Travels

It’s been a long week with lots of traveling.

On Monday Chris and I drove to Abingdon, Virginia, to play backup for our friend Ron Short. Our portion of the program program was a 45-minute version of the set of coal mining songs we’ve been helping him with lately. This show was a special treat for us because it was held at the Barter Theater, an elegant spot with great sound that seats around 500 people. The theater was maybe three-quarters full, and it is always a pleasure to play for a crowd which has nothing else to do but pay attention to you. As long as they like you, anyway. They seemed to like us.

The show ended a bit too late for us to drive home, so we stayed in Bristol and headed home the next morning, arriving at 11am, which gave me just enough time to eat lunch, attend to a few bookkeeping details, repack my suitcase, and get back in the car, this time to drive with Matthew to Nashville, where we were planning to spend our annual father-son excursion.

There is no overarching purpose to these excursions except to have a pleasant couple of days in one another’s company, and Nashville was a reasonably close city with a zoo and a science museum and some good places to eat. You wouldn’t think so to look at him, but Matthew enjoys his food at least as much as I do, and so meals were an important part of the entertainment. We chose so well that we could only get to four of the six meals we had planned, being forced to skip lunches just so we would survive the breakfasts and suppers.

One of the highlights of the trip for both of us was going to see the latest Pixar movie, Ratatouille. I’ve always been a fan of all kinds of animation, and was astonished along with the rest of the world when I first saw Toy Story—not just because of the technical accomplishment, but because it was rich and deep and almost flawless in its execution. Well, I thought Ratatouille was as much a leap forward as Toy Story. The textures were astonishing, almost tactile—believable water dripping from believable fur, and so on. Camera angles and movements were imaginative. Some of the small touches almost knocked me over; in one scene, shot over the shoulder of a young man talking to a rat in a jar, making the rat a very small figure in the frame, the action hinges on the rat nodding slightly in response to a question—and you half-notice the nod more or less as the boy would have done. The story was not as tightly constructed as Toy Story, but it made up for it in sheer novelty—a rat who yearns to cook in a fine French restaurant?—and although it fell apart at the very end, the last fifteen or so minutes built to a climax in a brave and surprising and just plain delightful way.

Matthew and I made it home in time for supper Thursday night. On Friday Chris and I were back in the car again, headed for Ferrum College outside Roanoke, Virginia to back up Ron Short again at a couple of performances. The show was on Saturday but the drive was too long to make it a day trip, so we arrived Friday night, having set aside enough time for a short visit with friends along the way. The festival was quite impressive, focusing on crafts and culture of the Blue Ridge, but as usual we were disappointed to find that when you are playing at a festival there isn’t really enough time left over to enjoy it for itself. We played from 11am to noon, and then again from 3pm to 4pm, and after visiting with folks we had to content ourselves with sitting on a hillside on a wonderfully cool and sunny afternoon, watching a coon dog swimming contest while eating an excellent chicken dinner prepared by the local holiness church. We were on the road again by 5pm, home shortly after midnight, the drive made possible by a stop in Bristol for a very large, very caffeinated cup of Starbucks coffee.

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Information cascade

This book review mentions a phenomenon that sociologists call an “information cascade,” a situation where a consensus among experts is created not because of steadily accumulating evidence but because experts simply accept and parrot the opinion of other experts who came before them. Apparently there is good reason to doubt that there was ever any evidence of a link between a high fat diet and heart disease, but in the 1950s the idea quickly went from being one guy’s dubious opinion to being the prevailing view, so much so that until recently it was nutritional heresy to suggest that fat might be neutral or even good for you.

Giving a phenomenon a name doesn’t do anything to explain it, and this one already had a couple of perfectly good names—fad, conventional wisdom, and received wisdom come to mind. And I am reluctant to go looking at what academic sociologists have to say about the phenomenon. But still I’m curious about a few things. Is this a modern defect, or a universal one? Were people always too credulous, or has this changed recently? If credulity hasn’t changed, could it be that mixing it with our modern dependence on experts has created something new and especially bad?

Right now I’m looking at the biblical justification for some ideas that are widely held in church circles. What I’ve been finding is that some complex and elaborate systems have been built on very slender reeds. Part of the problem, I think, is that the systems are not anti-biblical, only extra-biblical, and they may even be good and useful things to have. But knowing that something is good and useful is not enough for us, and so we go in search of passages in the Bible that sound like they might mandate such conclusions—at least if you say them loudly and emphatically while looking at the listener as if to say, “How can you possibly not see this?”

The lost tools of living: conclusion

And so here we are at the end of my list of lost tools, at least the ones that came to mind a year ago when I wrote the article from which these posts are drawn. Some other possibilities have occurred to me since then. I’m not yet ready to write about them, but I can tell you what they are.

