That’s A Big Number

January 26, 2012

Via Newsday

Newt Has Moved On

January 26, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

The Walrus:

I WAS PRESENT in Warsaw, Berlin, Budapest, and Prague in 1989 when non-violent revolutions swept the Communists from power, creating a brand new model of regime change. I stood in Wenceslas Square as hundreds of thousands of people rattled their keys, unleashing an eerie, shimmering sound into the air, chanting, “Your time is up!” I had lived among the Czechs for a decade in the 1970s, and I felt the power of their relief as the hated regime slipped into history.

So, not surprisingly, I was intrigued by the instant media punditry comparing the bloodless revolutions in central Europe with the recent wave of Arab uprisings in the Middle East. Even on television, I could see similarities between Prague 1989 and Cairo 2011: the peacefulness of protesters; the prominent role played by young people; the sparkling displays of public eloquence and wit; the sudden release from fear and the rebirth of civic pride; the infectious jubilation when the regime was finally brought down. But I saw big differences as well.

In 1989, British historian Timothy Garton Ash, having a celebratory beer with Václav Havel, observed that in Poland it had taken ten years to overthrow the system, in Hungary ten months, and in East Germany ten weeks; Czechoslovakia would perhaps take ten days. He was simplifying, of course, yet his remark captured something of the truth of the moment: Soviet-style Communism was a unified system run, with some minor local variations, from Moscow, and its collapse overturned the old Cold War domino theory — the belief that if Communism were not contained militarily it would spread to other countries. The revolutions of 1989 marked the end of an era, and provided an occasion for joy and optimism to everyone who had lived so long in the shadow of nuclear Armageddon.

Even from my armchair in front of the television, I could see that the events in Tahrir Square were charged with a different energy and a different meaning. Without knowing much about the misery Hosni Mubarak had inflicted on his country, I could still feel the enormous, pent-up frustration of protesters who, day after day, pushed back against the police, braving tear gas, truncheons, armoured cars, rubber bullets, and buckshot, not to mention the stones, Molotov cocktails, and bullets unleashed against them by the regime’s thugs and sharpshooters. Hundreds died and many more were injured. The battle of Tahrir Square looked and felt like a real revolution.

Yet the outcome remained far from clear. Mubarak was gone, but he was instantly replaced by an interim military junta that promised to step down after elections later in the year. The military had allowed the revolution to take its course — one of the slogans in Tahrir Square was “The people and the army are one hand!” — but as a governing body it was ham-fisted and slow, and the popular trust it enjoyed at first soon began to fray. The 1989 revolutions had been swift and decisive, their outcomes never really in doubt; Egypt’s revolution appeared to be bogging down, and had succeeded only in comparison with those in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, where the violence continued unabated.

Meanwhile, less optimistic analogies had begun to surface. Drawing parallels to abortive revolutions that swept through Europe in 1848 implied that the Arab revolts were vulnerable to suppression, at least in the short run. Comparisons with the 1979 revolution in Iran suggested that they could lead to nasty Islamic theocracies across the region. The Communist countries of central Europe all had unified opposition movements that were almost like governments-in-waiting and enjoyed Western support, whereas the Arab Awakening had no such coherence and seemed to make many neighbouring countries wary, even fearful. I could understand why an absolute monarchy like Saudi Arabia might feel threatened, or why Israel might worry about the future of its relationship with a democratic Egypt. But why were so many pundits outside the Middle East worried? And why in Prague, of all places, were those who had been on the front lines in 1989 asking whether the Arabs were ready for democracy? Didn’t we believe, in general, that even an imperfect democracy was better than none? Or had that belief now become so battered that we no longer trusted it?

I wanted to learn more, which is how I found myself in Cairo in March, six weeks to the day after the fall of Mubarak.

