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December 28, 2008

A Deep and Abiding Faith

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

- Robert Frost

Bombing through Maryland woods on a snowy evening (at an admittedly intemperate rate of speed) the Blog Princess found herself snidely pondering the thick fog of unreality which pervades everything from politics to parenting to the economy these days. This is a time when connections seem to have been severed. Or perhaps they've simply been obscured by affluence and long complacency. Maybe we're so thoroughly insulated by our relative safety and prosperity that we no longer recognize how decisions and the consequences that flow from them are related. We don't like speaking of cause and effect; such talk smacks uncomfortably of "being judgmental" and "imposing our values on others" as though it were overly rigid values (and not the impersonal but remorseless physics of action and reaction) which cause bad results to follow from foolish decisions. Perhaps if we just keep refusing to face unpleasant consequences, they will fade away and lose their power over us. Like unacknowledged monsters under the bed, if we wish and hope hard enough maybe we can banish the real world to some dark corner of our subconscious minds for another decade or two.

After all here we are: still huddled in our larger-than-ever McMansions with our smaller-than-ever families, our two-plus cars per household (sometimes one per driver!), our multiple TV sets, VCRs, Wiis, iPods, stereos, laptops and desktop computers. Though we whine about how expensive everything is and fear losing it, we continue to enjoy riches our parents and grandparents never dreamed of. We fear losing our comfortable lifestyles and yet we seem oddly untroubled by the loss of something infinitely more precious than personal possessions easily come by and all too soon forgotten. Lost in all of this manic celebration of the now is appreciation of the eternal; of those quieter joys that satisfy the soul long after whatever shiny baubles momentarily capture our highly distractible eyes have lost their luster.

Driving down that country road, The Princess found herself thinking of a few lines written by Patrick O'Hannigan regarding the closing of a favorite coffee house:

I mentioned an Advent angle to the challenge that Mistress Roaster and her manager now face, and it is this: Stephanie calls the coffee house her church, and Carrie is a Christian whose denomination I do not know, but both are buoyed by a joyful confidence that hard things happen for a reason, and that everybody in the coffee chain from producers to consumers deserves respect.

Joyful confidence. I think that is what is most missing from our lives these days. We have been living in the moment so often and to such a great degree that I think we have lost our bearings. We are adrift on the vast ocean of the present; choking and sputtering on information as wave after wave of events batters the fragile defenses we have erected. Without history, without the traditions and duties our parents accepted (but we knowingly abandoned) we can't seem to get our feet upon solid ground.

And so, nothing makes sense anymore. We know this, in our hearts. But so long as there's a hope the dream of affluence might continue, who wants to face boring reality?

Individuals, companies or cities with heavy debt and shrinking revenues instinctively know that they must reduce spending, tighten their belts, pay down debt and live within their means. But it is axiomatic in Keynesianism that national governments can create and sustain economic activity by injecting printed money into the financial system. In their view, absent the stimuli of the New Deal and World War II, the Depression would never have ended.

On a gut level, we have a hard time with this concept. There is a vague sense of smoke and mirrors, of something being magically created out of nothing. But economics, we are told, is complicated.

It would be irresponsible in the extreme for an individual to forestall a personal recession by taking out newer, bigger loans when the old loans can't be repaid. However, this is precisely what we are planning on a national level.

I believe these ideas hold sway largely because they promise happy, pain-free solutions. They are the economic equivalent of miracle weight-loss programs that require no dieting or exercise. The theories permit economists to claim mystic wisdom, governments to pretend that they have the power to dispel hardship with the whir of a printing press, and voters to believe that they can have recovery without sacrifice.

As a follower of the Austrian School of economics I believe that market forces apply equally to people and nations. The problems we face collectively are no different from those we face individually. Belt tightening is required by all, including government.

Governments cannot create but merely redirect. When the government spends, the money has to come from somewhere. If the government doesn't have a surplus, then it must come from taxes. If taxes don't go up, then it must come from increased borrowing. If lenders won't lend, then it must come from the printing press, which is where all these bailouts are headed. But each additional dollar printed diminishes the value those already in circulation. Something cannot be effortlessly created from nothing.

