From the Commonplace Book: Aristotle on the Purpose of a Paycheck

I plucked this from the endnotes of Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Societyan analysis of life in an age of continuous connection and unchecked positivity. I’ll be reviewing it later this month, but want to share this gem that Han pulls from Aristotle’s Politics:

“So some people believe that this is the task of household management, and go on thinking that they should maintain their store of money or increase it without limit. The reason they are so disposed, however, is that they are preoccupied with living, not with living well. And since their appetite for life is unlimited, they also want an unlimited amount of what sustains it.”

It’s Aristotle, but it could be one of the Sutras, and it is as relevant today as it was in the 4th Century B.C.

The choice is the same as it has always been. We can either spend our lives in the pursuit of perfect security, which is an illusion, or we can seek out the daily moments of spontaneous connection with the good and bad of life, which force us to spend  some of our time and vitality, and to know in our hearts that both will give out some day.

Even on those days when I wake with a clear mind and a sound body, feeling my best, I feel a moment’s unease, because I am confronted with the question of what’s really worth the use of my energy.

Pleasure? Service to others? Drudgery? Solitary reading? The pursuit of love? And that’s on days when I am fortunate enough to have the choice.

What’s worth it to you today?

When Veterans Day Was Controversial

When Armistice Day became Veterans Day in 1954, it wasn’t just that the day honored all veterans instead of just those who served in World War I. There was a distinct shift in tone, too. November 11th became less a sacred celebration of peace and more a celebration of the glories of war. According to The Week, “Veterans for Peace, an anti-war group, holds regular ‘Reclaim Armistice Day’ events on November 11 …”

According to The Economist‘s Erasmus (paywall)the Church of England, as the UK’s official organ of solemnity, has long been walking this fine line between remembering the dead and the honor due them, and also calling attention to the evils of war itself and the militaristic nationalism which drives it.

As the leaders of Germany, France, the UK, and the United States gathered in Paris this morning, I found myself thinking of all the parallels between the Belle Epoque that preceded the first world war and our own age. There is a great Anglophone empire which seems to be ceding international control to a rising power (once the UK and the US, now the US and China), a roiling Middle East connected like a cat’s cradle to delicate Great Power alliances, accelerating new media and industrial technologies wiping out old professions with incredible speed, all while multinational corporations make the claim that economic interdependence will make war a thing of the past. Not to mention an entrenched aristocracy on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is my great hope that this new century does not see another global conflict. May you enjoy this day in peace.

Trump’s Firing of Sessions: A Test of Our Attention

Remember a week ago, when Trump fired Jeff Sessions, the U.S. Attorney General, in an attempt to impede the Mueller investigation?

Sorry, that was a trick question. Trump fired Sessions fewer than 72 hours ago, but you could be forgiven for having the sense that more time had passed.

A quick check of various digital front pages this morning reveals that the story of Sessions’ firing and the appointment of Trump crony Matthew G. Whittaker as acting Attorney General has already fallen below the fold and off our collective radar.

What has been called Trump’s “slow motion Saturday Night Massacre,” (a reference to Richard Nixon’s firing of multiple Justice Department officials in a single night to impede the Watergate investigation) is on the verge of being ignored, a failure of attention that will weaken our democracy. Nixon’s massacre inspired mass, sustained, bipartisan umbrage, while Trump’s is already being forgotten.

This is an occasion where analog media would help us. The time scarcity of appointment television and the limited space of newsprint had the effect of focusing our collective attention on a single issue long enough to appreciate its significance and organize mind and body to act on it. The promiscuous allocation of attention that digital media spurs us to, both by journalists reporting the news and people consuming it, doesn’t give us enough time even to form thoughts, much less opinions. There are indeed many stories worthy of occupying our attention, not least among them the tragic deaths of 11 people in the most recent mass shooting in California, or the wildfires there. But if we are to combat our promiscuous attention spans, we have to be chaste about what we choose to pay attention to.

In the battle to keep our democracy healthy, what we choose to pay attention to from moment to moment is decisive. And right now, the President’s attempt to corrode the rule of law is what demands our undivided national attention, no matter how worthy other topics may be.

Tea Review: Royal Coconut Oolong Pouchong

Flagging from a long, drizzly walk through some of the more haunted streets of Providence last weekend, I stopped in at Tealuxe, a cozy corner café near the Brown campus, with tall black cabinets stocked with rare tea and a staff with serious attitude towards the right temperature and steeping times.

A small pot of Royal Coconut Oolong Pouchong revived my spirits, spurred my imagination, and got me through the final fifty pages of Elevation, by Stephen King.

Despite being dark of leaf for an oolong, which usually means an acidic and heavy taste, this tea had a light, bright flavor brought out by the coconut. Hints of pineapple combined with the smoky flavor of the oolong to summon scents of a luau, or rows of fruit plants cultivated in lush jungle. This is characteristic of pouchong, apparently, which looks more oxidized than it is. So you get all the lightness of a greener oolong with all the floral notes of a darker one.

A new favorite, for sure. I have a package on its way to my in NYC.


Broad mouthed cup in a color to let you see the tea’s hue, slop bowl, precise steeping time, and en easily removable basket with the leaves. Bravo, Tealuxe. 

Midterm Results: Victory for the Democrats (Not with a Bang, But a Whimper)

Compared to the far more substantial opposition party victories in 2006, 2010, and 2014, last night was a disappointment, even an occasion for worry.

The attacks on democratic norms and institutions we’ve witnessed in the last two years, as well as the upheavals of foreign and trade policy by the Trump administration, should’ve triggered a recapture of both houses by the Democrats. Instead, we got a moderate swing toward the opposition party that could’ve happened in the midterm elections of any first-term presidency–albeit one that will insure the kind of basic check on Presidential power that the constitution was designed to enshrine.

As Bill Kristol has pointed out on twitter, the Democrats lack the discipline to stay on message—any message. And as David Brooks wisely pointed out, demography means that it is the Democrats who will be leading the country into a majority-minority future. If they don’t come up with an inspiring, unifying message, it will be left to the fear mongers to forge the emotional core of our national life. The sooner the Democrats forge their own coherent national narrative, the better their short-term electoral fortunes, and the better the health of the nation. It will be an uphill battle against social media, which is predisposed to negativity, but it is a battle they have to get serious about fighting.

Most worrying for democracy is the toleration in Georgia of massive voter disenfranchisement by a secretary of state who abused his office to win the governorship. Especially because it is politicians like Stacey Abrams, known for pragmatic bipartisan governance, whose “purple state” leadership will provide just the kind of unifying narrative our country needs to know who it will be in the 21st Century.

What did you think of the outcome of the elections?


Are you a sexual, racial, or religious minority? Vote to keep the protections in place that recognize your right to safety and dignity.

Are you a conservative who feels that we’ve lost our minds as a society? Vote to keep a sane connection to decency, decorum, and the ideals of the past.

Are you a progressive who believes that we could be on the cusp of a more equal, happier society, free of the irrational restrictions of the past? Vote to take another step toward that future.

I don’t care what your ideology is, just vote. Just try to vote *for* what you believe, not just *against* what your own side tells you to fear.

And, at the risk of being shrill, I’ll say it’s worth remembering the number of people here and abroad who have endured or are enduring torture, harassment, and the threat of violence and even death, all because they assert that they have the right to decide how they are governed.

If you’re an American alive right now, you’re still enjoying the freedom, safety, and abundance that a society built on classically liberal principles provides. Things are looking pretty bad right now, but we still haven’t lost everything.

So go vote to make sure we don’t!