Sorry for the ultralight posting, folks. I’ve been traveling since early this morning, having been in Philadelphia this week to start my new job, and am completely wiped out. More substantive and frequent posting tomorrow, promise.
I did want to put a question to the room about cross-country train travel in America. I’ve taken long(ish) train journeys in western Europe, which I find very pleasant. I’ve only taken the train in the US between Washington and New York, which I find … not so pleasant. The Acela, okay, fine. But very costly, and still slow. Oh, once in the summer of 2000, Julie, toddler Matthew and I took Amtrak from Grand Central Station all the way to northern Vermont, to escape the heat. It’s no fun traveling with little children on the train, at least not for the nine hours it took us to get to Vermont (we could have driven in the same amount of time). But had it been just the two of us, I would have enjoyed the scenery, being able to read while in transit, and being able to walk around and stretch my legs.
Now, the reason I’m thinking about this tonight is I’m trying to figure out if it’s worth it to convince my parents to come see us in Philadelphia on Amtrak. I looked into it, and they can catch the Crescent in either New Orleans or Hammond, La., and ride it straight through to Philadelphia. It takes a bit more than 28 hours, which is quite a haul. But the coach seats look very comfy, and you can rent a two-person sleeper for $168 extra. The fare is comparable to an airplane far, though the trip takes about six times longer (though you do spare yourself having to change planes in Atlanta).
My dad’s doctor won’t let him fly anymore because of his health (heart condition). A train trip would be ideal, because it would allow him to get up and walk around in transit. But a 28 hour train ride is pretty brutal, no matter how comfortable. I think I might enjoy it — again, traveling without kids — but I’m not sure how two older folks like my parents would take it, especially given that my dad has a bad back.
It’s a pity that America doesn’t have better train service, and a more robust culture of train travel. Problem is, once you get to your destination, it may be difficult to get far without a car anyway. In Texas, people keep talking about how nice it would be to have high-speed train service between cities in the Houston-Dallas-Austin triangle. True — but once you got off the train in any one of those cities, you’d be stranded unless you had a car. Might as well just drive.
Tell me about your train journeys across America, both good and bad. Or good/bad train journeys anywhere.
The UK government has announced a new “food security” policy — and it’s not going to make localists happy. Excerpt:
Imported beef. Genetically modified potatoes. The disappearance of those handy labels that tell you just how far your green beans travelled before reaching the grocery store shelf.
This is the stuff of Jamie Oliver’s nightmares – and all of it may come true.
The British government unveiled a national 20-year food-security manifesto Tuesday aimed at safeguarding the future of the country’s food supply, which is in danger of shrinking if certain consumer trends – the favouring of local foods over imported, the rejection of genetically modified food and reliance on “food miles” to measure the environmental cost of food – continue.
The plan argues that the way food is bought and sold in Britain must be revolutionized, and is one of the first of its kind among developed nations. But that may not be for long. International food-policy experts predict similar strategies will be cropping up in developed countries all over the world as the availability of food is increasingly linked to national security.
“We know we are at one of those moments in our history where the future of our economy, our environment, and our society will be shaped by the choices we make now,” Hilary Benn, Britain’s secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, said in announcing the strategy at a farming conference in Oxford.
“Food security is as important to this country’s future well-being … as energy security. We know that the consequences of the way we produce and consume our food are unsustainable to our planet and to ourselves,” he said.
So, let me get this straight: we have to abandon local food traditions, which are only now starting to recover from mass industrialization, and start importing more of our food from afar, all in the name of national security, environmentalism and solidarity with the poor? Does the British government really consider the country’s small farms as a threat to national security? Amazing. As the friend who e-mailed this story commented drily, “Monsanto wins again.”
Kerry Howley is mostly pleased with Barbaran Ehrenreich’s jeremiad against the power of positive thinking. Excerpt from her review:
All the Oprah-ready gurus you would expect to populate this polemic show up to share some advice–here’s Joel Osteen warning us never to “verbalize a negative emotion,” there’s Tony Robbins exhorting us to “Get motivated!” In turning the United States into a 24-hour pep rally, charges Ehren-reich, these professional cheerleaders have all but drowned out downers like “realism” and “rationality.” Their followers are trained to dismiss bad news rather than assimilate or reflect upon its importance. Motivators counsel an upbeat ignorance–the kind of illusory worldview that might, say, convince a president that his soldiers will be greeted as liberators in a foreign state, or a mayor that his city’s crumbling levees can withstand the force of a hurricane.
But Ehrenreich seems less worried about what positivity fans value than what they ignore. Her idea of a life well-lived, as she repeatedly tells us, involves storming into the world and demanding progressive political change. Positivity’s decidedly inward focus–in which the solution to every problem lies in a mere attitudinal shift–thus seems troubling, a “retreat from the real drama and tragedy of human events.” When a Kansas City pastor declares his church “complaint-free,” Ehrenreich sees a demand that Americans content themselves with their dismal lot. When companies hire motivators to boost morale in the workplace, she sees “a means of social control” by which disgruntled employees are brainwashed into acquiescence. “America’s white-collar corporate work-force drank the Kool-Aid,” she writes, “and accepted positive thinking as a substitute for their former affluence and security.”