Driving down that back country road to the accompaniment of a seasonally appropriate holiday tune, I couldn't help musing that the inhabitants of the delightful stretch of pavement I frequently cut across to bridge the gap between my 100% natural, crunchy granola neighborhood and the mean streets of downtown Fredneck must really despise people like The Princess.

But you see, it is Not My Fault. "Those people" ought to have had more sense than to buy homes on a relatively untravelled road with such sinuous curves - luscious, nearly naked stretches of open road that whisper seductively to the arch of the foot, caressing it into exerting a dangerous pressure that is translated almost without conscious thought to the innocent toes resting on the accelerator pedal.

No. It is not the fault of people like us. We cannot be held responsible for our actions. Clearly the road should have been better designed; Someone in Authority should have put Systems in place to prevent us from doing what we know is wrong and if they only had done their jobs, how many now-flattened squirrels would be sitting upright in the middle of the road, taunting our brand new Michelins with a flick of their arrogantly twitching tails?

All I know is that despite what has turned out to be a momentous year, I continue to have a deep and abiding faith in America. Yes, we screw up a lot.

That is because we are human. But it is also because we are free.

And what a glorious, glorious gift freedom is. We are free - free even to choose the wrong things, to make bad decisions. Free to do stupid things that hurt us more than they hurt others. And often, all too often, we do exactly that. If living with the consequences of our own fecklessness continues to be the worst thing we have to whine about, America may continue to consider herself truly fortunate. No one else is oppressing us. If we can be said to be victims, we are victims of our own freedom of choice. There are worse fates, and perhaps if the consequences of our own bad decisions continue to mount we may finally begin to see some reality - some admission that liberty is not a risk-free proposition; that free people have responsibilities to go along with all those glorious rights we hear about constantly.

Meanwhile, half a world away a developing democracy exercised its freedom too this Christmas season:

Iraq's government declared today an official holiday, and issued congratulations to Christians here on the birth of Christ. Iran, after a fashion, did the same thing.

This is a momentous thing. But no doubt the media will continue to flog the story of an Iraqi reporter - a reporter who would never had the chance to do his job without state interference during the reign of Saddam - passing up his newfound freedom of speech to bravely assault a visiting head of state. We will, no doubt, continue to be admonished by professional journalists that reporters perform an indispensable service, albeit with no recognition that they continue to fall grievously short of their own standards:

The common thread here, whether the subject is foreign, national or local, is that the writer in question is performing a valuable task for the reader -- one that no sane man would perform for free. He is assembling what in the business world is termed the "executive summary." Anyone can duplicate a long and tedious report. And anyone can highlight one passage from that report and either praise or denounce it. But it takes both talent and willpower to analyze the report in its entirety and put it in a context comprehensible to the casual reader.

This highlights the real flaw in the thinking of those who herald the era of citizen journalism. They assume newspapers are going out of business because we aren't doing what we in fact do amazingly well, which is to quickly analyze and report on complex public issues. The real reason they're under pressure is much more mundane. The Internet can carry ads more cheaply, particularly help-wanted and automotive ads.

So if you want a car or a job, go to the Internet. But don't expect that Web site to hire somebody to sit through town-council meetings and explain to you why your taxes will be going up. Soon, newspapers won't be able to do it either.

I agree with Mr. Mulshine. Journalists do perform an indispensable service and bloggers cannot and should not think we can entirely replace them. To the contrary, we depend upon professional journalists. Without them, we could not do what we do. But journalists are wrong to dismiss the contributions made by bloggers, and even more wrong when they gloss over the very real deficiencies in their reporting; deficiencies that created the competition they so fiercely resent. Bloggers found an audience because they perform the a critical oversight function over an essentially unaccountable profession. The irony is that the media use their oversight role to justify nearly everything they do, from releasing classified documents to concealing the sources of their stories, yet they find oversight of their own profession intolerable. Jules Crittenden, a professional journalist and blogger, points one the hypocrisy in this stance:

...someone needs to tell Mulshine about the important role that the blogosphere he is dismissing has played in keeping professionals honest.

