Yesterday, Jon Meacham gave the commencement address at UMass Lowell. He provided these points of welcome wisdom gleaned from his decades of writing history and biography.
So what can we learn from the past as we engage the present:
That the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.
That compromise is the oxygen of a free government.
And that we learn most from the past not by looking up at people from our history adoringly, or looking down on them condescendingly, but looking them in the eye and taking their measure as human beings, not as Gods, so that we can learn how they overcame the obstacles of their time.
Like many of you, I’m sure, I’m trying to better understand the various problems and agitations facing America and Western societies in general at this time. Of course there are always struggles to overcome, but I think it’s fair to say we face some unique challenges at this time in our history. The better we can get our heart and mind around them the better chance we have of overcoming them.
With that in mind, I recently completed Edward Luce’s new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism. A very interesting read. It’s not a book meant to make you feel good. Titles like that shouldn’t. But it will cause you to do something we all need to do in moments (as a nation and as individual) like these and that’s pause to reflect on what truly matters. For those who don’t know, the word Liberalism in this context (the book’s title) is referring to a set of fundamental principles that constitute the basis of all Western democratic societies. We’re talking about things like a free press, religious freedom, equality, free speech, etc, etc. Western governments are in-fact liberal democracies.
Edward Luce thinks the Western liberal democratic model of governance, while not dead, is in serious trouble:
Western liberal democracy is not yet dead, but it is far closer than we may wish to believe. It is facing its gravest challenge since the Second World War. This time, however, we have conjured up the enemy from within. At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault from its own president. We have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade.
Donald Trump, Luce argues, is a symptom not the cause of the disease in America. So naturally the question becomes: What brought on this disease? Well what holds liberal democracies together, Luce says, isn’t culture but economic growth. And when that economic growth stalls, leading to massive inequality and a loss of social mobility (U.S has the largest gap of both in the West), we begin to see this threat to the political order and ultimately the survival of liberal democracy.
By any numerical measure, humanity is becoming rapidly less poor. But between half and two-thirds of the people in the West have been treading water — at best — for a generation. Tens of millions of Westerners will struggle to keep their heads above the surface over the coming decades. The spread of automation, including artificial intelligence and remote intelligence, which some call the fourth industrial revolution, is still in its early states. So too is what the American journalist Fareed Zakaria has labelled the rise of the rest. The emergence of China is the most dramatic event in economic history. We are living in an age of convergence no less dramatic than the age of divergence brought about by European colonialism and the Industrial Revolution. The downward pressure on the incomes of the West’s middle classes in the coming years will be relentless.
So the lack of economic growth and social mobility has fueled this threat and the future doesn’t look good unless we return to policies that help build a prosperous middle class while avoiding policies that build a strong oligarchy—which is what we’re currently doing. That’s right, as one writer put, “No bourgeoisie, no democracy.” Being able to aspire upwards, the dream of upward social and economic mobility, is at the heart of the American (Western) dream. When economic growth sags, when wage growth stagnates (as it has for decades now in America), when large segments of the population are either unemployed or underemployed, or working multiple jobs just to stay above water, then personal investment in the current political system starts to weaken and you have a rich soil for rebellion and the rise of demagogues (i.e. the Donald Trumps of the world). Some Americans, as we witnessed in our last election, are fully willing to risk disaster, and we need to be mindful that we’ve reached the point where a Donald Trump could carry 60 million votes in the U.S. A Trump victory would have been impossible, say, 10 years ago. The idea that Americans posses some quality that exempts us from the forces of chaos can be dismissed now as nursery story. (It was never the case anyway.)
The economy has been improving steadily since 2009, but the massive inequality and lack of social mobility will not improve with current government policies and hence the problem will only continue to grow until we have yet another large economic shock or downturn (which will come eventually) and those millions of Americans, still treading water (for so long), will simply sink below the surface. We don’t have to imagine what they will try to drag with them under the waves.
