So in case you haven’t seen it yet, there’s a very nice article profiling the Elliot County, Kentucky high school basketball teamat, written by my former home-town sportswriter, Pat Forde. It’s one of those underdog stories (like Hoosiers, to borrow Forde’s analogue), but in Appalachia rather than the Rust Belt/rural Indiana (which makes it more of an underdog story, really, because Appalachia is poorer and more generally forgotten).  Anyway, that’s nice and all, but the really intriguing line of thought comes in the second comment on the piece, by a certain “cstorm06”:

“Send them all to UK, No kid would ever work harder than these kids. I’d take them over a Liggins or Bradley any ol’day. [sic]

Now, in case you haven’t noticed, there’s a hell of a lot wrongwith my Wildcats right about now. And this line of thought — that what they need are a few sharpshooting hillbillies or small-town kids, raised on Kentucky basketball but undersized and “undertalented” so with a chip on their shoulders — isn’t uncommon. In fact, I remember saying aloud after Billy Gillispie was hired that I hoped he’d go get a couple of under-sized clutch-shooting kids from Eastern Kentucky.

To continue drawing examples from my own experiences with Kentucky basketball: I used to predict the outcome of the Kentucky-Louisville game based on which team had more native Kentuckians; it worked for two or three years in a row, actually. I thought for a long time that Chuck Hayes — the under-sized, “under-talented” power forward who through sheer force of will has developed an NBA career — was a native Kentuckian; in my family, the highest praise a player can receive (and it was frequent for Hayes) is, “He plays like he’s from Kentucky.”

The theory isn’t that the size or haircuts or whatnot make them that good; it’s where they’re from. That, because of place-a sense of “from-ness”-they will play harder, and have more devotion than anyone not from Kentucky and not raised on Kentucky basketball. That, contra Seinfeld, the “Kentucky” they’re playing for isn’t just a set of jerseys, or a university over in Lexington. It’s not even a state, this line of reasoning goes, but the state-the one that raised them, that they’ve grown up in. That, in addition to everything else that can come with/from playing college basketball for what is (still) the winningest program in the NCAA, there is a sense of playing for the place which one is from. That it raises the performance of individual players, and therefore of the team.

That’s nice and all, I can hear you saying, but come on!  And I would think that, too.  Only, somehow, history supports the view that being from a lifelong Kentucky fan makes a Kentucky player better (particularly if one is a guard). Forde mentions King Kelly Coleman and Richie Farmer; but three of the four seniors of the 1992 Unforgettables were from small-town Eastern Kentucky (John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus along with Farmer) – they were a team that over-performed their way into the Final Four and would have over-performed into the Finals were it not for a certain Duke thug named Christian “That Bastard” Laettner.  Not to mention: Patrick Sparks, Ravi Moss, and Cameron Mills (who avenged ’92), among others.

And, at the risk of opening up an entirely different can of worms, Adolph Rupp on his recruiting practices: “It’s got to be a Kentucky boy or from a neighbor state. We can’t go raid some schoolyard.” And it didn’t work out too poorly for him, at least not until John Wooden came along and built himself a few basketball teams.

So I haven’t meant this as simple glorification of the grand past of Kentucky basketball because I can’t bear to look at the present (though that’s roughly where I’m at this season); but as another piece of evidence that there is meaning and importance in one’s native hill, wherever it may be. I can’t, of course, call for a team of all Kentuckians and expect “greatness”: but on those great teams-and the not-so-great ones-the players with a habit of over-performing and rising to the occasion when the situation most demanded it have a disproportionate habit of being Kentuckians. And warnings be damned: it can’t just be dismissed as random correlation.

Every year, there’s at least one obligatory article at Northwestern profiling Roger Carlson and Bookman’s Alley.  But this article goes beyond that and profiles Evanston’s very-much-dying used/independent bookstore scene, and it’s an excellent piece for anyone interested in reading about books, bookstores, and the changing ways we buy and sell them.  (Or if you’re just feeling nostalgic.)

This, for instance, is one store that I’ll regret never having known (and that lonely sign for it was already vaguely unsettling before I knew what, exactly, it was the ghost of):

‘According to Howard Cohen, owner of Howard’s Books, Great Expectations was “the best philosophy bookstore in the United States for many years.” Whereas Barnes & Noble might carry three or four books by Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, Great Expectations would fill three or four shelves.

Once a Northwestern undergraduate and now a history professor here, Jeff Rice was the last owner of the store. He paints a romantic picture of it, a place where professors would meet, famous writers would come and go (Saul Bellow got kicked out of the store “for being an asshole”) and people would get into political arguments and shouting matches while a Cubs game played in the background.’

