February 2011 Newsletter




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Front Porch Monthly

A Front Porch Republic Newsletter

A Winter Memory

There are things we remember because they are significant, and things that become significant because we remember.

It was the sort of grey, cloudy day that passes for winter in Southern California.  I was seven years old, out for a rare day alone with a busy grandmother, full of the self-importance of a child who feels grown-up.

Grandma gave our tickets to a man in a black suit. He handed back the stubs and another man with a little flashlight showed us to our seats.  Grandma took the inside seat so that if a tall person sat in front of us, I could lean into the aisle and see the stage.

The theatre was dark, but not so very much darker than the cloudy afternoon outside and it only took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the gentle dimness.  Eyes wide, I drank in every detail.  Knowing what I know now about the ugliness of Los Angeles area auditoriums, I realize my memory is too kind, but I’d never been in a place like this, and was young enough to be thoroughly impressed with red plush chairs and gilded footlights.

I was quite satisfied to be the youngest person I saw.  It established as fact my mother’s assertion that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience (“so you better appreciate it and behave yourself” was her unspoken warning).

I clutched the program Grandma handed me.  Without reading it, I knew that the heading said “Vienna Boys Choir.”  I had long since memorized the name.  “Vienna” – it sounded so far away and exciting. . . Mom said it was in Austria.  I wasn’t sure where Austria was.  On the map at school it looked very close to England, but Mom said it really wasn’t very close at all and that in Austria they didn’t speak English.

Just then, the lights dimmed and a line of young boys began to march solemnly onto the big stage.  Many of them were no older than I – none was very much older.  A moment later they sang.  Leaning forward in my seat, I listened and watched, hardly daring to breathe lest that breath would obscure a note of the music.  It didn’t matter that the lyrics were German or Italian and I understood none of it.

After intermission several of the older boys acted a short musical vignette, and I remember both my amusement at watching a ten year old boy play the tragic heroine, and my fascination with the tale, the brief synopsis of which I read over and over and over in the program as we drove home.  I remember the music which seemed both endless and over all too soon.

Most of all, I remember laying in bed that night playing every moment over in my mind, experiencing for the first time the sorrowful delight of knowing that you have seen something beautiful that you will never see again.  At the time, it made me cry.  It would be years before I read CS Lewis, but I would have recognized his description of longing: “Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us.”[1]

I am a true child of the age of immediate access: access to information, to entertainment, to art and music.  I took for granted the rewind button that let me repeat music and movies, and the photo albums that let me relive experiences. But I am thankful for that winter afternoon.  Glad that I was too young to think to purchase a recording of the choir in the days that followed.  It taught me at a young age to notice moments that can’t be recaptured, to recognize the bond between sorrow and joy.

~ Ashley Trim

[1] CS Lewis. The Weight of Glory. (San Francisco: Harper, 1949) 40.


On the Nightstandbooks

Sigal Ben-Porath has written a wonderful, short work of scholarship which ought to be of interest to Front Porch Republic readers, especially those inclined to philosophically challenge the dominance of the rhetoric of “choice” and “autonomy” in our time. The book is Tough Choices: Structured Paternalism and the Landscape of Choice (Princeton University Press, 2010), and its basic aim is to defend the appropriateness of thinking about how individual choices are, and should be, necessarily limited in some ways when structuring public policies. That brief statement there will be enough, I’m sure, to hearten some FPRers–those of use who are exhausted by the seeming sovereignty which individual expression and diversity seem to have gained over public life, and who long to see a return to a more reasonable acceptance that different forms of limits and authority ought to have over the choices which people make.

Of course, there will be FPRers who will find the previous sentences frightening as well–suspecting that Ben-Porath is setting up an argument which will enable the makers of “policy” (usually, though not always, government agencies) to even more brazenly step up as the authorities and imposers of limits which run directly against the freedom and independence which they feel locality makes possible in the first place. The book, therefore, unintentionally falls squarely within the demilitarized zone which runs through so many discussions on FPR–between those (call them the “libertarian localists”) who believe that a lessening of choice-limiting authority over our lives is necessary to enjoy the fruits of local community, and those (call them the “communitarian localists”) who assume that local communities can’t survive without parameters and limits to give them space to flourish in the first place. No doubt, both are at least partly correct–and both can learn from this book

