Librarian of the Internet. Collector of Stories.
3028 stories

What is America?

1 Share

What is America? The question has been asked endlessly. And I’m not going to answer it here. Asking “what is America?” is like asking “what is liberalism” or “what is an apple?” On first glance, it seems simple. But then you start asking questions and thinking about all the different avenues one might take in answering it: the chemical makeup of the apple; all the different sizes, shapes, and flavors possible; its genealogy and history; who first discovered the apple and who modified them later on to make them taste like gummy bears; or what apples mean in the context of your life or mine.

I’m inclined to take the easy way out and say America is the whole of whatever anybody says about it, with some restrictions. You can’t say America is the moon, but there are a ton of things you can say about it that would fly. Alasdair MacIntyre once said that a tradition includes arguments about the tradition, and counterarguments to that argument, and counterarguments to that counterargument, and so on, ad infinitum. But can you say America is, by and large, a racist country? Can you say the United States was founded on the principles of freedom and equality, full stop? The debate over the “soul” of America rages on with no end in sight. Every day some new book hot off the press tries to prove what America was in order to show what it is. There is something to the idea that if we can just figure out what we were we might figure out what we are—and then, the most important part of the equation, how to move forward from here. But much of the time it just seems like one group of people yelling at the other, “You’re an alcoholic, don’t you see?!”

Richard Rorty once wrote:

Nobody knows what it would be like to try to be objective when attempting to decide what one’s country really is, what its history really means, any more than when answering the question of who one really is oneself, what one’s individual past really adds up to. We raise questions about our individual or national identity as part of the process of deciding what we will do next, what we will try to become.[1]

Most narratives about what America was or is are political points wearing the mask of historic objectivity. The reason we’ve had a hurricane of scholarship and writing about how America is and always has been a racist, sexist, imperialistic sham is because those people think that doing the work of demystification will lead to better political clarity in the here and now. That we will come to see that just as it was possible to “hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes,” so too we might be missing things in our current moment, preaching the gospel of freedom and equality from the pulpit of someone else’s back.

The reason defenders of the U.S. and its place in Western Civilization push back so hard against these narratives is that they sincerely believe that freedom and equality are not things we should throw out with the bathwater of how freedom and equality actually played out on the ground—which was a story of unfreedom and inequality for most people throughout most of U.S. history. From this vantage point, it really doesn’t seem like the two sides disagree all that much. One side wants freedom for all but for real this time; the other thinks the Enlightenment dream of equality and freedom for all is a noble pursuit. Perhaps they disagree about the means.

Recently I reread an exchange between Howard Zinn and Sidney Hook on the question, “How democratic is America?” Although the two duked it out in the late 1980s, the issues it addresses—the status of minorities, the distribution of resources, freedom of expression, the role of the citizen in the political process, American history—continue to be debated. Zinn runs through a list of ten questions we ought to ask ourselves:

  1. To what extent can various people in the society participate in those decisions which affect their lives: decisions in the political process and decisions in the economic structure?
  2. As a corollary of the above: do people have equal access to the information which they need to make important decisions?
  3. Are the members of the society equally protected on matters of life and death — in the most literal sense of that phrase?
  4. Is there equality before the law: police, courts, the judicial process — as well as equality with the law-enforcing institutions, so as to safeguard equally everyone’s person, and his freedom from interference by others and by the government?
  5. Is there equality in the distribution of available resources: those economic goods necessary for health, life, recreation, leisure, growth?
  6. Is there equal access to education, to knowledge and training, so as to enable persons in the society to live their lives as fully as possible, to enlarge their range of possibilities?
  7. Is there freedom of expression on all matters, and equally for all, to communicate with other members of the society?
  8. Is there freedom for individuality in private life, in sexual relations, family relations, the right of privacy?
  9. To minimize regulation: do education and the culture in general foster a spirit of cooperation and amity to sustain the above conditions?
  10. As a final safety feature: is there opportunity to protest, to disobey the laws, when the foregoing objectives are being lost — as a way of restoring them?[2]

Unsurprisingly then, Zinn thinks that if we’re being honest with ourselves, and measuring America up against not our past but an ideal democratic situation, we have to answer in the negative to all of these questions. The refrain is familiar: Man only ever sheds one set of chains to be replaced another, slightly more comfortable set. But, alas, they are still chains.

Hook finds most of this to be nonsense, though no apologist for the status quo. Part of the reason Zinn thinks we ought to answer “no” to these questions is the fact that answering yes, or even a halfhearted “sorta,” he thinks will lead straight to complacency. Even if the logic is fuzzy, it’s not hard to see why he thinks this. Many who proudly flaunt the ideals and accomplishments of Western Civilization and the United States are often found ripping into progressives for trifling with freedom and equality, or for wanting to try and fix what is so clearly not broken. “We are living in the greatest time in all of human history,” we are told with little idea of what we’re supposed to do with this fact, “our poor are much better off. So hush now.” I understand where Zinn is coming from: I, too, refrain from singing the praises of Western Civ too often to people who I know are nearly destined to misinterpret both what I’m saying and where my praise fits in a larger, critical picture. But Hook will have none of this; acknowledging the great strides we’ve made doesn’t lead to complacency but quite the opposite: “it shows that progress is possible, and encourages us to exert our efforts in the same direction if we regard the direction as desirable.”[3]

Hook tries to walk a line many can’t even seem to find these days: the line between an exhausting national self-loathing and a delusional national pride; between drowning in a seas of facts and drowning in a sea of empty principles. The two sides feed off of each other: the more one side points to their respective sources the more the other side points to theirs, be it the sins of the past or the peculiarity (dare I say, exceptionalism) of our American foundations. The result is a stalemate; as MacIntyre says of all traditions, it is a conflict of narratives; the question of American identity, forever to be fought over and to which we now return: Who are we?

