Monday, January 21, 2019

“Please,” “Thank You,” and the Working Society



“You want your usual pizza to go with that?” the bartender asked.

“Please,” I replied. And she smiled.

I could have said anything, I realized, and it would have yielded largely the same result. Had I said “yes,” she would have brought my favorite white-cheese pizza with chicken and jalapeño. Or “give it here.” Or “dammit, woman, after all this time you know that when I have a beer, I want the same damn pizza, just bring it already.” Because really, it was a spiritless transaction, my money for her service.

But saying “please” changed the dynamic. Instead of a demand, backed with promises of future money, it became a transaction between relative equals. She still expected to get paid, of course, and I still expected to receive my pizza, and receive it quickly, warm, and not spat-upon. Yet simply saying “please” made the transaction civil and pleasant, and my pizza likely saliva-free.

Back in the 1950s, British philosopher J.L. Austin, in his book How To Do Things With Words, pioneered a concept called “performative utterance.” This means language that, by being spoken, somehow changes reality. Performative utterance doesn’t merely describe something that exists; they aren’t merely true. Austin’s most basic form of performative utterance is saying “I do.”

Saying “please” to a bartender isn’t a performative utterance in the same way as marriage vows, naming a baby, or blessing the Communion elements. But it does have social effects. Which, as I ruminate upon it (with one-and-a-half beers in my system) is very strange. Because the sequence of mouth noises which comprise the word “please” don’t have any objective meaning.

Most languages have a word which serves the same role as “please,” but the phonological similarities range from the approximate, with “por favor” and “s’il vous plait,” to the completely absent, like “onegaishimasu.” Yet they perform the same role, turning neutral requests or hostile demands into civil, even friendly exchanges. Simply saying “please” transforms the tenor of the interaction.

Depending on the culture, though, even that isn’t enough. When I lived in the South, I observed the way people, especially White women, needed to append words like “honey” and “sugar” onto every statement. Without the treacly nicknames, anything they said sounded negative and demanding to their ears. They needed the “sweet nothings” to make even the most innocuous exchange sound polite.

Having not grown up around such expectations, the connection of polite honorifics like “sweetie” onto routine statements sounded invasive to me. In other places I’d lived up to that point, mostly in the Northeast and West Coast, you had to earn terms like “sweetheart,” and you generally applied them to your children, your romantic partner, or your puppy. In the South, though, White women called waiters and grocery baggers “honey-pie.”



The ceremony necessary to make inert words into civil discourse are heavily conditioned by our culture. In Japan, for instance, “onegaishimasu” is generally accompanied by ritually executed bows and other performance, always colored by respective hierarchy. Western rituals are often shrouded in history and myth: does the formal handshake really descend from checking strangers for hidden weapons? It sounds plausible, but I don’t really know.

We also, where appropriate, use language to keep people separate. The practice of military enlisted men addressing officers as “sir” is mirrored, in the private sector, by labor addressing management as “Mister.” And in jobs I’ve had recently, where we’re encouraged to call management by their first names, I’ve witnessed breakdowns in morale when managers have to stop being cordial and start giving orders.

All these things we do to make basic interactions productive don’t objectively exist. We’ve created them through generations of social interaction, and we have to teach them to coming generations. Which, sadly, we haven’t always done: I’ve recently discovered that many people under twenty haven’t learned how to shake hands with boldness and dignity, something I learned in Cub Scouts.

When we don’t pass the skills onto the next generation, we cannot communicate as equals. I don’t want to become some granddad bitching out “kids these days,” but when I shake younger men’s hands, their limp handshakes feel far less than cordial to me. I can only imagine my learned firm grip probably strikes them as aggressive, even hostile and domineering. Because we don’t have the same rituals of civility.

At least, for now, the practice of saying “please” remains valuable. Rituals like this oil the wheels of society and commerce. But I wonder: would I still have gotten my pizza if I’d just said “give it here”?

Friday, January 18, 2019

God Give Me Patience, and Give It Right Now!