Ben-Porath is not herself particularly localist; on the contrary, rather than speaking from a conservative or traditionalist point of view, she makes her case for the place of “structured paternalism” in public policies as a self-described “liberal-egalitarian,” whose primary goal is increasing “civic equality” in society. Her argument is that a great many public policies, dealing with anything from organ donation to school districting, tend to focus far too much on “choice” as defined by reference to personal autonomy–that is, freedom is defined as the number of choices available to people (the number of goods on the grocery store shelves, the number of insurance plans to choose between, etc.), and the absence of interference in the making of such choices. As a liberal, Ben-Porath does not deny the importance of that principle, but she also finds it skewed. What about “opportunity”–the effectual ability of people, in their distinct social contexts and communities, to actually seize and benefit from any particular choice?

As should be obvious after only brief reflection, the enormous range of choices which the complexity and relative wealth of modern life makes available to many can actually only be effectively made use of by persons in possession of significant resources (whether they be time, wealth, access to information, or something else). To those without such resources, attempting to navigate them is costly and frustrating, something which can interfere with other obligations or indeed their very identity–as, for example, when someone raised in and shaped by a committed lifestyle all of a sudden finds themselves obliged to negotiate a variety of contrasting lifestyles, with choice-centered policies discouraging or even outlawing “interference” by those still grounded in the aforementioned lifestyle.

To the committed individualist, this may seem like a small misfortune, but a necessary one on the way towards greater enlightenment…but what respect does that pay, Ben-Porath wonders, to the “opportunity” afforded by particular lifestyles that may effectively lead people, especially people lacking infinite resources, through life? In this way Ben-Porath’s book, while never speaking out in favor of conserving traditional or local ways of life, becomes an important argument which some liberals may be able to hear, enabling them to recognize what a project like FPR is all about.

The specific issues that Ben-Porath mostly focuses on have to do with the hardest issues of “choice”–how to raise and educate one’s children, and how to order one’s personal life. She does not at all advocate a state simplistically capable to issuing decrees regarding what to teach or feed or discipline one’s children, but she does bravely wade into these intimate matters, making the case for weaning ourselves away from the too-dominant view of such matters as “private” and beyond the reach of any interested in preserving or guiding others towards some good. In this way, there is much in the book which many would disagree with, but that does not make it something FPR readers should avoid. On the contrary, that makes it even more worth their time.

~ Russell Fox

Essay on Education

(this poem first appeared in Think Journal)

W.E.B. Dubois Library

In the reading room, I stoop before

A battered Essais by Montaigne,

And hear a man’s hoarse voice complain.

His hushed, agreeing friend sits there,

Imbibing an impolitic plea:

He hates all law and government.

No one ever asked his consent.

He wants his freedom instantly.

I think of all the shelves in chambers

Packed dense with books; and how they got

Written, published, preserved not

By chance, but through labyrinthine labors.

The book before me is in French.

I struggle reading, but remember

How long it was, and how much harder

To learn my native tongue—and once

That starts, you’re never really done.

How strange a place to plot anarchy:

Where a strict wisdom seems to be

The toiling child of freedom born.

Though languages and libraries

Are not themselves an education,

They have for it often been mistaken.

I too dislike such complacencies,

And were material monuments

Its essence rather than its measure,

Perhaps I would indulge his pleasure

In ultramontane violence.

~James Matthew Wilson

A Joke from the Bar Jester:

Ruddy Irish chap walks into an American bar and orders a Guinness.  Another ruddy Irish chap, already seated and sipping a Guinness, turns to him and say, “do I detect a bit o’ the Emerald Ilsle in yer accent?”

“Aye,” he says.  “I’m frum Dooblin!”

“Dooblin!” says the other.  “I’m frum Dooblin too!”  And he motions to the bartender to bring his new friend another pint.”

His new friend takes a sip and asks:  “what part of Dooblin are ye frum, then?”

“Narth central Dooblin,” says the first.  [You’ve got to do your best with the accent here.  This a joke to be told, not written.]

“Narth central!  How far narth?” asks the second.

“Near where St. Paddy’s bridge meets St. James’s street.”

“St. James’s street!” exclaims the other, and motions for the bartender to bring his new friend another pint. “I’m from St. Jame’s street—rrrrright at the foot o’ St. Paddy’s bridge!

