Monday, June 20, 2011

How We Piss Each Other Off

I don't think I've ever read anything by Robert Morrison before. But today my favorite sites were full of links to heartwarming remembrances of fathers, and one of them led me to this article of Mr. Morrison's. Much of it shares the way that his father managed to embody some of the best attributes of a father, managing to be both a role model and a friend. Here's a good sample:
My dad was a carpenter and he left the house every morning before dawn. The good part of that is that he would often return in the late afternoon. I can remember as a little boy of nine or ten wrestling with “Pop” on the TV room floor when he came home. He was still sweaty and often had sawdust in his hair and on his clothes.
Nice, comforting stuff on a day that we're meant to think of our dads, to honor their virtues, to do something for them. But then, after recalling a moment when his father stood up for him, Morrison concludes:
We kids grew up feeling safe, protected in our tender years. One of George Washington’s great contemporaries, Edmund Burke, wrote of something called “the cheap defense of nations.” Fathers in the home were surely a part of that cheap defense. Without fathers in the home, there won’t be enough money in the U.S. treasury or all the treasuries in the world to guard the young against bullying.

New York State, my home state, is on the verge of abolishing fathers in the home. They say they are only “re-defining” marriage. They’re not. They are ending it. And with the end of marriage, will come the dissolution of the state. Gone will be the cheap defense of nations. And no one will know what it means “to sleep with my fathers.”
Is there any logical connection between the sentiment at the beginning of the first paragraph and where Morrison ends up? (Go read the article if you think I'm leaving something out. I'm not.) Now, I know what he's getting at: New York is trying to pass a law recognizing same-sex marriage--a fact which is never actually mentioned in the article--and many conservatives feel this will lead to a sustained assault on traditional marriage and the values that underpin it. But how in the heck does this article effectively make the case that this is so?

Morrison paints a moving, emotional portrait of his strong, reliable father, and then asserts out of nowhere that such men will be driven out of existence if gay marriage becomes a legal reality. Really? So Morrison's carpenter father, in a world where people of the same sex can legally wed, would have become and effeminate, uncaring, unreliable disgrace to fatherhood?

I've written previously that I think the state has no business licensing romantic relationships between individuals. If marriage isn't in some fundamental way about procreation, and thus bringing up the next generation of citizens, then marriage should be removed from the legal system and defined by the religious institutions that marry people. But I get the counter-argument of Morrison and those who think like him: traditional, procreative marriage is a cornerstone of civilization, and pulling it out could cause profound social disruption and decay. But even in that grim scenario, men like Morrison's father should still be able to act out the role God and nature have defined for them.

But aside from disagreeing with Morrison's point, I believe writing of the type I linked to causes a further breakdown of the already disastrous debate between left and right in this country. If a gay-marriage advocate reads that article, there is no chance they'll find it thought provoking or convincing. Instead, it will piss them off every which way, and some of them will probably write pieces stating that everyone against gay marriage is a secret theocrat who wants to force Christian beliefs on everyone. And that, in turn, will lead to more angry arguments from the other side.

The gay marriage debate is not one where people seem inclined to compromise. But a little temperance when speaking and writing, especially from traditional-marriage supporters who are supposed to be the defenders of a more refined, civilized point of view, would be a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Stay Tuned!

I know my posting has been a little light lately, and I apologize (I have a lengthy number on David Brooks just below to make up for it.) Things are happening, people! First, my wife and I just moved into our new home this weekend, and are still digging out from a small landslide's worth of cardboard boxes and bubble wrap. We're also waiting for our Internet hookup.

Second, I will be starting a new job in a few weeks, at Google. I'll provide more details after it starts, but it should be pretty exciting.

And finally, and most thrilling, we're now only weeks away from the anticipated arrival of our son.

So I can't promise a lot of posting in the next few months, and what does go up could be more incoherent than usual, but I promise that Sketches of Tomorrow will keep chugging on. In fact, I'll make a vow: if I go more than 15 days without posting in the next six months, anyone who comments on this post can slap me in the face with a trout. I'll even provide the trout. (Is this a brazen attempt to elicit a comment? Of course!)

