeed. Is it surprising that these values are reshaping how many of us approach sex and love?”

“‘Writing Is an Act of Pride’: A Conversation with Elena Ferrante”
“And I’m talking about the past, about what we generally call tradition; I’m talking about all those others who were once in the world and who have acted or who now act through us. Our entire body, like it or not, enacts a stunning resurrection of the dead just as we advance toward our own death. We are, as you say, interconnected.”

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Brain Talk in the Age of Enlightenment

An MRI machine. liz west via Flickr.

A MRI machine. liz west via Flickr.

A new brain book has arrived on my doorstep, this one titled How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation, by Andrew Newberg, MD, and Mark Robert Waldman. The authors promise to “describe what happens in the brain as people work and move toward enlightenment” and to reveal “how the critical elements of enlightenment are reflected in different brain processes.” For this task, they explore the brain scans of psychic mediums, Sufi mystics, monks, nuns, and Pentecostals who speak in tongues. Newberg, who says he has been “mapping the neural correlates of spiritual experiences for nearly three decades,” also shares details about his own life-transforming experience and even provides functional neuroimages (fMRI) scans of his brain taken while he was contemplating “Infinite Doubt,” which is a lot of doubt. “The imaging results,” he reports, “were quite amazing.”

How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain is another installment in the burgeoning genre of “brain-training” self-help books that explore the “political,” “creative,” “loving,” “ravenous,” or just fill-in-the-blank brain. We are told that neuroscientists can explain why breaking up is hard to do, why some people are more empathetic than others, and why multitasking is actually counterproductive. Whole social categories have different brains, including teenagers, criminals, and the addicted. And now we know that they can even tell us how to gain enlightenment. Continue reading

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Neither Hero nor Villain

Uber and taxi. Núcleo Editorial via Flickr.

Uber and taxi. Núcleo Editorial via Flickr.

On April 21, the ride-sharing service Uber reached a settlement in two class action lawsuits over the classification of its drivers as independent contractors as opposed to employees. The bottom line: Uber’s drivers (whom they call “driver-partners”) will remain independent contractors and so will not receive the minimum wage, health benefits, or other traditional workplace protections.

However, the drivers in California and Massachusetts—the two states where the lawsuits were filed—will each receive a small pay-out ($100 million to 385,000 plaintiffs). Uber will now support drivers’ associations, groups that bring together otherwise atomized workers to discuss common issues. And Uber has also promised increased transparency surrounding the ways drivers are rated by passengers and the ways the company “deactivates” the accounts of drivers.

Is this a victory or a loss for the drivers? A lot depends on how you look at Uber, which has, over the past five years, come to symbolize both the promise and the peril that the future offers workers. The service combines the seemingly magic operations of complex algorithms, the widespread use of smartphones, the promise of flexibility for workers, and a brazen disregard for existing regulations. There’s something there for everyone to fear—or praise. Remember Jeb Bush’s use of the service while campaigning in San Francisco this past summer? For a brief moment, the company became a “lightning rod” issue in the 2016 election, and unlike many issues, the dividing lines between candidates weren’t very clear: Is Uber part of a wave of services that are undoing the social contract between employers and their workers? Or is the “1099-economy,” in which more workers become independent contractors, a boon to individual entrepreneurship? Continue reading

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Which Religious-Liberty Protections Mean
Something? A Question for Jonathan Merritt

Protesters at the Moral March on Raleigh (February 13, 2016). Susan Melkisethian via flickr.

Protesters at the Moral March on Raleigh (February 13, 2016). Susan Melkisethian via flickr.

Although I admire Jonathan Merritt’s religion writing a great deal, I was disappointed with his latest Atlantic piece, “Religious-Liberty Laws That Have No Meaning.” Merritt takes conservatives to task for recent state-level legislation that purports to protect either religious liberty or bathroom safety at a cost to sexual minorities. His immediate targets are recent laws in Tennessee (aimed at protecting medical professionals who object to gay marriage and non-marital sex on conscience grounds) and North Carolina (requiring transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to gender given on their birth certificate).

Merritt argues that laws of this nature are driven by conservative “fear” and reflect efforts to “‘solve’ non-existent problems.” Neither law is particularly well-written, and the North Carolina law in particular reflects partisan politics (for example, it also prevents cities from enacting minimum wages higher than the state’s). Nevertheless, I worry that Merritt’s withering critique has perhaps unwittingly contributed to a certain kind of progressive narrative as ungrounded as the conservative one that he critiques.

When it comes to understanding clashes between religious liberty and the rights of sexual minorities, there is no one “conservative narrative” and no one “progressive narrative.” For the purposes of this discussion, however, we can talk about a “fear narrative” pushed by some conservatives and a “bigotry narrative” pushed by some progressives.

The fear narrative rallies its base in much the way that Merritt describes: by promoting anxiety and mistrust in reaction to progressive causes, especially those involving sexual minorities. The bigotry narrative is similarly indiscriminate: It views traditional religious beliefs about sexuality as rooted only in animus.

Merritt does a good job critiquing the fear narrative, including highlighting the misguided legislative effort in Tennessee to declare the Bible the official state book. (That might have been a nice gesture in 1816; it makes no legal or cultural sense in 2016.) I also share Merritt’s views about North Carolina lawmakers’ approach to bathrooms. The sexual predator trope advanced by the fear narrative is as galling as it is ungrounded, and that kind of rhetoric does real harm to real people. Continue reading

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