The lawyer explicitly identifies morality itself as the target

scales of justiceThe lawyer explicitly identifies morality itself as the target of the lawsuit:

The exact legal arguments for same-sex marriage equally apply to multiple-person marriages. Turley acknowledges that marriage laws that do not include both are “a tool for the imposition of a uniform moral agenda or tenets on citizens.”

I don’t know whether he understands that the argument “we ought not to impose morality on others” is a contradiction, but he might. The ethic of the ubermensch is that those with sufficient power will impose their vision on others, and morality has nothing to say.

As we shall see.

The mendacity is the meaning

Obama Liar Poster

No lasting cultural progress can be based on lies.

The extensive lying by Obama about ObamaCare is well-established. Those who follow such things know that the lying is not limited to this one program–it’s endemic to his governing approach.

The leaders of this government don’t envision a common world where they can discuss with their subjects shared objects and ends, in the manner of a self-governing republic. They hide their real plans and replace democratic discussion with propaganda.

The meme of the week among advocates of OCare is that morality requires us to care for the poor–to provide for those who need healthcare.

I think it’s true that to the extent that we can, we should assist those who have less than we do. I support organizations that are honestly making such attempts. But it’s folly to empower and enrich liars.

Literature never failed us; we abandoned it

Destroyed Books

The Detroit Public Schools Book Depository has been abandoned since a fire struck the building. It’s a metaphor.

Mark Bauerlein, English prof at Emory University, makes precisely the point that for me lies at the center of the big, slow-motion cultural conversation about the death of English as an academic discipline. Teachers who could have seen themselves as stewards of a great tradition, who could have served that tradition and young people by learning and passing on the best that has been said and done, instead began to fancy themselves as transformative intellectuals, possessors of precisely the verbal skills needed for success in a hyperpoliticized age. They talk about empowerment and skills and the future. They do not, often, talk in any intimate and profound way about particular works of literature, or what such works reveal about who and where we may be.

After summarizing a few of the many defenses made for the humanities of late, Bauerlein focuses on the important detail:

These statements and others on how the humanities foster critical thinking, cultivate Information Economy skills, help enact social change, resist utilitarianism in human affairs, etc., may be challenged in one aspect or another, but they are all reasonable and they pop up in education discussions all the time. Their commonplace status, however, shouldn’t obscure the fact that they share an extraordinary characteristic. It is a trait so simple and obvious, and so paradoxical, that one easily overlooks it, especially as these voices so earnestly endorse the humanities. The paradox is this: They affirm, extol, and sanctify the humanities, but they hardly ever mention any specific humanities content. The American Academy report terms the humanities “the keeper of the republic,” but the names Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Bernini, Leonardo, Gibbon, Austen, Beethoven, Monet, Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Martha Graham never surface. In the Boston Globe (“Humanities: The Practical Degree,” June 21), Carlo Rotella claims that the humanities instill a “suite of talents” that include “assimilating and organizing large, complex bodies of information,” but he doesn’t tie that installation to any particular works of art. These pro-humanities documents drop a “Proust” and “Dickens” here and there, but little more. The works of the ages that fill actual humanities syllabi barely exist in these heartfelt defenses. Instead of highlighting assigned authors, artists, writings, and artworks, they signal what happens after the class ends: the moral, civic, and workplace outcomes.

Literature has obviously been in decline in schools for years–but there are signs it’s thriving outside the academy through new media such as the large catalog of downloadable audio lectures available from The Great Courses. There is a large audience–though not a universal one–for intelligent discourse about significant literary works.

This is not just bad for literature–it’s been a disaster for the culture, which is now trying to “humanize” young people with dismal programs such as the Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports programs pushed by the USDE and adopted by many states, according to which the purpose of life is “success” understood mainly in materials terms and the method is compliance with authority. Low-level behavioral psychology (used to keep order in prisons and to train puppies) has become the official psychology, in many schools.

A lot has happened to American education in the past five or six decades, and there is no quick turnaround. What is not needed is a new national program, with workshop gurus and posters and buzzwords. The belief that widespread problems must lead to large-scale “solutions” is part of what ails us. What is needed are many individuals, spending time reading–thinking about current difficulties with the best authors of the past and present–and then discussing those particular works with others who are also responding to a troubled world by seeking deeper insight into history and human nature by regular engagement with the best books. It isn’t necessary that everyone do this, but it’s of vital importance that some do.

The third reality: a brief introduction

Peace is a complex order that can be experienced even in the midst of trouble.