Drew Dyck, Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control From the Bible and Brain Science

Religions and philosophies throughout history place a premium on self-control. But they’ve differed wildly in how they achieve that goal. Modern experimental psychology has made significant inroads on this front, but multiple studies confirm that spirituality plays an important role; if we believe in ultimate consequences, we’ll control ourselves better. What does that mean for Christians in a technological society like ours today?

Christian writer Drew Dyck’s third book began as a personal research project. Despite having a graduate degree in theology and working in Christian publishing, he admits tending to drift into self-indulgence and satisfying his appetite. So he began researching what theologians, psychologists, and other scholars have discovered about self-control. He couples this research with experiments to apply self-control principles in his own life, experiments we could reproduce in our own lives.

His resulting book is scientifically sound, and consonant with secular books I’ve previously read on human psychology. (Dyck cites several of those books extensively.) But it’s also amply Christian. Faith isn’t an overlay for Dyck; he treats self-control not as a precept, but as a spiritual virtue. As he states in his introduction, “Self-control [is] foundational. Not because it's more important than other virtues, but because the others rely upon it.”

The Apostle Paul lists self-control as one of the Fruits of the Spirit in his Epistle to the Galatians. But in Romans, Paul laments his own lack of self-control, culminating in his legendary wail, “Oh wretched man that I am!” How then can modern people, Christian or otherwise, do better? Start, Dyck asserts, by accepting self-control as a process, not an outcome; we control ourselves constantly through discipline, faith, and awareness.

Drew Dyck
Dyck lays out principles portable across life experiences. These include being as specific as possible in your goals, working to establish productive habits, and paying attention to which cues waylay you on your journey. Dyck’s process isn’t dogmatic, and allows individuals to customize their plan to their unique circumstances. However, he reminds readers that several important principles have proven true across ages and sciences; ignore past wisdom at your peril.

Throughout, Dyck remains voluminously Christian. He cites several studies from psychology and behavioral economics that correlate religion and faith with desirable outcomes. His sources flinch from explaining why religion promotes self-control; he quotes one saying that faith remains, by nature, immune to double-blind study. Thus Dyck encourages Christian readers to advance boldly in faith, knowing that science ratifies important precepts of belief.

Some Christians get understandably squeamish about directly claiming we have any self-control. For them, considering theological history and Biblical study, self-anything strays uncomfortably close to “works righteousness.” Dyck anticipates these objections, and dedicates an entire chapter to the theme. Copious Biblical citations encourage believers to act boldly against their sins. We can do nothing without God, Dyck says, then demonstrates Scripturally how God enables our actions against Sin.

And yes, for Dyck, we fight against capital-S Sin. While individual momentary lapses have explanations from brain science and the physical universe, the pattern we establish overall bespeaks a universal condition best comprehended in Augustinian terms. Original Sin says we’ll always struggle against corporeal appetites. But Christian faith gives us authority to stand bold against the flesh, Satan, or whatever you want to call our constant tempter.

Besides Scripture, Dyck cites ancient sources, including Augustine, Eusebius, and Justin Martyr; modern theologians like Tim Keller, John Ortberg, and Kevin DeYoung; and secular researchers and science writers like Kelly McGonigal, Charles Duhigg, and Cass Sunstein. The resulting product is dense with sources, a veritable smorgasbord of further reading for the curious. It’s also solidly argued enough to travel with us into life’s darker corners.

Between chapters, Dyck includes personal stories of striving to improve his self-control. His individual struggles aren’t catastrophic by worldly standards; he isn’t a criminal or addict. But his struggles to overcome fatty desserts, poor housekeeping, and a feeble prayer life let him test religious and scientific principles in his own life. He discovers that self-control isn’t easy, and requires an investment of years. His is the slow fix, but it’s time-tested and works.

