Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person

This article by Alain de Botton has been widely circulated this week, and I've heard everything from "Nonsense!" to "I found it really comforting" to "See, everyone settles" from my girlfriends. I think he's right that we have to let go of romanticism a little to face the reality that relationships and marriage aren't always fun -- that's obvious, isn't it? But I'm not sure I like the idea of "accommodating ourselves to wrongness," nor am I convinced that such accommodation is the equivalent of "striving always to adopt a more forgiving, humorous, and kindly perspective." As always, I'm interested in your thoughts.

"The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition."

Ripe for Tyranny

The current American election cycle is equal parts baffling, depressing, terrifying, and embarrassing. "What is wrong with the electorate?" and "Where are all the statesmen and women?" I've asked time and time again. This article from the NYTimes on Condorcet's Paradox and Arrow's Impossibility Theorem makes me feel better -- "maybe the Republican primary results say less about the desires of Republican voters than they do about the tensions inherent in groups of people deciding what to do" -- and this one from NYMag on "end democracy" makes me feel much, much worse. Sullivan says:

"To call this fascism doesn't do justice to fascism. Fascism had, in some measure, an ideology and occasional coherence that Trump utterly lacks. But his movement is clearly fascistic in its demonization of foreigners, its hyping of a threat by a domestic minority (Muslims and Mexicans are the new Jews), its focus on a single supreme leader of what can only be called a cult, and its deep belief in violence and coercion in a democracy that has heretofore relied on debate and persuasion. This is a Weimar aspect of our current moment."

And what's worse, it shouldn't be surprising to any of us. American "liberals" of various stripes have rallied around women's right, "black lives," gays, and the politically correct. We've seemingly forgotten about large swathes of the population, namely, the white working class:

"For the white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome... much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well... and so they wait, and they steam, and they lash out. This was part of the emotional force of the Tea Party: not just the advancement of racial minorities, gays, and women but the simultaneous demonization of the white working-class world, its culture and way of life."

Sullivan tells us that to protect democracy from its own destabilizing excesses, we need the elites to step up. I agree. He also reminds us that we had it coming: "An American elite that has presided over massive and increasing public debt, that failed to prevent 9/11, that chose a disastrous war in the Middle East, that allowed financial markets to nearly destroy the global economy, and that is now so bitterly divided the Congress is effectively moot in a constitutional democracy: 'We Respectables' deserve a comeuppance. The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force." And it's terrifying.

Laïcité et Liberté

In law school I wrote a paper on the concept of laïcité -- enshrined in the French Constitution -- which demands a complete separation of religion and government, such that religious expression must exist completely outside the realm of the state. In 2004, for example, the French government banned the wearing of Islamic headscarves in public schools because allowing overt religious signs in the public sphere was inconsistent with the concept of laïcité. Now, researchers claim that radicalization takes advantage of two central French ideas: laïcité and liberté. "France and Belgium forced secularization on Muslims, but also gave them the freedom to organize against it" (The New Yorker).

I've wondered about the French connection for some time now, and the idea that French political culture may be driving radicalization is fascinating. There's more here from Brookings, and an excerpt from The New Yorker article below. And if you were wondering, my argument in law school was that the American liberal conception of religious freedom is preferable to French laïcité because it supports individual rights and provides a framework for flourishing. The French model merely promises a minimalistic civic religion or fixation with national identity. I haven't changed my mind on that.

"Americans, by contrast, may find a kind of national relief in McCants and Meserole’s hypothesis. Compared to “the fashion police of Paris,” we are comfortable with religious diversity and religious expression, and perhaps this is a source of insulation against ISIS recruitment here. But the real pressure is not on the strength of religious freedom but on the possibility of hyphenated identity—on whether a person feels able to be both Muslim and French, or both Muslim and American. Formal enforcement of secular culture may be the force that works most directly against dual identity, but lower-amplitude advertisements of comfort and hostility, the daily interactions that a person has, matter, too. One common theme in the radicalization stories that foreign fighters told, Meserole said, was feeling ostracized at school for being Muslim."

Constructive Hope & Resilience

Commencement speeches are almost always "empty, gaseous, platitudinous, and saccharine," to quote a professor of mine, but sometimes the messages ring true. Consider this one from Maria Popova (excerpted below) and this one from Sheryl Sandberg. They're about constructive hope and resilience, messages that the cynics among us need to hear every now and then.

"Strive to be uncynical, to be a hope-giving force, to be a steward of substance. Choose to lift people up, not to lower them down — because it's a choice, always & because in doing so you lift yourself up.