  • I think that rootlessness was a wrong turn away from a key agrarian trait, the radical commitment to a local physical community that Wendell Berry calls “a sense of place.”
  • I think that professionalism and meritocracy are modern trends that have done much to destroy the agrarian way of life.
  • I suspect that early Americans made a mistake when they decided to settle on isolated homesteads rather than in villages surrounded by farmland.
  • I think that we took a wrong turn when we began to look at entertainment as something to be purchased rather than something we produced for ourselves.
  • I think that contentment is a powerful tool for living a good life, while modern society is critically dependent on its members being perpetually and increasingly discontent.
  • And a tool that has been on my mind lately is discernment, by which I mean a hard-won ability to choose wisely in new and unfamiliar circumstances, a virtue we seem to have forsaken in favor of rules that purport to always give us a safe answer to any situation that might confront us.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a gift. Once when I publicly wondered if there is a Bible passage that constituted a command to live the agrarian life, or at least a justification for thinking that agrarianism is a better way. A friend pointed out to me Paul’s command to the Thessalonians:

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thess. 4:11-12)

I can’t think of a better way to summarize the issues I have raised in this series of posts. I think that as a society and as individuals we have taken wrong turn after wrong turn because we yearned not for a quiet life but for one filled with action, tension, drama, and significance. We were not satisfied to tend our own gardens, but were eager to meddle in the affairs of others. And we went from admiring to despising those who worked with their hands to provide for their families.

But a quiet, productive, independent, family-centered life is still a possibility for those of us who truly want it. And Paul assures us that as we live such a life, we will glorify God before a watching world.

Good resource

I had a couple of questions about what the Bible has to say about the church, specifically about the authority of elders and the idea of church membership. I wanted the Anabaptist view, since it frequently challenges the status quo with very plain and straightforward readings of scripture. So I thought I’d put my questions to Brother Dave Black, who knows about such things.

When I checked his weblog, though, I learned that he is currently on deadline and taking a break from the internet. Not wanting to bother him, I turned instead to his Unleashing the Church page, which is an extensive collection of links to essays on the church, written by Brother Dave and others, organized by topic. It didn’t take me long to find good writings that helped me with my questions. Highly recommended.

The lost tools of living: do for yourself

It’s a commonplace to observe that modern folk are largely ignorant of history. On my more cynical days I suspect that this is not merely because the past is viewed with disdain, but also because there is something intimidating to us moderns about the competence and fortitute of our ancestors. I read about a man like Pa Ingalls, and I ask myself in astonishment: How did was this ordinary man able to move his family across the country in a wagon, pick a spot to settle, build a cabin, dig a well, plant and raise a crop, hunt for game, negotiate with Indians, and do the myriad other things necessary to provide for his family in such isolation? I hardly know who to call to have those things done for me!

And this, perhaps, is the heart of the problem. In so many areas we have given up any notion that we should be able to do things for ourselves, and decided that it is the better thing to have them done for us. In fact, the modern objective is to do nothing except that one thing that is so lucrative for us that we will be able to hire every other thing done.
Historically we have gone from doing the work for ourselves, to being able to do the work but choosing to hire it done, to being unable to do the work and thereby at the mercy of those who must do it for us.

We used to take care of our family’s health, and to do so we had to be knowledgeable about a wide range of ills and the home remedies that were available to treat them. Then we began to accept the assistance of health care experts, even taking their word for it where their practices were contrary to tradition. And now we know nothing about health matters except that we have a right to good health, however the experts define it for us, along with the right to have others foot the bill for it.

We used to grow and prepare food to feed our family, and to do so we had to be knowledgeable about how to raise a crop and store the fruits of it and process it in healthy and appetizing ways. Then we began to accept the assistance of people who were glad to grow food for us, store it us, even prepare it for us, even taking their word for it that cosmetics and year-round availability were far more important than nutritional value and absence of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. And now we know nothing about food except that we can’t seem to get enough of it to satisfy our cravings, and we don’t seem to be as healthy or strong as our ancestors were.

We used to teach our children at home, and as a result we had to have an understanding of the world around us and convictions about how life was to be lived so that we could pass them on to our children. Then we began to accept the assistance of people who assured us that a battery of trained experts could do a much more efficient and effective job of teaching them, while we would be free to concentrate our energies on more important things. (More important things!) And now we know nothing about how or what our children are taught except that they are being shaped by others to meet society’s standards so that they will be able to make their own way in today’s world, while we will be free to concentrate our energies on … more important things, I suppose.