My wife and I traveled to Charlottesville, Va, this past weekend to do some sighting-seeing, wine tasting, a little bookshop browsing, some restauranting, and other general touristy things that probably annoy some of the locals. We’ve been here before but only to visit Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello. We hadn’t really taken in the town itself.
From the Washington D.C. area we headed south down route 29 through the beautiful undulating hills of the early autumn Virginia countryside. It’s a nice ride. It’s only about 2 hours from the Washington D.C. area. We didn’t have time to stop but I can say from the number of signs, there were a number of wineries along the route. An area with apparently so many wineries there are companies that specialize in busing people around on tasting tours of various wineries in the area. We actually passed a wine tour bus along the route.
Charlottesville is labeled a city but it feels more like a big town. Its claim to notoriety is that it’s the home of our 3rd president, Thomas Jefferson, and the college he founded: The University of Virginia. My wife and I were headed south to stay at a resort for our 25th wedding anniversary and planned this one night stay over in Charlottesville. We chose to stay at the 200 South Street Inn, which is located in the downtown area within 2 blocks of Charlottesville’s renown outdoor pedestrian mall. It was the perfect spot.
The main Inn is a large 4 story building (guessing early 20th century construction) with a large wrap around porch. The inside is absolutely charming, with a mostly mid 19th century decor. The library, where they serve wine and finger foods (cheese, crackers, grapes, nuts, etc) in the late afternoon for all guests, is the dream of any book collector. For tourism it happened to be the slow season—what luck!—so the Inn wasn’t near full. The Inn has 24 rooms and I’m guessing maybe 5 or 6 rooms were taken the (Thursday) night we stayed. So we had just about all the wine to ourselves! Another reason you want to stay at this Inn is because you can walk just about everywhere—because you need too. Okay, so we actually had only one glass of wine and headed out.
Charlottesville’s famous pedestrian mall is 2 short blocks away. We emerged into it from a side alley street. The mall is 8 blocks of paved brick walking area, nice and wide, with a number of boutiques, a lot of nice restaurants and pubs, a lot of outdoor seating (“community living room”), a number of art galleries, a fair number of bookstores, and in general I’d describe the whole feel, people and environs, as being “artsy.” I love the smell of civilization in the morning.
So I browsed through 3 bookshops. A proper vetting of these shops would take a weekend dedicated to it, but with other sights to see and dinner reservations, I quickly browsed—giving each shop maybe 10 minutes—and moved on. My catch, for various reasons, was small. I ended up with a special edition of Mark Twain’s Roughing it, so I upped my Twain collection again. And I found a nice paperback edition of Tom Wolf’s Pump House Gang which I’ve been wanting to read. Believe me there was a lot more there waiting to be found, but hardcore book browsing takes some time which was limited this particular evening. That was it for this trip. I’m thinking a trip next autumn for a weekend of just booking and wining in Charlottesville! What a great town!
The next morning we checked out and headed south toward our weekend destination…after a stop at Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyard for wine of course.
Every person has two educations, one which he receives from others, and one, more important, which he gives to himself. — Edward Gibbon
John Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, once wrote: “Life is one long lesson in humility.” And that about captures it. It’s one of my favorite quotes, because it seems to get confirmed almost every day. Of course I’ve learned—and re-learned—a lot of other lessons along the way. And so while humility is one of the core lessons of life, I recently got to thinking about where, and by what means, I learned all the other stuff that’s served to confirm just how important humility plays in the scheme of one’s life.
If I had to list the main sources of my education, I would put them as follows: 1) bookstores, 2) periodicals, & 3) schools. (Note: Libraries are the archives of civilization and very important, but for me, my primary experience with them was at school.)
Starting from the end of the list, let me be candid and say I was a lousy student growing up. After getting the basics in reading, writing, and math in primary school (God has a special place for Elementary school teachers), I pretty much checked out mentally during my secondary school years. Socialization is an important part of any education, and I feel confident my scores were rather high in that area, but unfortunately that proficiency wasn’t part of my grade point average. So, after a less than stellar showing, pathetic really, in High School, I decided my best option was to enlist in the military move on to college. Even if I wasn’t exactly college material at the time, it just seemed the best alternative over getting a full time job.