TO A NEWCOMER, the Egyptian capital can feel overwhelming — overwhelmingly brown, overwhelmingly dusty, overwhelmingly noisy, and overwhelmingly crowded. During the day, the major roads and elevated highways are jammed with bleating, blaring bumper-to-bumper traffic that appears to obey no known rules. And yet, except in rush hour, vehicles move efficiently. Walking is an adventure, and merely crossing the road (there are no crosswalks and few traffic lights) can seem like an extreme sport. The secret, I discovered, is to be bold: make your intentions clear, step out into the flow of traffic, and wait for the cars to stop, slow down, or flow harmlessly around you as you make your way to the other side alive. This experience holds a lesson: In Egypt, not everything that appears chaotic or dangerous is necessarily chaotic or dangerous. Even in matters as basic as driving habits, there is an unwritten social contract everyone understands.

Two-thirds of Greater Cairo’s population, which is approaching 20 million, live in what are euphemistically called “informal areas,” tracts of densely crowded concrete and brick buildings, some many storeys high, tightly clustered along narrow streets and laneways without regard for plans or building codes or zoning bylaws, often without access to utilities or policing. The people who live and work in these areas are mostly poor, getting by on the equivalent of a few dollars a day. And yet these are not, strictly speaking, slums or ghettos, and the streets feel relatively safe.

In downtown Cairo, which is almost European in spirit and design, the main streets teem with life, especially after dark. Clusters of boisterous young men hang out on the sidewalks, while young women walk by, arm in arm, ignoring them, or pretending to. Most women cover themselves in public, usually with a hijab or head scarf — one of many signs that Islam has made inroads into what was once a more secular society. The amplified calls to prayer that punctuate the city’s din five times a day reinforce this impression. But, as their driving habits demonstrate, Egyptians have an ambiguous relationship with rules, both religious and secular. Many young women wear colourful, outrageously flamboyant hijabs, almost pharaonic in their puffed-up splendour, which seem intended to attract rather than discourage male attention. And while they also observe the diktat against visible flesh, they frequently wear tight-fitting jeans and long-sleeved sweaters that leave little to the imagination. (Sexual harassment is a serious problem in Egypt; I was told that as more women cover themselves, the incidence of assaults has actually increased.)

I heard a joke in Cairo that encapsulated the Egyptian habit of flouting the law: “We pretend to obey the rules, and they pretend to enforce them.” It reminded me of one they told in central Europe before the fall of Communism: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” Put side by side, the two jokes help to explain the differences between the two societies on the cusp of revolution: the anarchic vibrancy of Egypt versus the homogeneous monotony of central Europe.

When the former Polish dissident Adam Michnik contemplated the devastation that remained after decades of Communism, he came up with a memorable metaphor: Communism turned an aquarium of living fish into fish soup, he said. Our challenge is to turn the fish soup back into an aquarium of living fish.

When the Communists took power in Eastern Europe after World War II, they adopted the Soviet model and set about destroying the traditional institutions of civil society. When they were done, virtually nothing was left standing: no private property, no market economy, no independent businesses; the media entirely under state control; the churches, Catholic and Protestant, eviscerated. A single political party called the shots, and a massive security apparatus backed it all up. This was Michnik’s fish soup, and the problem confronting the new leaders after the revolution was how to bring their societies back to life. Yet they faced the future with some important assets: a high literacy rate, no real poverty, and ex-leaders who had not robbed the country blind, mainly because the centrally controlled economy produced little worth stealing (“We pretend to work, and you pretend to pay us”).

Egypt was still a colourful aquarium, despite the efforts of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the country’s first modern military dictator, to make Soviet-style fish soup of it. Anwar al-Sadat, his successor, attempted to remedy Nasser’s excesses by opening up the economy. So, in turn, did Hosni Mubarak, and today the results can be seen everywhere. Upscale Cairo neighbourhoods boast opulent neon malls selling Western clothing, cars, and services; international corporations like FedEx and Vodafone have put down roots; and Tahrir Square’s most prominent commercial landmark is a KFC outlet.