We used to care for the elder members of our family ourselves, and to do so we had to create a household which had a place for the old as well as the young and very young, one which had the resources to provide for the needs of those who had become less materially productive, and the good sense to avail itself of the wisdom of those who had accumulated it over the years. Then we began to accept the assistance of people who assured us that such a burden was intolerable for a family and was better turned over to society at large, who could warehouse such folks much more cost-effectively. And now our homes are places that have no place for the very old or the very young, and rather than taking joy and comfort in their presence—along with the sense of security that comes from knowing they will do the same for us, someday—we yearn for the time when the state will take them off our hands.

As we sort through this series of wrong turns and think about what we might do to get back on the proper path, we should also ask ourselves why we ever took these wrong turns in the first place. Sometimes we can point to external pressures—a changing economy forced us into it, we were told lies about the benefits and drawbacks, everyone else seemed to think it was a good idea. But there does seem to be a common thread tying together our propensity to make bad choices: we are too willing, even eager, to turn over our responsibilities to others.

This can be clearly seen in the current trend toward outsourcing, paying others to shoulder our myriad responsibilities while pouring our energies into just one thing. Wendell Berry has observed that while our predecessors were generally knowledgeable and competent, modern man has reduced himself to the point where he knows one and only one thing—how to make money. And since money is the wrong tool for addressing the important issues that crop up in our lives, we find ourselves helpless in the face of undesirable circumstances. We mindlessly do what we are told by doctors and lawyers and insurance companies politicians and corporations, because we are not capable of walking a different path, or even conceiving of one.

Although the things that can be done to escape this morass are simple, they are often exceptionally difficult to practice. For example, as we turned to insurance companies and the government to protect our health, our lives, and our property, the community ties that once provided that protection were no longer needed and as a result faded away. As we stopped paying for medical treatment and property damage directly, we lost our sense of what these things are worth and began to demand as our due whatever the system would pay. And as third parties took on the job of paying for these services, prices began to spiral upwards. The simple solution here is to return to the earlier approach, foregoing insurance and paying for these services as we need them. But the changes that accompanied the rise of insurance make that very difficult.

Two problems here need to be dealt with. The first one, our entitlement mindset, is one we can each set about to change. We can look for areas where we have come to expect others to share or even completely shoulder our burdens, and we can start in on taking those responsibilities back. This might begin with a commitment to avoid unneeded visits to the doctor, followed by a long-term effort to learn how to diagnose and treat illnesses without the help of one, accompanied by a determination to not take at face value what purported wisdom the medical establishment wants to sell us. Such work will not be easy, but at least it is largely within our individual control, something we can set out to accomplish through our own efforts.

The second problem, possibly an intractable one, is that the structure of modern society caters to the entitlement mindset; in fact, large parts of the economy would cease to exist if people began to reclaim their responsibilities, and so society erects many barriers to keep people from doing so. Sometimes the barrier comes from the community, as when opting out of a universally available social service such as public schooling leads to social pressure from family, acquaintances, and even congregations, as well as harassment by the authorities. Sometimes the barrier is legal, as when government “health” regulations prevent you from selling food such as home-grown chicken or milk directly to a willing buyer. And often the barrier is structural, as when the absence of a supportive community prevents us from following a path because individually we can’t afford the risk.

These barriers are real, and they can seriously hinder our efforts to pursue an agrarian life. We can sigh over how much easier our job would be if these barriers were lowered, and we can even devote some of our efforts
to lowering those barriers so that our path to the agrarian life might be made more straight and level. But I think we need to resist the temptation to make it our goal to lower those barriers. We do not become more agrarian by lobbying for legislation that permits us to grow and sell food as we see fit, but by actually growing and selling food. We do not become more agrarian by formulating theories about agrarian economics, by teaching others how to live an agrarian life, by nurturing an agrarian movement, by working to pass agrarian-friendly laws, but only by living such a life ourselves.

None of these things are necessarily a hindrance for living an agrarian life, but neither are they a substitute for it. We must focus on the work which God has put within our scope, leaving it to Him to decide whether external barriers should be lowered so as to aid our progress—or left in place so as to aid our sanctification.

Using a credit card costs extra

It’s to the benefit of credit card companies that we think of credit cards as a cost-free alternative to cash or checks. In fact, those companies are now trying to convince us that using cash or checks is more costly, at least in terms of convenience.

But it costs extra to process a credit card charge, as we learned when we started Cumberland Books. For a business as small as ours to deal directly with the credit card companies, it cost about 5% of the sale when all the fees were taken into account. Back when we charged list price for our books, those fees took a 12.5% bite out of our profits(5% of 40%). When we lowered our prices, the bite shot up to 33% (5% of 15%), and so we had to switch over to Google Checkout, which charges 2% + 20 cents, bringing the bite back down to 13% or so.

This problem could be solved fairly if we added a surcharge for credit card users that covered the cost of charging the sale. But that is prohibited by the credit card companies. They want you to think that using the card is free, and so they require sellers to not distinguish between cash sales and credit sales. As a result, cash customers pay more than their fair share.