Review of “Educated: A Memoir” by Tara Westover

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Marx’s critics still dispute the meaning of his controversial phrase, “the idiocy of rural life,” which appears in the Communist Manifesto. Did Marx really mean that country folks were stupid, plain and simple? Or was it more complicated than that?

European society was changing dramatically in 1848, when the Communist Manifesto came out. (So was American society.) As steam-powered factories drew the rural poor to urban centers with the force of gravity, the accompanying institutions of town life–schools, offices, laws, taxes, theaters, libraries and so forth–subjected country people to certain civilizing effects.  The social production of knowledge made possible by the city rescued the rural poor from the isolation and ignorance that had marked their lives for generations–the thing that Marx had termed idiocy.

One school of Marx’s interpreters gives the infamous word its usual, literal meaning. Another says the original German Idiotismus has a more nuanced connotation emphasizing the deprived social circumstances of life on the farm, not the endogenous state of mind of those who live there.

I have never felt a need to take sides in this debate. Coming from farm people, though, I have never liked the first interpretation. It stings a bit.

But recently, as I was reading Tara Westover’s Educated, a beautiful memoir of growing up a Mormon survivalist in rural Idaho in the 1990s, I felt one side of the old “idiocy” dispute rising to take hold of me. Before page 100 of Educated it becomes powerfully clear that Westover’s entire family is at risk of dying from–actually, being killed by–her father’s stupidity. And this risk seems to consist in Marx’s idea of rural idiocy, plain and simple.

Educated

An abject ignoramus who prevents his seven children from going to school and equates medicine with something he calls “socialism,” Westover’s father, Gene, repeatedly subjects his family to the cruel existential threat of his own insuprable brainlessness.

As a rule, he forbids the wearing of hardhats in the family business of junking. More to follow on this topic.

Twice Gene crashes the family van on Idaho’s icy roads having recklessly, and needlessly, chosen to drive home through the night from Arizona despite approaching winter storms. The first crash results in a serious head injury for his wife, Faye. Afterward, Gene and the kids ridicule her for her black eyes, unwittingly using the same term doctors use for the bruising pattern characteristic of traumatic brain injury–“raccoon eyes.” Even as Faye recovers (without medical care) she is less of a person from this disaster onward, which seems to suit Gene just fine. Before, she’d had her own ideas about what she wanted to do in life.

For the second crash (out of two Arizona trips, it should be said), Gene has removed the seatbelts from the family van. He accelerates to 60 mph on the icy road, loudly reassuring his family that he is driving no faster than their guardian angels can fly. When he wrecks, he scatters his wife and children across a snowy field. Tara comes to after being knocked out, but she does not tell the police of her unconsciousness for fear of being sent to a hospital.

On an earlier occasion, Gene impaled Tara’s leg on a piece of scrap iron. He had insisted she ride in a junk bin full of shifting metal he was moving with a forklift. One of Tara’s brothers suffers grievous burns (while junking) on another occasion, and Gene leaves him half submerged in a trashcan of dirty water as he returns to work.

Once, on a big job, Gene has another son, Shawn, ride a pallet balanced on the 20-foot tall boom of a forklift. (Earlier Gene declined to invest in a man-carrier for the forklift, an idea that offended his sense of divine providence.) Shawn is not wearing a hardhat, or any safety gear, for that matter, and when he falls off the pallet onto a concrete wall jutting with rebar, he suffers the first of several serious brain injuries. Weeks later, when Tara rescues Shawn from the site of a motorcycle crash, brain matter oozing from his forehead (the prohibition on hardhats seemingly extended to motorcycle helmets), Gene urges Tara to bring her brother home, where mother Faye will treat him with herbs and oils.

One day, When Gene buys a mechanical shear capable of scissoring through steel girders, the reader is roused by a sense of Chekhov’s Law: this weapon, having appeared on the scene, will draw blood. Gene’s children finally begin to sense the danger posed by their father’s galloping stupidity. But even after Luke, a son who had so far escaped serious injury, is gashed to the bone by the first trial of the Shear (wonderfully, the capitalization is Westover’s), Gene insists on persevering, sending Tara in to master it.

Like anyone raised in a tribe, the Westovers wear their identity markers with pride. They do not wash after using the bathroom, having been taught by Gene “not to piss on their hands.” At 18, Tara energetically refuses to wear a seatbelt in a friend’s car. The subject of childhood vaccinations does not come up until late in the book, and the reader can guess why.

Gene is sustained in life by two overarching beliefs. One is that angels will guard over his family. The other is that his family must constantly earn this protection by obeying the commandments of the Lord. Sundays are taken up with Gene’s droning recitations from Isaiah and other biblical books of prophecy. His only deeply felt sympathy is for the Weaver family, killed in nearby Ruby Ridge by federal agents in 1992 for doing more or less what Gene wants–defending a rural, devout family compound from outside intrusion.

All the harm, superstition and callousness visited on Tara by Gene’s blighted mindset might be chalked up to mere bad luck. Maybe the shuttering of Gene’s mind is the result of a generational difference, of being “old fashioned” or “temperamental.” This illusion evaporates one night when Shawn, an elder son, takes up the authority wrought for him by Gene’s religious extremism. Outraged that Tara, at 15, wants to attend school, Shawn tries to choke her in bed. After suffocating her nearly to the point of unconsciousness (“I awoke with needles in my brain,” she recalls.), Shawn pinions Tara into a painful position of submission. He will let her go, he says, when “she admits she’s a whore.” 

It is the first of several such incidents.

In a moment of self-reflection one night, the pubescent Tara is trying to calculate the correct snugness of women’s clothing. Too tight and you show your contours, too loose and you flash decolletage as you bend to pick up a hymnal. Gene had recently remarked that a whorish woman in church whose blouse was too loose seemed to be flashing him on purpose. As Tara weighs such hazards of fashion, she worries she “might be growing into the wrong sort of woman.”

Even after Tara miraculously makes it into Brigham Young University–she lies that she had been home-schooled and ekes out a good ACT score–and shows signs of achieving escape velocity, she is once again visited by the sadistic, masculine, rural idiocy that has defined her life so far. Elder brother Shawn assaults and batters her in a supermarket parking lot, spraining her wrists and an ankle. (This episode occurs just days after Shawn has dragged Tara by the hair to plunge her head in a toilet for the effrontery of bringing a date home.) In the parking lot struggle, Tara’s outer clothes are tugged from her body. Shawn stands triumphantly astride her, her bra and panties exposed to the world.