At any rate, please keep checking back.

David Brooks, the Tea Party, and Our Political Future

I am a David Brooks fan. I have pimped his new book, The Social Animal, like it was a 19 year-old crack addict from a broken home. At one point, I owned work and home copies of Bobos in Paradise. And I completely agree with his latest column on the sad state of our political parties and leadership heading into the next election:
Voters are certainly aware of the scope of the challenges before them. Their pessimism and anxiety does not just reflect the ebb and flow of the business cycle, but is deeper and more pervasive. Trust in institutions is at historic lows. Large majorities think the country is on the wrong track, and have for years. Large pluralities believe their children will have fewer opportunities than they do.

Voters are in the market for new movements and new combinations, yet the two parties have grown more rigid.
As a diagnosis of our current predicament, this is about as good as it gets. And I would endorse most of his proposed solutions, too:
This reinvigoration package would have four baskets. There would be an entitlement reform package designed to redistribute money from health care and the elderly toward innovation and the young. Unless we get health care inflation under control by replacing the perverse fee-for-service incentive structure, there will be no money for anything else.

There would be a targeted working-class basket: early childhood education, technical education, community colleges, an infrastructure bank, asset distribution to help people start businesses, a new wave industrial policy if need be — anything that might give the working class a leg up.

There would be a political corruption basket. The Tea Parties are right about the unholy alliance between business and government that is polluting the country. It’s time to drain the swamp by simplifying the tax code and streamlining the regulations businesses use to squash their smaller competitors.

There would also be a pro-business basket: lower corporate rates, a sane visa policy for skilled immigrants, a sane patent and permitting system, more money for research.
But this post isn't meant to be a standing ovation for Brooks. In fact, I have a large criticism: he indicts the two parties for not doing anything that will get America out of its mess. He seems ready to acknowledge (if only indirectly) that his past support of Obama has not panned out, and the Democrats don't have a plan to get us out of this mess. And yet, when a grass-roots movement arose that wanted to push to make big changes (many of which are compatible with Brooks' wish list, he thumbed his nose at it. Here's his reaction to the Tea Party in an older column:
The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should “go our own way” has risen sharply.

A year ago, the Obama supporters were the passionate ones. Now the tea party brigades have all the intensity.
You can get more details here, and it is pretty obvious that Brooks found something distasteful and lowbrow when he looked at the Tea Party.

And there have certainly been times when the Tea Party has lived up to the caricature painted of it in much of the media: the Truther movement, which is well-represented within the Tea Party, is just a silly waste of time, and men carrying visible firearms at political rallies sends a horrible message no matter what the law says, or their intent was.

But all political movements, especially those that bubble up from the bottom, are going to have loons. They will all be excessive in their thinking or their rhetoric from time to time. But you know what would help? If thinkers like David Brooks engaged with these movements to give them focused, more powerful thinking, instead of trying to strangle them while they're still in the cradle.

The Tea Party emerged out of a concern that government spending and the intrusions of the nanny state would sap the nation's vitality and destroy the American Dream. That doesn't sound all that different from the concerns Brooks outlines. Maybe if he can look past the rough edges, and get over his distaste at their lack of intellectualism, he'll find they have a lot in common.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Slow-Moving Disasters

I was watching Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations episode from Hawaii last night, and he visits the house of a man living in the path of a lava flow. The fellow had been there over two decades after most of his neighbors had left. Eventually, he knew, the lava would arrive, but instead of using the time to move and start a new life, he just sat and waited. (A voiceover from Bourdain noted that he was forcibly evacuated a few weeks later as the lava crept in.)