It’s tireless work, done for little or no money, and there is no end to it, as the recent election shows. Where would most people have found out anything about Obama … or anything true and relevant about Palin … without the blogosphere, anyway? Who would there be to continue tirelessly pointing out what a bad joke Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize is, especially now that it’s fundamental premise is … cooling off. Meanwhile, Dan Rather is spending his days muttering to himself when he isn’t muttering to lawyers who are milking him with a multi-million lawsuit that’s going nowhere. I don’t know what Adnan Hajj is doing these days, since his Beirut Photoshop got shuttered. I don’t even want to talk about what the Iraq war coverage was like.

Glenn Reynolds notes that many bloggers, contrary to Mulshine's dismissive and dishonest snark, do in fact produce original reporting - and in a war zone to boot:

It seems that often when big-media types write about the failings of blogs, they engage in the kind of lazy inaccuracy they condemn. In an earlier column, Mulshine wrote:
Anyone can travel to a war zone and write about it. I would strongly recommend this for any of the critics of the MSM who are seeking to get out the real truth about Iraq. Go for it, guys. War coverage is great fun. One word of caution, though: Don’t lose your heads in all the excitement.
That, of course — as Mulshine should have known then, and now — is exactly what J.D. Johannes does — along with Michael Yon, Michael Totten, Bill Roggio, and others in the blogosphere. Mulshine, meanwhile, brags about having once covered the Toms River Regional Board of Education in New Jersey. That’s worthy work, of course, but if his reportage there was as poor as his work in the Wall Street Journal, then — oh, who am I kidding? “If”?

But I think bloggers also perform another very important function: because bloggers are available and accountable to our readers in real time, we have brought ordinary citizens back into politics. By engaging them in the news cycle; involving them in discussions about the latest stories and challenging them to actively question what they read and hear, we are - quite literally - revitalizing democracy:

...here again is one of the major strengths of blogs: if a story is proven false, it's a rare blogger who isn't deluged with emails and comments. Most bloggers will publish an update to correct the story immediately. I would argue that blogs are uniquely accountable to their readers in a way the MSM are not: if we are consistently wrong, our readers stop listening and find someone who can get the story straight.

The article leaves out another important advantage of blogs: posts are supported by links to the sources used to support the story. The more credible blogs use multiple sources to support a post. Readers can follow the links to learn more and evaluate the credibility of the information supplied. This is not possible with the nightly news or daily newspaper.

Strangely, the main advantage of blogs was never mentioned in the article, and it's an important one: blogs make the news cycle interactive. Blogs with comments enabled allow readers to discuss the news, argue policy and trade facts, offer links to related stories, correct false or misleading information, and offer their insights for debate and review by the Internet community.

Even non-commenting blogs let readers participate by emailing the blogger (who more often than not will respond) and by contributing stories. Most readers like to see their names on the screen and many important stories are broken, not by the investigative work of the blogger, but by an intrepid reader with a modem and a thirst for information.

By allowing readers to participate in the news cycle, break stories, investigate rumors, and share their thoughts with a vast network of other readers who care passionately about world events, blogs are revitalizing democracy. People are meeting on the web to discuss the issues instead of on the front porch or down at the corner store. But for the first time in years, they're talking. The once-disconnected and apathetic voter is getting involved in a way he or she hasn't in years, and it's exciting to see.

In a private email this week, I expressed some doubt as to whether our love affair with television and the Internet have contributed to the deep and pervading air of unreality that seems to surround us right now. I do worry when I see kids texting at the table instead of talking to their family. I think it's rude. I don't like to see people chained to their Blackberries 24/7 - I wish they'd put them down and talk to the very real people right in front of their noses; people who (most of the time) are far more important to them at the end of the day than whoever is on the other end of those pixels. I wonder whether all this technology and the affluence it brings is severing us from a right appreciation of the critical connection between our decisions and the consequences that flow from them.