Peace is a complex order that can be experienced even in the midst of trouble.

The way of the teacher

No one can be forced to see higher realities. We all need to be taught to see them, and having been taught, we have to freely choose them.

The third reality is peace–not as a sort of slumber but as an all-consuming engagement possible only through love. The third reality is living in and through love. Though it is based on law, it cannot be established by law, which it both includes and transcends.

Societies of peace necessarily are created and sustained through the methods of teachers: persuasion, patience, and unfeigned care. The economy for those living in the third reality is an order in which gift plays a powerful part. Trade remains but theft does not. The future’s uncertainty is reduced through covenants–promises exchanged with concern about the well-being of the other in mind. What may be given is as important as what will be received as, for those in love, giving and receiving merge into being.

Societies of law struggle to see that justice is done but justice isn’t enough. We all have something to fear from justice. Who has not done that he ought not to have done? We by trespassing and being trespassed. We live here in history, where being wronged is the human condition.

Those who walk the road to peace find at fork after fork forgiveness is one of the choices. If they choose the other way, they find themselves getting more alone as they go. It’s an easy road and many have grown accustomed to it.

Returning becomes the daily work of those who would know peace. Again and again they find it is necessary to turn back and start over. They study mercy, wanting first to receive it as they learn to offer it.

A separate peace

Having recognized that they have made mistakes, they tend to be forgiving. A Separate Peace was popular in high school classrooms for many years, in a past that now seems almost a foreign country. Teenagers are in a stage of life where friendship is first being explored with near adult intelligence. The book clarifies the extent to which our friends–-other people in general–-exist in our consciousness partly as fictions that we’ve created ourselves. We read other people with the same cognitive tools we use to read fiction. We hear scraps of dialogue, note expressions and gestures, overhear gossip–and we make inferences and interpretations.

Sometimes our inferences are wrong. In the course of A Separate Peace, the protagonist, Gene, experiences several versions of his friend, Phineas.

The tragedy occurs when Gene “understands” that Phineas has not been inviting him on adventures out of pure friendship but as part of a strategy to wreck his studies. He isn’t a true friend at all. Gene suddenly sees a pattern in their relationship and makes a meaning of it: He sees all of his friend’s overtures as deceptions intended to cause him harm. “That explained blitzball, that explained the nightly meetings of the Super Suicide Society, that explained his insistence that I share all his diversions. The way I believed that you’re-my-best-friend blabber! The shadow falling across his face if I didn’t want to do something with him!”

Anyone who spends much time with adolescents–or other people–will recognize how close friendship and rivalry often are. The fictive Phineas that exists only in Gene’s mind isn’t his first version of Phineas, and it isn’t the last, but Gene acts upon it as though he knew the truth. When he learns that, however plausible his theory of Finny’s behavior, it was still only a theory, and it was wrong, it is too late. Gene told himself a lie about another person, then believed it, and then acted on it. His accepting a version of reality without sufficient evidence leads to the death of his friend.

In less dramatic ways, we daily harm each other when we accept interpretations about why others are doing what they are doing without good enough reason. Generally, we learn to recognize this common pattern most clearly when we ourselves become the victim of someone else’s false theory about us.

Peace in a world with enemies

Sometimes we lose awareness of the third reality because it’s so easy and somehow gratifying to reading conscious evil intent into the actions of others–especially rivals. When our marvelous intelligence, our power to find patterns and to make meaning of events, is turned toward those who oppose us, it is deliciously easy to discern motive, intent, and ill will. We can see what the rascals are up to.

Everyone speaks in favor of peace as regards how others treat us, but in the midst of conflicts we tend to want peace only if it’s accompanied by victory and triumph. If the cost of peace is failure and humiliation, and it often is, then we easily find ourselves imagining strategies for bringing down those who have wronged us.

Jesus was maybe our most eloquent spokesman for peace: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. . .For if you love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?”

This is counterintuitive and unnatural. It is not a sweet little tale for the faint of heart. It is hard counsel. And it is the most clear-eyed and realistic policy ever known. Those who say such an approach is unrealistic see only a thinner and paler reality–a stark place without enough air. The true realist, seeing a reality as deep as the night sky, knows that nothing else will work.

People who have really had enemies understand the difficulty and the seriousness of what is being proposed. Still, when we have had enough of destroying and being destroyed we may see that this is the only, the inescapable route. To act on it, one must have real commitment to something larger than the self, because the self may well find temporal suffering as he lives by such a policy.

