Sunday, November 29, 2020

Jack Kemp: "The Bleeding Heart Conservative"

In the early 1980s, my political coming-of-age coincided with the Reagan Era and the emergence, as well as eventual dominance in the GOP, of supply-side thinking. One of the earliest memories I have of being intrigued by a politician outside my electoral area was a key figure in those two historical events. Jack Kemp was the original compassionate conservative, long before the late 90s led George W Bush to both need and smoothly co-opt the qualifier. And in 1987-88 when I was becoming politically active and ready to participate and vote in my first presidential election, Jack Kemp was the Republican who inspired and intrigued me. Jack Kemp was a man who preached and sought prosperity for all Americans, and truly pursued policies based on that idealistic, albeit somewhat naive, belief and plan. It was never about political power or winning elections or appealing to a segment of the electorate. Kemp was a true evangelist for the American Dream. Everything he did was about pursing the Kemp Doctrine: "upward mobility, economic opportunity, cultural diversity, and racial justice." He was a politician who was "principled, dynamic, positive, cheerful, inclusive, bipartisan, optimistic, unorthodox, disposed to compromise .... interested in ideas and action, not political tactics or personal attacks." Jack Kemp was an American. And we can use another Republican like him.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Oligarchy, Conservatism, & the Fading Sense of Community

Our community is not as strong, I fear, as it once was because our society is becoming less made up of communities. Two interesting columns in my paper this morning caught my eye -- the first was a piece on the economy from progressive writer Fared Manjoo who observes: Even in the Pandemic, the Billionaires are Winning. The sad irony of the contemporary economy is that amidst massive economic and public health losses due to the Covid-19 health crisis, the stock market continues to surge, and investors reap incredible financial gains. The Walmart trio has increased their own personal wealth  by a staggering $47 billion just since March when for most people the world fell apart. The CEO of Zoom has gone from a net worth of $1 billion to nearly $20 billion. And Jeff Bezos, the world's wealthiest man, has increased his fortune to $182 billion. Now, purely based on market forces and valuations, these people have not so radically improved the world, the economy, their product, the lives of millions, the benefits of their workers, or most notably, their communities. 

And that's just rather unseemly to me.

The other column catching my attention aligns with the increasing disappointment and utter bafflement at the workings of the GOP by those of us who might describe ourselves as conservative but not Republican. David Brooks, a never Trumper and a true Burkean conservative, opines about The Rotting of the Republican Mind. Brooks' criticisms, like those of people such as David French and Jay Nordinger, are focused on the moral and ethical capitulation of the contemporary GOP, a condition that writer and commentator of the tech revolution Kurt Anderson would hearken back to the 1980s, but that I would more link to the mid 90s and the rise of Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. Basically, the values of Burke and Kirk about the importance of stability in society based on moral principals and a shared sense of community have been abandoned for a political platform that is more around an agenda of "holding on to what's mine."

Granted, in a free, or more accurately, mixed-market capitalist system, the opportunity for the investor class to amass such wealth is certainly within their rights, so to speak. That doesn't, however, mean that they should with little regard to the system as a whole. I still hearken back to the Kempian idea of enterprise zones that would in theory help all boats rise. The current financial structure doesn't support that, and it exposes the flaw in Kemp's supply-side faith. He actually believed the suppliers would invest in the idea of broadening the prosperity and increasing the size of the pie. But that has not happened, and our communities have become increasingly stratified as wealth and power become increasingly concentrated in a oligarchic plutocracy.

What to do? You can’t argue people out of paranoia. If you try to point out factual errors, you only entrench false belief. The only solution is to reduce the distrust and anxiety that is the seedbed of this thinking. That can only be done first by contact, reducing the social chasm between the members of the epistemic regime and those who feel so alienated from it. And second, it can be done by policy, by making life more secure for those without a college degree.

Rebuilding trust is, obviously, the work of a generation.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Running is Good for your Knees

I've never understood or agreed with people who don't run because it "hurts the knees." Or worse, they don't run anymore because being a runner in high school and/or college "ruined their knees." If running hurts your knees, it's likely you're just doing it wrong. The "heel strike" is the primary cause of pain. Runners, true runners, run on the balls of their feet, and it's the quads and calf muscles that absorb the shock. Thus, the knee is not the target of force in running. Knees should have little to do with it. And, these days there is an ever-growing body of research that supports the idea that running is actually good for your knees. Gretchen Reynolds of the New York Times spotlights the research that speculates running not only won't ruin your knees but is actually good for them, including the idea that it may prompt cartilage self repair.

Could running actually be good for your knees?