Westover clearly relates this humiliating image of her underclothes for a reason. The scene would have conveyed Shawn’s cruelty without this detail. Tara’s wrist bones snap audibly. There is loud shouting and scuffling. Westover leaves the whiff of a near-rape in the episode, I believe to delineate the full scope of the threat that every woman faces just by living in the real world. When one’s own brother comes within a millimeter of committing sexual assault to assuage his own wrath, what cruel madness does the rest of the (unfamiliar) male world hold in store? Every woman goes out into the world with her agency already diminished by the need to guard against this horror.

Late in the book, Westover reveals that Shawn had also terrorized her older sister Audrey throughout her childhood, using similar methods. But ultimately Audrey, her father and mother, and, of course, Shawn justify this abusive behavior as the necessary disciplining of girls who might otherwise get out of line. This Bronze Age code was thriving in Idaho in 2000, and it likely thrives in your street today. It incubates in its worst form, one must believe, in the countryside, wherever the absence of social life permits violent fools to regard themselves as holy men.

These horrible considerations bring home what patriarchy is for. It is a deliberate, structured, reinforced choice, not the mere byproduct of whim, luck or a “difficult” personality. Patriarchy exists so that fathers may transmit to their sons the prerogative to bully, coerce and command their women. Shawn is simply claiming the sadistic “right” to rule that Gene has prepared for him. Tara, at least for a while, accepts the presumptive right of men to define what the “wrong sort” of woman is. Tragically, mother Faye never seriously challenges this right.

Eventually, Tara does achieve escape velocity. She finishes a history degree at BYU and wins a doctoral scholarship to Cambridge. Her ascending flight into orbit around her old world is not smooth, though. Even as she takes two steps forward, leading her through Rome and Paris, to a health clinic to be vaccinated, to a psychological counselor, she repeatedly takes a step back by trying to reconcile with her family in Idaho. It never ends well.

As Tara starts to become her new self, her family settles deeper into old patterns. Her father nearly self-immolates in a foolish junkyard accident (rehearsed, it must be said by the son who had been burned and “treated” with garbage-can water). Physically disfigured, Gene emerges with what Orwell would have aptly called the face he deserved¹–a cross between carrion fowl and Biblical prophet. He proclaims that all the accidents visited on him and his family over the years were a divine rebuke to the idols of medicine and public health. He tries to lead his daughter back to salvation, but she has a new self now, formed by the indelible habit of being able to imagine others’ perspectives. Reading does that to a person.

Cruelty is the worst thing humans do. This is the liberal creed. If it seems like a no-brainer, Westover’s Educated is proof that it is not. Humanity is still haunted by the terrifyingly bad idea of holiness–that one owes primary allegiance to a god or a religious vision or a tribe that claims special access to the sacred. Put that idea in the minds of men isolated from the civilizing effects of town life, and you have precisely what Marx derided as the idiocy of rural life. And you have the terrors that Westover ran from.

Westover’s memoir is a glorious one that reflects the powers of self-creation. But it is no accident that the closing lines of her account reflect, not glory but the bitterness of rebellion–the spark that started her liberation struggle. She has a new self at the end of her book, but it has placed her beyond the reach of her family–the very thing that formed her early on: “You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”

Here’s to education then.


  1. In one of his essays, possibly “The Art of Donald Mcgill,” Orwell remarked that at the age of 50 everyone has the face they deserve. He meant that we have had just enough control of our vanity and life experiences to reflect our character in our midlife face.
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Privacy and Solidarity: Two Sides of the Same Coin in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In chapter one of Nineteen Eighty-Four, as Winston Smith concludes the first, most fateful entry in his secret journal, he acknowledges the dreadful consequences that his thoughtcrime will surely bring:

Whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it, made no difference. The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed–would still have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper–the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it.  . . . You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.

Before I get to my main theme of solidarity, I’d like to take a moment to draw out how succintly Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare mirrors religion, especially the born-again variety of Christianity prevalent in our society. Man is fallen, goes the born-again script. Even before he steps into the human drama, he is marked guilty of a crime that corrupts his every action. A human signals his inherent fallenness by refusing to admit guilt–“hardening his heart against the Lord,” and that sort of thing. This is the crime that “contain[s] all others in itself,” as Orwell put it.

Remember Jimmy Carter and his 1976 admission that he had “lusted in his heart” for women other than Rosalynn? He was pleading guilty to thoughtcrime. And if Carter could lust in private, couldn’t he be guilty of any other sin in the confines of his secret self? Can’t we all?

Anyone who has ever answered an altar call–or perhaps anyone who has sincerely confessed to a priest–knows the crime of which she is unburdening herself when she comes to kneel in the forgiving presence of the Lord: it is the crime of having an ordinary human life, replete with private thoughts.

It is easy to accuse Christopher Hitchens of overstating the case against religion (that it “poisons everything“), but Hitchens knew the same horrifying truth that Orwell reveals in the passage above. Any religion that denies people the right to privacy even inside the 1200-odd centimeters³ of their own brains is a totalitarian regime. Worse, people seem to want this kind of setup. At the root of our religious motives lies the abject desire to be overseen by secret police and to surrender ourselves to the very dictator who gave us a diseased version of privacy in the first place.

Tent-Revival
(Image: soulteachers)

At the risk of losing my thread, I must also point out that this pusillanimous desire to be ruled in one’s innermost self is closely connected to the religious idea that the world we inhabit is a mere vale of tears, something to be got past–and got rid of–en route to our celestial destinies. A world that ensconces unworthy, second-rate selves is itself unworthy and second rate. The all-too-common religious attitude that welcomes fire and deluge is an outgrowth of this sickly world view.

Anyone who exudes an angelic assurance that the only life worth having is the one beyond the grave fundamentally devalues this life and is living in bad faith all the time.

This world, they believe, is only a fraudulent version of the “proper” world to come. Correspondingly, we are only fraudulent versions of persons. We don’t count.  This attitude, I believe, is an outrage. Don’t let the religious come at you with their obsequious-sounding offers of succor and grace. Their story–a revenge fantasy–is essentially that there was once a conspiracy to ruin humanity and it worked. They, however, can sell you a path to higher consciousness about this conspiracy. You can even rise to master it, but by abasing yourself before a dictator who condmened you to wretchedness before you were born. No mainstream religions are really much better than Scientology in this regard. They all ask you to start by hating yourself.

If there is anything worse than accepting that you should hate yourelf, it is the logical corrolary that your fellows, all seven billion of them, are also worthy of self-hatred. An outlook as monstrous as this calls for solidarity in opposition. Humans must find a way to stand up to the idea that an illiterate shaman can cast us out of our tribe.