[1]Rorty, Richard, Achieving Our Country
[2] Hook, Sidney, Convictions. Prometheus Books , 1990, 217-218.
[3] Hook, Sidney, Convictions.


Featured image is Election Day 1815 , by John Lewis Krimmel

Read the whole story
1 day ago
New York, NY
Share this story

Fertile Functioning, the Market, and Economic Growth

1 Share

Relatively free and open markets have always accompanied liberal societies, and they have been most thoroughly suppressed by some of the most illiberal regimes. But the historical connection between liberal democracies and markets seems stronger than the theoretical connection, at least at first glance. Political liberalism builds in part upon the brute fact of deep, intractable disagreement among citizens about what society should look like. While my own vision of the good society is a thriving, cosmopolitan commercial republic aimed more or less explicitly at ever escalating economic prosperity, that vision is by no means universal, even among political liberals. In liberal democracies economic growth is often assumed to be a desirable and legitimate objective of policymakers, but is this not just a mere partisan preference?

Liberal socialism is a perfectly coherent concept: moderate socialist policies such as high taxes, government provision of education and healthcare, and worker ownership of significant segments of the economy are adopted for the sake of achieving the liberal aims of individual development and social peace. Liberal luminaries such John Stuart Mill and John Dewey advocated such regimes, and John Rawls thought liberal socialism was as legitimate as his preferred property-owning democracy. (Philosophers named John agree …) The liberal socialist desire to circumscribe markets may or may not be accompanied by a desire to constrain economic growth.

Certain environmentalists may affirm liberal principles but believe economic growth is fundamentally unsustainable given the damage done to the planet and to its various ecosystems. They thus insist that economic growth must be severely curtailed or even reversed. Likewise some religious reasoning regards economic growth as crass materialism that is damaging to the soul. Even if some of these perspectives aren’t fully liberal in that they seek to impose their standards on others without trying to appeal to broadly acceptable reasons, they are often “liberal enough.” Exponents of these views abide by democratic norms and are peaceful while out of power; there is no paradox of tolerating the intolerant. A liberal—and therefore diverse—society will have to contend with these and similar growth skeptics.

Given their relative controversy, do markets and economic growth have any claim to a privileged place in the liberal order? Like freedom of religion and speech, does the market institution, regulated at least in part so as to promote economic growth, deserve special priority among partisan perspectives and constitutional protection against antagonistic democratic majorities? In this essay I’ll defend the claim that such priority and protection are warranted on a pluralistic view of the human good (and the bad). Markets oriented toward growth are essential for fostering the conditions within which individuals can make lives for themselves. Effective access to growth-oriented market institutions qualifies as a fertile functioning, a kind of seed capability that tends to facilitate other valuable functionings.

Fertile functionings

The language of “functionings” is characteristic of the capabilities approach, a liberal theory that focuses on the individual’s effective ability to achieve the purposes that individual has reason to value. A “capability” refers to the ability to actualize a functioning, leaving open the possibility that an individual may with valid reason prefer to forego some functioning. The “effective” refers to capabilities within the person’s social context, and not just to formally enumerated rights; it refers to positive as well as negative freedom. It is a liberal theory in that the locus of value rests on the individual (rather than the group or gods) and the good is left to each individual to determine, within the limit of all individuals being accorded some critical level of human functioning. Capabilities liberalism is well-suited to accommodate socialist, feminist, and racial critiques as it allows ample room for social, economic, and political power in analyzing the effectiveness of capabilities.

Just as different worldviews offer different conceptions of the good, they also offer different ideas about the bad: What obstacles get in the way of living well? In Disadvantage, philosophers Avner de-Shalit and Jonathan Wolff develop a pluralistic theory of these obstacles, or disadvantages, beginning with common sense intuitions and adapting these in response to interviews with both social workers and individuals intuitively classified as disadvantaged. What they glean from the interplay of observation and theory is that disadvantages cluster, and some disadvantages are not only bad in themselves but tend to lead to other kinds of disadvantage. They call these corrosive disadvantages. An example of this is homelessness. Lacking shelter of course is its own kind of fundamental deficiency, but homelessness directly leads to other disadvantages. One cannot easily get a job or open a bank account without an address. Basic hygiene and access to utilities is made much more difficult. Homelessness is stigmatized, leading both to potential mental health problems and a frayed social network. And given vagrancy regulations, in many cases it’s difficult to live on the right side of the law as a homeless person.

The opposite of a corrosive disadvantage is a fertile functioning, some achieved functioning that facilitates the development of other important capabilities and functionings. An example used in the book is social affiliation. Affiliation—having friends and loved ones and being part of a community—has obvious intrinsic value. Many of our most important projects involve nurturing relationships with others, be they romantic partners, parents, children or lifelong friends, and we often define significant aspects of our identity as the communities we belong to. Being part of a social network also leads instrumentally to other advantages. It is a ready-made social safety net: in case of an emergency such as a sudden medical condition or loss of a job, home, or vehicle, one can turn to family for support, whether financial, moral—shoulders to cry on—or practical. Friends are often relied upon for smaller needs. The social safety net of affiliation is active as well as passive: a well-affiliated elderly person, for example, is more likely to be checked up on regularly by friends and family members. Affiliation can be a source of self-esteem. “[T]he disadvantaged who still feel affiliated take heart from feeling they are needed, respected, wanted, and from belonging itself.” [Disadvantage p139] Finally, a social network also presents opportunities, whether for work or diversion.