Dyck’s thesis reinforces something I’ve seen demonstrated in my personal studies, that developments in psychology confirm principles long known to religious leaders. What Moses, Christ, and Paul describe as precepts, brain science re-discovers as insights. Even if you don’t believe prophets are literally inspired by God, their doctrines nevertheless show familiarity with how human minds work. Saving souls is difficult work. We can start by controlling them for ourselves.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Marie Kondo's Anti-Economic Economy

Marie Kondo (Netflix photo)

I first heard of Marie Kondo, like many middle-class white people, from a meme. When the English translation of her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up appeared in 2014, the story began circulating that we should hold everything we own, and discard everything that doesn’t “spark joy.” The immediate response, half affectionate and half derisive, gained meme traction: “Sorry, Electric Company, but your bill definitely doesn’t spark joy.”

Now that the American leg of her career has second wind through her Netflix series, she’s become a remarkably divisive figure. I don’t mean her controversial opinion about minimizing your library, which is mostly crap anyway. I mean the collision between people who want (but mostly fail) to enact her principles in life, and everyone else. Let’s start with one important principle: expecting anything inanimate to “spark joy” contradicts every economy everywhere.

It’s easy to say Kondo’s principle of anti-acquisitiveness doesn’t jibe well with contemporary capitalism. Poet and philosopher Wendell Berry has observed that late capitalism depends heavily on advertising, which is the art of creating dissatisfaction. Capitalism, as practiced today, makes people unhappy with what they have, and sells them temporary gewgaws to mollify that unhappiness. Which we then have to become unhappy with, and buy the next gimcrack.

Capitalist philosopher Adam Smith justified his Invisible Hand of Economics with this famous quote: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Which, taken literally, makes sense: small operators want to get paid, so they provide a service. When Smith wrote in 1776, when start-up costs for bread-making were high and competition was scarce, this was hard to dispute.

But it doesn’t explain the present. Meat, bread, and beer are today absurdly cheap, a value distorted by public subsidies. Instead of providing the necessities of life, capitalism floods us with luxuries, distractions, and empty pastimes to make the hours go away. Does anybody really derive joy from watching television? Literally following Marie Kondo’s principles would require you to discard, don’t fool yourself, virtually everything you’ve ever owned.

Still, I’d go further than mere anti-capitalism, because all economic theories, eventually, assign monetary value to invaluable commodities. Even Marxism, which pooh-poohs ownership, or Chestertonian Distributism, which opposes all forms of bigness, necessarily assign weighted values to things you cannot buy. All systems seek rules and standards which monetize things you cannot buy, like family and community connections.

Consider a piano. We know the monetary value of a piano’s workmanship, the price of maintenance, the worth assigned to the space it occupies which we could, hypothetically, fill with other stuff. But what value do we assign the effort needed to learn to play? Because, lemme tell you, when my parents required me to spend thirty minutes every day practicing scales drills, that huge, pricy slab of mahogany sparked no joy in me whatsoever.

The list continues. Anybody who’s ever aspired to a writing career knows we don’t, generally, enjoy writing; we mostly enjoy having written. (There are exceptions.) The finished manuscript may “spark joy,” but the process of creating it seldom does, and the tools necessary to perform that creation often feel like a burden. This computer sits here, black and silent, mocking me for the four incomplete manuscripts which appear whenever I press the power button.

Seeking joy, as a tactile response, is innately anti-economic. To assign value based on my response to a thing reflects the care I’ve invested in it. I value my bodhran exactly in proportion to the time I’ve previously invested in practicing, though you might value my playing distinctly less. And the craftsperson who made my bodhran values it according to their skill investment, which distinctly doesn’t resemble my skill investment.

Let me try another approach. If I handed you the manuscript of my current work-in-progress, I’d be entrusting you with something that sparks profound joy in me. However, my manuscript is bulky, unbound, incomplete, and unedited; it probably would spark no joy in you, and indeed would feel like a burden. What economic value, then, does my manuscript have? Does it have any?