Back, now, to the action of 1984‘s first chapter. This passage continues the one started above dealing with throughtcrime. It is Orwell’s depiction of what it is like to be cast out of Oceania’s  leading tribe of Ingsoc, or English Socialism:

It was always at night–the arrests invariably happened at night. The sudden jerk out of sleep, the rough hand shaking your shoulder, the lights glaring in your eyes, the ring of hard faces round the bed. In the vast majority of cases there was no trial, no report of the arrest. People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word.

Well, if literature has ever envisioned the Biblical idea of being blotted out of the Book of Life (Ex. 31:33; Ps. 69:27) more vividly, I have not yet read it. It is not enough for the fallen to be cast out and condemned. They must be annihilated–made never to have existed. Why? Because they demonstrated in their heresy that there was another way to think, and that heresy will emerge again if it lingers in the record of the dead. The established powers cannot suffer the prospect that thoughts other than their own exist–or ever existed.

Everyone is in a predicament. It is a deeply human task to describe what your predicament is. Your situation–or at least your understanding of it–tells “how life has happened to you” (to jump a few years ahead of Orwell and put Vonnegut’s loopy spin on things). As Winston sits down to write, he asks himself who his intended audience is. For whom is he describing what life has done to him?

For the future, for the unborn. . . . For the first time the magnitude of what he had undertaken came home to him. How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him, or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.

This, by the way, is Orwell speaking directly to the reader. In his 1946 essay “Why I Write” Orwell indicates one of his main motives is the desire to have concrete facts put down on the historical record. He wants the world of the future to know that he was in a particular kind of predicament. He wants the world to know that he was an individual. In turn, Orwell understood his individuality as a reflection of the uniqueness of every other soul in the world.

This generosity of outlook is the cardinal opposite of the authoritarian (and religious) imperative to impose conformity and, in so doing, to kill individual conscience.

Everyone in the world is a guardian of that 1200 odd centimeters³ at the core of their existence. This space must remain sacrosanct. But the abject desire to have this space policed keeps cropping up, just like Camus’s Plague. Keep a journal if the idea appeals to you at all. It will help set a watch against the plague’s recurrence. It will describe your predicament, and it will tell the unborn world of the future that you believed in the uniquness of everyone else’s predicament. The dedication page of all our journals says, in some way, “To my comrades, who are not like me.”

 

 

 

 

 

Privacy and the Decent Society: Keeping a Journal

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In this series I am analyzing the first chapter of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four through the lens of Avishai Margalit’s idea of an indecent society. An indecent society, Margalit writes, is one in which institutions humiliate individuals.

Winston Smith is on lunch break in his dingy flat. Before he seeks the refuge of a small alcove just out of view of the telescreen, he looks out the window and takes in the horizon. Much of London has not yet been repaired from the bomb damage of World War 2. The cityscape that has survived is pitifully neglected: much of it consists of “rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with balks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard, their roofs with corrugated iron . . . .”

In the midst of this ruin, we encounter the next object in chapter one whose purpose is to deny the people of Oceania any measure of privacy. It is the Ministry of Truth headquarters, Winston’s workplace. Orwell writes of it, “It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air.” That’s tall.

Let me remind you that Chicago’s Hancock Building, at just over 300 meters high, dwarfs even the midrise office buildings around it. Were it surrounded only by one-story housing stock, like the crumbling London homes Orwell describes, the Hancock Building would dominate its environment to a stupefying degree.

There are four 300-meter pyramids in Orwell’s London, which house the government’s main ministries. The last time I read 1984, I could not leave Orwell’s description of the Minitru pyramid behind without calling to mind the skyline of Astana, Kazakhstan’s rather zany capital. Dreamed up by a dictator, Astana looks like this:

astana

One of the city’s many baubles is a glittering white pyramid, not 300 meters tall, but imposing nonetheless. Here is a picture:

astana pyramid

I see these images of Astana as reminders that authoritarians do not bother hiding their intentions. They still seek  to humilate the masses by overawing them with the physical apparatus of power (not to mention with the unaccountable expenditure of lots of money, but that’s another story). Despite the publication of Orwell’s greatest novels exposing authoritarianism; despite the publication of The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz; despite the publication of practically everything by Solzhenitsyn, true authoritarians still feel no need to change their stripes. It doesn’t matter to them that their game has been given away.

The point of authoritarian architecture is to remind the individual that s/he could achieve no private life even if she wished for one. The state’s power to plan, spend, build and organize–and, of course, monitor and intervene–will always overmatch the individual’s power to cultivate a private conscience. The authoritarian city is merely the tasteless outward sign of a more dreadful institutional imperative within. Every physcial implement an authoritarian regime builds is ultimately identifiable with the boot Winston sees stamping on the human face forever.

Even in the presence of such hideous strength, though, Winston insists on rebelling. A private conscience is germinating inside him, and it demands to seek the light of day. It will be called to life. We do not yet know what Winston understands about the impulse to think and write. This is how the urge is allowed to express itself early in chapter one:

For some reason the telescreen in the living room was in an unusal position. Instead of being placed, as was normal, in the end wall, where it could command the whole room, it was in the longer wall, opposite the window. To one side of it there was a shallow alcove in which winston was now sitting, and which, when the flats were built, had probably been intended to hold bookshelves. By sitting in the alcove, and keeping well back, Winston was abe to remain outside the range of the telescreen, so far as sight went. . . . It was partly the unusual geography of the room that had suggested to him the thing that he was now about to do.

The thing Winston does in his hiding place will ultimately bring about his death, but he can’t restrain himself. He had recently purchased a simple but graceful diary, of “creamy white paper” so beautiful it “deserved to be written on . . . .”

Orwell hardly ever insinuates anything of the sensual in his writing (Winston’s upcoming love scenes with Julia hardly rank among Orwell’s best stuff), so it is remarkable that he relates Winston’s sybarritic bond with the notebook so naturally. In the store where Winston spied the book, Orwell says he was “stricken immediately by an overwhelming desire to possess it.” Possess it? Such words bring to mind what David felt when he saw Bathsheba, not what most of us feel when we see a Moleskine.

Well, the actuation of our sensual desire is the heart of our private life, is it not? There is a close connection, I believe, between Winston’s Dionysian “strickenness” with the beautiful journal and his Apollonian compulsion to write out plain truths. They suggest the two halves of his innermost self.

When it comes time to put those plain truths down on paper, though, Winston delays. He writes out the date but can go no further. Is he straining under the burden of what he is about to confess? It might be ordinary witer’s block (already!). On the rare occasion when Orwell is funny, he is only coolly so. This may be his writerly idea of an inside joke.

winston writing
Winston begins his diary (Image: tumblr)

But after pouring out an initial passage of junk, Winston encounters a crystallized moment starting to emerge. He recalls the Two Minutes Hate–when all rise and clamorously denounce Oceania’s enemies– conducted the day before in his office. He homes in on its operative effect:

The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.