That idea is at the heart of a fascinating new study of the differing effects of running and walking on the knee joint. Using motion capture and sophisticated computer modeling, the study confirms that running pummels knees more than walking does. But in the process, the authors conclude, running likely also fortifies and bulks up the cartilage, the rubbery tissue that cushions the ends of bones. The findings raise the beguiling possibility that, instead of harming knees, running might fortify them and help to stave off knee arthritis.

Monday, November 23, 2020

A Wonderful Little Piano Memoir

Sometimes reading about someone else's passion can be just the key to discovering your own. In what Publisher's Weekly calls "a warmhearted insight into a private Paris" an American expat writer Thad Carhart shares his rediscovery of the piano later in life and also provides a window on a side of Paris few outsiders will ever know. A year ago I purchased a keyboard after years of appreciating from afar the beauty of the only instrument that can also serve as a piece of fine art furnishing. Having grown up with a piano in the house but never having learned to play, I decided that as part of a desire to live more artfully, I wanted to learn to play. The piano instructor at my school gave me a few tips, handing me the introductory manual for his beginners piano class, and for the past year for maybe an hour a week, I have fooled around on the piano. Thad Carhart's beautiful gem of a memoir The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier has inspired me to continue my practice with the hopes of someday being able to fill my house with something approaching music. I really loved this little book as a meditation on art and life.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Somewhere Else & Back

In the summer after my college graduation, I interviewed for a teaching job at my former high school in the small town of Alton, IL, and then I promptly moved eight thousand miles across the world to teach English at a buxiban, or “cram school,” in Taipei, Taiwan. It was one of the boldest moves I ever took, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Of course, I had help in the choice, specifically because the young woman I was slowly falling in love with was heading to Taiwan to teach, and I didn’t really have any other plans. It was 1992, and English teaching jobs weren’t exactly falling into my lap, not that I was searching too diligently. The ‘91 recession and state spending cuts didn’t help either. And my wife’s former roommate, who was Taiwanese, was returning home to live with her parents and mentioned the idea of us teaching there. So, after a visit to the Educational Placement Office of the University of Illinois, where we found a rather basic flyer offering teaching positions in Taipei at the Hess Language School, Julie and I bought our tickets and boarded a plane. 

Since that time in Southeast Asia, the idea of moving abroad has been one of the most consistent pieces of advice and encouragement I give my students: go somewhere else for a little while. Take leave of your comfort zone and flee the familiar. Get out of your country; even if you love, leave it. This leap of faith may simply be a semester abroad during school, or it could be a work-study program or a job-swap. It might be a single gig for your company or a one-year appointment. Whatever it is, when the opportunity to travel is available, take it. My wife and I ended up staying in Taiwan for nearly five years, teaching and traveling the world. We went to Honk Kong for weekends, lived a month in a bungalow on the Greek isle of Paros, spent a week surfing and lounging on Bali, and got engaged in the botanical garden of Rome. Eventually, we moved back to the United States and lived a couple years in the city of Chicago, where she worked as a pastry chef and I taught middle school. Moving home after time abroad was so refreshing, and the Midwest became new again.

When we moved to Taiwan, one of the first books I read was Peter Mayle’s best-selling memoir A Year in Provence, in which he recounts moving to the south of France in his fifties. It was the perfect complement to our journey, a bemused and whimsical reflection on his decision to uproot himself and purchase an old house in the south of France. And about that time I was learning of others my age who were willing to travel for work and adventure. An old friend took a job out of college driving one of the Oscar Meyer Weiner-mobiles around the country, a year-long gig she parlayed into a job as entertainment guide and travel writer on a luxury cruise ship. She introduced me to a twenty-three old coworker who just happened to have “the greatest job ever” as the ship’s golf pro, which basically consisted of living for free while giving golf lessons at the ship's simulator and accompanying wealthy retirees for rounds at exclusive exotic resorts around the world. That gig might only be bested by news of an old fraternity buddy who took a job as a scuba instructor on a private resort island owned by a huge cruise ship company. Some friends spent summers working for the forestry industry planting saplings in Canada, and others camped and hiked around Alaska, supporting themselves in the salmon canneries. You can imagine which of these jobs was the least fulfilling but most memorable by smell alone. Last year I spent a couple weeks in Australia, exploring Sydney and the Gold Coast, visiting a friend who’d also said yes when his tech company asked him to move his family “Down Under” for a short-term assignment. In all, the people willing to take a chance on going somewhere else have almost always returned home with wonderful memories and few regrets about their decision to go somewhere else.

In an essay from his first book All I Need to Know about Life I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum wrote about lessons he’s learned from a lifetime on the move, having lived thirty-seven places in fifty-one years. In one of his many reflections, he described picking up a couple hitchhikers who were holding a sign “Somewhere Else and Back,” a slight twist on the discontented sign “Anywhere But Here” mentality he recalled from the Sixties. They told him they actually liked their home, but they just wanted to be “somewhere else for a while.” It’s not an uncommon feeling, Fulghum notes, for people throughout history. The nomadic itch has always been part of man’s collective DNA. For much of his later adult life, Fulghum and his wife have divided their time between a houseboat in Seattle and the island of Crete, and both places are equally home to him, albeit in different ways.