Marie Kondo essentially exposes the lie in assigning any dollar (pound, euro, yen) value to anything. Value derives from our relationship to a product or service, which is unique and intangible. Once we price that value, we’ve debased the human interaction. KonMari housekeeping doesn’t just eliminate our clutter; it rebalances our relationship to value itself.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Great English-Speaking Flame-Out

Donald Trump
Early in his book Stamped From the Beginning, historian Ibram Kendi notes that early European colonists in America began looking around for cheap labor to populate the plantations. And that job was always taken by people who looked different. When Native Americans proved too vulnerable to European diseases, colonists switched to African slaves. This means, Kendi writes, that racism didn’t create economic inequality; economic inequality created racism.

I believe this. I’ve seen it play out, both in history and in our time. Five centuries ago, Bartolomé de las Casas wrote the first known justification of African slavery, because he couldn’t doubt the necessity of the plantation system. Today, the justifications used for family separation, gassing refugees, and more, frequently turn on claims that “they’re taking our jobs.” We need racism to make certain kinds of poverty acceptable in Earth’s richest country.

Except… what motivators are driving racism right now? I’m going to do something I generally avoid, and weigh into non-American politics. Because, just as America continues its longest-ever government shutdown over funding “The Wall,” Britain goes into the home stretch of Brexit with no plan. Parliament just voted down it’s own Prime Minister’s own plan by an over two-to-one margin, almost unheard-of in British parliamentary procedure.

The political leaders in two of the English-speaking world’s leading democracies age are getting their clocks cleaned in unprecedented fashion. Both “The Wall” and Brexit were foisted on their respective countries’ voters through explicitly racist language, claims that have been repeatedly debunked. Repeating the counterclaims would waste space. People who read my blog already realize my views, and are probably ready for me to make my real point.

Theresa May
And that point is: what economic interests are served by this current manifestation of racism? Mass migration justifies both The Wall and Brexit, yet mass migration provides the one thing both countries’ economic systems truly need, cheap labor. Whether Mexicans in America, or Poles in Britain, migrants are notoriously willing to do jobs native-born workers avoid, at wages natives would find insulting. Somebody needs to pick your strawberries.

At work every day, I witness the need for readily available Hispanic labor. As I’ve written before, construction is undoubtedly the most segregated workplace I’ve ever seen. Without a constant supply of Hispanic workers willing to string cable, lay brick, and pour concrete at absurdly low wages, the cost of new buildings in America would skyrocket. White Americans would never accept the wages we offer Mexican workers, which says everything.

Yet we’ve subverted the racist ideal. I know that sounds beneficial, but it puzzles me, because we haven’t done away with the demand for cheap, plantation-style labor. But White people have somehow started embracing, at least nominally, the labor conditions they formerly inveighed against. This appears to be happening internationally, as workers long for the “good ol’ days” of assembly-line manufacturing and resource extraction.

Half the early bluegrass music canon consists of songs about how awful coal-mining is, a thread that continues through current songs like Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Yet a huge fraction of Donald Trump’s voting coalition got behind him because he promised to keep coal mines open, coal companies solvent, and coal as America’s leading solid energy source. He promised to keep the blighted hellscape pumping. (How’s that working?)



Early American history isn’t one of self-reliance, despite what flag-waving patriots claim. The first English settlers at Jamestown, Virginia, were poor people England wanted to bury, according to historian Nancy Isenberg, and the first White settlers on land seized from Indians were generally chased off themselves when bureaucrats got involved. The one thing keeping poor Whites unified with rich Whites was the reassurance that at least they weren’t slaves.

Except, apparently, now they are. Poor White voters in America, and probably Britain too, are rushing to kick migrants off the land and rush into their poorly paid, no-hope jobs. Even as the policies that make such changes possible are historically unpopular, they nevertheless cling to such decisions. And the racist language I hear at work has become more heated, not less, as the Wall battle drags on interminably.