Winston’s very first exercise in journaling takes him straight to the heart of Oceania’s worst offense against humanity. Any bully or sadist can compel a victim under torture to say or do things against their conscience or principles. A truly monstrous thing, though, is to manipulate an individual’s fears into a genuine feeling of mob mentality. This is a self-immolation of privacy.

Even as the Allies were winning Wold War 2 in Europe, Orwell pereived that the things that gave the United States and its closest European friends a decisive advantage could easily be maintained under conditions of peace–if that peace were seen as constantly under threat. And one such thing was the genuine conviction among the Allies’ societies that they were on the right side of history. If you could just constantly inculcate or regenerate that attitude, Orwell saw, you could harness an unassailable mass support of state priorities. The factories and bureaucracies would never stop humming.

At the end of World War 2, much of the world was understandably fixated on the horrible power of the atomic bomb to erase entire cities from the map. Orwell spied something much more insidious–the power of mass culture and mass communication to erase the individual mind from the collective will. It is Winston’s perception of this threat to human diginity that dooms him to be pursued and killed by the state. The wages of sin are death, after all, and he has committed thoughtcrime.

Privacy and the Decent Society: Big Brother Is Watching You

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Today I’m continuing my analysis of the first chapter of Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’m looking at it through the lens of Avishai Margalit’s idea of decent and indecent societies.

Margalit argues that in indecent societies, institutions humiliate individuals, and in decent societies they generally do not. To draw an analytic contrast, a society whose criminal justice system aims primarily to rehabilitate would tend toward decency, since rehabilitation tries to restore criminals’ dignity, which includes a capacity for reform and redemption. A system meant primarily to incapacitate criminals or to enrich the providers of criminal justice would be more likely to be indecent. Humiliation would be an essential part of what it does.

In my first post, which looked only at the opening paragraph of 1984, we saw that Oceania’s humiliation of individuals is pervasive and thoroughgoing. Big Brother’s regime tells casual, inconsequential lies about little things–like the name of Winston Smith’s apartment building–and calculated, deeply ramified lies about large things–such as whether Oceania is winning the war against Eurasia.

By dominating the whole domain of information exchange, from the trivial to the highly significant, Big Brother’s regime means to reduce the individual to a reflexively obedient subject who adapts his whole corpus of beliefs to mass culture, relinquishing private opinion. This situation, not far from the real one in North Korea and in large parts of China today, surely would reflect an indecent society by Margalit’s definition. Any regime that simply instructs its populace what to believe rules over subjects, not citizens–humiliated, not diginified persons.

(Bookish aside: If you are interested in this idea, Hegel develops it as the “master-slave dialectic” in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Nietzsche expands on it as “master-slave morality” in On the Geneology of Morals. Hegel’s book is very tough sledding, but anyone can pick up and enjoy Nietzsche’s book.)

As Winston Smith passes through the doorway of his building and makes his way toward his apartment, we begin to see up close some of the instruments of a regime bent on humiliating its subjects in this fundamental way:

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a colored poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a meter wide, the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black mustache and ruggedly handsome features. . . . It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

Notice a detail here. Size matters. Have you ever even seen a poster of anyone’s face wider than a meter? Even a face depicted twice its normal size, perhaps 20 inches wide, would qualify as large. Orwell’s meter-wide poster of Big Brother leaves conventional ideas of dimension behind. It is an instance of what we used to call giganticism when discussing the Soviet Union.

big bro
He’s gigantic

A repressive regime signals its overwhelming power, or at least tries to, by emphasizing its overwhelming size. The whole idea of a military parade, for example, is to produce a spectacle of numerical superiority. When the current U.S. president asked for a military parade two years ago, many of us in the defense establishment recoiled at the idea. I think much of our unease was based in the suspicion, acquired from watching Russia and North Korea over the years, that these kinds of penis exhibitions are humiliating for all parties involved. Decent societies don’t roll out the tanks to raise the country’s morale, still less that of its rulers.

It’s a pity Orwell didn’t live long enough to see the Jumbotron, or even the “humble” roadside billboard (standard size in America: 14′ by 48′). He would have appreciated their dimensions, and he might have quailed at how listlessly (and sometimes enthusiastically!) we accept these monsters in everyday life. If you wanted to hold a Two Minutes Hate in real life today, the Jumbotron just might be your tool of choice.

It is when we enter Smith’s apartment that we encounter the summum malum of Big Brother’s ability to monitor and repress–the telescreen:

Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.

We will come to learn a list of horrors, many of them prefiguring our own internet, about the telescreen. It is always on, for example. The feature I want to dwell on today is its physical setup as an integral part of the wall.

Integrating the telescreen with the wall removes any visual signs that screens were once ancilliary fixtures in our homes. A TV was once an appliance that you could take or leave (although how many of us would leave it?). The telescreen is part of the very walls around you. Whatever unsettling things Freud may have said about your mother or your libido, he was on to something solid, I believe, when he wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams that the home represents the mind itself. Whatever belongs to the home is part of you.

Some of our most formative assumptions have to do with what we consider normal and what we don’t. This is the point of the telescreen being built into the wall: it’s as normal to have a telescreen as to have a home.

Much of any goverment’s propaganda aims to condition the citizens to think of extraordinary circumstances as normal. Before 1947, for example, the United States had, when necessary, a Department of War. In 1947 Washington created its replacement, the Department of Defense. Today we simply accept the DoD as a permanent part of our government. And that’s because of a word. “Defense” is a consitutional duty which must be attended to all the time. It is a normal part of living in a dangerous world.

Before 1947, it would have been more evident to the casual oberver that we hadn’t always thought of ” defense” in this way. Raising an army to defend the nation’s interests had always been something we improvised in response to war, which is more or less the paradigm of extraordinary circumstances.

Recall how long it took Lincoln to generate the forces of the Union Army. The Army that became an unstoppable behemoth began with pathetically haphazard, unprofessional, poorly informed efforts. To take another case, the image we have of American industry during World War 2 is one of factories humming at an insuprable capacity. This, though, was the result of an astonishingly quick adaptation to new circumstances. The factories that won the war mostly stayed in place and became the core of the military industrial complex, a phrase that now sounds slightly conspiratorial to breathe aloud. Why? Because “defense” is such big business, it must be thought of as normal. There is no industrialized country on earth than can afford to let arms sales be thought of as unusual. Military-grade weapons are a vital sector of a “normal” economy.