Granted, I know many of the stories I share seem to come with a bit of privilege. Many young people simply don’t have the option, opportunity, or luxury of uprooting themselves for a year or more of adventure. However, looking outside our comfort zone for opportunities is rarely bad advice, even if most people aren’t willing or able to take the chance. I grew up in southern Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi, and I knew of people who had never crossed the river into St. Louis. I’ve also lived for years in Denver, and I know of people who have never ventured the forty-minutes west into the Rocky Mountains. In reality, most Americans settle within twenty miles of where they grew up. And the idea of having roots and “staying put” as Scott Russell Sanders wrote is an admirable and perhaps even preferable mindset to the endless migration of people who Salman Rushdie said “root themselves in ideas rather than places” and who Pico Iyer called “global souls.” Certainly, settling down is a goal for most, for that’s how a house becomes a home, and our homes become communities. That said, I will still always recommend to my students the simple idea of “somewhere else” as a worthwhile destination.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Less Than Zero: A GenX Christmas Movie

 On November 6, 1987, just a few weeks after an epic stock market crash signifying the end of 80s consumer excess and portending darker more austere days to come, theaters premiered a flashy yet noir version of the teen film genre based on an even darker novel from a few years before. Less Than Zero, based on the Bret Easton Ellis book of the same name, was set in Beverly Hills where Yale student Clay comes home for the holidays. Set during the Christmas season, the film could aptly be viewed as a Christmas movie in the spirit of the hollow, empty materialism the day too often represents. This ain't a Hallmark film for sure. It is, however, "a very Gen X Christmas movie."

Here are some thoughts from my latest piece on Medium:

Thirty years ago, Clay came back to LA for Christmas, and the holiday movie was never the same. For Generation X, a group of people raised on disappointment, the cinematic version of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel Less Than Zero is a true Christmas movie exposing the hollow superficial excess of the holiday season and specifically the 1980s. A visually stunning film from cinematographer Edward Lachman, the movie captures and spotlights all the glitz of the holiday season, especially in Beverly Hills, while not looking away from the vacuous lack of substance behind the style, the holiday, and the state of the American family. Director Marek Kanievska created a haunting music video of a Christmas movie with film noir elements amidst the bright lights of holiday decorations.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Achieving at Grade Level

So, I was recently checking out some info on the site The 74 Million, an education-reform organization from former journalist Campbell Brown, and I noted a comment and raison d'etre from their About page:  " ... less than half of our students can read or do math at grade level." A comment and statistic like that would lead most people to conclude America's education system is a disastrous failure, which is a position and statement that I regularly scrutinize and challenge. Today we have access to more data on student achievement and schools than at any time in history, but it's important to "unpack the data," as the lingo goes. 

With the "less than half" comment in mind, I'm pondering what exactly we mean and think we know by the term "grade level." How does that term and association align with our understanding of statistics and averages? Is the term and the assessment tool used to determine it based on how the "average student" would achieve at that age/grade? Or is it the bare minimum that a student could achieve. The distinction between these terms would seem to be an integral and indispensable bit information in drawing conclusions about individual kids, school systems, and the entire idea of education and education reform. And I'm not sure we're all on the same page. 

Clearly, in most measuring situations, half of the data is above average (or the mean or the median ...) and half of the data is below average. Right? That is certainly true for cognitive tests. And obviously not all students are the same, with some performing below, some at, and some above average. In terms of grade level, which again is arbitrarily linked to age and assumptions about standards of development, the goal would seem to be that every student at a certain age must perform "at or above" grade level. Thus, there is no place for below average. 

So, how do we reconcile this? And how do we address shortcomings without falling into the whimsical description and expectation from Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where "all the children are above average"?

Saturday, November 7, 2020

November 7, 2020

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds ...” 

                                                          — A. Lincoln, Second Inaugural

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Am I My Brother's Keeper?: Classical Liberalism, Conservatives, & the Communities We Need for the Stability We Crave

"Am I my brother's keeper?"

So asked Cain of the Lord, and considering the tone of God's inquiry and the status of Cain as basically the world's first murderer and representation of man's inhumanity to man, the answer is, well, yes, you are and should have been. That idea of a responsibility to our neighbors and our community has been on my mind lately, especially as it can seem at times as if we are falling apart as a nation at the very time we should and must be coming together. Conservative writer David French is truly concerned about the division, and certainly the protests in the street coinciding with a president who publicly espouses a mistrust of the institutions he's sworn to protect give us reason to pause and even fret. On the other hand, I still ground myself in faith for the country and the communities in which we live. And it's the value and importance of community that French identifies as really the hope to avoid a dramatic and even violent split in our society. Edmund Burke, the founding father of conservatism, called these units of community "little platoons," the traditional structures of society to connect us and build stability through community.