Economic growth as a Crusonia plant

The Economist Tyler Cowen has likened economic growth to a “Crusonia plant,”

a mythical, automatically growing crop which creates more output each period. If you lay the seeds the plant just grows and you don’t have to water it or tend to it. Imagine for instance an apple tree, which each year yields some apples. The tree also produces apple seeds. The apple seeds germinate and there is a steady and indeed growing supply of new apples and also of new apple trees, albeit based on some sun and some rain. A Crusonia plant, measured in terms of its ability to produce apples, might grow five percent each year on net. At the same time, it looks like a modest apple tree, and it does not appear to resolve key ethical and political questions.


[I] see the Crusonia plant as an entry point for resolving aggregation problems. A Crusonia plant would be better than a plant which dies after one month and leaves no successors, even if this short-lived plant were quite lovely or brilliant. We could compare two plants in terms of various qualities, such as their color or their scent, but after a while the unceasing free yield of the Crusonia plant has to prove better. At some point the sheer accretion of value, from the ongoing growth of the Crusonia plant, dominates the comparison between the two plants. We thus have a principle of both ethics and prudence: when in doubt choose the Crusonia plant.


Economists cite the concept of gross domestic product (gdp) to refer to the total value of goods and services produced over some period of time, usually a year or a quarter. The rate of economic growth is then the rate at which gdp increases. As I will use the concept, maximizing the long run rate of economic growth refers to gross domestic product as it should be understood properly and not as it is currently measured by most governments. “Wealth Plus,” if I may use that term to refer to the accumulated gains from growth, accounts for leisure time, household production (valuable activities you do at home for free, whether mending socks or using Facebook), and environmental amenities, among other adjustments. Current gdp statistics have a bias towards what can be measured easily and relatively precisely, rather than focusing on what contributes to welfare. [Stubborn Attachments]*

The creation of wealth in some sense just is the creation of more possibilities for the same amount of labor and resources in society. With economic growth—hereafter referring to growth of Wealth Plus, however we wish to define it, and not economic growth as currently officially measured—individuals secure their basic functionings through less total labor and have additional resources and leisure to pursue projects and activities, both personal and social. Innovation, meanwhile, can expand even the kinds of projects we may pursue in addition to our ability to pursue them.

Cowen’s Wealth Plus is explicitly a kind of value pluralism, and is purposefully left incompletely defined. It can be rendered in the language of capabilities, where economic output is apportioned into constituent quality of life elements. An important feature of Cowen’s Crusonia plant—economic growth—is its incorporation of time, and especially long time horizons. We might surmise that institutions that foster economic growth may increase material inequality, but they could make the difference between achieving, say, Star Trek-level capabilities in a few hundred versus a few thousand years, with all the visceral differences this would make in the lives of countless thinking, feeling, and imagining human beings in the meantime.

But we mustn’t carry this too far. Wealth Plus rightly incorporates political, social, and environmental stability. Material and political inequality—in addition to the various ways in which they are either intrinsically unjust or derive from injustice—will always threaten to degrade the very political and economic institutions that encourage economic growth. One of the purposes of talking about Wealth Plus rather than GDP as currently measured is to deny “growth at all costs” market fundamentalism while still advocating for the ethical importance of sustained economic growth.

The dramatic expansion of human capabilities that accompanies economic growth suitably defined, especially over long time horizons, suggests a similarity with fertile functionings. But there are disanalogies. Growth is aggregate, whereas capabilities attach to the individual. The benefits of economic growth can skip over marginalized persons. Or worse, economic growth can be extracted from exploited labor. Even if slavery was not necessary to achieve modern economic growth, for example, it remains the case that slavery did contribute to modern economic growth. Exploitation—work or exchange where one party lacks agency—stifles the capabilities of the exploited victims even as it enhances the material position of the exploiters. Instead of aggregate growth, we should think of access to growth-oriented institutions as the valuable capability for individuals, and as a fertile functioning.

Access to growth-oriented institutions, like well-regulated labor and financial markets, must be effective. That is, merely living in a society with a growing economy doesn’t count as access if your own community is “under-banked” or deprived of entrepreneurial or career opportunities, as is the case in certain communities of color in the United States. Likewise, as with many capabilities, effective access means one has sufficient education and the socio-economic means to make use of such institutions.

Having effective access to high quality economic institutions is arguably a fertile functioning at the purely individual level, in that being able to build one’s own wealth provides security, independence, the psychological benefits of productive work, the direct means to achieving other important functionings with greater ease, as well as opportunities for affiliation and social interaction. Building one’s own wealth amid a prospering community and broader society, meanwhile, multiplies these effects. But from the perspective of the liberal policymaker, the real fertility of economic capability arises in securing such access broadly and sustainably, to achieve the Crusonia-like exponentiation of human capabilities.

These considerations do not invalidate the beliefs and practices of individuals and groups who criticize pervasive commerce and relentless economic growth and seek to limit their exposure to the same. But it is the nature of a diverse, liberal society that coordination on social rules must inevitably marginalize some conceptions of the good in case of conflict. The liberal institutions that foster economic growth—understood in the context of Wealth Plus and in light of the logic of fertile functionings—deserve their privileged place in liberal theory and practice.

*I read Stubborn Attachments on pdf and unfortunately cannot cite pages accurately.

Featured image is  Eight Landscape and Flower Paintings , by Wang Xuehao.

