Category 1. American Culture

Things Taken for Granted

Psst. You might be interested to know that I am richer than Croesus. Much richer, in fact.

So are you, which I guess means it isn’t boasting to write, just among ourselves, about our astounding wealth.

Admittedly, our tableware isn’t solid gold – at least mine isn’t – but, winter or summer, we have fresh fruits, and meats or fish of our choosing. Sweets, too, tickle our tongues – if anything, in too much profusion. Did Croesus ever taste sushi, French wine or chocolate ice cream? I think not.

Our bodily wastes disappear with the press of a lever. We drink and bathe in clean water. Our clothes are soft and, as a general matter, neither they nor we stink. In the Lydian’s day, none of these things – except maybe soft clothes for the king – would have been true.

The building...

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On the Paucity of Genuine Grownups in Public Service

I have a friend who is notably circumspect. He is a master of leaving things unsaid. To those who know him well, what he doesn’t say is sometimes as thought-provoking as what he does.

This friend is a man of many accomplishments – personal, professional and philanthropic – but you have to know him a long time before he might refer to any of them. And then he’ll only do so obliquely, with reference to something, presumably more interesting, that’s already under discussion. You have to wait for his stories to emerge, never turning them into the focus of the conversation. He would consider zeroing in on what he has done to be boasting.

He also neither pries into nor gossips about personal matters. In short, he’s a man of decidedly old-fashioned manners.

***

When I was a boy, ...

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Three Good Books

Three books that I read last year tell stories that are strikingly similar. Two – Educated by Tara Westover and Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance – are memoirs, while the third – The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah – is a novel. In each, the protagonist manages to overcome a childhood of deep, rural poverty and a terribly troubled, proudly antisocial family to become a highly accomplished adult. 

All three are very compelling stories; they give us windows into pathologies – mental health problems, drug addictions and PTSD in the three of them respectively, and extreme intra-family violence in all three – that combine with poverty in ways that conspire mightily against happy outcomes...

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Patriotic Americans

This past Saturday night I went out to dinner in Washington, DC, with one of my sisters. Our Uber driver on the way over was a retired cop, a lovely African-American woman who proudly told us about her two sons in college and her husband who might retire from American Airlines soon, but in her view shouldn’t. She doesn’t think sitting at home would make him happy.

She had to drop us several blocks from our destination because we had chosen a restaurant without being aware that it was just then being passed by a massive LGBTQ Pride parade.

A large, boisterous crowd was on hand for the parade, and at one point as we walked toward the restaurant we were doused with a spray from above that I momentarily feared wasn’t water, but was...

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A Recommendation

I generally try to be at least a little bit original in these posts – after all, why else would you read them? – but in this case I’m going to make an exception.

For quite some time I have been wondering why it is that so many young Americans seem to be drifting off into what is, to me, self-evidently wrongheaded Socialist utopianism. The worst ideas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – ideas that are antithetical to the cultural and institutional constructs that provided the basis for our country’s unprecedented successes, and that have been directly responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people – are finding favor among our young.

Is our educational system to blame? Clearly yes, in my mind, but I have been at a loss to pinpoint the deeper currents must also be ...

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The Religion of Fools

It has long been said that anti-Semitism is the Socialism of fools; perhaps so, but my variant is that Socialism is the religion of fools.

Seriously, how dumb do you have to be to believe that the solution to our problems is to have the government run (and, in that ideology’s purest version, own) pretty much everything? Dumb enough to believe in the “new man” who will triumph over his “base” instincts that favor self-preservation and personal enhancement. Dumb enough to believe that people will work just as hard in a system that purports to distribute goods equally, but actually distributes them based on political power...

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American Anomie?

To an extent that I have only come to appreciate with the passage of years, I was born in the shadow of World War II. As a boy in the 1960s, that war seemed like ancient history to me; my father had fought in it, but refused to speak about his wartime experiences, so all I had for perspective about that actually recent history were patriotic war movies of the sort that haven’t been made since that time. In those movies, our guys wore the white hats and they always triumphed, albeit generally at a poignantly felt cost. 

To my father and others of his generation, no doubt war memories, many of them horrid, were all too fresh – the thirteen years between the war’s end and my birth must have seemed like the blink of an eye to them – shorter than the time between 9/11, which I remember wi...

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Failing Gatekeepers

I attended Phillips Exeter and Princeton. As an undergraduate, I majored in English and studied three other languages – one living, two dead. I loved most of my courses.

As I recall, in the late 1970s standards were quite high in Princeton’s English Department; I worked very hard at my studies and achieved only the level of being slightly above average in my departmental ranking. I did not graduate with honors. At the time, I excused my undistinguished academic record as having been caused by my participation in – and an excessive focus on – varsity athletics, but as many others have shown, that’s a lame excuse.

My loves of reading and writing, nurtured through my formal education, have followed me through life; I would also like to think that my course of study – which bo...

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About the Suburbs

In the immediate aftermath of WWI, commuter train lines were built reaching up into Westchester County. An area just outside the city’s limits that had been countryside became the town where, many decades later, the Beloved Spouse and I would raise our children and spend much of our lives. Within the space of a few years after what’s now our train line went in, the land was cut into quarter-acre and half-acre lots, thousands of houses were built and a suburb was born.

Initially, many of the homes were nearly identical. The house that we bought 32 years ago and lived in for our first ten years here has a twin just a block away. Other houses on the street also have twins a block away...

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System Failures

That international trade is strongly positive in its over-all effects is the strongly-held, consensus view among both economists generally and my social class in particular. I have no doubt that the economists’ perspective is correct, as far as it goes – meaning, that trade increases global wealth by making the best use of different nations’ comparative advantages – but it has nothing to say about those who lose out as a result of the improved efficiencies.

Global trade, like migrations and the constant, churning changes inherent to capitalism, disadvantages some while benefiting others. Creative destruction is the very engine of a free market...

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