I am not quite at the point where I want to draw a direct connection between a militarized society and one that accepts a government mandate to ignore history, but I believe Chapter One will pull me toward this connection soon enough.

I will close for today by noting the main commonality between the poster of Big Brother that Winston passes in the hall and the telescreen that forms part of a wall in his apartment. In the poster, Big Brother’s eyes are “contrived” to hold the viewer in their gaze no matter where the viewer goes. The telescreen does the same. These are both achievements in surveillance that recall Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon–a phsyical space whose setup enables a watcher to monitor all the inhabitants from a single vantage point. If it ever came about, Bentham thought, the panopticon would become a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

In my next post we will watch Winston Smith try to rebel against this horrible power. He does it by writing.

 

Privacy and the Decent Society: A Close Look at Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In his 1998 book The Decent Society, the philosopher Avishai Margalit writes, “The institutions in a decent society must not encroach upon personal privacy. There is a close connection between encroachment upon personal privacy and humiliation. This connection is especially close when the encroachment is institutional.”

As someone who likes to have my lunchbreaks to myself, at home if possible, I have always thrilled to the action in the first chapter of Nineteen Eighty Four. Although quiet, it throbs with the menace of a monstrous institutional encroachment on individual privacy–Winston’s Smith’s lunchbreak to be precise. Away from his office at midday, Smith is determined to be left alone and feel he has a life of his own despite the whole setup of Oceania, which is designed to abolish privacy. Margalit might say Oceania’s abolition of privacy debases and humiliates the individual. This humiliation is the crux of 1984‘s first chapter.

With ever more of our lives falling under surveillance, either by the government or the businesses that seek to monopolize government power, we would do well to go back and reread 1984, if for no other reason than to see what kind of humiliations we are willingly walking into.

Here are the clear, astringent words that open Orwell’s greatest novel:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

I recently read 1984 for the tenth time. I keyed in on three things that jump out of the first paragraph.

First, the clocks strike thirteen, not one. Oceania has normalized the militarization of everyday life. Clocks no longer register the flow of an ordinary, peaceful day. By putting the people of Oceania on military time, clocks cultivate a mindset of permanent war.

George-OrwellRT

Orwell believed that ordinary things like units of measurement said something meaningful about who we are and could be manipulated by a sufficiently cunning authority to warp our self image. Most of us (Americans) dislike the metric system simply for ist foreignness. In 1984 Orwell imposes metric measurements on Oceania because he sees in the perfect divisibility of meters and liters and so forth a sinister regimentation of units that could have been left alone to express a tradition. This is why he liked pints of beer, for example. They were marks of a past world made up of folksy, unregulated habits of mind that didn’t need to be rectified in the laboratory or focus group.

In other words, Orwell thought that not just humans, but even our artifacts could be made to speak a new language that serves the interests of a hidden authority. This would be a kind of Newspeak for non-human speakers. In our age, where artificial intelligence devices such as Alexa help us run our (“private”) households, it is worth bearing in mind that these AIs are capable of conditioning us to favor certain words, concepts and thought routines over others. This technology has been fashioned by corporations whose job is to addict us to spending money on them. The goal of making our lives easier or more glamorous or more intersting is subordinate to the goal of influencing our patterns of consumption.

The second thing that jumps out is the name of Smith’s home, Victory Mansions. It is an official lie. To be more precise, it is two lies in one. We find out shortly that Smith’s home is no mansion. It is a dreary, dilapidated midrise apartment, like every other party member’s home in midtown London. A little later we learn that victory does not exist  as a verifiable fact in Oceania. “Victories” are always events of official propaganda, with no empirical ties to reality. They are signals to the masses to acclaim Oceania’s military might.

By giving a false name to an individual’s home, Oceania’s government poisons the idea of home as a refuge where the world can be made right, if only privately. Big Brother has invigilated his belief-forming power into the one place where the individual was supposed to rule her own thoughts.

Big Brother’s most awful power to control the home rests in the telescreen, of course. As Hannah Arendt pointed out in her short 1970 book On Violence, an authoritarian regime  relies crucially on implements to rule through force. But the power of the Victory Mansions lie is that it prepares the individual to accept even casual mendacity about the inconsequential as a typical feature of government power.

I live in a new section of suburbs, so I see this kind of casual mendacity at work all around me in the names of new neighborhoods under development. One new neighborhood might be called Fox Hills. There is not a fox or hill in sight, but we are meant to associate whatever appealing images that name calls up with the new homes for sale there. Other neighborhoods have (ridiculously) aristocractic sounding names, formulated to heighten feelings of class difference. If you’re even in the slightest cowed by the name of Westin Estates, for example, good, you probably don’t belong there. It matters not one whit that there never was a Lord Westin. The imaginary version of him has done its job.

A person conditioned to accept such thoroughgoing dishonesty, even in matters that seem inconsequential, is postured to accept the humiliation of being ruled by a government and by corporations that lie flagrantly and systematically.

The third thing that jumps out of 1984‘s opening paragraph is a whisp of foreboding symbolism. That swirl of gritty dust that Smith tries but fails to keep out of his home? It is a sign that some things take on the power to overwhelm the individual despite our best efforts. An ordinary wind might be acceptble to most of us. Most of us can live with the prospect that there are large, impersonal forces in the world, such as nature. But by making that swirling wind vile with grit, Orwell warns us that men, who desire ruling power over all things, will seek ways to ride the coattails of nature into our private lives.

In my next posts, I’d like to observe Winston Smith further along into chapter one as he commits the thoughtcrime of writing in his journal. This is the tragic-heroic act that sets Smith on the path to destruction. Simply trying to be an individual defies real powers in the world whose imperative is to extinguish individuality.

 

 

Review of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media” by P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In 2016 as Donald Trump’s run for the presidency was picking up steam, three of his top campaigners started retweeting messages from a conservative Tennessee GOP Twitter account, @Ten_GOP. Altogether the pro-Trump messages relayed by Donald Trump Jr., Kellyanne Conway, and (future National Security Advisor) Michael Flynn would be retweeted 1.2 million times, reaching several million Twitter users.

@Ten_GOP was a hit. Despite being an unofficial representative of Tennessee Republicans, it had ten times more followers than the party’s official account. On election day in 2016, it easily outpaced other GOP cheerleaders to become the seventh-most retweeted account across all of Twitter. (And this in the age of the Kardashians.)

After Trump’s election win, Michael Flynn, a career Army intelligence officer, called the victory “an insurgency.” “This was irregular warfare at its finest, in politics,” he effused.

