The Art of Being Free

How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us from Ourselves

[Amazon Link]

Back in January, I noted a glowing article from Nick Gillespie at Reason about The Art of Being Free by James Poulos. ("If You Want To Find Freedom in Trump's America, Read This Book!") So I eagerly put it on by things-to-read list, and requested it via the Interlibary Loan program of the University Near Here (thanks, Bowdoin College!) and…

Well, rarely have I been so let down. I am frankly puzzled about Poulos's intended audience for the book. At times he seems to be talking to himself. But, given Gillespie's praise, I suppose I'd also guess he's talking to guys like Gillespie. But not me, sorry. This is one of those books where "I read it" means, pretty much, "I looked at every page."

Poulos's thesis, as near as I can tell, is that Tocqueville's Democracy in America, written in the 1830s, has much of value to tell us of the current American situation. We are still in what Poulos calls the "Great Transition" between the ancien régime, the age of aristocracy, and the age of democracy. And it's driving us Americans all crazy (Poulos uses "crazy" a lot). He analyzes how this trend and our mental states, play out in different arenas, each one a chapter title: Change, Faith, Money, Play, Sex, Death, Love. The book bursts with references to serious social philosophers (Nietzsche, Philip Rieff, Robert Bellah, Emerson, …), but also to literary/pop culture icons: Bret Easton Ellis, Marilyn Manson, Batman, Beck, … One gets the feeling that unless your reading and entertainment habits match Poulos's pretty closely, you're going to miss whatever points he's trying to make.

And let me tell you: I'm pretty sure Poulos took the movie Zoolander a lot more seriously than you did.

The prose is… not for the fainthearted. (The reviewer for National Review deemed it "prolix". I wouldn't be that complimentary. Picking a page (137) at random:

We long for unity through the medium of our equality—seeing ourselves in the image of money, not (for instance) the image of God; if only we could be as mutable, commensurable, and passable as that which constantly reinforces and reminds us of our interchangeable insignificance.

Yeah, whatever. I would object that making such a sweeping generalization about what "we long for" would be unwarranted, if only I could figure out what he meant in the first place.

I'll give him a slight thumbs up, when he suggests that while our official motto In God We Trust might capture a popular response to "the craziness of everyday life", a more useful motto might be "Deal With It".

That's pretty good, I'm willing to back whatever legislation needed to make it so, but it also appears on page 2, and the book never gets back to that level of accessibility.

That's me, though. If you're more like Nick Gillespie, you will almost certainly like it better.

The Cleanup

[Amazon Link]

As readers may know, my to-be-read pile is deep, and my attacks on it are whimsical. So when Amazon tells me that I bought this paperback in August 2007… well, that's not surprising.

It has a lot going for it. There are glowing cover blurbs from Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, and Laura Lippman! I think the reason I got it, however, was (somehow) I became aware that it was set in Omaha, where I spent many of my Formative Years (1961-1969, age 10-18). And I can (finally) report: it's pretty good, crime fiction in the Elmore Leonard vein.

The protagonist, Matt Worth, is an Omaha beat cop whose career, and life generally, is on a downward slide. His wife left him for a homicide detective, and the resulting altercation got him assigned to the graveyard shift at SaveMore, an open-all-night supermarket. There, his attention is drawn to a young cashier, Gwen. She's nice, but occasionally comes to work with injuries that Worth's cop instincts (correctly) deduce are due to an abusive boyfriend.

Then things take a turn for the disastrous. Gwen's hospitalized, the boyfriend turns up dead, and Matt finds himself in the boyfriend's car with the corpse in the trunk (along with, unbeknownst to Matt, a boatload of cash). Also complicating matters: organized crime, dirty cops, a freak October snowstorm, a nosy neighbor, and discount furniture. So that all keeps the pages turning.

At the time of the book's writing, the author, Sean Doolittle, lived in Omaha, and it shows. The protagonist went to Central High, and there are references to real places like Creighton U, Clarkson Hospital (that's where I got my tonsils out in 1956!), Westroads, etc.. The "SaveMore" grocery store is placed at Saddle Creek and Leavenworth, which Google Maps tells me is really a Baker's these days.

