Sunday, July 28, 2013

Unelaborated assertions

As a country song, "Merry Go 'Round" is pretty much a betrayal of all genre standards. I vote it off the island.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

An open letter to DC conservatives and other people I know concerning relocation to the Midwest

Dear DC conservatives and other people I know in DC,

As a result of our continual and apparently endless relocations, my husband and I spend a lot of time idly discussing where we will move next, or more specifically, where we will "settle down," by which we mean "a place we will live for at least five years," which now seems like a really long time to stay in one place, even though we really have little control over these outcomes. This discussion usually terminates in a contest between returning to Chicago or Washington, with Chicago winning in almost every category until I point out that Washington is practically the only place in America with a lively conservative intellectual life. My husband replies that this attitude is precisely what prompts every politically ambitious twentysomething to move there after their whatever degree program and exacerbate the massive centralization already set in motion there by the growth of the federal government, like a vast in-gathering of leeches sucking on a single oozing sore that never can never heal. (Not a direct quote.)

And while close proximity to the federal government is probably helpful and important for political journalists and policy wonks like you, I do wonder, shouldn't conservatives be a little more concerned about setting up next to an oozing sore? Even in the pre-internet dark ages, the center of conservative political journalism (all journalism, really) was not Washington, but New York, demonstrating that you do not need to live in that park behind the White House to do your job. And now there is internet and 4G, so, strictly speaking, you don't even need to live on Earth! Now, I certainly understand that the Chesapeake region is lovely, and that Washington and its suburbs have good public transit and are rich in essential yuppie services like cupcake bakeries, and these are serious considerations. However, the only house you can actually afford on your think tank salary is probably not even on the Metro, but rather on the VRE in Manassas. Since you're pretty much living in the Shenandoah Valley, the daily views may almost compensate for the fact that you only get to see them out the window of one of those commuter coach buses that picks you up at dawn and takes you back at 5 pm sharp each day because the trip is three hours each way, and if you miss it, you have to spend the night in your office. One need not be a front-porcher and deny oneself imported food to see that it's a bit problematic to advocate government decentralization from an office in Dupont Circle, which is off-center by approximately one mile. 

Why do you live there, then? Because everyone else you know lives there? That's a good reason. You moved there because someone you know lived there, I'd move there because you live there, and maybe someone else would move there because I live there. And of course the people you knew there had a job for you, and you for me, and me for the next person, and so on. The sore does get bigger to accommodate the growing number of leeches - as you will discover when you close on your place next to a cow pasture outside of Leesburg. But maybe while you're sitting in traffic 20 miles outside the beltway one morning, you may begin to wonder why this particular location is necessary to your chosen profession, which you admit can be done from space. Aren't there dozens of internet-enabled cities in America with equivalent per capita cupcake coverage where you nevertheless could afford to live within 10 miles of your office, or even walking distance from it? Well, obviously there are. But there are no conservative think tanks and journals and nonprofits in Richmond or Baltimore or Dover, which you know first-hand because you live in what used to be the suburbs of these cities, which have been charitably subsumed into Washington's vast suburban halo as their original anchor cities have lost their hold on them as they return to the howling wilderness out of which they were raised. 

But there could be, couldn't there? What - other than inertia and the centripetal force of migratory twentysomethings in pursuit of jobs and cupcakes - prevents it? Couldn't a few magazines or think tanks set out as pioneers to stake out new ground, somewhere where they could really be a force, like the homesteaders of the 1850s on the Great Plains? For some time now, my husband and I have considered how and where we could break DC's monopoly on conservative thought-life. Initially, we set our hopes on Chicago, which has many obvious draws, including cupcakes and direct flights to everywhere in America. And while that would be great for me personally, in many ways, Chicago is like the North Dakota of conservative homesteading - parched, freezing, unsuited to the agricultural methods the settlers bring with them, and ultimately inhospitable to their very existence. However, the Rust Belt more broadly is potentially more promising - it blossomed once and could bloom again, and what's more conservative than reviving what was once great, and already has blocks and blocks of lovely but slightly derelict Victorian mansions to work from? And, since most of these cities are in red or competitive states, there is greater potential for local and state-wide political impact.

The question remained, however, from which city we should dispatch boosters? On the one hand, there are places like Gary and Detroit, which have declined so precipitously that they can no longer support even one cupcake bakery, a likely sign that, despite the innumerable wonders that an in-migration of conservative writers may be able to work, a reversal of the civic fortunes of destitute cities is not one of them. On the other hand, too-robust places like Chicago are difficult to influence. And then we hit on it! Actually, my husband would probably like to be dissociated from this post starting about five paragraphs ago, so I hit on it! I was listening to this CSPAN interview with Yuval Levin, in which he mentions about 10 hours in that the Bradley Foundation is based in Wisconsin, and then it was so obvious. Milwaukee! A perfect location! A small city, located in a now politically competitive state, reasonably prosperous, affordable, home to at least two universities, still existing industry, large quantities of beer and Poles, and I guess the Bradley Foundation. The total state and local sales tax is a mere 5.6 percent, and state income tax is 6.5 percent. Not quite Virginia, but not bad for a historically trade-unionist state. And, according to Yelp, four cupcake bakeries. Effete, but also working class. Culturally developed, but also family-friendly. Milwaukee is a place where all conservative values collide.

