Category Archive 'Modern Living'

23 Jun 2018

The American Character

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I was looking through the archives of my blog, looking for a book reference I’d forgotten, when I found this old column from Fred on Everything which demands republishing.

Fred Reed looks at what has become of the American character.

Americans tend to regard their national character as comprising such things as freedom, independence, individualism, and self-reliance…

In fact we no longer have these qualities and probably never will again. Generally we now embody their opposites. Modern society has become a hive of largely conformist, closely regulated and generally helpless employees who depend on others for nearly everything. The cause is less anything particularly American than the technology that governs our lives. The United States just moves faster in the direction in which the civilized world moves.

Character springs from conditions. Consider a farmer in, say, North Carolina in 1850. He was free because there was little government, self-reliant because what he couldn’t do for himself didn’t get done, independent because, apart from a few tools, he made or grew all he needed, and an individualist because, there being little outside authority, he could do as he pleased.

All of that is gone, and will not return. Freedom has given way to an infinite array of laws, rules, regulations, licenses, forms, requirements. Many make sense, may even be desirable in a complex world, don’t necessarily make for a bad life, but they cannot be called freedom. Various governments determine what our children learn, whether we can paint the shutters, who we must sell our houses to, who we can hire, what we can say if we want to keep our jobs, where we can park, and whether and how we can build an outbuilding.

People who live infinitely controlled lives become accustomed to such control. Obedience becomes natural…

Individualism has withered under the pressure of the mass media and a distaste for eccentricity. Self-reliance died long ago. We depend on others to repair our cars, grow our food, fix the refrigerator, and write our operating systems. The habit of reliance on others has reached the point that even the right of self-defense has come to be regarded as wrong-minded…

Most poignantly, we are become a nation of employees, fearful of losing our jobs. Prisoners of the retirement system, afraid of transgressing against the various governing bodies before whom we are helpless, unable to feed ourselves, we are at least comfortable. We are not masters of our lives.

Dense populations and the complexity of machines and institutions lead inevitably to regulation, which leads to acceptance of regulation and therefore of authority, which becomes part of the national character. This we see. In my lifetime the change has been great. In rural Virginia in the Sixties, you could walk down the road with your rifle to shoot beer cans, swim in the creeks without supervision and life guards and “flotation devices” approved by the Coast Guard, and generally be left alone. Now, no. Regimentation has grown like kudzu. We obey. The new generation knows nothing else..

At the moment we see a great increase in regulation in the guise of preventing terrorism. Other pretexts could have been found and, I suspect, would have been: fighting crime or the war on drugs or something. The result might have been a drift rather than a headlong rush toward control. But sooner or later, technology determines politics. The computer, not the Constitution, is primary.

I suspect that the concern about terrorism is just a particular manifestation of a growing obsession with safety. Not too long ago, Americans were a hardy breed—foolhardy at times, but the one comes with the other. Now we see attempts to eliminate all risk everywhere. Cities fill in the deep ends of swimming pools and remove diving boards. We require that bicyclists wear helmets, fear second-hand smoke and the violence that is dodge ball. Warnings abound against going outside without sun block. To anyone who grew up in the Sixties or before, the new fearfulness is incomprehensible.

The explanation I think is the feminization of society, which seems to be inseparable from modernity. The nature of masculinity is to prize freedom over security; of femininity, security over freedom. Add that the American character of today powerfully favors regulation by the group in preference to individual choice. Note that we do not require that cars be equipped with seat belts and then let individuals decide whether to use them; we enforce their use. The result is compulsory Mommyism, very much a part of today’s America.

Does technological civilization inevitably lead to totalitarianism? Certainly the general fear, in combination with technology, makes a sort of soft Stalinism easy. Just now we move toward national ID cards, smuggled in by linking records of drivers’ licenses. Passports, scanned and linked to data bases, provide a record of our travels. Security cameras proliferate. Some of them read the license plates of all passing cars. Email can be monitored, phones easily and undetectably tapped. Now the government is experimenting with X-ray scanners for airports that provide near-pornographic images of passengers. Whether these will be used for dictatorial ends remains to be seen. Historians may one day note that surveillance, when possible, is inevitable.

