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Where Are the Bread Lines?

If there’s one mimetic image of the Great Depression, it’s unemployed men standing in endless bread lines.

Those men didn’t have to worry about standing six feet apart, but what’s economically different now? There have been some stories and images of people lining up for food aid, but it hasn’t been as pervasive as in 1931–1933, despite roughly comparable unemployment. (Which, it’s always worth noting, doesn’t count those not looking for work nor the underemployed.)

Broadly speaking, this downturn has two different and divergent images: “essential workers” carrying on as ever, and the rest of society eating carry-out on the couch with Zoom and Netflix.

If we care to see it, that’s a clear look at the shadow side of the culture we’ve built:

  • It’s more possible to be more alone more of the time. The image of cities is the couch-bound Millennial, not the tenement.
  • From fashion to food to entertainment, we’ve made an absurd amount of good-enough options absurdly affordable.
  • We’ve made work much less visible at every step of the chain. People who work with their fingertips have found it’s just about as easy to do that from home as from the office. And, with the touch of a finger, they can send another person out for food, delivery, or whatever else feels essential at the moment.

Just as a few families sent two successive generations off to war while the rest of the country stopped paying attention to a faraway tragedy, we’ve now made it easy and acceptable for some to risk dying of boredom while others risk their lives to deliver food to the bored.

Today’s breadlines are inside Whole Foods. I’m not so sure that’s really progress. In fact, it might be holding progress back, since it’s much easier to ignore.

“Carthago Delenda Est”

Carthago delenda est — Carthage must be destroyed.”

Cato the Censor was famous for ending all of his speeches to the Roman Senate with this phrase (or a variant) in the lead-up to the Third Punic War (149–146 BC). He pushed and he pushed, and eventually he got what he wanted.

As we all know and are (painfully) re-learning daily, a statement repeated strongly enough for long enough may come to be taken seriously.

From Reagan forward (depending on how you count), the Republican Party’s message has included the idea that the federal government must be destroyed. Hence the ever more cynical show of politicians running like hell against Washington in order to keep their seats inside the Beltway.

Small wonder, after all those years, that people began to take it seriously. The Tea Party, of course, popularized the notion; the McCain-Palin ticket of 2008 embodied it and showed just how far inside the unironic outsiders had made it.

A dozen years later, we still don’t know just how ironic the message is in its chief standard bearer — only that he’s been exceptionally effective in waging a punic war on the government. And the next generation of suited insiders and camo-swathed outsiders appear, if anything, more serious still.

Moving from critiquing to censoring might feel like a small step at first. But once you take it, you’ve put up the bat signal for anyone who has a beef (real or imagined) with whatever or whomever you’re censoring.

Don’t be surprised when they answer the invitation you’ve been making all along.

Who We Might Have Been

Yesterday, Steve Pressfield wrote an extraordinary post about how we are both the selves of our everyday lives, and the selves we could be if only we could realize them — and how what stands between the two is Resistance.

The framing might be a little dualistic, but the insights and the questions are real.

Why is everyone so freaked out and ticked off? Probably because the systems we have aren’t working, we all know it, and we can’t seem to look at our failures or dream up better ways.

Playing by the rules in the United States today means working like crazy to “win” at the Common App roulette; in order to start life an average of about $33,000 in debt; only to graduate into the world of the $34,000 wedding, an inaccessible housing market, and the wealthcare system.

And that’s if you’re privileged enough to be able to enter that race to begin with, which an awful lot of people are not.

That’s not winning, and we all know it.

So where can we go from here? Assuming we can hang together long enough to begin to turn things around, I’m reminded of the old Zen parable in which a series of “happy” and “unhappy” events befall a farmer, and he responds to each of them by saying merely, “we’ll see.”

There’s a chance — not a certainty, by any means, but a chance nonetheless — that we begin to turn. That we recognize ecological suicide for what it is. That we re-subordinate the economy to the culture. That we demand and practice a politics rooted in the idea that we’re all in this together and for the long haul.

There’ll be plenty of Resistance along that road, that’s for sure. But we could do it, right?

We’ll see.

The Return of History

Lest there was any lingering doubt, history has returned — with a vengeance, and with new challenges that will surely test us as people, as countries, and as a species in ways we’ve never been tested before.

The post-World War II version of normal was an aberration: with unprecedented peace, growth, and stability, it’s understandable that people could have jumped to all sorts of conclusions about, say, economics, politics, war, or the United States and its place in the world.

Though we haven’t seen a pandemic in over a century, this might not be the last one in our lifetimes. And we’re already seeing drastic climate damage, unprecedented economic changes, and the beginnings of what looks to be a very poorly thought-through great-power competition.

When we can’t see around the corner of the next week or month or decade, what sort of leaders should we be looking for?

It seems the only way forward is to elevate those who have an appropriate respect for tradition combined with a high tolerance for ambiguity and innovation. And all of that needs to be couched in a strong respect for the rule of law and the power of example.

A rare combination, to be sure, but we’re going to be all out of Boomer candidates pretty soon. That’s as good a chance as any to re-examine what we’re looking for in the leaders who’ll have to deal with the world the outgoing (and going, and going) generation has made.

TMI

Over the weekend, I had a chance to talk with a teenager about her experience of this election season.

On the one hand, I was really impressed: she’s paying attention, knows the issues, has clearly thought-out positions, and talked about others’ positions with a level of empathy that I often struggle to muster.