Flynn didn’t know how right he was. Insurgents will use any means necessary to win, and they often have foreign backers, which is exactly what @Ten_GOP was. It was one of dozens of pro-Trump social media accounts created in the Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg, Russia to tilt the election in Trump’s favor. In addition to posing as individual social media users (“sock puppets”), the Russians also created automated networks of fake accounts (“bots”) to boost their messages, and they bought ads on Facebook tailored to get out the Republican vote and suppress Democratic turnout.

As Flynn would have known, however, an effective insurgency has to be grounded in a base of domestic support, even if it has solid foreign backing. In Trump’s case, the deepest homeland support came from a network of social media users operating out of the white nationalist image board 4chan.

Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital campaign manager, drew from thousands of 4chan’s posts and sent them to thousands of U.S. Facebook users to see which ones stuck. Essentially the game was to figure out which 4chan messages achieved the right blend of outrage and credibility to take off and go viral in the mainstream. Many of these focus-grouped messages became mainstays of the Trump campaign, luring millions of voters to like, retweet and emojify them. Most Facebookers probably didn’t know the memes they were liking came from the racist bowels of the internet. They just worked.

A few of 4chan’s messages became so popular that Trump retweeted them himself, including the cheeky image below of the future POTUS as the neonazi mascot Pepe the Frog. The subtext of this tweet was clear: even if you traced Trump’s online support base to a network of racist trolls, it wouldn’t harm his chances for winning the presidency. As Singer and Brooking put it, millions of Americans were warming to Trump’s “authenticity,” because, “in the fast-talking, foulmouthed, combative billionaire, they saw someone just like them–a troll.”

trump pepe

LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media is not a book about Trump’s election win, but the Trump campaign does frame the authors’ main motivating question, which comes in the form of a logical puzzle. In the age of Trump, you have to be able to believe the following without contradiction:

(1) Russia successfully used social media to intervene in Trump’s campaign to help him win.

(2) Trump used social media to build his personal brand as a troll and transform underground racist bilge into mainstream populism. In making no effort to disguise his methods, Trump ran a reasonably transparent campaign.

So far, these facts accord with each other. Like them or dislike them, they produce no contradiction. (In fact, it’s a pattern. Russia backs right-wing nationalist parties in several countries across Europe.) But then there’s this:

(3) Civil society and U.S. institutions have accepted Trump’s election victory as fair and defensible, despite (1) and (2). Trump played by the rules and won.

If (3) is true–if Trump indeed played by some set of rules that enabled a large part of the populace and our established political system to acknowledge the legitimacy of his win–we would be well served to discover what these new rules are. LikeWar is the first book to take this issue seriously. It documents the dizzying ways our information environment has changed since the advent of social media and the ways those changes connect up to ordinary habits of mind to shape a frightening new social dynamic of pervasive conflict. This new dynamic threatens to corrupt the practice of democracy from the bottom up.

likewar

The social media deluge, Singer and Brooking argue, is just the latest revolution in communications technology, like the telegraph, radio, telephone and TV, innovations which also changed society and politics. But it is different from those earlier revolutions in key ways. The main difference is that we, as social media users, are always on and always attuned to the new media in one way or another. Unlike the earlier technologies, which were (to varying degrees) scarce, and which required deliberate effort to use, today’s ubiquitous smart phones give us a constant, 24/7 interface with, well, everyone else.

The persistent nature of our new interconnectedness means that social media is in one sense not just like war, but is a real war–it is a war for our attention. Can’t put your phone down? Of course not; social media is addictive, and your phone delivers your fix anywhere, any time. We’ll come back to this point in a moment.

Back in the 1990s, computer gurus told us the Internet (which they called the Information Superhighway back then) would usher in a utopian age of global peace and democracy. Information, they said, wanted to be free, and no despot could suppress citizens with free access to so many facts, ideas, and potential ideological allies. Instead, humans have used the Internet to do the same things we did before the revolution, much of which is partisan, narrow-minded, and even dreadful, such as crime, cruelty and war.

Social media hasn’t transformed us; it has intensified who we already were and given us shortcuts to pursue some of our worst instincts.

Eighty percent of fights in Chicago schools originate online. Some of the instigations involve the brandishing of gun images, which in very short order causes real gunfire and death. Where formerly a gang member would have to take a real risk to edge up to his rivals’s turf and issue a threat, the same thing now happens with a mouse click. “The decentralized technology,” Singer and Brooking tell us, “allows any individual to ignite this cycle of violence.”  It’s easy to imagine someone thousands of miles away from someone else’s turf, with no stake in gang violence, sparking a lethal fight.

In Myanmar (Burma) since 2013, government-fabricated (and other) rumors of religious violence have sparked real acts of genocide by majority Buddhists against minority Muslims. The Muslims quickly learned the trick and turned it against the Buddhists in reprisals, albeit to lesser effect. (In 2018 Facebook was scrambling to hire scores of Burmese speakers to moderate hate speech and try to prevent new outbreaks of this social media war.)

Violence is often purposefully demonstrative. The terrorist group ISIS made its name spreading increasingly gruesome snuff videos. After a series of online beheadings, it invited fans, through social media, to vote on new, creatively cruel ways to kill its captives. This method is what led to the burning alive of  victims in cages.

Such inhumanity is not just the purview of religious fanatics. “Wherever young men gather and clash, social media now alters the calculus of violence,” Singer and Brooking write. “It is no longer enough for Mexican drug cartel [and Central American gang] members to kill rivals and seize turf. They must also show their success.” This is done through multiple social media platforms.

Well, that’s all horrid, you might say, but it has nothing to do with me. Not so fast, say Singer and Brooking. Social media wages a constant battle for everyone’s attention, and what really draws us in is the feeling of being party to a conflict. When someone likes your social media content, it produces a real gush of brain activity that makes you feel good. What’s even more engaging? The thrill of battle when someone flames you and defines themselves as an enemy. And now that we all carry our social media device with us all the time, we can, and do, immerse ourselves in this persistent form of conflict. We are always armed for likewar.

Amplified by social media, we all experience homophily, or fondness for people like us and ideas like our own. Furthermore, we all seek confirmation of our beliefs and attitudes. Social media enables these mutually reinforcing dynamics to play out ad infinitum. Our worlds have become filter bubbles in which we have deep emotional stakes and a strong desire for community building, even if our outreach is only to increase our online support base of allies.

Who is the personality type most capable of winning this war of nonstop us-against-them? Singer and Brooking suss out five key characteristics of social media champions. The thought leaders capable of forming our attitudes and drawing our battle lines all evince (1) an appealing narrative, (2) emotion, (3) authenticity, (4) community, and (5) inundation. They are on all the time, stoking our emotions and engaging us in the stories of who they are–and, by extension, who we are.