It's in these communities that we will find hope. David Brooks' recently addressed the role we play in the lives of our neighbors in his column "Two Cheers for Liberalism." Much of what has been happening in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has destabilized and even decimated communities beginning with the family. From the marginalization of independent farms in rural American that practice the agrianism of people like writer and poet Wendell Berry to the dissolution of family neighborhoods in urban settings facing job losses that established a middle class living, we are as Charles Murray wrote "coming apart." From fading factory jobs to failing family farms, the instability in the economy has resulted in instability in the families and neighborhoods. Rampant drug use from the opioid epidemic in rural counties to the crack and meth problems ravaging the cities and suburbs, stability is at risk. Institutions create stability in society and the keys are the family, the church, the schools, and the local governments. That is why, as I tried to explain to an acquaintance recently, why she should pay taxes to support schools when she doesn't have kids in them. The stable community those schools provide benefits all of us.

The problem of a society and economy increasingly managed by companies like Google and Amazon is that while the profits benefit some, the net loss to communities exacerbates the problems we oppose and seek to mitigate. The self interest and monopolistic power of these companies have ultimately weakened the very communities which they claim as their consumers. Mike Rowe, a tireless advocate for the value of skilled labor, has pointed out that the tech industry creates millionaires among a select few who design the product, but that prosperity doesn't extend to those who build, transport, sell, and buy the products. A single fax machine is worthless with no one to connect to. That same idea can be extrapolated through so many of our innovations. The tech companies have similarly cannibalized the heart of the information industry that gave them so much of their content. 

Granted, I grew up as a Gen X conservative in the Reagan Era of the 1980s when we all learned "Greed is good," or so Gordon Gecko so glibly pontificated in Oliver Stone's 1987 film Wall Street. We are driven by self interest and that does create progress and growth in society. But understanding and believing in the opportunities provided by the system of mixed-market capitalism under which the United States has thrived for so long does not mean endorsing extremes of behavior and ideology that have come to dominate political discourse since the mid 1990s. So, as the country struggles with its belief systems and extreme views about where the nation is heading, it's important to remember the stability that this country, with very little disruption, has operated under for so many years and to reject that quip from William Buckley. Yes, Bill, extremism in the defense of liberty is a vice. It's exactly the idea of extremism and radicalism that conservatism opposed and exists to counter.

In outlining his political philosophy Edmund Burke strongly opposed the radical anarchy and social disorder of the French Revolution. Most people feel the same way -- we value our communities and a society in which we can live safely and get up each day with the opportunity to thrive based on our individual actions and characteristics. Basically, we want to get up in the morning and know that the lights will come on, and people will drive on the right side of the road.  From Burke to Kirk, the value of stability in society and the institutions which establish it and maintain it are the primary focus and building blocks of a conservative mindset and the common national identify that connects us as one nation.

Yes, we are our brother's keeper.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

November 4, 2020 & the Re-birth of the American Culture

As the United States of America prepares for a national vote in a couple days, I am holding to a positive and hopeful attitude about the election, the days after, and the future of the country and contemporary American society. Back on November 9, 2016 I wrote a blog post about an empty feeling of disappointment which I related to "the twilight of American culture," drawing from an essay and book by social critic Morris Berman. His description of the late 90s reflected a lack of faith in America's progress and potential, evoking a sense of despair about social issues of crime, education, public health, and economic opportunities. Berman felt the institutions of society had lost their ability to weave a common fabric of community and identity, and he believed it was up to individuals to maintain the positive culture in their daily lives because the national conversation offered little hope.   

My blog post and rather empty feeling four years ago was not at all about divisive politics. It was not about political platforms or parties or legislation or policies or court appointments -- it was about decorum and character and basic decency. And those values are what I am thinking about for November 4, 2020, with an eye toward a definitive commitment to a United States of America. With that in mind, I am reflecting back on the words of one of the truly greatest Americans in perhaps his most philosophically poignant and beautiful speeches. I'm talking of Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address during which he sought unity for a divided nation urging all Americans to act "with malice toward none, with charity for all."  Perhaps no more important words were ever spoken about the important task " ... to bind up the nation's wounds." To do so will require us to hearken back to words from Lincoln's first inaugural address when he urged us to follow "the better angels of our nature."

"With malice toward none; with charity for all" we have hope and faith in the shared national identity that is e pluribus unum: We are all Americans. We are today on November 1 and we will still be on November 4.