Develop an inner barometer for your own value. Resist pageviews and likes and retweets and all those silly-sounding quantification metrics that will be obsolete within the decade. Don’t hang the stability of your soul on them. They can’t tell you how much your work counts for and to whom. They can’t tell you who you are and what you’re worth. They are that demoralizing electric bike that makes you feel if only you could pedal faster — if only you could get more pageviews and likes and retweets — you’d be worthier of your own life.

You will enter a world where, whatever career you may choose or make for yourself — because never forget that there are jobs you can get and jobs you can invent — you will often face the choice of construction and destruction, of building up or tearing down.

Among our most universal human longings is to affect the world with our actions somehow, to leave an imprint with our existence. Both construction and destruction leave a mark and give us a sense of agency in the world. Now, destruction is necessary sometimes — damaged and damaging systems need to be demolished to clear the way for more enlivening ones. But destruction alone, without construction to follow it, is hapless and lazy. Construction is far more difficult, because it requires the capacity to imagine something new and better, and the willingness to exert ourselves toward building it, even at the risk of failure. But that is also far more satisfying in the end.

You may find your fate forked by construction and destruction frequently, in ways obvious or subtle. And you will have to choose between being the hammer-wielding vandal, who may attain more immediate results — more attention — by tearing things and people and ideas down, or the sculptor of culture, patiently chiseling at the bedrock of how things are to create something new and beautiful and imaginative following a nobler vision, your vision, of how things can and should be.

Some active forms of destruction are more obvious and therefore, to the moral and well-intentioned person, easier to resist. It’s hard not to notice that there’s a hammer before you and to refuse to pick it up. But there are passive forms of destruction far more difficult to detect and thus to safeguard against, and the most pernicious of them is cynicism.

Our culture has created a reward system in which you get points for tearing down rather than building up, and for besieging with criticism and derision those who dare to work and live from a place of constructive hope. Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively, in yourself and in those you love and in the communication with which you shape culture. Cynicism, like all destruction, is easy, it’s lazy. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincere, active, constructive hope for the human spirit. This is the most potent antidote to cynicism, and it is an act of courage and resistance today.

It is also the most vitalizing sustenance for your soul."

Spend It All

Some more advice on writing from Annie Dillard:

"One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Don’t hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The very impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful; it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes."

Ambitious Women

From this article in the New Yorker on Hillary Clinton's ambition:

“'Professional women face a Catch-22: They must overcome negative stereotypes about women by 'acting like men,' yet when they do so they risk being penalized for violating gender prescriptions. In fact, self-promoting women are seen as more dominant and arrogant than self-promoting men, whose behavior is consistent with stereotypic expectations.' That double standard, they write, 'is a critical barrier to women’s equitable treatment because self-promotion is necessary for career advancement, yet only women risk penalties for it.'"

History and Poetry

Mr. Antolini to Holden in The Catcher in the Rye:

“Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them--if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry."


Interesting op-ed from David Brooks on "how covenants make us." A colleague recently asked me if I'm "feeling good" living in a foreign country alone. He recalled his time at King's College in London and said, "I was so alone. I didn't have my family, my wife, my children. . . why should anyone be expected to do that? It was a time that wasn't comfortable for me and I wouldn't want to do it again." He comes from a very family and community-oriented culture, so it's a bit different for him, but this is something I have been giving some thought to lately. Do you agree with Brooks that liberating the individual has been bad for national cohesion and the social fabric in the United States? Excerpt below:

"Creating situatedness requires a different way of thinking. When we go out and do a deal, we make a contract. When we are situated within something it is because we have made a covenant. A contract protects interests. . . but a covenant protects relationships. A covenant exists between people who understand they are part of one another. It involves a vow to serve the relationship that is sealed by love: Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people."

Literary Truth

I'm currently reading My Brilliant Friend, the first book in The Neopolitan Novels series by Elena Ferrante. Her writing is beautiful, and I can't wait to finish the series. The passage below is from an interview in The Paris Review, which is interesting in its entirety, but particularly on this point about literary truth:

"The most urgent question for a writer may seem to be, What experiences do I have as my material, what experiences do I feel able to narrate? But that’s not right. The more pressing question is, What is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know? Without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing comes out alive and true. It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths. Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to ­impress on the sentence. And when it works, there is no stereotype or cliché of popular literature that resists it. It reanimates, revives, subjects ­everything to its needs."