UNH Censors Again

Or, to quote Buck Murdock: "Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes."

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has the story: University of New Hampshire’s removal of anti-sexual harassment exhibit undermines free speech.

FIRE and others are asking questions about the University of New Hampshire’s decision to remove a student-led exhibit criticizing street harassment and allow it to be re-posted only after making changes apparently acceptable to administrators’ tastes about what language is sufficiently inoffensive to be shared on a university campus.

"Street harassment" is a thing now. It refers to guys making sexually suggestive remarks (of varying degrees of offensiveness) to women in public. The exhibit in question (there's a picture of it at the FIRE link) contains somewhere around three dozen examples, all allegedly based on survey results gathered by UNH's Sexual Harassment & Rape Prevention Program (SHARPP), where students were invited to submit things they actually heard said to them on the street. The exhibit appeared in the primary hallway of the Memorial Union Building (MUB).

To state the obvious: a college town like Durham is an overflowing petri dish of young-person hormones combined with varying degrees of desperation, insecurity, and general stupidity.

And the latter is enhanced via copious amounts of cheap beer and weed.

And finally, on the "street", especially on Thursday-Saturday nights, an additional factor comes into play: the notion that everyone's on the prowl, "looking for a good time".

So it's not very surprising that "street harassment" happens in Durham. In fact, SHARPP's Director, Amy Culp, is completely believable when she claims that the display was restricted to some of the "milder" comments submitted.

"I understand that some found them to be concerning; however, it’s important to note that these were far less vile than the other list of comments that were reported,” [Culp] said.

The FIRE article is pretty brutal in describing the censorship imposed by UNH Administration. FIRE reports the student newspaper's quote from Dean of Students Ted Kirkpatrick:

Additionally, open house season for admitted students and their families began last week and, according to Kirkpatrick, some of the “language used on the MUB wall placards was not suitable for young children or for those members of our publics and our campus community who have strong personal convictions that may originate from religious, spiritual or ethnic roots.”

Something FIRE missed in the above is the "open house season" factor. Specifically: prospective college applicants and their families flock to UNH at this time of year, and a lot of them traipse through that MUB hallway.

Now, Dean Kirkpatrick's claimed concern for "young children" etc., is fine, but I can't help but think he had a bigger, unstated, worry: that moms and dads would see the display and think that just maybe they didn't want to plonk their daughter into such a self-admitted sexually-besotted environment. Which, in turn would impact the UNH pocketbook. Can't have that!

Of course, when it comes to the UNH Administration vs. SHARPP, there's a certain "isn't there some way they could both lose" schadenfreude involved. SHARPP has long been a force for stupidity at UNH, subordinating the worthy goal of a less-sexually-toxic environment to the more important goal of tediously hectoring the student body against "sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, able-bodyism, ageism and other oppressions."

The "brains" behind the street harassment display is Jordyn Haime, described as "a freshman journalism major and SHARPP community educator". If you have the time and inclination, you can read her student-newspaper op-eds here and here. She is a living example of George F. Will's aphorism: when colleges and universities "make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate."

But I was struck by this bit in the (sympathetic, of course) Huffington Post story about the controversy:

“I think I started carrying a pocketknife with me when I was 16, I bought myself a can of pepper spray for my 18th birthday, and my mom bought me a new container of mace before I went off to college,” Haime told [the author] via email. “So I think that speaks a lot to what young people are expected to deal with on college campuses or just walking down the street.”

Hey, Jordyn? I'd like to draw your attention to the rules:

The University of New Hampshire is a weapon free campus. This applies to all residence halls and apartments. Weapons include but are not limited to, firearms, simulated firearms, dangerous chemicals, any explosive device, nunchucks, brass knuckles, butterfly knives, paintball guns/equipment and any other materials that can be used to intimidate, threaten or endanger others, are prohibited on campus. Any knife, including a butter knife, used as a weapon shall be considered a violation of this policy.

So you better hope that the dorm cops don't read the HuffPo.