Arkansas Times Recommends is a series in which Times staff members (or whoever happens to be around at the time) highlight things we’ve been enjoying this week. In anticipation of Arkansas Times’ Festival of Ideas this Saturday, Sept. 24 at the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, we recommend things that make us think.
Liberal fellow travelers: We live our little online lives in an ideological echo chamber, an assertion I’m sure I don’t have to back up with much evidence, considering we’ve all read the same think pieces lamenting that very fact. It’s true, though. Most of the opinion voices I absorb on a regular basis span the fairly narrow ideological space between lib-leaning centrist to solidly left-wing. Which is why I am grateful to take a regular dose of Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ babyfaced conservative columnist. I recommend you do the same.
Douthat is an odd one. He’s not a supply-side cheerleader preaching the gospel of tax cuts and deregulation. He’s not a neocon, or a libertarian, or a Tea Partier. He’s a Catholic with a Burkean perspective who sees American culture — Western society, really — in a state of decadence and disarray. Sometimes he irritates me very much. Sometimes he seems willfully blind, his assumptions built on caricatures of the cultural left. And sometimes, disturbingly, I see exactly where he’s coming from. Although I find the politics of Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd much more sympathetic, they’re far less stimulating to read. In part that’s because Douthat is a better writer, but it’s mostly because I typically know what the Times liberal columnists’ conclusions will be within three sentences. Rarely do I feel the same about Douthat.
It’s also sad that Douthat and occasionally David Brooks are the only conservatives I closely read on a semi-regularly. (The operative word there is “closely” — dismissively skimming the editorials in the Democrat-Gazette doesn’t count.) I need to read less palatable conservative voices too. I need to read the National Review. I need to read the Federalist. I need to read the WSJ’s editorial page. I even need to dip my feet into things like Breitbart from time to time, and not just when hate-clicking. I may disagree with them, rage at them and sometimes despise them. Ignoring them, though, is lazy and irresponsible.
Once upon a time I was a philosophy major.
I switched to English just in time, right before I lost my mind to existential turmoil and started foaming at the mouth, but I did encounter some stuff during those years that was probably enriching and definitely gave me an edge of pseudo-intellectual braggadocio necessary for surviving in academic circles. Most appreciated was a tiny book called “Think” by Simon Blackburn, which breaks down the fundamentals of philosophy into nuggets that are, if not understandable, easier to digest than ancient treatises in translation.
In a kindly, professorial tone, Blackburn is always saying smart things like: “A system of thought is something we live in, just as much as a house, and if our intellectual house is cramped and confined, we need to know what better structures are possible.” Amen, professor.
As I study for my Certified Sommelier exam, I drink a lot of wine. So much so that it stops being grape juice and starts becoming…something else. I recently opened a bottle of 2012 George Vernay syrah. It’s grown on this tiny hillside in the commune of Condrieu on the banks of France’s Rhone river. There’s a scarcity of essence to it, a return to the base elements of life, a taste of aloneness. It called me back to the nights of autumn in my childhood when I find myself, late at night, still under the deep dark blanket of the sky. We had no neighbors, no light pollution, so I could look up at the deep and wide band of light that crosses our lives connecting us to a time, to maybe others, of another age, another universe. It was a humbling sight, like this wine. A visual representation of us at our most simple elements. Carbon, the sanguine taste of iron, petrichor, smoke. Carl Sagan once said of all of us “we are star stuff’,” and with each glass it was like I was drinking eternity, drinking the vast nothingness of space, drinking ourselves.
It’s an extrovert’s world, we introverts are just living in it (as quietly as possible). Being an introvert doesn’t mean being non-productive, though, and I’ve found the website Quiet Revolution a valuable resource for tips, advice and stories from other introverts. Learn the art of “quiet networking,” tips on public speaking and strategies for working together in groups. It’s a great way to feel a little less isolated, and since it’s all online, you don’t actually have to talk to anyone to get the benefit.
I never met historian J. Rufus Fears, but his death in 2012 left a Wilford Brimley-shaped hole in my heart. When he was still recording lectures for The Teaching Company, friends of mine collected bootleg copies of his talks on taxes and power structures like they were Pokemon, in the form of files on our laptop hard drives; this was a time when the word “podcast” still sounded exotic and highly technical. We nicknamed him “J. Rufus Fearless.” Two of the aforementioned friends made a pilgrimage to the Oklahoma university where he taught in hopes of finding and meeting him. (Predictably, and to their delight, they found him, and Fears invited them into his office for a long and rousing discussion.)
I won’t pretend that it replaces J. Rufus Fearless, but my current favorite source for shortform audio modules is “Philosophy Talk,” a modular radio program led by two non-boring Stanford professors with boring names, Ken Taylor and John Perry. Each week, they ask some grand question like “The Military: What is it Good For?,” “What Kind of Theory of Justice is Required to Improve Black Lives?” or “Am I Alone?” Taylor and Perry invite an expert guest to sit in with them and hash out the finer points of the question at hand, to think through the social, ethical and economical consequences of each proposed answer and to identify what assumptions they made to get there. The phrase “agree to disagree” is worn until it’s threadbare and consensus is almost never reached, which is probably a sign that something is being done well.