Category 1. American Culture

A Sadder Zeitgeist?

Over the last few days, I watched Ekaterina, The Rise of Catherine the Great.

You already know how it goes: gorgeous sets, beautiful actors, Machiavellian plotting, more than a dollop of sexual sizzle, eventual triumph of the heroine. Given that it’s de facto Russian propaganda, produced by Russia’s state TV network – and that Catherine is revered in Russia today for having swallowed much of Poland and Ukraine – the production is infused with Russian nationalism and the sex is demurely offstage.

That said, it’s pretty effective propaganda. The actress who plays Catherine is gorgeous – which always helps rivet this particular viewer’s attention – and at every step of her tortured path to the throne, her motives are portrayed sympathetically...

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What the Iconoclasts Forget

Years ago, a friend who doesn’t eat meat told me that he thinks that in a few generations people will remember their carnivorous forbears – like me – with the same sense of shame now felt by the descendants of American slave owners. His comment didn’t convince me to change my eating habits but it did set me thinking about how societal norms sometimes undergo radical changes.

Until late in the eighteenth century, slavery was more or less universally accepted as the way of the world. Every empire-building conqueror and even the thought-leaders among the great ancient civilizations took the buying and selling of human beings for granted...

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Bourgeois Values

As you may know, two law school professors – Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania and Larry Alexander of the University of San Diego – recently provoked a noisy backlash from progressives associated with – and culturally dominant at – their institutions by co-authoring this (http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/commentary/paying-the-price-for-breakdown-of-the-countrys-bourgeois-culture-20170809.html) oped praising bourgeois values. In it, they gave advice that once would have been seen as anodyne – trite, even – but that many now see as racist:

“That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness...

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A Universalist Vision

“I am human and I think that nothing of that which is human is alien to me. “

– Publius Terentius Afer, now known as Terence, a Roman poet and former slave

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Like most Americans, I have been following the violence employed as a political tactic around the country by the “antifa” left, and now by white nationalists in Charlottesville, with horror. These groups are mirror-images of each other, and not just in the tactics they employ. They are splinter-group reflections of a culture that has been discarding the universalist ideal (“All men are created equal”) in favor of narrower – and ugly – group interests.

I can’t begin to match the clarity of this (https://www.facebook.com/brendan.oneill.79/posts/1450097131747042?pnref=story) post on the sense of victimhood that drives...

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What’s News?

President Trump and his allies are enjoying the media’s own goals http://thehill.com/homenews/media/340564-media-errors-fuel-trump-attacks, but the factual errors in these stories are a relatively unimportant symptom of the media’s bias problem.

Who cares, really, that only four intelligence agencies –  the CIA, FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Agency – had contributed to the conclusion that the Russians had interfered in the 2016 election, instead of the 17 agencies originally referenced by The New York Times and The Associated Press? As I’ve previously written, I – and, I assume, most people – believe that those four agencies were right – the Russians probably did their best to sow confusion and distrust about our election process, and i...

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A Traitor to My Class?

I do not give to Princeton, where I went to college.

Last Friday evening I had dinner with three close friends who among them have four Ivy League degrees, including ones from Harvard and Yale. In the course of our conversation I mentioned that I don’t give to my alma mater and added that the institutions that we graduated from have so much money that they are accountable to no one but themselves. None of my friends took issue with my comment – which is interesting, because all four of us have long made philanthropic commitments important parts of our lives.

Harvard, Yale and Princeton have endowments that total about $80 billion between them...

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The Old Continent(s?)

At present, I am sitting in the bar of an old hotel in Lisbon, nursing a drink while my beloved has a pot of tea. Over the last couple of days, we have walked all over this city.

Europe is the cradle of Western Civilization; it is breathtakingly beautiful and its inhabitants have refined the enjoyment of life’s physical delights to a high art. Even so, its present state saddens me: Europe is tired.

For those who have money and live here or, like us, are just passing through, life is still beautiful, but whole countries look backward with nostalgia and forward with concern.

Europe’s native populations have opted for the illusions of security – personal and societal – provided by their local governments and the EU – over grander visions and more sustaining values.

For most Western Europeans,...

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Identity and Belonging

We tend to define our individual identities largely by reference to groups. Each of us can be seen as part of countless definable groups; for example, I am an American; I am a man; I am middle-aged; I am a husband and father; I am a business-person; I am a blogger; I am a (non-doctrinaire) libertarian; I am a WASP. I could go on and on. So could you, about anybody.

Groups are communally defined: others must share an understanding of the definitions of the groups by which we characterize ourselves. We pick and choose which group identities are more important in our own eyes.

The sense of belonging in particular groups becomes an important part of how we see ourselves. Indeed, we need to belong to groups that help form our identities...

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Two Americas?

It was a beautiful day today, so I went for a long bicycle ride with three friends. We covered sixty one miles of the Connecticut countryside east of New Haven.

Nearly every pedal stroke took us past scenes of real, if understated, beauty. Spring is in full bloom, of course, and its colors are hardly understated, but the homes, farms and small towns that we rode past spoke of a quiet prosperity.

It struck me, though, that not too many miles to our west was New Haven, much of which presents a starkly different aspect. In that city’s poorer neighborhoods, you would think you were in a different country. I expect to walk through some of those neighborhoods on The Big Walk, which I hope will take place next month.

That there are two Americas is one of our President’s favorite themes...

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Demography and Values

Demographics are the generally unheralded story behind much of the world’s news, and they are an important barometer of the health of each society. Our country’s changing demographics – as manifested in the declining ratio of working taxpayers to retirees – are making manifest the problems in our public finances; the already-visible effects of extremely low birthrates in other developed nations are far more dire, for reasons I will describe below. But first I will comment on what demographics tell us about a society.

When a previously vibrant, growing group ceases producing enough children to avoid population decline, it is a sign that something is – or maybe many things are – seriously amiss...

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