I agree with this — to a point. I am violently allergic to positive-thinking pushers, precisely because I think that the nature of life is tragic, and they seem willfully oblivious to that. But I can’t go as far as Ehrenreich for a couple of reasons. One, too much of that can lead to despair, and a sense of fatalism, and passivity. It sounds like Ehrenreich wouldn’t agree, that she believes this kind of optimism itself leads to passivity — that is, the belief that everything’s going to be okay if you just sit still and think happy thoughts. That’s nonsense, and even dangerous nonsense, if it prevents you from acting within your capacities to change your circumstances. I don’t blame Ehrenreich from being angry about that, and I don’t blame her either for objecting to the sort of enforced cheerfulness that seems so common in American life.
But she goes much too far. Her complaint is the same one Christopher Hitchens lodged against Mother Teresa: that by teaching people to accept their fates, they are disarming them from political struggles that might improve their lives. It’s by no means a groundless complaint — but it’s not a wise one. The fact is, life <i>is</i> tragic. We are born to suffer and to die, and nothing can conquer that. Religion is primarily an attempt to deal with the problem of suffering and death. I find the philosophical responses various religions offer to the problem to be compelling and wise. Specifically, I find Christianity’s call and command to accept suffering that cannot be avoided, and to transform it into an act of redemptive love, to be far wiser than the bleak option offered by Ehrenreich. Mind you, I’m a religious believer, so I’m arguably predisposed toward the Christian response to suffering. But I don’t see how I would find the courage to carry on in the face of terrible personal suffering — e.g., Tony Judt’s ALS — without a deep belief that my suffering has ultimate metaphysical meaning, even if the precise nature of that meaning is unfathomably mysterious.
The thing is, it’s false to believe that one has to choose between brainless optimism or bleak existentialism. If I were not a religious believer of any sort, I suppose I would find Ehrenreich’s point of view preferable to the unicorns-and-bunnies smiley-face optimism. But either way, we all end up dead, and I suspect the happy-clappy crowd, however deluded, have a less painful ride down than the Ehrenreichian atheists. Though I’d respect the philosophical stance of the Ehrenreichs more than the Happy-Clappies, I’d rather live with the latter.
Yet I’m not convinced that these three distinct responses to suffering I’ve mentioned here — Ehrenreichian political engagement, Happy-Clappyism, or the conventional religious response — are the only options. I mentioned last week my elderly distant cousin who lost her home, her friends and her husband, all in the past few years. I don’t know if she’s a religious person or not — my sense is that she isn’t — but her indomitable spirit is admirable. When I visited her last week, she told her amazing story of travail, from Hurricane Katrina on, and it was really staggering. And yet: “You must go on. You simply must.” Such a Stoic! Really, she seems constitutionally incapable of giving in to despair. I’m not sure what the source of her defiance is, but it’s real. She’s 79 or 80 years old, so life isn’t going to get much better for her. But she’s bound and determined not to become a complainer, but rather to suck every last fleck of marrow from the bones of life. Cousin simply refuses to despair; it’s an act of will. I keep thinking about her, and how much I want to be like her when I’m that old. Maybe some of us are just born that way.
<i>UPDATE:</i> To be clear, I say I want to be like my elderly cousin in my old age only in that I want to be hopeful, and full of life, and defiant in the face of despair. But it is certainly possible that one’s hope is built on an illusion. I don’t know my cousin well at all; it’s possible that the thing that gives her the strength to go on is in some sense a <i>denial</i> of reality, though not a simplistic happy-clappy denial. To someone who doesn’t have faith, what Cousin is doing is heroic; at least it seems to me that it would be. But to a person of faith — at least the Christian faith — it is at least possible that however admirable Cousin’s courage is, that act of will might, just might, be preventing her from seeing herself as she really is, and surrendering to God. Is it possible that what looks to the rest of us like existential bravery is in fact a sophisticated form of self-delusion and despair? How could one tell?
(I say this only as a thought experiment, not as a substantive commentary on Cousin’s spiritual or psychological state, about which I know little or nothing.)
Years ago, I had a friend who was the life of the party: brilliant, funny, everybody’s great pal. One night I was the last one left at the party, and saw the daylight in with him. I remember the sight of him sitting in the armchair of his living room, smoking, with the first rays of the morning sun hitting his forehead. He had a blank, faraway look in his eyes, and he played the same album over and over. It was his dead sister’s favorite, he said. That daylight idyll was the only time I ever saw my friend in that state, but it completely changed my view of him. What to me looked like a life built around rich pleasures and activity and wordliness was really an elaborate attempt to distract himself from his own inner despair. He was hurting terribly inside, but he never showed his true face to anyone else. I don’t know why he dropped his mask that morning, but I never forgot it — and it explained so much about the way he lived, including the self-destructive things he did. We never really know about people, do we?