My one reassurance is that both governments are largely unsupported by their peoples. Donald Trump came second in 2016, and is unlikely to be reelected, while Theresa May lost her majority in 2017, and if she loses an expected no-confidence vote imminently, the Conservative coalition will shatter. Then maybe, just maybe, the race-baiters will have to leave office, and we can start rebuilding. Maybe.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Free Speech and its Discontents


This week has challenged much that I’ve long believed about my principles, starting with free speech. Like most free speech absolutists, I’ve never been doctrinaire in my views, and have embraced certain necessary limits. In the days following the racist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, I wrote that a free society has an obligation to limit language that crosses the line into action, and the most prominent form of such language is the incitement to violence.

I needn’t restate the argument in full. The short version, long shared by everyone from small-L liberal philosophers to the Supreme Court, is that when you use “free speech” to encourage violence, that isn’t speech, that’s an action. Thus police have solid First Amendment grounds to break up neo-Nazi rallies and Klan gatherings. A free society cannot muzzle people from speaking even vile and offensive principles… until their words cross the line into action.

This otherwise noble principle comes a-cropper, though, on certain kinds of action. I draw the line between speech and violence, which tacitly assumes violence is bad. Yet we can all imagine times when violence is arguably the right choice. Reasonable people can dispute when those times might arise, because our choices are fueled by our respective values, which are personal rather than universal. Yet this week, something happened to trip my value switch.

The President openly floated the idea of declaring a state of national emergency, seizing power from the Legislature, and passing laws without the consent of the Constitution.

Holy shit.

Avid history readers like me see this and feel great alarm. Previous national leaders who declared national states of emergency, including Napoleon Bonaparte, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, and Adolf Hitler, have used the opportunity to dismiss the Legislature, impose one-party rule, and start wars. States of “emergency” in formerly democratic nations tend to end in a mix of territorial expansion and the suppression of internal dissent. Each led directly to their respective nations’ downfall.

Our President isn’t Hitler. Let’s dismiss that accusation immediately. But Robert O. Paxton, emeritus professor at Columbia University and historian of Vichy France, describes a pattern of Fascist history that situates our current state as incipiently small-F fascist. The parallels are inexact at best, and America currently enjoys a robust (if rudderless) opposition party. However, a declaration of emergency could disrupt the precarious balance.

If that happens, I’ve realized this week, any moral precept that silences violence in advance becomes an impediment. Because, let’s not kid ourselves here, violence is a reasonable response to such naked seizure of power.


If I’ve created an ethical code that makes all calls for violence morally wrong, a priori, and I encounter a situation where principled application violence becomes the only way to resist an unjust government, I’ve prevented myself from acting. I’ve immediately foreclosed from myself the only means of direct action against a power structure that believes itself separate from its citizens. I’ve rendered myself either powerless, or a hypocrite.

In the event, now painfully imaginable, that our President declares an emergency, arrogates to himself the powers of Congress, and passes laws without restraint, I’d actually advocate for direct action against him. I’d prefer the military to step in and restore democracy, as happened in Egypt in 2013. (I know that didn’t end well. I’m trusting that someone like James Mattis, a scholar and true American, would take point in such an activity, which is a huge leap of faith.)

Failing that, citizens would be justified in direct action like spiking the roads in front of troop transports, sabotaging public buildings, and smashing roads. I’d hope we wouldn’t have to to go full Michael Collins and begin assassinating collaborationists, but if this week has taught me anything, we can’t rule anything out preëmptively. We need to guard against overreach, but we also need to act against tyrrany.

Don’t misunderstand me. Violence, while sometimes necessary, must always be tempered by principle and reason. When violence becomes self-justifying, it frequently begets something worse: the revolution against Charles I, for instance, created Cromwell’s dictatorial Protectorate. Robespierre fell victim to the moral purges he once created. All appeals to violence contain the potential for abuse, which those within the resistance must consciously work to curb.

This puts me in an awkward position. I’ve erased the one line I drew previously, and if I erase it for me, I theoretically erase it for everybody. Where, then, do we draw the line at unacceptable speech and behavior? I can’t say. I’m venturing into the territory of ad hoc morality, which history shows doesn’t end well. But recent history proves we cannot, unilaterally, take anything off the table. America is headed into uncharted territory, and it’s taking my soul with it.