Read the whole story
4 days ago
New York, NY
Share this story

My Dad and Me, Part 8

1 Share

Judith Rich Harris, R.I.P.

The vast experience of human existence teaches us that the environment of a child doesn’t really matter very much when it comes to healthy outcomes. Genetics, in fact, do. This indisputable fact overturned the world of developmental psychology (both the Freud and B.F. Skinner schools), the problem becoming especially acute when Judith Rich Harris published her challenge to the college textbook industry with “Where Is the Child’s Environment? A Group Socialization Theory of Development” (Psychological Review 102, 1995).

The kerfuffle which followed has produced a healthy body of literature, in which the facts bore out the challenge: parents aren’t that important when it comes to healthy outcomes of their children. Genetics, in fact, are. Behavioral genetics grew as a discipline and now holds the field in developmental psychology. It seems rather apparent, then, that genetics determines the relationship my dad had with me. Genetics was the determining factor in my grandfather’s response to his experiences in Cullman, in World War I, at SMU, in Memphis, in Tupelo, back in Cullman, and down on the farm above the bluffs, where he clutched a jug of Wildcat Whiskey and fathered as many children as he could, seeding the world with himself.

Except that’s not quite how Judith Rich Harris argues.

(It’s true: I’ve set up a bit of a straw man. Let’s knock it down together.)

Genetics is important in the development of a child, very important. Parents are important, though less so than genetics. But what Harris discovered, or uncovered, is that same-sex peer groups are the most important factor in the health of the development of the child. Hence “Group Socialization.” Healthy peer groups (defined) during childhood produce healthy adults (defined). Qualifiers, caveats, and cautions abound in the vast body of literature (not that I claim any expertise in it), but that’s about it.


In this part (Part 8) of the exploration of Family Systems Theory through the relationship my dad had with me, my remarks will be wandering around the concept of determination.

My dad was perpetually trying to escape, but he found himself within the same kind of emotional network throughout his life. Indeed, it seemed whenever he might actually escape into a realm of contentment, he moved back into a predicament not unlike the old homeplace in Alabama. Was he genetically determined to do so? More to the point: am I?

For a thought exercise, I try to take the morphine addiction away from my grandfather, leaving in place all his experiences leading up to that trauma, which includes the actual physical wound, an emotional trauma itself, as well as the morbid nightmare of having been ambushed and being buried under a pile of his comrades’ bodies. Wouldn’t his life essentially play out the same? Same loss of faith (which itself questions Harris and Behavioral Genetics), same divorce, same post-traumatic stress, same accident in Memphis, same accident in Tupelo, same self-medication, the old brown jug.

I’ve had occasion to review certain traumatic events in my life, both from my childhood and from more recently, and I come to a conclusion, that, even if I knew then what I know now, I would respond and react similarly. I notice, however, that I keep mentioning circumstances. Genetics have nothing to do with circumstances, so I wonder (by leap of logic) what the limits of Behavioral Genetics are.


Bowdlerized, for example, Behavioral Genetics says, “Shucks, about 60% of personality is bound to genetics. Ten percent is bound to parental guidance in the home environment, which leaves about 30% for same-sex peer groups.” Now, the bogeyman of Behavioral Genetics is Freud the Fraud, and then again, by extension, the pseudo-discipline which creates helicopter parents and destroys fun playgrounds, so all the energy of the literature is dissipated in that direction. Read another way, however, genetics shapes only 60% of behavior and personality. The idea that parents can influence behavior and personality as much as 10% is astounding, considering the nature of the rest of the world, whose numbers must be nearly 100% genetics. Further, that nature left 30% up to peer groups: thirty percent! Well, enough said, don’t you think?

The apple does not fall far from the tree until it is picked up and thrown.

It is interesting, is it not, that my grandfather came back home, after it all, and my dad never did.


It is true: in many ways my dad was determined to bring the old homeplace wherever he was. On one rainy day we were driving along through Appalachia, looking for graveyards, and my dad, wistful, pointed to a pasture. “See all those weeds? My father would have had a fit, a fit, son, if any neighbor of his had let his pasture come to that.” I looked to where he was pointing. I saw a perfectly ordinary pasture, resting under a rocky mountain, where cattle were grazing in a light rain, a perfectly idyllic scene. Dad continued, “When we were kids, on rainy days like this Daddy would make us go out into the pasture to pull up all the thistles and milkweed, so that the pasture would be nothing but grass.”

Imagine his obsession with weeds in the garden or in the lawn. My, the anxiety!

My mom, who was raised in post-war Germany, was nothing short of a domestic perfectionist herself. Early in their marriage (and also my childhood), she used to harangue my dad about hanging his pants over various pieces of furniture throughout the house. Finally, he looked up at her from where he was sitting, put the newspaper down, and said, “How about I just put a nail in the wall and hang my pants there?”

Yes, a strange bundle of perfectionistic contradictions, my dad. The same was true, however, of Christmas (described in Part 6, “Eruptions of Joy“), so one must work to sift determination to discern what might be good from what might be bad, and also what might just be so.


When I’d get mad at Deb about something or other, I had a habit of saying, to get my way, “It’s the principle of the thing. The principle is bound to the universal.” Complete poppycock, and I knew it, but I was trying to win, and it was a pretty good move for a while, until Deb said, after the thing argued about crumbled into utter ruin after I’d gotten my way, “Well, it was the principle of the thing, after all…”

The principle of the thing was in no way bound to the universal (it might have been, but that wasn’t the point); it was bound to my father’s loins, carried from his father’s, and probably from his father’s, until the point immemorial when the behavior first expressed itself genetically, perhaps when my ancestor Charles fought against the British in the American War for Independence, not for the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, but because George III was not his king; he was a usurper to the throne, a Protestant (spits), so Charles Duke fought under the French flag, winning property for his ancestors which stretches all down the eastern slopes of southern Appalachia.