My eternal problem with buying books online is that you can’t really browse — at least not the same way you can in an actual book store.  And what makes an independent or used book store so much better for browsing than a chain store is the sheer variety and eclecticism of the collections: they keep the authors who don’t sign large advances alive.  (Not to mention that they’re about the only places you can find decent poetry/philosophy sections, though some chain stores do better than others on this front, normally — in my experience — depending on how close to a college they are.)

Consider: Andrew Sullivan recounts discovering Michael Oakeshott accidentally while browsing in a used book store; Paul Breslin, an English professor here who is a leading scholar on Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, discovered Walcott in a used book store in New York because there were palm trees on the cover and opened it to find poems that left him, he says, stunned; Ezra Pound was in a bookshop on the Paris strand when he stumbled onto an old edition of the Latin translation of the Odyssey that he then translated and adapted into the first of his Cantos — and, in a great “What If?” for lovers of the Modernists — he was forced to choose between it and a translation of the Iliad because he could only afford to buy one.

Though none of my used book experiences have been quite so momentous, I came across Saul Bellow’s Herzog — which is among the best postwar American novels I have read — before having read a word of his; the story is the same with Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism — both not at all what I was looking for.  And most of my books related in any way to Classical authors — in original or in translation — have come from only slightly more deliberate browsing sessions.

I guess what I’m saying is, if we didn’t have these eclectic little shops to wander in, the accidents of history (or at least of recent thought) would be that much more homogenous, and that much the worse for it.

“Our post-modern generation is beginning to understand this.  It is beginning to see that in the process of establishing his autonomy and gaining mastery over the instruments of living, Western man has managed to lose his grasp of the meaning of life, his control over the dark destructive forces within himself and society.  In gaining — or rather in trying to gain — the world, he has come very close to losing his soul.”

And, leading up to a proclamation of “the essential homelessness of man”:

“We stand confounded, perplexed, consumed with anxiety.  Everything has become problematical, everything has turned into meaninglessness, absurdity, nothingness.  But that everything is our existence, our very life.

“What does it all signify?  It signifies that, deceive himself as he may, man is never entirely at home in the natural universe of which he is part — and he knows it.”

Judaism and Modern Man, pgs. 8 and 15, respectively

Just sayin’.  His definition of “post-modern” is awfully similar to how PomoCo wants to define it.  And you should see him talk about contemporary–albeit to the 50s–psychiatry: if Tom More had the same occasionally over-the-top syntax and diction, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it in a Louisiana accent.

Admittedly, I’m not that far into the book, but at the rate I’m making margin notes referring to Lawler, Percy, etc., I’m inclined to thing there’s some sympathy — if nothing else — there.

when the scariest thing about this — “Dow 11-Year Low Reached” — is that 1997 was over a decade ago.  Things were simpler in 1997.  I miss that.

O, where have you gone late 90s?  Your nation needs you more than you could know, whoh-oh-oh…

Austerity Notes

February 21, 2009

The Atlantic tries to paint a picture of the burgeoning Austerity Japan.  What I think we’ll see more generally, however, is that paragraphs like this

“Japanese shoppers, at home and abroad, account for about half of the global luxury-goods market. But according to a study released last fall by Bain & Company, the luxury market here was expected to shrink by 7 percent in 2008, after falling by 2 percent the previous year.”

are going to be greeted with concern.  Limits, as we all know, are out of the question; the ever-expanding waistline of the “American way of life” is non-negotiable.  If it’s true that the declining demand for luxury goods (and after-hours drinks, apparently) is attributable at least as much to sentiments like these

‘The collapse of the bubble economy in Japan and the “lost decade” of decline that followed left everyone a little wiser. “Japanese consumers were like a sponge,” Chanel’s Sakurai told me. “We absorbed everything, and then we got wrung out. We’re not going to absorb the same things as we used to.” What sells today is value.’

as to general economic downturn, then there may be something there to learn from.  Of course, when the next paragraph defines “value” as Swedish discount outlet stores, I become skeptical.  “Value” and “style” are not the same thing, and I’m a little worried to see The Atlantic come this close to conflating them.  Switching from excessive luxury to discount furniture is a start, but any consumerism of limits is going to need to turn an eye toward products that last if it is to have any value.


Meanwhile, Victor Davis Hanson writes about his grandfather during the Depression and tries to cheer us all up.  What he fails to reckon with is that the safety-net of his grandfather’s family and their farm during the Depression years generally does not exist today.  This wasn’t merely nuclear-family fallback; 26 family members on the farm at the height of the Depression, working at a common enterprise.  Any article on this which includes the line “the farm was only 120 acres” is taking something for granted.