All of us move through a world of reciprocal relations, taking our turns at being both a teacher and a learner. When people act badly, the teacher assumes the problem is not evil but ignorance. Since we cannot see into another’s heart, and since from the outside evil and ignorance are indistinguishable, we choose to think that a person acting badly doesn’t understand. A person caught in an evil pattern does not need to be destroyed so much he needs to be rescued. If only he could see, the teacher thinks. And so he teaches.

This isn’t, by the way, an argument against justice or punishment. Sometimes the only way we can teach people is to bring them to justice, to bend their fierce wills by righteous judgement and just punishment. But as every good parent understands, punishment can be delivered in a spirit of love.

Two ways, one road

The peacemaker learns that there really are only two ways: one leads toward greater life–which is greater connection and greater order–and the other leads toward greater disorder–which involves separation and death. What’s more, the two ways are simply different directions on the same road. At any moment, wherever we are, we can turn around.

Though a society ordered by fear can become one ordered by law, and one ordered by law can move toward being ordered by love, this development remains delicate and easily reversed. A nation, or a family, or a person not only can move down the continuum but will tend to do so without steady work to avoid it. This is the work of peace: willing and keeping complex human orders.

Virtually all societies contain some elements of all three realities, just as nearly all persons do. The more ethical person, like the more ethical society, is struggling with the higher concerns.

People who have chosen the way of the teacher understand that authority can have liberating power, and that this grows out of the world’s abundance rather than its scarcity. Descartes had described mankind as a people lost in the woods. Because there are many ways out of the woods, people cannot agree which to pursue. There may be many “correct” ways to play a symphony, but if the musicians each follow individual interpretations, they are deprived of a beautiful music that none can make alone. The authority of the conductor sets them free.

Leadership is necessary and difficult, and people who are not competing for glory tend to be thankful for people who are willing to carry its burdens. Peace is hard work, and a peaceful society is a busy society. We need to tend the garden, caring for all the systems that provide us with basic necessities; we need to bear each other’s burdens, looking around for any who are poorly clothed, poorly fed, or sick who need our help; and we need to work at liberating those who are captive to misfortune, bad habits, inadequate education, or political corruption. Peace slips away, sometimes, simply because it is so demanding, and people begin seeing other things to want that, at first, seem so much easier.

Which stories?

As we find the stories, both in books and in living, that we will pass on, we need to remember that stories that only evoke fear are not as good as those that also teach an understanding of principles, and those that only clarify principles are not as good as those that in addition encourage peace. More specifically, a story that leads me to take delight in caring for my family is better than one that encourages me to look out only for myself, and one that tempts me to care for the welfare of the whole tribe is better than one that suggests my obligations end with my family, and one that shows me how to feel compassion for all of humanity is better than one that leads me to think of outsiders as enemies. One that instills a reverence for all of creation is about as good as stories get.

The best stories allow us to glimpse the largest reality, and they give us courage to work at joining. The right stories help us understand ways of living that respect the meaning and integrity of each part.

We can teach children about peace even in troubled times, because peace is never an absence of trouble. It is, primarily, an order within, a harmony with an order that is always out there. When we understand it, we see that though the things we fear look ferocious, in another sense they are deceptions without ultimate power to harm us.

We teach children peace in the same ways we teach other forms of conversation. To teach children to converse, we have to surround them with conversation and with invitations to join, letting them slowly become part of the order that existed before them. To teach them about peace we surround them to the extent we can with a peace we’ve made, showing them how it works and what the rules are and why they should love it.

For me, the work of peace remains possible without slipping into despair at the magnitude of the work that remains because of a faith, expressed by Desmond Tutu, that “we live in a moral universe, and goodness will prevail.” Such hope that the largest reality is benign and that all of history is working toward a peaceful resolution is intertwined with education because the larger the reality that people can learn to see, the more likely they are to understand peace.

When we begin feeling that the fate of the world depends on us, it becomes difficult to avoid either becoming warlike or falling into despair. But no matter how urgent things appear around us, our first responsibility is to establish peace within ourselves. If we try to solve problems without an inner peace, our energies will most likely be organized into the contention and conflict we had hoped to resolve. We cannot shove others toward peace. We cannot send our youth to peace the way we might send them to the store for milk. Instead, we need to invite them into the peace we have made.