It was the principle of the thing, along with the circumstances of the American War for Independence.

My ancestors pressed on southward and westward, using the mountains as a shield, until the American Civil War ended their hegemony, my immediate ancestors being forced out of Georgia and into Alabama and points west by Sherman’s conflagrations. Yet it was in their genetics to move, adopting the pioneer spirit to found something commercial or academic, and so they did keep moving and founding. My grandfather, under possession of the demon drink, returned home, against his nature. My dad, under possession of the nightmares of my grandfather, left home, but never really left. And here I am, in Tonawanda, raising four boys, saying to them, out of envy, “Stay here. Stay in Buffalo. Let’s take care of each other, shall we? Let’s put down roots.”


My wife once encouraged me to put my office in the main part of the house so that I could study and correspond in the midst of the family, being a fatherly presence throughout the day. There was a moment of crisis. “Your filing system is just stacks on your desk,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “If it’s not out, I forget about it. So I stack things in separate piles, working through each pile.”

About three weeks later, she moved me back into my hovel downstairs in the basement.

Did I mention in Part 7? Our 23rd Anniversary is in May 2019.

Read the whole story
4 days ago
New York, NY
Share this story

[Review] The Promised Neverland – Episode 1

1 Share

What’s it about? Emma, Ray and Norman live with their siblings at the Grace Field House orphanage. Their lives are happy, and they love their mother Isabella very much. Every day they take tests and play tag while waiting to be adopted, and there is a gate in the forest they must never ever go […]

The post [Review] The Promised Neverland – Episode 1 appeared first on ANIME FEMINIST.

Read the whole story
10 days ago
New York, NY
Share this story

My Dad and Me, Part 7

1 Share


Just about any endeavor to define clinically something which exists solely in the emotional world results in not-a-definition, jargon from nether regions of psychology and sociology creating a thin, unsatisfying soup. It’s an irony, to me, since anxiety is the most common thing in the world, akin to the elixir of the gods, the most common element of the heart in the same sense water is the most common element in the natural world, and just as versatile, whose function covers every range of good and evil, both in motivation and in outcome. Anxiety is what makes the world go ’round.

Defining By Narrative

1. My best friend, Chris Thoma, when he was a senior in college, and I was a junior, said, “If you don’t ask her out, I will.” The lady in question was freshman named Deb. A pretty, late-blooming, innocent-eyed dove from from the Upper Midwest, she had just broken up with her first boyfriend. The mass of campus males stirred at the news. I thought I had been the only one stalking her. We all shared the same problem: timing. How long should we wait before the rebound period would be over? Is the rebound boyfriend in a position of advantage or disadvantage? Does one risk the prejudicial rejection because of premature…discourse? Or does one risk the prejudicial rejection because the early bird was in advance and got the worm?

“If you don’t ask her out, then I will.” I hastily left his dorm room, where we were playing guitar and watching Beavis and Butthead together, went to the bathroom, threw up, went to my dorm room, panicked, picked up the phone, dialed the number, and asked for Barb.

“There’s no Barb here,” Deb said.

“Barb Jee-oh?” I asked, dying inside, a flop sweat making the phone slippery.

“G-I-O-E is pronounced ‘Joy,'” she said. “And my name is Deb.”

Over the summer she sent me cookies. In November I asked her to marry me. We have four boys and a house in Tonawanda, almost twenty-three years blissfully married.


May 2017

2. A fictionalized true story:

Blake, a middle-aged veteran of the first war in Iraq, found himself limping twenty years later from a wound he received in the war. Veterans Affairs took their time assigning him proper care, during which time his wound grew worse, which triggered a little bit of that ubiquitous post-traumatic stress, which, in turn, triggered some bad habits with alcohol and marijuana.

Marie, his middle-aged wife of many long-suffering years, was watching herself grow old in the mirror he held up to her in his eyes day-by-day, as he sat in front of the television, disabled and on disability. When he spoke, he spoke only of the pain or of those associated with the pain. In other words, he whined. The pilot light, all that was left of their passion for each other, went out.

Her maidenhood was distant in the past, but she was not willing to let it expire completely in Blake’s lap as he was unable to stand erect out of his rickety reclining easy chair. Therefore, she got herself a job in a stockroom, where she got herself a boyfriend, with whom she enjoyed life in the backseat of a car, in clandestine meetings at his apartment while his old lady was out, and at perfectly awful motels. After a time of it, she told Blake.

Blake rose from his rickety reclining easy chair, picked up a hammer, and drove to the other man’s house.


3. When I was four years old, my dad had squeezed blood from rocks and founded a Lutheran congregation in southwestern Louisiana. It was a true miracle, and (if I remember correctly) when the brick building was dedicated, there was much rejoicing. The first Christmas there would prove to be an event of which the angels themselves would sing as though Christ himself had found this place worthy instead of the stable in Bethlehem. The thing was going off with resplendent beauty which was increasing throughout every practice, in which I dutifully practiced singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” over the manger for weeks on end. Christmas Eve was at hand.

While still at home on that fateful Eve, I felt the anxiety rise—these forty-one years later I recall the feeling perfectly—and I expressed quite plainly that I did not desire to attend that evening’s festivities. I was convinced by the responses to my pleas that I was unheard. The pastor, you see, was preoccupied with the Big Event. And who can blame him?