“East or west side of the street?” says the second Irishman, motioning for two shots of Jameson’s.”

“The west is for wankers!” says the first scornfully, throwing back his shot and nodding to the bartender for two more.  “I’m frum the East side!”

“East side!” says the second.  “I’m frum the East side too!” and orders drinks for the house.

Meantime, another bartender walks in.  Tying his apron he says to the one who’s been on duty, “what’s new, anything?”

The other says, “not much.  Except the O’Malley twins are getting drunk again.”

~Jason Peters

A Recipe: Adam’s Swiss Steak

When I was asked to contribute a Valentine’s recipe to the FPR newsletter, I originally planned on sending in something involving chocolate and raspberries. After searching desperately for a sufficiently succulent recipe, and realizing I’ve never actually made chocolate-raspberry anything, I decided to think about what food I associate with Valentine’s day. For some strange reason, my dad’s swiss steak recipe was the one I couldn’t get out of my head. We never planned it, but when I was growing up, we more often than not made this recipe on Valentine’s, and I think you should try it as well. February 14, is, after all, a chilly time of year, and nothing dispels the chills like swiss steak. Tomatoes are heart healthy as well, which obviously relates to Valentine’s. And really, I promise, you’ll love this recipe.
Trimmed round steak (enough to feed everyone)
1-2 Bell peppers, sliced.
1 onion.
1 clove garlic
1 stalk of celery
2 cans chopped/crushed tomatoes.
1 T Worcestershire sauce
A dash of red wine or balsamic vinegar
Cayenne pepper, oregano, bay leaf, salt, etc.

Brown meat in a pan. Add veggies and brown. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cover. Simmer for a few hours until meat almost falls apart. Hint: this works really well even for cheap cuts of meat. It also works in a crock pot if you allow more time. And finally, my dad says you have to serve it with/over mashed potatoes.

~Rachel Blum Spencer

Front Porch Conversations Online:

Darryl Hart Without Form and Void:  If evangelicals are going to have trouble drawing the line in worship against Christian rock, will they really be reliable when it comes to evaluating the best texts and artistic forms for educating young people?

John MédailleWomen, the Cosmos, and Cosmetics: I still do not understand why, in a prison and particularly in a jungle prison, where needs multiply like rats, why the need for lipstick should vault to the top of the list. Still, I am convinced that a habit which seems so trivial (to men at least) but which is so universal must have some deeper meaning, must indeed be connected to the cosmos.

Patrick J. DeneenArt and Community: The recent controversy over the removal of a video from the Smithsonian offers a good occasion to reflect on the relationship between the artist and the polity.

Howard MerrellThe Statute of Limitations has Passed: They never quite got it when they asked me if I was “going home for Christmas” and I replied, “I live at home.”

Mark T. Mitchell The End of the World: The gloom and doom is contagious. We live in a time when a certain respectability seems to attach to those who predict the demise of America, freedom, prosperity, or even the world.

Jason PetersNew Year’s Dissolution: I’m as sanguine as Eeyore on the Eve of St. Lucy’s.

Front Porch Conversations face-to-face

To connect for face-to-face conversations with readers near you visit our Porches page at the FPR website

If you would like to bring an FPR author to speak at your event, please visit our Speakers’ Guild page at the FPR Website

Our Future and Our Need

Plans are underway for an FPR conference that will bring together a collection of creative and thoughtful individuals to discuss concerns central to FPR’s mission. We hope that gatherings of this sort can be a regular part of what we do. Currently, groups of FPR readers meet in an array of cities to enjoy the kind of conversation and friendship that only face-to-face encounters provide.

Will you invest in our mission by supporting us today? Giving is safe and easy through our website. And it’s entirely tax-deductible: Front Porch Republic, Inc., is a 501(c)(3) educational organization. Your donation will be used immediately to help us improve our site, recruit writers, and compensate (just a little) our hard-working technological and editorial assistants. It will also help us sponsor speakers and conferences across the country. Most importantly, your support of FPR is an investment in our vision: place, limits, liberty.

~ Board of Directors, Front Porch Republic

Questions? Feedback?  Contact Ashley Trim, editor of Front Porch Monthly at atrim@frontporchrepublic.com