Most people would dismiss this man as a nut, and yet at the communal level we are doing exactly the same thing. I was struck by this "I told you so" article from Edward Achorn in the Providence Journal: he is able to document time after time that debt and pension problems were called out and dismissed by Rhode Island's governing class. Here is one example from eight years ago:
From “The faces ignored on Smith Hill,” Aug. 12, 2003:

Many legislators dismissed growing annual pension costs as small potatoes. I wrote: “$20 million-plus is still worth debate in most people’s books. And the costs are exploding: Pension contributions for state workers and teachers are slated to go up $60 million in the next year, says Mr. Carcieri. This would seem to present a crisis that cannot be ignored.”

(Now, in 2011, of course, the state confronts pension costs growing by hundreds of millions of dollars a year.)

Steven Costantino, then vice chairman of the House Finance Committee, accused the pension reformers of trying to stir up emotions. “You simply can’t cherry-pick an issue which is a hot button or a good sound bite,” he said.
Now, no one wants budget cutbacks or austerity or people to go without benefits they were expecting to get. Despite what Constantino is quoted as saying above, all the emotions are on the side of the people who say that we should keep things as they are. The man who stays in a house surrounded by lava points to his view and says, "I can't give this up." He looks around his house and says, "I've built a life here and I don't want to change." It's hard to say, "If I make this difficult decision now, I can start to build a new life and eventually will be better off." But that's the adult decision to make.

Our debt burden is like a lava flow: it moves slow but will overwhelm us eventually. Anyone who looks at the books and projects out can see the disaster coming. As Walter Russell Mead said in a recent piece, "We can no longer stimulate the economy successfully by encouraging more and more people to assume higher levels of debt." That goes for government debt as well as individual debt. But we've grown addicted to the things that the debt buys, and we know change is going to be hard, maybe even tragic for some people who fall through a crack as the system changes.

I'm becoming increasingly pessimistic about our chances of solving this problem before an actual crisis hits: as Americans, we're good at reacting when our backs our against the wall, but we stink about staying away from the wall in the first place. So perhaps the best policy for those of us concerned about the debt is to have a plan in place for the day that the impending crisis becomes an active catastrophe.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Harry Potter Is Not Escapism

Ha, you like that? I just wrote a flagrantly untrue title. Of COURSE you escape into books like the Harry Potter series. If you didn't, it would be darned hard to read through 4,000 plus pages in seven books. (And, if you've reached my level of geekdom, to do it more than once.) But I just read an article that seemed to imply that escapism was, especially for adult readers, the primary purpose of reading young adult fantasy novels. Here's the offending passage:
Young adult fiction offers a promise to all of us that there is no suffering that's not worth it, no agony that goes unrewarded down the line. If you're a teenager, those promises might be false, but they're a temporary balm. And if you're an adult, too old to believe that the balance of life comes out even, you can suspend your disappointments as long as you're immersed in a story that promises something different.
There is so much disdain hidden within that third sentence. Adult readers of fantasy novels have been beaten down by life, and so need some escape to a world where life is fair, where things "come out even". ARE YOU BLEEPING KIDDING ME? What remotely astute reader could think that Harry Potter's fictional life comes out even? Yes, he wins the battle and goes on to have a family, but he never gets to know his parents, his friends and surrogate family members are picked off one by one, and he has to willingly march to his own death before he can be victorious. His life is profoundly unfair, in a way that would make a mockery of any other person's suffering if he were, you know, real.

We are drawn to Harry Potter's story (and Ender Wiggin's story, and Frodo Baggin's story) not because we're happy to see everything turn out fairly for them, but because we see that the characters choose a path that leads to suffering because they believe following that path is the right thing to do, and then they carry on despite complications, losses, and many moments where they could give up with little shame. Our escape is to believe that, were we presented with a similar choice, we too would take the moral path. But it is not merely escape, it is also instruction, because as we encourage a (probably over-optimistic) belief that we have the will to be righteous, we perhaps give ourselves a slightly better chance to behave with honor when we are presented with our moment.

The best writers of fantasy, then, are both entertainers and moral educators. If we are too quick to dismiss adult readers of young adult fantasy as beaten down drones looking to retreat to a more appealing universe, we ignore the reality that readers are living vicariously through the characters' trials, and promising themselves to imitate the fortitude their literary heroes demonstrate.