What then is the national character today? I think we are first an obedient people. We submit. We are comfortable with authority, and seem to be most comfortable when we are told what to do. We prize security, safety, and predictability. Increasingly we accept being treated like convicts at airports and elsewhere. We want to be taken care of. We can do few things for ourselves. We expect government to decide much that was once regarded as outside of government’s ambit. And we are to the marrow of our bones incapable of rising against the creeping tyranny.

Too bloody true, alas!

23 Oct 2013

A House Divided

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Jeanne Safer (Mrs. Richard Brookhiser) discusses her own marriage of political opposites.

This November fifth, like every Election Day for the last three decades, I’ll show up faithfully at my polling place rain or shine, even if there’s another Hurricane Sandy in New York City. Once again, I’ll be pulling the levers for some people I actually agree with, for some I’m not crazy about, and for others I’ve barely heard of. As long as they’re Democrats, they can count on my support.

It’s a matter of moral obligation, not just civic duty: I’ve got to cancel out my husband’s vote.

For thirty-three years I’ve been happily married to a man with whom I violently disagree on every conceivable political issue, including abortion, gun control, and assisted suicide. I thought the recent government shutdown was absurd, infantile, and destructive; he was a fan. And not only is he a conservative Republican, he’s a professional conservative Republican, a Senior Editor of National Review, the leading journal of conservative opinion in the country.

So why don’t we both just agree to stay home on Election Day? Because, even though I trust him with my life, I don’t trust him, and would never ask him, not to vote his conscience. It took our first decade together for me to accept that not even my considerable powers of persuasion as a psychotherapist—not to mention the self-evident correctness of my positions—would never make him change his mind, but, alas, it is so; he never even tried to change mine.

Other than my father, I never even knew any Republicans growing up, and certainly never had one for a boyfriend. But in my late twenties I joined a Renaissance singing group, and there he was—tall, clever, with intense blue eyes and a lyrical baritone. I couldn’t resist. I’d known and been treated abominably by too many men who shared all my opinions to let his convictions get in the way, and I’ve never regretted it. Our wedding was a bipartisan affair. My mentor, one of the early victims of the McCarthyite purges, gave me away, and my husband’s publisher, one of McCarthy’s most avid enforcers, gave a reading. Somehow everyone behaved, setting a trend that we have emulated with only a few brief exceptions ever since.

Read the whole thing.

It was my wife Karen, who introduced the future happy couple, at her singing group many long years ago. Jeanne really doesn’t like me. I argue with her.

17 Jul 2013

Dustjacket Dating

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New Yorker cover, November 8, 2004.

Elyse Moody offers a literary alternative to Missed Connections.

ve been asking myself some basic questions: What do I like? Reading. What am I looking for in a date? Someone who enjoys books and talking about them, and who can strike up good conversations with strangers. An idea started to gel. Maybe if I’m choosy about what I read on my longish interborough commute, the right guy—one with superlative taste who’s curious enough to make a move—will be drawn to me by the tractor beam the open book in my hands emits.

I ran this idea by my therapist, and she started nodding excitedly. “Books are such a great crutch,” she said. “I think of them like props.”

Exactly.

So this strategy’s been clinically endorsed. I’ve reviewed my journals, made a list of the most attractive qualities of potential soul mates past (setting aside their less desirable traits—e.g., substance addiction, monomaniacal narcissism, commitment phobia), and distilled it into archetypes of the charming men I hope to meet, if fate wills it, somewhere in the New York City public transit system.

Her choice of lures, however, struck me as far from the most interesting or effective, especially if you desire to strike up an acquaintance with “Ivy League smart” males. I think of Saul Bellow myself as an over-rated, excessively promoted ethnic writer. If I saw a girl reading Tom Robbins, I would shudder and walk quietly away. Eudora Welty is a representative of the grotesque-and-invariably-depressing school of Southern writing, and the sight of her dustjackets will probably work on most men in a decidedly anaphrodisaical manner.