Notice something about the five characteristics Singer and Brooking lay out: they are all morally neutral, neither good nor evil in and of themselves. There is not one trait there that implicates a cardinal virtue, such as honesty or justness or bravery, something that would tend to produce socially positive outcomes (of the sort that internet dreamers thought would come automatically back in the 90s). Jesus or Gandhi could conceivably rise to social media stardom today, but just as easily could the devil, or a good used car salesman, or Joseph Stalin.

Indeed Stalin’s successor in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, has done quite well. Russia’s outsized ability to influence events abroad is largely the product of Moscow’s virtuoso manipulation of social media under Putin, a phenomenon that Singer and Brooking document as Russia’s “global information war.”

Posing as real, grassroots supporters of goals that align with the Kremlin’s, Russia’s social media warriors fight a highly effective campaign to shape the beliefs of Putin’s target audiences and draw them into a community of allies. They do this, Singer and Brooking assess, through the five Ds–dismissing, distorting and distracting from their competitors’ messages and dismaying and dividing their adversaries’ societies. Putin’s trolls excel in subverting their competitors’ messages and looking clever and occasionally high-minded in the process–because who doesn’t like seeing established powers chopped down to size?

Whether Moscow is trying to shed blame for the shootdown of a Malaysian airliner by its proxies in eastern Ukraine (as happened in 2014), justify its military intervention in Syria, or get its preferred candidates elected to leadership positions in foreign countries, it has mastered the tactics of meshing state propaganda with spontaneous social media activity that mimics, and in many cases actually produces, support for its positions.

Information warfare is nothing new, of course, and especially in Russia. From the birth of the USSR in 1917, much of the state’s energy was taken up trying to formulate lies credible enough to keep the masses believing in Soviet communism in the face of countervailing evidence. And, just as in those days, it could be hard to tell lies from genuinely held beliefs, even in matters of life and death. For example, did U.S. defense planners really believe in the infamous missile gap with the Soviets (promoted by Soviet propaganda), or did they merely affect belief to secure funding for their own military acquisitions?

The difference today, Singer and Brooking write, is the speed with which such murky beliefs can be formed. In the sphere of social media, beliefs are formed faster than credible evidence pro or contra can accrue.

Were the “little green men” who invaded (Ukrainian) Crimea in 2014 real Russian soldiers, hired mercenaries, Crimean proxies, or something else? It didn’t matter. By the time anyone could evaluate the disputed facts of the matter, Russia had conquered Crimea and passed a law in the Duma to annex it. Singer and Brooking are right to compare this situation to one invoked by Hitler before he invaded Poland in 1939. “I will provide a propagandistic casus belli,” he told his generals. “Its credibility doesn’t matter. The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth.”

The same can be said of the Trump campaign. It played by the rules of social media, which says all content moves faster than truth, and the purpose of that content is to win attention, not to survive the verification of underlying facts. By the time the Mueller report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election emerged, laying out the details of Moscow’s “sweeping and systematic” intervention on Trump’s behalf, the facts no longer mattered. Trump’s supporters were already fixed in their attitudes in a way that made the facts fundamentally irrelevant. They weren’t going back on the vibrant sense of narrative, emotion, authenticity and community that Trump inundated them with. They were too invested in the 24/7 war in which they were all, to some extent, soldiers now.

Trump’s opponents are understandably outraged that a sitting Republican president could all but flaunt the Russian imprimatur of his election. There is, however, a wider lesson to consider. In order for such a con to go global and to become ensconced in the political system of a liberal democracy, the ground had to have been prepared by larger forces.

The larger forces, soberingly, were us. We simply didn’t know, before it began to dawn on us in the late 2010s, how susceptible we are to believing the scandalously stupid and the crassly indecent. In a deeply telling study cited by Singer and Brooking, MIT data scientists discovered in 2018 that fabricated news stories spread six times faster on social media than authentic ones. So, the good news is we seem to have a sense for the scurrilous and fake; the bad news is, we are perversely attracted to it.

Furthermore, some of the worst behavior on social media has given rise to a phenomenon of blanket deniability now known as Poe’s Law. It is . . . :

. . . an internet adage that emerged from troll-infested arguments on the website Christian Forums. The law states, ‘Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a [fundamentalist] in such a way that someone won’t mistake it for the genuine article.’ In other words there is a point at which the most sincere profession of faith becomes indistinguishable from a parody; where a simple, stupid statement might actually be considered an act of profound meta-irony. Taken to its logical conclusion, Poe’s law could lead to a place of profound nihilism, where nothing matters and everything is a joke.

Taken together with our penchant for lies, exaggerations, and outright fake news, Poe’s Law threatens us with a kind of epistemological apocalypse, where the only thing that matters is the war for our attention and the production of feelings of homophily. To take just one real-world example, it was this erasure of factual standards that got Donald Trump off the hook when he very publicly asked Russia to intervene on behalf of his campaign by stealing and exposing Hilary Clinton’s emails.

A real presidential candidate would never do that, so it must have been a joke. Unless it wasn’t. Of course we’ll never know. And now social media has given us a discursive space in which it makes no sense to care about the difference because there are no facts on which to base such distinction between Trump the blatant traitor and Trump the political sophisticate. And even if they were, our loyalty would be decided by feelings of solidarity with one ambiguous interpretation against another. Such are the rules of understanding the real world through the lens of social media–the rules by which Trump won his election. If this new reality constitutes a war, it is a war with much more at stake than whom we elect as president.

 

What Is to Be Done? Part Two

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In my last post I borrowed some arguments from a few of my favorite thinkers to make the claim that people depend for their sense of individuality on the consciousness of other people. We rely on others to reflect images of us back to ourselves and develop our defining characteristics. These reflections constitute who we are. We are, in a sense, other people.

Even if you flinch from that bold conclusion, insisting, for example that a lone frontiersman or a prisoner in solitary confinement would nonetheless remain a human individual, you must admit that humans can only achieve their full range of flourishing through interaction with others and enmeshment in a civilization. This is what Aristotle meant when he said (at the beginning of Politics) that the human is a social animal.

I was not much of a social animal–or didn’t think of myself as one–until I was married and had children. I began to notice it in the playgrounds of Skopje, Macedonia, where I lived as a new father. I discovered that I loved taking my kids to the main local playground, which was situated astride a walkway between two rows of mid-rise apartment buildings. Depending on the time of day, you would find fifty or sixty kids playing there, attended by parents or, just as often, grandparents. Teenagers played hoops at an adjacent basketball halfcourt. There was always a crowd.

