pen pal citizenry

Since I left my home state of Michigan and its swingy, volatile politics, casting a ballot—especially in big, national elections—can feel like an exercise in statistical irrelevance more than one of civic empowerment. New York City itself has almost the population of the entire state of Michigan, and the state’s electoral hue is a predictable, deep cerulean. Even if we New Yorkers aren’t apathetic about politics—is anybody apathetic anymore?—it’s still easy to feel like we’re watching the important players from the sidelines.

These electoral pangs inspired me to volunteer with Vote Forward, an organization that allows Americans to write nonpartisan letters to their fellow citizens to encourage democratic participation. For our upcoming elections, over 150,000 volunteers wrote 17 million letters to voters in dozens of states. My own stack of 400 letters—mostly addressed to Michiganders—appears up top, on its way to the post office later this morning.

During the slow, patient labor of addressing envelopes, I would find myself looking up tiny villages on Google Maps and reading five-star reviews of nearby lakes. Their street names and neighborhood diners often seemed to have come from Raymond Chandler novels. I imagine that, like many Vote Forward volunteers, I began writing letters out of a sense of civic urgency, but these evenings spent among postage stamps became quiet rituals of civic familiarity. Double-checking a stranger’s ZIP code and articulating our shared franchise in blue ink cultivated a kind of fellow-feeling—like writing to a friendly citizen pen pal.

The close relationship between friendship and citizenship, it turns out, is an ancient interest, and in fact, Aristotle devotes several chapters of his Nicomachean Ethics to the overlap—here’s a brief excerpt:

It does seem, as we said at the beginning, that friendship and justice have to do with the same things, and involve the same persons. For in every kind of sharing community there seems to be a specific kind of justice, and also friendship; at any rate people address as ‘friends’ those sailing with them or on campaign with them, and similarly too with their partners in other kinds of sharing community. And to the extent that they share in it, they are friends; for that is the limit of the justice between them too. Again, the proverb says ‘What belongs to friends is shared in common’, and correctly so; for friendship depends upon sharing.

8.9, 1159b (trans. Rowe and Broadie)

Elsewhere in Book Eight of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle cautions that good friendships can be hard to come by—we should expect to have just a few. Aristotle’s reservations about developing such relationships partly stem from the recognition that friendship “requires that the parties have acquired experience of each other and a close acquaintance with one another’s character, which is very difficult to achieve” (8.6, 1158a). Of course, one doesn’t become acquainted with people simply by addressing an envelope, but I found that spending a minute learning how to spell my fellow Americans’ street names could feel like getting to know them in a way that scrolling through their tweets did not. Writing letters, by granting a just-long-enough moment to imagine the lives of other citizens, “might help us to like one another, even trust one another, both necessary to a functioning democracy.

In his book To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov warns against the allure of “technological solutionism”—the tempting idea that algorithms and processors will cure our political and cultural ills. Indeed, those technological fixes are too easy and too fast. As Aristotle observes above, forging a political community, like forging a friendship, can’t be effortless. If repairing the American political project demands that we undertake the salutary labors of “liking one another, even trusting one another,” perhaps we might start by scribbling unfamiliar ZIP codes and developing a little cramp in our fingers.

quiet in the house

Fred Hersch, July 31

These past several months, the Village Vanguard (among other struggling venues in New York) has been performing concerts to an empty house—empty, that is, aside from the camera crews piping sight and sound to our living room routers. As in so many other dimensions of our Covid-inflected lives, the computer screen has become our best substitute for an increasingly distant “real world.” Packing dozens of chattering night-owls into a tiny Seventh Avenue basement now seems epidemiologically horrifying, so at least for the time being it looks like I’ll be meeting the Vanguard drink minimum with whatever I find in my fridge.

Bill Frisell, Thomas Morgan, Rudy Royston, August 7

Even if we’d gladly trade this and that (and that and that) to get back to our Vanguards and Mezzrows, there have been, I’ll admit, a couple perks to the Zoomified jazz experience. Aside from the ease of taking these historic, bemasked screengrabs—I still find them spellbinding—the empty house lets those final chords and cymbal crashes linger, never drowned out by eager applause. And the cameras, attentive to each instrument, sometimes give otherwise-impossible glimpses of the musicianship on stage. Overhead shots of Bill Charlap’s fingers, for example, or close-ups of Rudy Royston brushing a snare drum.

Drew Gress, Joechen Ruckert, July 31

Still there’s the unshakeable awkwardness and even sadness of playing to an audience of wall hangings and stacked chairs. Sometimes that comes across through poignant set lists—you’ll likely hear something like Fred Hersch’s “Wichita Lineman” or Bill Charlap’s “Here’s That Rainy Day.” Technologically and even musically, I think, these Vanguard live streams capture so much of our nation’s pandemic psychology. They’re absolutely worth your weekend evenings.

Bill Charlap, September 11

opinionization and the hybrid classroom

I was so glad to have an opportunity to write a review of Zena Hitz’s insightful and often lyrical book Lost in Thought for Commonweal (also featured today at Arts & Letters Daily). A member of the faculty at St. John’s College, Hitz offers a plausible diagnosis of some anti-intellectual trends in American higher education, but her book is especially fascinating to read as a precaution against some of the pandemic-related pitfalls awaiting our classrooms this fall. Chiefly, she worries about “opinionization,” a phenomenon she defines as “the reduction of thinking and perception to simple slogans or prefabricated positions,” and I suggest that the scalability of our universities’ technological adaptations will catalyze such adulterated intellectualism:

This kind of mental necrosis has its own underlying causes: like our worst politicians, it’s a symptom more than the disease itself. For Hitz, genuine intellectual work depends upon intimate settings, forthright conversation, and modest-sized “communion.” Thoughtless opinionization, by contrast, stems from our “system of higher education [where] person-to-person teaching belongs only to a handful of liberal arts colleges and to elite doctoral programs.” Hitz, whose background is in ancient philosophy, perhaps takes inspiration here from the observation, in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, that a small-scale setting like a courtroom or seminar table is a precondition for nuanced inquiry. Lecture-hall ostentation—domain of the pundit and the PowerPoint presentation—might make for an entertaining spectacle, but it’s antithetical to real intellectual activity.

Visit Commonweal to read the rest of the review.