31 Oct 2012

Amazon Life

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H/t to Karen L. Myers.

18 Aug 2010

Feeling Old Yet?

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The New York Times reports that Beloit College felt a need to provide a cultural guide to equip faculty members to deal with first encounters with strange, new visitors from a different planet: the Class of 2014.

[H]ow is the class of 2014 different from previous classes? They’re more digital, of course.

First and foremost, few entering college this year have ever written in cursive. And this mobile phone generation has “never twisted the coiled handset wire aimlessly around their wrists while chatting on the phone.”

They also rarely use e-mail. Why? Because it’s just too slow. And you can imagine how much they use snail mail: “rarely.”

Another insight that shows how quickly things change is this one: The class of 2014 has “never recognized that pointing to their wrists was a request for the time of day.” They don’t own watches and instead use their cellphones to tell the time.

The class also believes that there have always been “hundreds of cable channels but nothing to watch” and that “Russians and Americans have always been living together in space.”

Hat tip to Ben Slotznick.

06 Feb 2010

Blogging No Longer Cool

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Nicholas Carr has the bad news.

I remember when it was kind of cool to be a blogger. You’d walk around with a swagger in your step, a twinkle in your eye. Now it’s just humiliating. Blogging has become like mahjong or needlepoint or clipping coupons out of Walgreens circulars: something old folks do while waiting to croak.

Did you see that new Pew study that came out yesterday? It put a big fat exclamation point on what a lot of us have come to realize recently: blogging is now the uncoolest thing you can do on the Internet. It’s even uncooler than editing Wikipedia articles or having a Second Life avatar. In 2006, 28% of teens were blogging. Now, just three years later, the percentage has tumbled to 14%. Among twentysomethings, the percentage who write blogs has fallen from 24% to 15%. Writing comments on blogs is also down sharply among the young. It’s only geezers – those over 30 – who are doing more blogging than they used to.

30 Jan 2010

Unhappy Hipsters

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Lying on his back, watching the passing clouds, he worried over the Nathaniel Hawthorne lookalike’s role in this grim threesome. (Dwell magazine, November 2009)

The blog Unhappy Hipsters exists to mock the spare and alienated modern architectural and interior design aesthetic celebrated by très, très chic Dwell Magazine simply by captioning some of its photos of the sophisticated “at home in the modern world.”

My wife, who brought this one to my attention, is naturally sympathetic to Unhappy Hipsters’ jaundiced viewpoint on expensive moderne minimalism. Our preferred houses tend to be old, and thoroughly cluttered with books, weapons, natural history specimens, Orientalia, and sporting prints. A friend from Yale once described our native habitat as “decorated by Stalky & Co.” Our design aesthetic might be described as Addams Family Excess.

Where do those hipsters keep their books? one always wonders.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

05 Aug 2007

Nobodies With $10 Million

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I don’t suppose one is required to feel sorry for Silicon Valley’s millionaire working class economically exactly, but there is definitely something pitiable about seeing the Porsche and Mercedes stuffed into the minimum of parking associated with a 2000 sq. ft. 1950s tract house on a postage stamp lot.

California is in some respects a lot like Hell. Those condemned to reside in the Valley literally have its temperatures. And the great majority of the more favored, those cooled by balmy Pacific breezes, live like Sisyphus, in possession of real wealth, yet surrounded by conspicuously displayed examples of far greater wealth. Able to own a nice automobile, but still unable to afford a decent home.

“You’re nobody here at $10 million,” Mr. Kremen said earnestly over a glass of pinot noir at an upscale wine bar here. …

“People around here, if they have 2 or 3 million dollars, they don’t feel secure,” said David W. Hettig, an estate planner based in Menlo Park who has advised Silicon Valley’s wealthy for two decades. …

Celeste Baranski, a 49-year-old engineer with a net worth of around $5 million who lives with her husband in Menlo Park, no longer frets about tucking enough money away for college for their two children… Yet like other working-class millionaires of Silicon Valley, she harbors anxieties about her financial future.