In the car I began to cry, mostly to myself, being reassured by my mother that my favorite Sunday School teacher would be sure to bring me through whatever troubles may come. It was kind of my dear mother, but she had not addressed the actual problem, that is, I would be singing in front of multitudes of hordes, and with a spotlight on me!

At the door (it was dark out), I fell to the ground, whereupon my dad yanked me up by the wrist with one hand, and in a single motion with the other hand, unbuckled and slid off his belt, proceeding to belt me with it in front of the church door, God, and all the parishioners who were arriving. Thus I was cured of my anxiety.

When the time came, I stood silently with my two coeval angels and beloved Sunday School teacher, and I did not sing. My mother was delighted and told me the story for years.

This one is tricky, with anxiety all over the place. One quickly forgives my dad, a thirtysomething leader of a brand-new community born of his own sweat, especially when one remembers a) this is 1977 and b) this is the deepest Deep South there is.

He still shouldn’t have done it, but he was impelled.


Now, I use the word “impel” an awful lot to describe anxiety, the causation aspect of anxiety, and I think I’ve created an idiosyncratic use of the word. It’s a choice out of negation, to be sure: I want to avoid the idea of compulsion, which is associated with anxiety, and is also a causing-force from within, but I think compulsion brings to mind lack of control, lack of insight, lack of thought or forethought; I also mean to avoid the idea of complete externality, in which the experience of anxiety is entirely reactive to outside forces. Impel, on the other hand, with impulsion and impulsive capture the whole experience. Impulses are forces from within, yet certainly concerned with externalities, both in the reactionary sense and also proactivity.


4. My oldest son shot out of the womb with an aggressive interest in electrical engineering. By the time he was four, he knew the function of every switch, knob, lever, pull-chain, rheostat, outlet, socket, and receptacle in the house. He had a habit of waking up at odd hours to delight himself unplugging all our appliances and lamps. He continually reset the water filter timer in our refrigerator. He was a menace to everything which gave light or motion. The point finally arrived where we stopped hovering over him, resigning ourselves to his inevitable electrocution, watching him with one eye while we went about something resembling a normal daily life. He did not cease plugging, unplugging, and flipping switches.

Our neighbor invited us over for a little Christmas cheer, and within minutes, the boy had grown comfortable with the new environment, and while Deb and I continued chatting amicably, keeping one eye on our li’l engineer, he unplugged a minor appliance. Our neighbor leaped from his seat. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” he cried out. With a gallant effort he plucked the boy from his place near the outlet and delivered him over to Deb’s lap. “I’m not one to handle someone’s child,” he said apologetically, “but I really didn’t want him to get himself hurt.”

Deb and I smiled and explained. We all had a good laugh, but our neighbor kept a wary eye on our son.

With this irrepressible curiosity about things electrical came also some behavioral…concerns (shall we say), and we thought it would be a good idea to see a family counselor and therapist. I must admit I found the tall, heavy, darkly bearded, Jewish figure of a man rather imposing, so I blurted out, “Our son is possessed by anxiety.” I told him the story of our neighbor’s house.

“Sounds like he doesn’t have enough anxiety,” he responded. Thus began a wonderful decade with a wonderful counselor.

dukefamily2007december 005

That kid, circa 2007, aged 4 years, will rewire your house, whether you want it or not.

5. I saw this one just today: I assumed my place in line at JoAnn Fabrics (I needed a length of tan muslin) behind a tall man of African descent in his late 20s. In front of him was an equally tall, pleasantly pretty Caucasian woman in her late 30s. In his hand was what I would describe as fabric for traditional sub-Saharan African clothing or decoration. In her basket was a wide variety of fabric. I sensed the tall man looking at my muslin. I was looking at my phone, not judging, not judging at all, just checking my fantasy lineup for the evening.

He looked at her basket. A minute passed. Another minute passed. The line was not moving and I had to use the bathroom. The tall man cleared his throat quite gently, saying to the tall woman in a very low voice, “Excuse me, but what caused you to start sewing?” His accent was foreign, perhaps African, perhaps Caribbean. His voice drew my attention, and I looked up just in time to see her face change from morbid boredom to a broad, beautiful smile which lifted her entire countenance. That entire corner of the store suddenly brightened a bit, as if a little sunshine has escaped from his evening cradle and was lost in our midst.

“I made a New Year Resolution—I am a runner, you see, and I hurt myself, so I took up sewing my own clothes to keep myself occupied—I made a New Year Resolution to sew all my clothes this year.”

The tall man was entranced, and he asked many questions which revealed that he was about to make his first attempt at sewing his own clothing.

“Ball,” she said, at the last. “The author’s name is Ball. I checked out her sewing book from the library so many times I finally bought it.”


That should do it for a definition of anxiety.

Read the whole story
15 days ago
New York, NY
Share this story

Play, the Antidote to Populism

1 Share

A common complaint in our era of global populism is that certain politicians are making a mockery of our institutions. Don’t they realize politics is more than just a game? They should take politics seriously and stop playing.

Any observer of politics can sympathize with this complaint. But what if it gets the diagnosis exactly backwards? What if the problem of populism is that we’ve stopped treating politics like a game?

Huizinga and the First Populist Wave

Johan Huizinga was a Dutch historian whose career was overshadowed by two world wars and brought to an end in 1945 shortly after being released from a Nazi detention camp, just a few weeks before the end of the war. Prior to the wars, he wrote wide-ranging histories of the art, aesthetics, and culture of both India and medieval Europe.