Cairo’s traditional economy seemed vigorous as well. In the narrow streets beyond the downtown core, I saw block after block of tiny workshops and wholesale outlets producing and selling plastic piping, car repair tools, packing materials, belt buckles, shoe parts, picture frames, bolts of cloth, bales of raw cotton, and on and on — all of it supporting a cottage industry economy that apparently operates beyond regulation (“We pretend to obey the rules, and they pretend to enforce them”). Judging from the number of newspapers and magazines, a lively press exists in Cairo, livelier now that censorship has been relaxed and pro-Mubarak editors have been let go. The judiciary, I was told, remains relatively independent, and the universities — once strictly monitored by the government — show signs of rousing themselves to a new, autonomous life: the American University in Cairo has just launched a new periodical called the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, devoting its inaugural issue to “The Arab Revolution.” Scholars at Al-Azhar University, whose pronouncements carry an almost papal authority in the Sunni Muslim world, have been calling on Egypt to establish “a democratic state based on a constitution that satisfies all Egyptians.”…

Read it all.

National Affairs:

Americans are in a disagreeable mood. Polls show pessimism about the country’s future at record highs, trust in government at record lows, and a deep distaste for political incumbents of both parties. It is tempting to attribute this discontent to the economy, and surely the jobless rate has much to do with Americans’ disquiet. But more than unemployment troubles America. Voters have been telling pollsters for years, well before the epic economic collapse, that they believe the country is far off track. It is not just that middle- and working-class Americans cannot seem to move ahead or that too many schools are failing. It is not only that we seem persistently unable to face our ruinous budget deficit or reform our ill-designed entitlement system.

Americans increasingly feel there is a profound and widening distance between our most cherished ideals and the reality of our national life. In some fundamental way, Americans believe, the nation is disordered. Barack Obama’s promise to address that disorder — to practice a reformist, even transformative politics — is what got him elected three years ago. Instead, Obama pursued an agenda of government aggrandizement. Americans want that aggrandizement reversed, but they want more. They want to put their country back in order and make society reflect again their deepest moral commitments, to recover a shared sense of belonging and purpose.

We used to have a word to describe the order we long for: justice. The West’s greatest thinkers, no less than its major religious traditions, have insisted again and again on the centrality of justice. “Justice is the end of government,” James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51. “It  is the end of civil society.” Madison was echoing Aristotle, who argued that justice is the purpose of political community. Though today we often think of justice only in reference to crime and punishment, Aristotle understood that there is far more to justice than that: He contended that justice means arranging society in the right way, in accord with how humans are made and meant to live. The just society is one that permits its citizens to exercise their noblest gifts, to reach their highest potentials, to flourish. Thus while all partnerships aim at some good, Aristotle taught, the political partnership “aims at the most authoritative good of all,” at justice.

We no longer think of justice in this manner, partly because for the better part of a century the term has been hijacked by the left. In the last hundred years, justice became oddly synonymous with labor unions and planned economies and then the anti-American radicalism of the 1960s. It is now too often taken to describe egalitarian economics. But the left’s notion of justice has turned out to be both shallow and calamitous. The left’s agenda has not delivered justice, and indeed, it has blinded us to the fact that justice is what we lack.

While liberals advocated their distorted notion of justice, conservatives abandoned the concept altogether, instead emphasizing freedom and independence in contrast to the left’s egalitarianism. Freedom and independence are valuable things, indispensable in fact, but they are worthwhile precisely because they are just — they are right for the human person. There can be no true freedom apart from a just society. And it will no longer do for conservatives to advocate the former without the latter.

Conservatives must do more than promise to downsize government and let each individual go his own way. They must offer a better vision of a better society, a vision of political justice, with an agenda to match. This is how conservatives can speak to the country’s deepest needs, and this is how conservatives can summon the nation again to its highest potential. For if justice is the supreme achievement of a free people, to call Americans to justice is to call them to greatness.


To reclaim the quest for justice, conservatives must first clarify for themselves what justice really means. They can start by rejecting the left’s wrongheaded view.

The liberal vision of justice can be traced to the French Revolution, with its cry of libertéégalitéfraternité. The middle term was the decisive one: The revolutionaries insisted on the absolute equality of citizens as the touchstone of a just society. No distinctions of rank or wealth were to be permitted, in theory anyway, because no such distinctions were natural to man. The revolutionaries distrusted civil society, with its myriad little groups and private associations, as a redoubt of inequality and “unnatural” distinction. Fraternité — brotherhood — was to be achieved instead through the state, which would put every citizen on equal footing and provide a source of common identity. Only then would liberty, too, be possible.