“I don’t know how people live here on just a normal salary,” said Ms. Baranski. …

David Koblas, a computer programmer with a net worth of $5 million to $10 million, imagines what his life would be like if he left Silicon Valley. He could move to a small town like Elko, Nev., he says, and be a ski bum. Or he could move his family to the middle of the country and live like a prince in a spacious McMansion in the nicest neighborhood in town.

But Mr. Koblas, 39, lives with his wife, Michelle, and their two children in Los Altos, south of Palo Alto, where the schools are highly regarded and the housing prices are inflated accordingly. So instead of a luxury home, the family lives in a relatively modest 2,000-square-foot house — not much bigger than the average American home — and he puts in long hours at Wink, a search engine start-up founded in 2005.

“I’d be rich in Kansas City,” he said. “People would seek me out for boards. But here I’m a dime a dozen.”

Read the whole thing

5:10 video

05 Mar 2007

The National Character

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Fred Reed looks at what has become of the American character.

Americans tend to regard their national character as comprising such things as freedom, independence, individualism, and self-reliance…

In fact we no longer have these qualities and probably never will again. Generally we now embody their opposites. Modern society has become a hive of largely conformist, closely regulated and generally helpless employees who depend on others for nearly everything. The cause is less anything particularly American than the technology that governs our lives. The United States just moves faster in the direction in which the civilized world moves.

Character springs from conditions. Consider a farmer in, say, North Carolina in 1850. He was free because there was little government, self-reliant because what he couldn’t do for himself didn’t get done, independent because, apart from a few tools, he made or grew all he needed, and an individualist because, there being little outside authority, he could do as he pleased.

All of that is gone, and will not return. Freedom has given way to an infinite array of laws, rules, regulations, licenses, forms, requirements. Many make sense, may even be desirable in a complex world, don’t necessarily make for a bad life, but they cannot be called freedom. Various governments determine what our children learn, whether we can paint the shutters, who we must sell our houses to, who we can hire, what we can say if we want to keep our jobs, where we can park, and whether and how we can build an outbuilding.

People who live infinitely controlled lives become accustomed to such control. Obedience becomes natural…

Individualism has withered under the pressure of the mass media and a distaste for eccentricity. Self-reliance died long ago. We depend on others to repair our cars, grow our food, fix the refrigerator, and write our operating systems. The habit of reliance on others has reached the point that even the right of self-defense has come to be regarded as wrong-minded…

Most poignantly, we are become a nation of employees, fearful of losing our jobs. Prisoners of the retirement system, afraid of transgressing against the various governing bodies before whom we are helpless, unable to feed ourselves, we are at least comfortable. We are not masters of our lives.

Dense populations and the complexity of machines and institutions lead inevitably to regulation, which leads to acceptance of regulation and therefore of authority, which becomes part of the national character. This we see. In my lifetime the change has been great. In rural Virginia in the Sixties, you could walk down the road with your rifle to shoot beer cans, swim in the creeks without supervision and life guards and “flotation devices” approved by the Coast Guard, and generally be left alone. Now, no. Regimentation has grown like kudzu. We obey. The new generation knows nothing else..

At the moment we see a great increase in regulation in the guise of preventing terrorism. Other pretexts could have been found and, I suspect, would have been: fighting crime or the war on drugs or something. The result might have been a drift rather than a headlong rush toward control. But sooner or later, technology determines politics. The computer, not the Constitution, is primary.

I suspect that the concern about terrorism is just a particular manifestation of a growing obsession with safety. Not too long ago, Americans were a hardy breed—foolhardy at times, but the one comes with the other. Now we see attempts to eliminate all risk everywhere. Cities fill in the deep ends of swimming pools and remove diving boards. We require that bicyclists wear helmets, fear second-hand smoke and the violence that is dodge ball. Warnings abound against going outside without sun block. To anyone who grew up in the Sixties or before, the new fearfulness is incomprehensible.