However, as Europe of the early 20th century began to be pulled simultaneously rightward and leftward by populist and authoritarian ideologies, Huizinga found that his earlier work provided a vantage point from which to resist. His most famous work is Homo Ludens – “Man the Player” – subtitled A Study of the Play Element in Culture. This book, originally published in 1938, was ostensibly a history and philosophy of play. In 1944, however, while in a Nazi detention camp, he published a second edition that concluded with a foundational critique of the mindset underlying authoritarian populism. By taking politics too seriously, he argued, statesmen of his time had lost a sense of fair play.

Culture as Play

Huizinga’s argument in Homo Ludens is that culture is irreducibly playful, and that play suffuses nearly all social activity. If this seems like a strange claim, consider what he identifies as the core characteristics of play:

  1. Play is localized. “It is ‘played out’ within certain limits of time and place.” No particular game is all-encompassing; it has a beginning and an end, both temporally and spatially.
  2. Play is rule-bound. Here Huizinga anticipates Searle’s notion of constitutive rules. The game is defined by a certain set of arbitrary rules, which are kept for the pure sake of playing the game.
  3. Play is fun. “The purposes it serves are external to immediate material interests or the individual satis¬faction of biological needs.” We play because we like to do it, not because we have to.
  4. Play is competitive. The player’s social status is at stake. There can be prizes and penalties for winning and losing – even death, as Huizinga describes in his discussion of the Fatal Riddle motif – and such games can be played “in profound seriousness”. Nevertheless, prizes and penalties are less significant in themselves than as tokens of having won or lost. That the main prize concerns status rather than material or economic necessity ensures that the rules are kept for the game’s sake. Nobody respects a spoilsport, after all.

These characteristics should map immediately onto our commonsense notion of play. But notice that they map just as well onto a great deal of social life. Through successive chapters, Huizinga discusses the play element in law, war, myth, science, poetry, philosophy, and art. Each of these domains is defined by arbitrary rules defining the parameters of competition. Each bestows status upon those who most deftly outmaneuver their opponents within those parameters.

Why is it important that humans are innately playful? As I’ve argued elsewhere, if humans were solely concerned with their material self-interest, society wouldn’t be possible. A striking result from modern game theory is that humans who live together in groups larger than about five will never find it in their immediate self-interest to contribute to common projects like infrastructure, or governance, and so on. Rules can help, but what selfish person would be willing to follow a rule that makes him worse off? What selfish person would be willing to expend effort to enforce rules?

So, human society and culture bootstrap onto a primordial and pre-rational impulse for fair play – that is, to abide by the rules for the pure sake of playing the game. The fact that humans care about what others think of them, and expend a great deal of effort to compete for status, isn’t just phoniness, as the Holden Caulfields of the world might want to believe. On the contrary, it’s the thing that motivates us, first of all, to play by the rules of whatever game we’re in, and second, to sanction those who don’t. In other words, it’s the very thing that makes society and culture possible in the first place.

Huizinga versus Carl Schmitt

From this it follows that a society that ceases to care how it looks – a society more interested in the prize of a contest than the accolades – will soon enough cast off the institutions that make society possible. This is the core of Huizinga’s critique of Carl Schmitt, the German jurist whose political writings were used by the architects of National Socialism to legitimize their approach to politics.

According to Schmitt, the state of nature between political groups is one of irreducible conflict: total war – whether latent or overt – is the only ultimate rule of human social life. Alliances are made purely for the sake of expediency, and a political body should never consider itself bound to act in ways detrimental to its immediate self-interest. The function of politics is to distinguish between friends and foes, and the political body should only care about its standing among other groups to the extent that doing so furthers its own goals.

Huizinga did not mince words about this outlook. “I know of no sadder or deeper fall from human reason,” he says, “than Schmitt’s barbarous and pathetic delusion about the friend-foe principle.” Against Schmitt’s conception of competition as total war, Huizinga notes that international law descended from mediaeval codes of chivalry, which were deeply playful in their sportiveness. There were rules of honor and fair play in war, and violating one’s honor was often regarded as a worse fate than losing a battle, or even dying.

War today is no longer the “sport of kings” that it was in the medieval era, but even so Huizinga held out hope for a return to playfulness in war. Only this way can mankind “transcend that pitiable friend-foe relationship [and] enter into the dignity of man’s estate.” In the decades since his death, the world did indeed swing back to a more Huizingan understanding. After two devastating world wars in which the spirit of play seemed to have been entirely submerged by Schmittian total war, it was the atom bomb that seems to have impressed again upon political and military leaders the necessity of fair play in war; that certain violations of honor are worse than losing the battle.

The difference of outlook between Schmitt and Huizinga, however, extends far beyond the domain of war, into the entire domain of play under freely accepted rules, which – if we follow Huizinga – encompasses nearly all of human social life. If a willingness to be bound to rules for their own sake is what makes society possible, Schmitt’s philosophy is profoundly antisocial in the broadest possible sense. To flout the rules of a game, to consider one’s self unbound by one’s promises, makes one a spoilsport, and “the cheat or the spoilsport shatters civilization itself.”

Politics and Play in Contemporary America

If war has become more Huizingan since 1945, domestic politics in America by contrast have taken on an increasingly Schmittian tenor over the past decade. Rules are frequently changed by parties in power for short-term political gain. has floated court-packing to prevent a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Many Democrats want to abolish the electoral college, or to grant statehood to Washington, D.C. or Puerto Rico, in order to secure more stable majorities. Republicans, for their part, have changed Senate rules in order to pass nominees, gerrymandered legislative districts in order to maintain majorities, and cast doubt on the legitimacy of unfavorable elections.