At least I hope so. Because it is true that Miss Self-Important, despite growing up two hours away, has never actually been to Milwaukee. (Because why would you if you're already in Chicago? Wisconsin is where you go to experience nature, go-carts, and House on the Rock, not Chicago's less-successful industrial twin.) But it seems like a place I could like, perhaps mainly due to its close resemblance and proximity to Chicago. And it seems like a place you, DC conservatives, could also like. What say you? Shall we all agree to meet in Milwaukee in five years?

Big hopeful hearts,
Miss Self-Important

PS: After shopping this idea around in DC - and receiving predictable reflexive rejection from those who suffer from Stockholm syndrome who already live there - I've added the following alternative relocation suggestions to the list of possibilities: Dallas, Austin, and St. Louis. I've never been to any of these cities either, but they could be good. More than one person also offered New Hampshire, but that proposal suffers from obvious and immediate difficulties of geographic isolation and urban underdevelopment. We'd probably have to hunt our own cupcakes there, too. At that point, we may as well remove to Canada, which is emphatically not the aim of the DC Relocation Project.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Travel interlude

In order to make the most of the limited number of destinations to which one can fly direct out of San Diego, we spent the weekend in Sante Fe, which is a comfortable desert outpost full of Indians and tunic-clad hippie women (so many tunics that you'd think news of the advent of shirts and pants hadn't yet reached them).

We stayed in a tiny adobe house off a dirt road.

And we couldn't go hiking because of local wildfires, so we visited SJC, where David had advised us in advance to seek out the clocks with Greek letters, which we did but couldn't photograph, so I photographed the Greek payphone instead, now outdated twice over.

There is also a big sign out front banning dogs on campus, but this contrary indication in the library itself. (The eponymous Seymour was nowhere to be found; perhaps the library amnesty had ended, or he went home for the summer.)

Finally, we settled for hiking our dirt roads instead.

Actual Santa Fe was also nice, but not really worth photographing. I'll be in Virginia and DC for the rest of the month, so blogging will be...pretty much as irregular as usual.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

On the sociable and medieval addictions

A long time ago, there was an exchange at Phoebe's blog about whether the sociability of smoking made it a better form of self-medication for the sad and lonely than the inveterately anti-social activity of taking anti-depressants. Now, Cristina Nehring goes into (digital) print with this thesis:
The question, quite possibly, is not how to banish obsession, addiction, idolatry, and habit altogether, for they are inherently linked and ineradicable parts of human nature. The better question might be: How to choose one’s habits and addictions wisely—or, if not wisely, at least relatively pleasantly or interestingly—and not just according to despotic current fashion.
You clink with wine glasses—not pill-containers. You make a toast to your comrades with pints—not milligrams. So even if and when the buzz wears off, you still have real-life contacts, social skills, a flesh-and-blood community. Your friends may sock it to you sometimes, but at least they recognize your face on the street. They know about the trips you take and sometimes accompany you on them: They don’t take off alone in the bathroom by their medicine cabinet.
Rather than re-state the whole of the argument for smoking and drinking made at Phoebe's blog (which to my more sympathetic readers ought to be self-evident!), I instead want to highlight this nice deployment of the Great Sociability of the Past as against the Lonely Individualism of the Now trope. This is a trope not unlike (but maybe more useful and true than) the Great Immobility of the Past that I mentioned a couple posts ago. It reminds me of Philippe Aries's Centuries of Childhood, a detailed history of the development of modern family life that grows out of one fairly simple claim: Back when no one ever bathed, highwaymen haunted the roads, entire families slept in one bed, death - violent, puss-filled, and otherwise gruesome - was omnipresent, and the brief time before that death was spent in drinking your lord's mead during the 360 festival days of the year, things were awesome. Because, unable to find a moment's privacy, we were at our most sociable, and thus, our happiest. That is how we are, by nature and divine intention, meant to live. Bathing optional.

Nehring and most others who seek the Great Sociability of the Past don't explicitly take the Middle Ages for their ideal, at least not with the forthright zeal of Aries, who was a Vichy sympathizer and so I suppose could afterwards afford such comparatively harmless admissions as a longing to return to the twelfth century. A perfect example of this ideal unacknowledged is Whit Stillman's interest in reviving "dance crazes" in Damsels in Distress. (However, in this article on what was once a favorite hobby horse of mine, pedagogical eros, Nehring's exemplars are more explicit: Abelard and Heloise.) But even if they don't look to the Middle Ages per se, I think that what they do seek is nonetheless a vaguely pre-modern conception of the human good. The extent of man's natural sociability is diminished but never conclusively defined by modern philosophy, despite Hobbes's particular protestations to the contrary, so versions of a medieval ideal persist as an alternative often unmoored from their Catholic foundations. (Sometimes radically unmoored, as in the varieties of socialism, just so you don't go off thinking that the dream of consummate human sociability is unique to the right. But not always so unmoored - every article by Helen Rittelmeyer and Eve Tushnet also fits this paradigm, and they can hardly be unaware of what they're drawing on.)

None of this is to say that the Great Sociability of the Past is not a useful corrective simply because it's a medieval and Catholic corrective. I post this article because I approve it. Up with booze and smokes, and I guess bloody bar fights! Down with pills, and even showers, if it gets to that! Modern alternatives to modernity must come from somewhere, and the past is a reliable source of opposition to the present. All I want to point out is that this is an impulse from the past, and a very unlikely past for most of its proponents at that.