It was a community college luckily, so they pretty much had to take me. I can’t say I made the honor roll, but I was in the running—a close, razor thin 50 point margin—so at least I was improving. Sloooowly but surely, however, I was discovering what truly interested me—if only I could making a living with it! The history, literature, and philosophy classes confirmed my intrinsic interest in the humanities. Great! So poverty would be my lot! Okay, so I actually did fairly well in those classes. In others words, I liked the subjects that caused the typical tuition paying parent to say: “And what are you going to do with a degree in…”.
More importantly, at community college I adopted strategic patience, which entailed taking my sweet ass time getting through community college…i.e. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and was drifting between an extension of my teenage years, rotating between part-time and full-time school attendance, and searching for a career while working on-and-off at my dad’s company. It goes almost without saying, but I will, my community college years went well beyond the typical 2 year period. It was truly a time of drifting, hoping for something to come along.
But there was a bright ray of sunshine that pierced those cloudy, horizonless, years. My professional community college years would lead to the chance meeting of my future wife, Melissa, in Doctor Jones’s history class. Of course I ended up doing lousy in that class—odd for a guy who loves history I realize—because I spent most of the class time passing notes (we didn’t have cellphones) with Melissa. For this reason alone, I wouldn’t change anything from my community college years. Nothing. I’ve failed at many things in life, but meeting my future wife as a result of my foolishness turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.
Well eventually I took a job—before completing college—and got married to my soulmate. Of course, like so many people who don’t complete their degree and enter the work force, I told myself I would like to finish what I’d started and so I spent years looking into various programs hoping to complete my BS degree. No one in my immediate family had gotten their college degree, so there was the added desire of being the first—it was also about pleasing my wonderful parents who’d done so much for me. Eventually, about 9 years (yeah, it took me awhile) into my career, I went back to college. It’s amazing how much more focused you are when you’re married and already have a career—I think it’s called the maturing process actually. I completed my BS degree (with honors) and ultimately went on to get a graduate degree (MS) from Johns Hopkins University. Considering how my college career had begun, it was a real high point in my life to walk in a commencement for my graduate degree from such a prestigious institution.
With all this said, while I enjoyed my later college years, and enjoyed learning “how to think,” and loved the colleges I attended, if I’d had to rely on just my formal schooling I’d be in poor shape educationally speaking. In large part, my education has come from the writers of essays, quality magazines, and books. My love for reading is mostly responsible for the expansion of my mental world—and continues to be. Continue reading “A Bookshop Education”→
I typically read a couple books at one time. When someone asks, How can you do that?, I always reply, “Well isn’t that what you did in college or high school? Didn’t we have to read multiple books at once?” Sure we did, and I guess the habit (or more accurately, my lack of focus) has stayed with me. Well right now I’m reading both a history book and a book of selected letters of Mark Twain.
Now, if you’ve read this blog you may have detected my affection for Twain. He is, in my view, one of the finest writers this soil has ever produced. His humor and charm hit you solidly between the eyes through that trademark prose.
Last night I read these words in the opening of a letter Mark Twain wrote to Frank Burrough. It brought a good laugh and as always contained a grain, if not a bushel, of truth.
My dear Burrough,
As you describe me I can picture myself as I was 22 years ago. The portrait is correct. You think I have grown some. Upon my word there was room for it. You have described a callow fool, a self sufficient ass, a mere human tumble-bug imagining that he is remodeling the world and is entirely capable of doing it right. Ignorance, intolerance, egotism, self-assertion, opaque perception, dense and pitiful chuckle-headedness—and an almost pathetic unconsciousness of it all. That is what I was at 19 and 20 and that is what the average Southerner is at 60 today. Northerners too of a certain grade. It is of children like this that voters are made. And such is the primal source of our government! A man hardly knows whether to swear or cry over it.
I should note, Mark and I are both southerners and neither of us take any offense to the self deprecating humor. And that’s largely because it’s painfully true…