Tactics like these indicate the failure of the limitation and localization of the political game. “The club [i.e. an area in which a game is played] is a very ancient institution,” Huizinga notes, “but it is a disaster when whole nations turn into clubs.” A game that encompasses one’s entire life, a national game that crowds out other associations – these quickly take on the tenor of a Schmittian struggle, where playing dirty is a necessity, rather than a competitive game.

For this reason, the elevation of politics to an all-encompassing game vitiates its play character entirely. When the prize of politics – legislative or electoral victory – becomes sufficiently high stakes, politicians, pundits, and voters prefer the prize to fair play.

This can be seen most clearly in the energy devoted in the past decade to identity politics. There can be no humor, no detachment when oppression is on the line. Everything is political – a common identitarian refrain that could have come straight from Schmitt. If the game is all-encompassing, it is no game at all. Indeed, humor and detachment are expressions of contemptible privilege. As so many critiques of ‘civility’ in politics have made clear, the identitarian left is far too invested in the prize of political goals to be able to commit to fair play. “It is the decay of humor that kills,” and we should be wary of too-convenient excuses to spoil the game.

The alt-right, on the other hand, might seem to embody play in a darker sense. Trolling, ironic edginess, and mockery all exude non-seriousness. But just as Huizinga is careful to emphasize that play does not exclude seriousness, it is also true that non-seriousness does not indicate play. Someone who mocks the game of chess is not playing chess, even if he seems more jovial than the player being mocked. Play is not, in the end, simply a matter of having a good time: it is a matter of taking the rules for granted.

Reviving the Sense of Play

Huizinga, perhaps with rose-colored glasses, wrote in 1944 that “there is a great deal that is endearing in American politics, something naïve and spontaneous for which we look in vain in the dragoonings and drillings, or worse, of the contemporary European scene.” If our loss of the play spirit is at the root of today’s populism and polarization, what can be done to restore it?

Simply recognizing the problem is a good first step. The toxicity of spoilsport ideologies, ideologies that refuse to legitimize rules that don’t benefit their own interests, cannot be overstated. Whether in religious, political, or some other form, they elevate the mid-level ideological faction at the expense of both the broader social body above it, as well as (as Jonathan Haidt has argued) the individual below it. Play, undertaken in social settings where rules of fair play are both voluntarily adhered to and enforced, is crucial both for individual fulfillment and for societal stability. This consonance, mediated through the play instinct, is precisely what it means to say that, as Aristotle noted long ago, “man is by nature a social animal.” Realization of this fact may be sufficient to pull some back from the brink.

In the end, however, the continuation of a game – whether basketball or society – depends on mechanisms for ejecting spoilsports and cheaters. Ironically, recognition of this fact brings Huizinga rather close to a different Schmittian concept, the exception, where the normal rules must be suspended in an emergency (which we may interpret in Huizinga’s language as a spoliation of the game). The only tool a game has to enforce its rules is other rules, which can also be broken. In order to deal with cheaters, therefore, the players must exit the game, if only temporarily. A foul in basketball is penalized by a free throw, but a failure to allow the other team a free throw spoils the game entirely, and can only be dealt with outside the parameters of the game itself.

This is the gist of what has recently been popularized as the Paradox of Tolerance, that a tolerant society must not tolerate the intolerant. But casting it in terms of play illuminates the broader principle, and highlights some common misuses. It is not intolerance as such that cannot be tolerated, except to the extent that tolerance is a rule of the game of liberal society, but spoilsport ideologies, which refuse to abide by common rules except at their own convenience.

There is, of course, the danger that the measures taken to deal with spoilsports will also be used to suppress legitimate ideological competitors within a liberal society. This danger is greatest when the boundaries of the game are unclear. How are we to know who is cheating, and who is simply competing? Answering this question for a liberal society is the very purpose of a constitution, a question made all the more difficult when the rules are contestable and in flux.

Perhaps, therefore, the wane of originalist jurisprudence has led straightforwardly to our present situation. Without a sense of fair political play within defined parameters, accepted arbitrarily and for their own sake, it becomes impossible to distinguish the political competitor from the political spoilsport. If the rules are flexible enough be reinterpreted for political expediency, who’s to say which party is responsible for the increasing disregard for America’s (or anyone else’s) political institutions? If the boundaries between the game and the rest of one’s life are blurred, it’s not even clear when we’ve exited the game, or when it would be legitimate to do so. Small wonder that politics should be high-stakes and cutthroat under such circumstances!

By contrast, politics can be cooperative and productive when its scope as a proportion of mental energy is limited. Huizinga reports that for a period in England, “the spirit of fellowship would allow the bitterest opponents a friendly chat even after the most virulent debate.” Both there and here, “there can be no doubt that it is just this play-element that keeps parliamentary life healthy.” The play element, in turn, is nourished by clear and legitimate rules, and by limiting the time and mind-space occupied by politics.

Populism is a deadening of the play spirit, a symptom of a political game that has overgrown its legitimate boundaries and spilled over into a high-stakes no-holds-barred struggle rather than a friendly-but-serious competition. When political rules are not regarded as matter of life and death, when they are not in fact a matter of life and death, and when they are treated as ends in themselves rather than as vehicles for advancing factional interests, only then can we hope to reclaim the proper humor, the playfulness, of political competition.


Featured image is The Chess Players , by Thomas Eakins

Read the whole story
16 days ago
New York, NY
Share this story
Next Page of Stories