A century later, Karl Marx gave the Jacobins’ égalité a distinctly materialist turn. Human beings are the products of their material conditions, he said; human identity is determined by the means of production. For Marx, an equality of goods and things was the key to bettering mankind.

American liberals are neither Jacobins nor Marxists, but some of the claims of both figure prominently in contemporary liberal thought. For the modern American left, justice is indeed most basically about equality. And equality is about material things. In his famous book A Theory of Justice, Harvard philosophy professor John Rawls contended that each individual is entitled to the same basic goods as every other. New York University philosophy professor Ronald Dworkin, another liberal icon, has similarly argued that a just society will afford its citizens “equality of resources.” When, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama told Joe the Plumber that part of government’s job was to “spread the wealth around,” he was reaching for this same egalitarian idea.

But why exactly is every citizen entitled to the same basic level of material well-being? Here modern liberals offer a conventionally 21st-century answer: Every individual, they say, has the right to be happy. This equal right to happiness, where happiness is understood as individual satisfaction, is the ultimate source of modern liberalism’s commitment to individual equality. Because every person has a right to pursue what brings him pleasure, every person deserves the resources to make that pursuit possible. The business of government, therefore, is to deliver material equality. Liberals champion the state as the agent of equality, the state as the source of community, and the state as the sponsor of individual happiness.

This leftist vision of justice has proved enormously influential — but ultimately empty. Enshrining individual satisfaction as the end goal of life has left our public dialogue myopic and self-centered. It has impoverished our understanding of the common good by suggesting that all we as citizens have in common is the right to pursue our individual ends. In the name of guaranteeing equality, it has fostered dependency. In the name of individual choice, it has hollowed out civil society, replacing voluntary associations with the state.

In short, the left’s view of justice has led directly to our present crisis. Edmund Burke’s verdict on the French revolutionaries in 1790 is a fitting epithet for modern Progressives and liberals: They “are so taken up with their theories of the rights of man, that they have totally forgot his nature.”

If conservatives are to speak to the nation’s longing for a fuller notion of justice, they will have to offer a better and truer understanding of man. They will need to remember the ancients’ dictum that the just society is one in accord with human nature. The liberal account of justice pays virtually no attention to individuals’ uniquely human talents and capacities, but these are precisely the key to justice. Despite the innumerable differences between one individual and another, there is a fairly definite set of activities in which most people say they find deep fulfillment: working, inventing, creating, building, serving, teaching, raising a family. All these pursuits have something in common. They all involve the application of human effort to a sphere of the world in order to improve it. The Biblical tradition calls this “exercising dominion,” as in the opening of Genesis, when God gives humans authority over the created order with the responsibility to tend and care for it. In more secular terms, we might call it governing.

To govern is to exert a guiding influence on something or someone else, to manage or direct or shape things. We usually think of it in a political context, but there is nothing inherently political about governing. It can describe any responsible, constructive exercise of care or authority. And understood in this way, it fairly describes many of man’s highest capacities. When an entrepreneur takes an idea and turns it into a business, he is marshaling his talents to build something new; he is governing. When a composer drafts a concerto, he is applying his gifts to the world to create beauty where it did not exist before; he is governing. When a teacher trains a student or a parent rears a child, he directs the child for the child’s improvement — he governs…

Read it all.

The Awl:

Walking into McCormick Place, Chicago’s half-hangar, half-labyrinth convention center, I looked at the schedule to find that I had just missed “Canadians Do Cremation Right.” The 130th National Funeral Directors Conference, was underway; held each year in a different city, the conference brings together funeral directors from across the country for three days of presentations, trade talk, awards and camaraderie. After shaking off my initial disappointment at having missed the Canadian talk, I scanned the remaining workshops. After passing on “Marketing Your Cemetery: Connecting With Your Community” and “Managing Mass Fatality Situations,” I circled “The Difference Is In The Details,” an embalming workshop.