I worry, when I see the media selectively flogging a highly politicized agenda for all it's worth and calling it news, that people don't take the time to cross-check facts or separate punditry from news reporting. I worry about all the stories that never make it into our living rooms. But then I look at the explosion of the Internet and I see that people do realize they're not getting the whole story. They are curious. That's encouraging.

When I look at history I can't help but have a deep and abiding faith that somehow, we will figure it all out. We human beings screw up a lot, and if we screw things up enough eventually we will encounter consequences even we can't defer or deny.

Should that day come, I suspect we'll deal with it just as our parents and grandparents did. It's comforting, in a way, to realize that even with all the shiny gadgets and geegaws we possess nowadays, getting smacked upside the head with the 2x4 of stupidity still hurts like hell. It's just that we have better tools nowadays.

Now if we can just work on that wisdom thing.

Posted by Cassandra at December 28, 2008 10:26 AM

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Comments

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near

Here we have a classic line from Frost. The horse knows he is about to be approached romatically by his rider during this long winter travel. In his horse mind, he connects this beastiality event to a homosexual slur. This proves of course that Robert Frost was a homophobic verse writer. He no doubt is a favorite poet of Rick Warren.

Obama should be ashamed.

Posted by: Mrs. Tingle at December 28, 2008 04:03 PM

Whaaa??????????????????

Geez, I was going to run off thread....actually I still am. I want the readers of the Blog
Princess to understand the HELL of living through a California Winter. Yessiree, it's a regular Donner Party around here. Image of horror follows

http://www.mcgilvray.net/Roses/american_beauty.jpg

Yes, my roses are still blooming. American Beauty is a favorite of mine and still cranking out blooms. Best wishes to all and a happy NHew Year!

Now, get out there and shovel the snow out of the driveway!

Posted by: Mark at December 28, 2008 04:32 PM

I are spelling challenged.

Posted by: Mark at December 28, 2008 04:33 PM

We human beings screw up a lot, and if we screw things up enough eventually...I suspect we'll deal with it just as our parents and grandparents did.

Sex and relationships, sex and relationships -- geez, alla time wit' da sex and relationships!

Posted by: BillT at December 28, 2008 04:59 PM

"...the thick fog of unreality which pervades everything from politics to parenting to the economy these days."

You nailed it perfectly!

Posted by: Suds46 at December 28, 2008 05:41 PM

Oh yes...the utter hell of winter in Pasadena as opposed to winter at Donner Lake. I remember riding in the front seat of our Chevy Malibu while my mother drove those snowy miles through the Sierras on our semi-annual pilgramage to Utah...and her telling me the gruesome tale.

We had passed Donner Lake in the semi-day of a full moon on the breast of the snow.

It was a real bonding moment.

Posted by: Cricket at December 28, 2008 07:44 PM

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near

I didn't think you'd let me get away with that...

Heh.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 28, 2008 10:22 PM

Thank you for this piece. It speaks to me, and I agree with much of what I hear. And if you knew how rare that is, you'd be even more flattered.

Posted by: Scott at December 29, 2008 12:38 AM

I want the readers of the Blog Princess to understand the HELL of living through a California Winter. ...Image of horror follows

You are a Bad Man.

The thing I miss most about California is having a garden, year-round. Oh.

And hummingbirds.


Posted by: Princess Leia in an Orange Danish Bikini at December 29, 2008 08:23 AM

I hope you droppped leaflets before you bombed Maryland.

Even before I read the link to Peter Schiff, my favorite word from my wasted youth came to mind.

Stagflation. He used it too.

It's a comin' back.

Now let's get out there and run over some more squirrels.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at December 29, 2008 11:40 AM

[thump thump] :p

Posted by: Princess Leia in an Orange Danish Bikini at December 29, 2008 11:42 AM

Now let's get out there and run over some more squirrels.

Hit 'em with the car rather than running over them -- keeps the fur from getting stuck between your toes.

Posted by: BillT at December 29, 2008 12:25 PM

Wearing shoes helps, too.

Posted by: Princess Leia in an Orange Danish Bikini at December 29, 2008 12:31 PM

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