What do you do when you don’t have those bonds, or you don’t have that acreage on which you can be somewhat self-sustaining?  I agree with him that we’re not at 1930 yet by any means and we may well never get there.  But the question remains: what is our safety net this time?  Until we’re able to answer that question (and “the government” is not acceptable; setting everything else aside, it’s merely one bullet and by no means a silver one) we’re not at all ready for things getting worse.


In my mind, at least, that was all by means of saying that a society which views its purpose as expansion rather than sustainability and sustenance is not prepared for a crisis, or any other moment in which society is truly and totally necessary.

Ramesh Ponnuru to a classmate of mine, Matt Zeitlin: “Aren’t you that impetuous young whippersnapper?” It became a different kind of funny when I realized that’s actually the name of his blog. He seems to do a better job of being a blogger than I do, which isn’t hard, considering that I still don’t know how I feel about this as a medium. (This also means that Northwestern’s undergraduate-political-blogging output is something like 1/10th or so of Yale’s: look out, you Mafiosi, here we come!)

This is all by way of saying both, “Hi, Matt! (And if you can’t decipher the initials, I’m the Classics major in that course on Modernist poetry.)” and “I actually sort of know this guy who I’m about to take issue with.” Now, while I’ll confess that National Review‘s “Top 25 Conservative [insert-culture-item-here]” lists tend to leave me at least vaguely puzzled, and while I don’t remember much of Master and Commander other than it was long, I enjoyed watching it, but have never desired to do so a second time, I don’t think his critique of their interpretation quite works. He writes:

“I shouldn’t have to explain why a state – which is a set of legal and institutional arrangements designed (ideally) for the mutual advantage of its citizens – shouldn’t adopt the values of a war ship. The fact a certain set of values and assumptions makes sense in a institutional setting where the goal is to kill and destroy is a good argument for why they don’t make sense in society at large.”

Now, what was in the NRO blurb was this:

“It imagines the [H.M.S.] Surprise as a coherent society in which stability is underwritten by custom and every man knows his duty and his place.”

The problem here is that the goal of the H.M.S. Surprise, at least insofar as most of the movie is concerned (this is, of course, based on a hazy memory) is not “to kill and destroy” so much as it is to survive. It’s a warship, yes, so destruction has something to do with its purpose, but the threats it faces come less frequently from the French than from nature and chance. And in those instances too-perhaps those instances in particular-custom and duty play important roles in survival

So if one looks at the film from a different angle-where it is not merely the story of a warship in pursuit, but also a ship, housed and run by a society in miniature doing its damnedest to stay afloat, you needn’t limit the lessons and attitudes that allow it to do so to an aircraft carrier; when the Surprise is a ship trying to stay afloat, it becomes (just like that!) an allegorical society/government in miniature. And such an allegory has its value to conservatism – I refer you to this passage from Oakeshott’s “Political Education” that I’ve basically used this entire post as an excuse to quote:

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.”

It is, of course, the situation in which the Surprise finds herself. And it may well have been that Miller’s write-up would have been better suited to reference Oakeshott (but then again, referencing Oakeshott means you expect everyone to have read him; and I’d daresay Burke sells more books – then again, I don’t know that I’d expect an Oakeshott reference on the Corner too often). But I digress. The point isn’t that I can close-read Master and Commander to fit my politics; it’s that the movie happens to parallel Oakeshott’s metaphor quite well: which is to say that it expands it into over two hours and lets us watch it in living color. In times of crisis, society survives by relying on what it knows, or at least knows best; but understanding some semblance of order and structure; by behaving within bounds that have already been tested by history. And,

“If the doctrine deprives us of a model laid up in heaven to which we should approximate our behaviour, at least it does not lead us into a morass where very choice is equally good or equally to be deplored.”

So the promised “no-holds-barred intellectual debate” between Ramesh Ponnuru and Rick Perlstein over the question, “Has the Hour of Conservatism Passed?” was not nearly as “no-holds-barred” as my e-mail inbox seemed to promise, probably due to the fact that “conservatism” was never actually defined.  Perlstein, in many senses, recounted Sam Tenenhaus’ case about movement conservatism from a somewhat different perspective; Ponnuru countered with the usual.