The small film company I sometimes work for was planning a feature on new trends in funerals, and I had flown out for the weekend to try to meet some of the younger, hipper funeral directors at the conference. One of these was Ryan, a round man with a wide smile and an impeccable hair-part, whose car, he told me, has a bumper sticker that says “Let’s Put The ‘Fun’ Back In Funeral.” He started his career as a funeral director, but had since moved into the lucrative field of “death care industry” consultation, where he works with funeral directors on ways to expand their businesses. In one of our conversations he tells me, “The worst thing I’ve heard a funeral director say is ‘we’ve always done it this way.’” Later, I tell him my plan to attend that evening’s “Funeral Directors Under 40: A Night on the Town” event. Without missing a beat, he lowered his voice and said, “Funeral directors are notoriously heavy drinkers. There will definitely be some hook-ups.”

The funeral industry is in the midst of a transition of titanic proportions. America is secularizing at a rapid pace, with almost 25% of the country describing itself as un-church. Americans, embracing a less religious view of the afterlife, are now asking for a “spiritual” funeral instead of a religious one. And cremation numbers are up. Way up. In liberal, secular states, specifically in the Pacific Northwest, cremation rates have steadily increased to more than half of disposals, up from the low single digits in 1990. The rest of the nation had also experienced steady gains in cremation since 2000 (except in the Bible Belt, where cremation rates remained relatively low). The rate of cremation has skyrocketed as Americans back away from the idea that Jesus will be resurrecting them straight from the grave. And so in the past twenty years, funeral directors have had to transform from presenters of a failed organism, where the sensation of closure is manifest in the presence of the deceased body, to the arbitrators of the meaning of a secular life that has just been reduced to ash. Reflecting this trend, this year’s NFDA conference was, for the first time in its history, held jointly with the Cremation Association of North America (CANA).

Talking with funeral directors at the conference, I began to realize the scope of the crisis spurred by the rise of cremation and its new importance. As one former funeral director said, “If the family wanted a cremation, we’d say ‘That’ll be $595,’ hand them the urn and show them the door. Not anymore though.” The industry is scrambling to find a way to add value-added cremation services to remain solvent.

This tension about how best to innovate was in evidence at the first presentation I attended, titled “How To Step Up Your Game.” The presenter worked for a consulting firm that specialized in business strategies and management—the funeral industry was his particular subject of expertise. He launched into his talk with a story about a recent trip to Disney World with his daughter. While walking through the park, he realized how much the funeral industry could learn from the attraction. At Disney World, every interaction had been scripted and rehearsed, down to the greetings from the custodians. Experiences are controlled. Likewise, he said, every funeral should offer the same experience for everyone, whether cremated or open-casket. If, say, the customer was having an open-casket service with a priest and an organist, there should also be a corresponding service for someone, possibly secular, who has just been cremated. If priests are no longer always present to say platitudes over the dead, funeral directors would have to develop a corresponding basic, secular service to stand in as a reverent farewell. Thus they’d take a much larger role in the memorial, acting more like mainstream event planners and offering such amenities as video tributes, arranging for music and other points of the new-age burial.

“No more outsourcing the healing to ministers, because that isn’t really going to work anymore,” the presenter continued. Religion answered the question of authenticity, the sense that the memorial was genuine and prescribed. The minister, God’s shepherd, was on hand to see the soul to heaven. But in a society that has grown suspicious and distant from religion, this no longer is sufficient. Now it’s up to the funeral directors to provide that sense of authenticity, of closure, a way to deal with the impossibility of understanding death. The presenter continued with a slideshow of forward-looking funeral homes: huge windows with sunlight streaming in, glossy ceramic tables holding both the urn and catered health food—they looked not unlike high-end yoga studios. As he clicked back and forth between a picture of an old-fashioned, stuffy, sunless viewing room, replete with heavy velvet curtains and faux-gold candelabras, to the new, health-club-reminiscent Remembrance Room, it became clear: the funeral industry is being gentrified. I looked around the room. The audience was incredibly diverse, which, was true of the conference overall and which makes sense: every community has its own funeral home, each with its own loyal followings, its own special services that a cross-town rival doesn’t offer. But here they were, being told to act more like Disney World, and everyone was taking notes…

Read it all.

Changing How We Do Business

January 26, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

State Of The Union

January 26, 2012

Via Newsday


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