The Third Reality is missing from Breaking Bad

Breaking BadBreaking Bad portrays the First Reality–government by fear–with great vividness and accuracy. This is the primal world where the strong do as they will. The series does a fair job with the Second Reality–government by law–though at its best this level is much more profound than the series depicts. The story is largely a contest between the criminal world and the world of law and order, and the law and order people are mainly good people, who keep the world in order and avoid being bad.

The Third Reality is missing. None of the characters seems aware of it.

Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies reference the Third Reality, and depend on an awareness of it for the horror to have its full impact. I doubt that in Elizabethan England there was any real parallel with the Team Walter groupies. Team Macbeth?

Teachers should be accountable–but to whom?


This video is an MSNBC promo–anchor Melissa Harris-Perry takes the next logical step, arguing that parents need to give their children over to the collective.

The accountability movement has persuaded many people that teachers are mainly accountable to the federal government or its surrogates–and increasingly state governments have accepted their role in education as vassals of the fed. School reformers normally discuss accountability in terms of mechanisms that allow people at the center to dictate to people in the classroom.

Where do parents fit into this scheme? Increasingly, they are simply ignored. As a teacher I’ve recognized that I have various obligations–certainly to my employer, and to some degree to the various agencies that provide funds with strings attached to schools.

But I’ve always felt that the heart of my job is to be a partner with parents–that my primary accountability is to them. They bear the main responsibility for the education of their children, and my work is to assist them in their work. Such a partnership is easy and mostly delightful when teacher and parent are on the same page regarding what is good for young people. For the most part, I haven’t encountered serious conflicts with parents as to what is reasonable and desirable for their children in an English classroom.

Lately, I’m being told that I am accountable to the collective. I would feel better about that if I could detect the slightest trace of irony in those who say such things. But they seem serious. Zealous, even. My disquiet is fed by awareness that, historically, people who fantasize about collectives don’t rest until they include everyone. Collectives work by creating total worlds–or antiworlds, in James Kalb’s view. They aren’t self-correcting. They keep expanding until they collapse.

At bottom, collectives distrust all outsiders, because they are not based on truth and thus need to constantly repress all voices except the orthodox. The collective desires to replace all other agents as the focus of attention, and this is complicated by competing visions. For the school collectivists, a natural question is “Why should accountability to the collective stop at the school house doors?” If education is a socializing process orchestrated by experts to meet goals set by the Managers, how can parents be left out of the scheme? For those who accept utilitarian principles–which includes most collectivists–arguments about the rights of parents sound nonsensical, remnants of an old order that is rapidly fading into a new order.

It’s only a matter of time before the accountability movement expands to hold parents accountable. It’s the sort of reversal that lies at the heart of ideology. Old schoolers believe the government, including its schools, is accountable to citizens. Many parents still think there is more to education than a global competition to eat each other’s lunches. Such a view springs from a poorly imagined economy, based on a simplistic Darwinian psychology, that imagines the economy as a competition one either wins or loses.

Fortunately, there are other ways to live. I love my garden, but I assume others in other places can also create wonderful gardens, and I hope they do. It doesn’t detract from mine at all, and the reality that they share my love for many things makes me happy. There are no real limits to the number of jobs we can have, or the amount of wealth we can create. We do not need to eat at others’ expense, and the highest and best use of schooling is not to engage in dog eat dog competition with the rest of the world.

I want each of my students to learn as much as he or she is willing to learn, without trammeling the freedom of each person–a freedom that has deep roots in the soul. I can entice and persuade, but I cannot coerce.

I want my students to contemplate what we know of love and of justice and of fear by considering many stories, both in fiction and in history. I want to them to think of that simple progression and what it means in the many, many places we have seen it: from fear to justice and from justice to love. I want to help them deepen and broaden their understanding of human flourishing, quite beyond the skills they need for the workplace–although I also believe that work will always be foundational to the good life, and that some knowledge and skill that are useful is central to life.

I want my students to love the places they live and the people they live with, and to come to better and better understanding of how those places work and who those people are. I want their sense of community to keep expanding, to include not just those who are here now but those who were once here, and those who are yet to come. I want them to think about how to live in ways that do not depend on the destruction of other places or the impoverishment of other people.

I’m having trouble seeing how the collectivists are much help with any of this. I prefer a world in which collectivists and teachers are both accountable to parents.

The buck in the garden

whitetail buck

The September Garden

The buck in the garden watches me, wary and unafraid.
He knows I don’t belong here, creator of tomatoes
carefully bred and staked, bodying forth from here
toward some there that I see, through a glass
darkly.
He knows nothing of the dark.

And so I let him be, wondering how
his return feels a prelude to my return.