The explanation I think is the feminization of society, which seems to be inseparable from modernity. The nature of masculinity is to prize freedom over security; of femininity, security over freedom. Add that the American character of today powerfully favors regulation by the group in prefe4rence to individual choice. Note that we do not require that cars be equipped with seat belts and then let individuals decide whether to use them; we enforce their use. The result is compulsory Mommyism, very much a part of today’s America.

Does technological civilization inevitably lead to totalitarianism? Certainly the general fear, in combination with technology, makes a sort of soft Stalinism easy. Just now we move toward national ID cards, smuggled in by linking records of drivers’ licenses. Passports, scanned and linked to data bases, provide a record of our travels. Security cameras proliferate. Some of them read the license plates of all passing cars. Email can be monitored, phones easily and undetectably tapped. Now the government is experimenting with X-ray scanners for airports that provide near-pornographic images of passengers. Whether these will be used for dictatorial ends remains to be seen. Historians may one day note that surveillance, when possible, is inevitable.

What then is the national character today? I think we are first an obedient people. We submit. We are comfortable with authority, and seem to be most comfortable when we are told what to do. We prize security, safety, and predictability. Increasingly we accept being treated like convicts at airports and elsewhere. We want to be taken care of. We can do few things for ourselves. We expect government to decide much that was once regarded as outside of government’s ambit. And we are to the marrow of our bones incapable of rising against the creeping tyranny.

Too bloody true, alas!

Hat tip to the News Junkie.

17 Jan 2007

Doesn’t Wear A Suit, And Cannot Understand Why Anybody Does

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Mark Cuban (undoubtedly a resident of California) speaks out on behalf of the permanently infantilized.

When I started MicroSolutions I was 24 years old. I had just gotten fired from my job and was sleeping on the floor of a 3 bedroom apartment with 5 other guys living there. I didn’t have a closet or a bed, but I had 2 suits.

I bought both of those polyester wonders, one Grey pinstripe, the other blue pinstripe for a total of $99 dollars plus tax. To go with those fashion forward wonders, I had several white polo button downs that I had purchased used from a re-sale shop, and a couple ties that I had bought on sale or had gotten as hand me downs from friends.

I wore those babies when it was cold. I wore them when it was 100 degrees plus. I ironed them and when I could I got them dry cleaned…

Someone had once told me that you wear to work what your customers wear to work. That seemed to make sense to me, so I followed it, and expected those who worked for me to follow it as well.

After I sold MicroSolutions I decided that I never would wear a suit again…

With our new business, I decided that I would have to wear a suit, but would modify the rule so that I would only wear a suit when someone I was selling to was wearing a suit…

When Broadcast.com was sold, the suit went out the window completely.

The gentleman has obviously never owned a real suit, only hideous and inexpensive ersatz imitations thereof. Suits equal discomfort in his mind, because he has only worn cheap, ill-fitting articles of clothing made of intrinsically uncomfortable materials.

Beyond that, the gentleman fails to understand that dignity and formality are becoming to adults. And it is not simply a matter of convention and form; men wear suits fundamentally because any man looks better in a good suit.

T shirts and blue jeans or bermuda shorts have intrinsically limited capacities for both beauty and self expression. Adults wear adult clothing in order to express as fully as possible the possibilities of aesthetic expression in attire.

Suits have been de rigeur in business (outside the California playpen) since time immemorial, since it is impossible for most serious adults to imagine entering into a substantial relationship of trust or business with an individual too slovenly, too undignified, or too badly educated to know how to dress.

Obviously, people began making the rare exception for the eccentric scientific genius working in the most arcane outer reaches of technology, whose thoughts were so abstracted and unworldly that he couldn’t possibly understand how to live normally in the world, and the next thing you know every clod and lout in the Sunshine State of Self-Entitlement decides that he, too, is some kind of genius, operating at Olympian levels beyond normal civilization.

You Californians are wrong. You are operating far below the conventional levels of ordinary civilization, and you are not Einstein, you are Beavis and Butthead.

26 Feb 2006

Communes for the Geezers

Those old bastards will die of the clap after all the orgies, and nobody will still do any dishes or take out any garbage. link

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Hat tip to Ben Slotznik.


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