Working people cut through the playground, usually on their way to bus stops on either side of the surrounding apartment blocks. There were shops, pharmacies and banks at each end of the walkway, so lots of folks were headed to those as well. There was also a utility office about five minutes away where I used to walk to pay the bills once a month. They thought I was interesting because of my American accent.

Despite the basic foreignness of the place, my neighborhood in Skopje quickly became very comfortable to me. It was not just home, but in many ways a more practical and commodious home than any I’d lived in before. It was dense with human activity, and just about anywhere you could see or walk to from my apartment was interesting or useful.

I recently read a fascinating book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, by the sociologist Eric Klinenberg. Among other things, Klinenberg gave me a useful term for summing up the experience of the built environment I enjoyed back in Skopje. One of the many reasons Americans never walk anywhere anymore, Klinenberg writes, is that there is nowhere “compelling” to walk to. You can walk around the block or possibly to the school bus stop, but you damn sure can’t walk to buy groceries, pay a bill or attend a PTA meeting.

To function in our society, you must get a driver’s license and buy a car. People in the suburbs have to drive places many times each day.

Put a pin in that idea. There are other, interlocking reasons why we don’t walk anywhere anymore, but the lack of accessible destinations is one I want to come back to. First, though, I want to shift the scene to a crowd of sweaty, (mostly) unlovely human bodies packed tightly around a swimming pool, picnicking and speaking languages I don’t comprehend. I, a misanthrope who hates crowds, despises prickly heat, fears skin cancer, and panics two seconds after  my kids disappear from view, should hate everything about the crowded swimming pool scenario. But I came to love it. It’s a puzzle that calls for reflection. It all happened in Griesheim.

Griesheim was the utterly unremarkable town of 29,000 people in south-central Germany where we moved after Skopje. We would live there for 12 years, and I would have several other experiences of communal life there outside the swimming pool that would challenge my idea of who I was. Just like back in Skopje, I would be remade by the people around me.

But the pool was memorable thing. Its meaning crept up on me over the course of many hot summer days, surrounded, as I have indicated, by a thousand or so of my overly warm fellow citizens. Entrance didn’t cost much, because the city wanted everyone to be able to afford the pool. Hence all the languages. Griesheim is a middle class town, with the offices of doctors, architects and lawyers dotting main street and quite a few professionals commuting 25 miles northward to Frankfurt. But it also has numerous of the less wealthy–Turkish speakers, whose parents or even grandparents came as early as the 1950s or 60s, a handful of Italians who came in the same wave, a large number of former Yugoslavians who fled wars in the 1990s, Polish and Hungarian vegetable pickers, and, more recently, about 400 Africans and Arabs.

The pool itself was big and serviceable but not lavish. The city had clearly sunk quite a bit of money into the facility’s construction and upkeep, and it had given a nudge to all its citizens to congregate there in the form of subsidized entrance fees (I’m fairly certain). What did Griesheim get as a return on this investment?

As a matter of fact, it got almost every piece of social capital to which Klinenberg  refers in the subtitle of his book–an antidote to inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life.

freibad
The Griesheim swimming pool (Image: http://www.hessen-luftbild.de)

The citizens of Griesheim from all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder met one another face-to-face at the pool on equal terms. If you had 2,50 € you could get in, and who didn’t have that much? They might have been from the lowest-rent apartment block or from a deluxe 2 million € custom built home on the city’s forest edge, but at the pool they jostled for the same picnic space, stood in line for the same water slide, overwatched their toddlers flank-by-flank, and of course, did it all for fun.

Here is something special I loved about the pool: there was no body policing. While the town’s lithe young princes and princesses of course showed up to parade as required by standard mating rituals, for everyone else, there simply were no aesthetic standards to live up to. New moms looked like new moms, not like Hollywood starlets back in bikini shape four weeks after childbirth. Over-the-hill Greek guys looked like over-the-hill Greek guys. And so forth. People showed up in all ages and forms.

Why did this matter to me? Because it saved me a huge amount of work trying to teach my kids to resist the tyranny of mass culture and especially the impossible aesthetic hierarchy it imposes on our judgment. I might have them read about such things in books some day, but I don’t have to. Because of the Griesheim pool, my kids accept other people’s presumptive right to enjoy themselves in public without bowing to standards set by trash culture.

Robust civic life is based on the principle of equity among citizens, and it reinforces that principle in as many ways as possible. The pool at Griesheim did precisely this for me and my family. I love this principle so much that I came to love the sweaty, noisy crowds who taught me a new aspect of it.

A few months ago I ran past a new housing development in the suburban neighborhood where I live now. As sign boasted of its amenities, which included a “private park.” My hear sank at how bleak that sounded. I see a lot of signs like that–private pool, private playground, keep out. They are indicative of a low-grade war on civic life.

Tooth and nail, we are clawing back the public spaces where it was once possible for Americans to meet as equals. Everywhere we go requires a car, and in my city 30 percent of the people don’t own one. How equal is that? Everywhere really worth going requires money, and most places vie for a special level of exclusivity defined by income bracket. From our schools to our churches to our shopping areas, we set an unspoken price of admission based on our private wealth. That admission price says to everyone else, “Don’t come here.”

Which brings me back to the ideas of accessibility and “compelling destinations.” Back in Griesheim (as all across Germany) kids are trained to walk to school, from the first grade. I say “trained” because the experience prepares them to walk other places they will soon need to–the doctor’s office, the library, the sports club, the ice cream shop and so forth. In this way they learn that their town belongs to them and to whoever else can move through its streets and squares. If you tried to talk to someone in Griesheim about compelling destinations, I doubt they would understand. When everywhere is a compelling destination, and they’re all accessible, none of them really stands out.

When German kids are in the fifth grade and start attending secondary school, they might go to the next town over, as ours did. No problem. They get on the bus or street car with dozens of other kids, and off they go. Without applying their young minds to any particular issues of political ideology, they are re-learning and expanding the lessons they absorbed walking to elementary school–the space around them belongs to the public, and everyone has a presumptive right to use it for reasonable purposes.

With our talk of private parks and other abominations. Americans have set forth on a doomed project. We wish to transpose all the features of the private sphere to the public sphere. We wish to be kings or queens of our own castle. We will either fail in this project because no one can survive, still less thrive, alone, or we will succeed and commit some new and interesting kind of national suicide. “America stopped believing in the public,” future historians will write, “and of course you can’t have a res publica–the public thing–without that basic mode of community.” So it goes.

I opened this argument with a bold abstraction: we are other people. I continue it with a concrete notion that many people might find just as strange: we must build an environment that prioritizes the public sphere over the private one. Building the right physical stuff is the key to the future. If we fail to advance the public sphere, we may lose the thing we’re trying to protect, human individuality capable of flourishing.