I suppose I was disappointed in that it didn’t touch on anything that might revitalize conservatism — or any discussion other than the usual boilerplate of where it might have gone wrong.  Perlstein gave a brief introduction to Kirk’s “6 canons” but a recognition of limits was very quickly glossed over — there wasn’t much space (or time) in the room for consideration of a Bacevich-type critique; and even if not that particular angle, an angle that is something more than either party’s talking point(s) is needed for the conversation about conservatism to be effectively meaningful.

But then again, I also suppose that I was never expecting the intellectual issues to be solved in a single two-hour session in that creepy lecture hall at Northwestern with portraits of former presidents and board chairmen peering down on us (and mauveish panelling).

But afterwards, I was chatting briefly with an acquaintance much more involved in the campus political scene than I.  He’d sent me a link to this article, by Christopher Lasch, about a week ago; and there, we agreed, would be a good starting place for the discussion (a part of the discussion, at least) of where conservatism goes now.  So I present the link, with the only comment that it was written in 1990 — which makes it seem rather prescient.

A headline that the Louisville Courier-Journal’s website makes to sound like good news: “Less than 19,000 still without power in state.” And it is good news – because two and a half weeks ago, that number was 700,000, and a week ago well over 100,000. If those numbers referred to people, rather than households, we’d be referring to 17% of the state without electricity simultaneously at one point. But because they are talking about households, it was a far, far greater proportion of the state without power.  All at once, with temperatures lower than they “should” have been, even for winter.When I talked with my grandfather about it, he said that he had looked outside late in the afternoon the storm hit, and saw ice caking on the transformer across the street, and said to my grandmother they were going to lose power. So they, unlike many, had a few hours’ notice: the end of the night, it had fallen to the street, and their home didn’t have power for about another week. (This is all in small-town Kentucky, where things were generally worse than Louisville.)

It could have turned out much for them, were my extended family not so close (in terms of family and distance – they went to stay with my grandmother’s sister and one of her children came to pick them up): no one else in my nuclear family was in the state at the time, and even though they’re in relatively good health for eighty year-olds, they’re still eighty and a) need their medicine, b) pretty much only have perishable food, and c) have no business trying to walk to, say, their church on a sidewalk covered by an inch of ice. (Their car was trapped in the garage by the ice/power outage, but the roads, they said, were so bad that half the drive to Stanford – usually ten minutes, but this time much longer – was actually off-roading: thank God for the good ol’ American pickup truck.)

My point is this: we’re tempting disaster by thinking that if the power goes out, it won’t be but for a day or so at the most. If Kentucky is any indicator – and I’ll be the first to admit that Kentucky’s infrastructure is not top-rate – then we’re in no position to handle mass power outages, especially when they’re coupled with severe weather. We need to be able to handle them on our own – which means, to begin with, being less dependant one what we could easily find ourselves without.

Which brings me back to my title. Sharon Astyk is stirring up trouble and has her sights set on zoning laws that require us, essentially, to be more energy dependant than we need.

As a college student, I’m no real position to actively join her anti-senseless-zoning-laws, so I’ll do what little I can and pass it along. The closest I’ve seen to any sort of grassroots-campaign like what she suggests happened about seven years ago at home: the “mayor” and “council” of my little subsection of Louisville decreed that one could not have non-earth-tone lawn signs, and my neighborhood – which generally does not play well together – actively flaunted and protested it. That rule’s no longer on the books, so I suppose these things can work.  (Three cheers for democracy?)

What, after all, is the worst that could come from being too prepared?

CNN posts some stunning pictures of our always-stunning universe.  (And the Little Mars Rover That Could.)

Deep Thoughts on GM Food

February 10, 2009

More or less a summary of my Monday evening:

Person in favor: Seriously?  People are starving, we’ve got a food crisis, and you want to sit around talking about repealing the Farm Bill and straightening out American agriculture?  President’s from Illinois; it ain’t gonna happen in our lifetimes.

Person against: Holy shit! What if we get mutant man-eating super-weeds?  Then we’ll have to napalm all our farmland!

Michael Phelps*: Super-weed?  Did you say super-weed?  I want some!

Me: The whole GM debate’s irrelevant because we’re heading toward a point where we’ll have so inter-dependence-ized the global food infrastructure that if a mass crop dieoff occurs, it’s like the domino sequence from hell and we all die!

*Not really Michael Phelps.

But while the old way of doing things where you lived near your food source may have made it riskier for individual populations, it was certainly more secure for humanity as a whole, especially when food supplies are remote enough that we need working (cheap) transportation infrastructure to get it from A to B efficiently.  So count your blessings and be glad you’re in the first world.

And understand just what this (almost-was-the-case) worst-case scenario would have meant for your stomach — and that of everyone you know — very quickly.