What does “The Butler” teach about America’s racial experience?

The Butler

If there’s nothing higher than the White House, there’s little hope.

The Butler doesn’t extend beyond the “progressive narrative” of American history. In this narrative, racism is pervasive−the major theme of our national experience.

In our actual past, racism has always had to contend with the better angels of our nature. Martin Luther King, Jr.was pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and the power of his rhetoric is inseparable from the depth of his faith that racism is contrary to God’s will and thus doomed. When he said “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children,” he was not merely fashioning a trope. He was speaking truth, and he knew it was the white majority that he had to persuade and that most of them favored neither cruelty nor oppression.

Martin Luther King is present in The Butler, but the Christian tenor of his rhetoric is faint. He does defend the butler’s role to his son, who believes that angry political activism is the way to make progress. The King character points out that the domestic servant’s exemplification of service, effort, and restraint powerfully undermines racial stereotypes. He does not look down on the butler, as his son is wont to do.

It was Martin Luther King’s modeling of nonviolent and peaceful reconciliation that prepared the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” he said. Such teaching was of a piece with his faith and hope:  “When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”

This was not Malcolm X’s message. which had more to do with anger and with victory than with love or transcendence: “Time is on the side of the oppressed today, it’s against the oppressor. Truth is on the side of the oppressed today, it’s against the oppressor.” This derives from Marx. It’s the language of revolutionary ideology, dividing humanity into the classes of oppressor and oppressed. It’s the song  of hatred and bitterness that King warned against.

In the actual past, it was King’s message of peace and brotherhood that prepared America to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, both of which were motivated by a vision of national unity. The political activism of Malcolm X was more useful for building a revolutionary army than for bringing a nation together. People had to choose between the two paths then just as they must now. The film, unfortunately, does not make the choice clear.

In Genesis, Joseph serves as a type of Christ. Sold into slavery, he served Pharaoh meticulously, in spite of his status as a despised minority. His patience and obedience in spite of brutal treatment positioned him to save the tribes of Israel and to ameliorate the harsh realities of this world. He foreshadowed what the Savior had to teach about oppression and brotherhood. He modeled the Christian way, which King profoundly understood.

The film generally leans a different way. In the end, the butler leaves his job at the White House and joins an angry protest movement−against Reagan, of all things. Reagan is presented, absurdly, as opposed to racial equality. This is done through cursory references to Apartheid in South Africa. The film uses the strained expedient of twisting Reagan’s opposition to communism into antagonism towards racial justice, ignoring the actual past, in which South Africa was infected with the same revolutionary ideology that moved Malcolm X.

In the film, enlightenment leads to street politics, serving up a vision of political activism as much of the meaning of goodness. The election of Barack Obama is presented as the apotheosis of our yearning for justice. Such is the progressive vision.

Constructing the choice regime

Choice, Part 2

tattered truth

The end is for choice to replace truth as the cultural standard.

To speak of “wise” choices is subversive of the choice regime. Talk of wisdom implies nature in the Aristotelian sense of an enduring reality that we discover rather than construct. The choice regime prefers to consider the ways that humans create themselves. The theory is most fully explicated in Lacan-influenced feminism. Sex is biological and must be replaced with gender, which is constructed.

The choice regime is a land of illusion, but well-funded illusion with lots of support from the authorities. The governing committees can proclaim that there is no biological basis for maintaining distinctions between the sexes, marriage can be redefined, and appeals to any authority beyond the experts who set the policies is derided as extreme. We desire no durable standard for choice other than what we want, and talk of what we ought to want is tasteless and deranged. If a little boy wants to be a little girl, those who would stand against him using the girls restroom and locker room are opposed to diversity and democracy.

The choice regime will weigh in on the side of the individual’s right to self-creation, and if this is a problem for others–say the little girls who do not want a boy in the restroom–they need to overcome their bigotry and evolve. Those who favor dissolving traditional morality with a regime founded on authenticity and choice may waver as each new frontier comes into view–and there will always be a frontier–but they will evolve just as they did on same-sex marriage, unwed mothers, no-fault divorce and the rest.

Guilt and shame must be dissolved. One can see the process readily in the Anthony Weiner drama. Ordinary common-sense–not to mention principle-based reason–suggests Weiner is something of a fool. His adolescent eagerness to will a contradiction–he wants to indulge his horniness whenever the impulse moves him and he wants to be taken seriously and be given grownup responsibilities. Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon offers us help in thinking about this correctly. “Why does it matter?” she asks. “Of course, it probably matters to Huma Abedin, the mother of his child (that is, assuming that they have an agreement of monogamy, and that their definition of monogamy includes refraining from sexting with others)”–that is, if he and his wife have chosen to think that fidelity is important to a marriage. “But why should we care?”