On the other hand, I can’t imagine what this is like for teenagers now, and told her so. Though I’d say most of my classmates agreed on specific policy choices, especially the invasion of Iraq, I didn’t think of any of them in strictly partisan terms. And a little bit of The Daily Show was as edgy as our mimetic political commentary got: there was no constant immersion in (mis)information and everybody else’s individual opinions.

Both sides would probably agree, on some level, that leadership matters: as social animals, we look to people in positions of power, and we pay very close attention to the words they use. We can’t help it.

Whether or not teenagers should be on Snap is not a debate I’m eager to enter. But we can control the influence coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and I’m definitely in favor of leadership that helps explain the world to kids, rather than leaders (and a world) we have to explain to kids.

Times and standards have definitely changed, but we all know baseline truthfulness and decency when we see them. At that level, oceans of information and continents of commentary are all gloss on the essence of a person and his or her actions.

Marking Time

Much that appears suddenly happens slowly.

The United States has now spent the first fifth of the 21st century more or less acting drunk. And although we were more or less welcomed back to our usual seat at the head of the table in 2008 — in spite of a ginned-up invasion, torture, mercenaries, and a financial crisis — the world started learning to hedge against us.

A dozen years, a handful of government shutdowns, and 200,000 Covid deaths later, it should come as no surprise that we’ve authored much of the instability we struggle to comprehend.

Twenty years is a long time to be out of ideas. The rest of the world is moving on — as best they can in the presence of a drunk uncle who could dynamite the whole party at any time.

[Assuming there is a 22nd century, I’m convinced two histories will be written: one will be a history of the nuclear presidency from Truman to Bush 41. The other will be a history of the post-Cold War nuclear presidency — the story of an institution entrusted with unprecedented powers to meet one threat becoming the prize of a process totally overwhelmed by internecine squabbles.]

Tread Lightly

Continuing the happy theme of recent weeks, the read of the week is the Atlantic‘s recent article on right-wing militias in the United States.

Although this got a quick media burst after “stand back and stand by,” it’s important to understand something of the history of this movement and some of its most influential groups.

Even this article is a little present-focused — but that makes sense given that it’s framed around the election. The two seasons of the Bundyville podcast go into far more detail on the origins and spread of the movement, as well which dots the militias are connecting and how to arrive at their worldview.

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Also worth reading is a rancher’s firsthand account of searching for his cattle after a wildfire ripped through his summer forest range.

Home Bias

When searching for historical analogies that might illuminate our current struggles, too many of us have too strong a tendency to look for U.S. examples.

Is this more like the Revolution, the Civil War, or Watergate? If we really want to be crass about it, Hitler will come up at one point or another.

This reinforces two easy misconceptions: (1) that our problems are completely novel, or (2) that any history we’re bound to repeat will be our own.

The “exceptional” narrative loves edge cases. But there are plenty of other examples of countries that slid into a more banal sort of permanent dysfunction.

We might want to start looking around.

Improvement by Subtraction

There’s a heuristic I enjoy playing with that asks, what if you could only subtract in order to solve problems?

We’re so conditioned to add: a new productivity routine, a new habit, a new car … yet we know from experience that acquisition rarely makes things better over the long term.

If you’re insufficiently excited about the upcoming election, consider this frame instead: even if you can’t see a way to get everything you want from a candidate, which one wouldn’t you vote for, if you were trying to remove the most problems?

Practical Advice

Two and a half years ago, I had the great joy of attending the On Being Gathering — a long weekend in the California redwoods with several hundred fascinating people.

What united that group was (and is) one of the big insights of On Being‘s founder and host, Krista Tippett: spiritual wisdom (from many traditions) is hardly irrelevant to modern times — in fact, it might be the most practical, present guidance we have.

I know I’m not the only one in my circles who’s both skeptical of institutional religion and eagerly seeking wisdom beyond the headlines. Walking in the gardens of the National Cathedral yesterday, I pondered why that might be. Here are some early hypotheses:

  • Other cultures in other times knew some important things that we have mostly or completely forgotten.
  • While we can’t ignore those cultures’ sins — the cathedral gardens consciously emulate those built and tended by serfs under the power of often-warped religious and political systems — we shouldn’t ignore their wisdom, either. A midday walk among manicured plants, subtle water features, and iconic statuary is not only a privilege but an exercise in nourishing and flourishing.
  • From the Founders’ references to “Divine Providence” to explicit mentions of (and fights over) religion today, U.S. politics have always looked beyond politics proper. Today, though, our politics are so poisoned that it’s frankly difficult to see a purely political way out — perhaps there is such a thing as purely secular forgiveness, but I suspect what’s really required of us now is better described in spiritual language. (Richard Rohr’s “include and transcend” phrase comes to mind.)
  • In short, the destruction, denigration, or denial of one’s neighbor is a (secular) political act. But if we are to remain united as a political community, we’re going to have to get over ourselves in a way that our sclerotic, spectacle-addicted, ad hominem political culture does not readily provide us good language for.

And so a show like On Being, or a sage like Martin Shaw, or a teacher like Howard Thurman might be exactly the right place to turn right now.

Or, as Martin Shaw says, the wisdom we need now might have showed up right on time, thousands of years ago. And walking in the garden or beside large bodies of water, or listening to music that moves us, or even just sitting quietly for a while, might be the most practical advice there is or ever was.