The key to correct thinking is to get the focus off character:

We might tell ourselves that this reveals something relevant about Weiner’s character — his absurd ego or penchant for risk-taking, perhaps. But are these not also qualities that might make him a good politician? Have we not seen similar characteristics in Bill Clinton, John Edwards and so many other talented-but-philandering politicos? I can’t help but think that we are disturbed by his lack of sexual control not because it is relevant to his job but because it reminds us of the ways that we sometimes feel overpowered by sex.

Turn the attention away from Weiner and focus it back on whoever presumes to judge. Weiner did nothing wrong. Mention that John Edwards was “talented” but ignore the thought that he was dishonest, greedy, manipulative and cruel–somehow wasn’t his talent comprised of all his qualities? What are the motives of those who come to judgment, anyway? It’s okay to focus on talent and intelligence–the elite is elite for reasons–but not on character. People who bring up character are probably hypocrites: “We could act indignant about the fact that he hasn’t been forthcoming about aspects of his intimate life. But why not instead be angry that we live in a country that requires him to be dishonest about his struggles with monogamy in order to maintain his career?”

See? It’s not so much that he’s a fool as that he’s a victim–a victim of hypocrisy. And the real point is that if we don’t dissolve the old structures of guilt and shame, none us will escape suffering. Nonjudgmentalism (at least about sex) is a pact–it lets us all off the hook:

Well, let ye who is without embarrassing sexts cast the first stone. (Side-note: I read some of Weiner’s messages out loud to my partner, guffawing after each — until he jogged my memory about a few that I had sent to him in the early days of our relationship and I proceeded to shut the hell up forever on that topic.)

The old way to resolve guilt was through repentance and change. In the choice regime, it is the standard that is seen as the problem. It is forbidden to forbid. It’s a short step from this–dismissing old notions of goodness–to hating goodness itself. A good person restores the standard of judgment–and thus our guilt. People who attack people like Weiner, or Bill Clinton, are the problem. It is they who must be attacked.

To understand character as ordered desire–as the sort of wisdom that will, for example, abstain from a donut in order to preserve health–was not long ago the basis of our culture. The natural man is a tangled flux of disordered desires, living amid the perpetual crisis that surrounds the impulsive and improvident.

Those attracted to realms of truth–ordered desires amid enduring realities–are likely to repair the barn door before the storm, to plant the corn in season, to withdraw savings to handle emergencies, and to sit at peace under his fig tree watching the grandchildren play. It’s not possible for such people to reason with advocates for the choice regime. Their reason works by seeking truth–insights into enduring realities–but in the choice regime, desire is the main truth.

Language is taken as a self-referential performance circling the reality of desire. The discourse of cable talk shows is emblematic of the age. Guests rationalize and justify, frame and reframe, construct and reconstruct–but the goal is creation of a version that might justify a position. It is rarely communion.

Wendell Berry observed that the best way to judge intelligence might be the degree of order that surrounds one. Let’s turn to that insight next.

The Unwinding: an inner history of the new America by George Packer, review

George Packer, author of "The Unwinding"--a study of ordinary Americans after the financial collapse of 2008.

George Packer, author of “The Unwinding”–a study of ordinary Americans after the financial collapse of 2008.

The Unwinding by George Packer is a work of narrative journalism that is a lament that America resembles a “decadent kleptocracy” rather than a land of opportunity, its institutions and moral order in rapid decline. But it is also a call to action, though the call is embedded in the stories of its three main characters, each of whose world crumbles, and each of whom suffers loss and disillusionment, and each of whom finds a new place to stand, living out a stubborn refusal to be written off.

The stories of three ordinary Americans caught up in convulsive change are carefully reported. We get to know the hopes and dreams and failures of an Ohio factory worker, a political operative in the national arena and a Bible belt tobacco farmer. Their stories are interwoven with narrative portraits of larger players, such as Joe Biden, Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Walmart founder Sam Walton, PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel, and Colin Powell. The result is a complex and nuanced tapestry showing us a nation in decline–but one that has faced similar trouble in the past and found a new way forward.

From the Prologue:

No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way. Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways—and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line o! history and became irretrievably different.

If you were born around I960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition—ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.