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What Does It Mean To Be Human?
The things we owe to each other.
Every week I highlight three newsletters that are worth your time.
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Joe Ragazzo has a day job at Talking Points Memo, but on the side he runs a newsletter about human flourishing. It’s very good and he doesn’t overwhelm you with essays and also it’s free. You should subscribe to it.
I was really challenged by his essay arguing that Acceptance and Empathy are more important than Gratitude as virtues. But this piece on why the metaverse will be awful hits all of my pleasure centers:
I increasingly think the metaverse—to the extent it ever even exists in a meaningful way— is going to be like a virtual-reality LinkedIn mixed with Times Square, and a sprinkle of Salesforce. As I wrote in my first post on the subject, the metaverse was conceived in science fiction as an escape from a world destroyed by greed and avarice, the natural byproducts of capitalism and commercialism. But in real life, it is shaping up to simply be an extension the real world—specifically the parts that suck. Ads and marketing—and people talking about ads and marketing—blaring in your face. Over there, in an alley, someone will pitch you on the latest bullshit they have developed. Someone you haven’t seen in a million years running up to you telling you about their new job, and THEN pitching you on the latest bullshit they are selling. It will be a dystopian hellscape populated by everyone you try to avoid in real life. . . .
I grew up watching and reading science fiction about how one day robots would take over the world, about how corporate greed and multinational corporations would replace nation states in terms of power and influence, how we’d destroy the planet and have to escape to Mars or invent an alternate, digital existence. Yet, we seem to be walking blindly, even willingly, into all the doomsday scenarios.
So what have our most brilliant minds decided to do? Build a playground for brands. Sure, why not. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you.
2. The Deleted Scenes
Addison Del Mastro’s newsletter sometimes reads like he writes it explicitly just for me: He spends most of his time talking about urbanism and land-use in Northern Virginia and New Jersey—the two parts of America I know best. It’s a little bit creepy how often he’ll write about a spot and I know exactly what he’s talking about, where it is, and how it’s evolved over the years.
Last week he visited a Christmas tree nursery out by Charlottesville, a 1,000 acre operation. And he used that to explore why you don’t get many nurseries in suburbia:
This is the sort of land use that indicates a real, working countryside. Once you’re vying with developers, labor-heavy, land-intensive, relatively low-margin businesses no longer easily pencil out. (The same goes for small amusement parks, drive-in theaters, mini-golf courses, etc.) As well as small farms, of course.
Now I don’t intend this as an argument against development or building things. Rather, it’s an argument for building where we’ve already built. . . .
It’s counterintuitive to some people, but the real threat to “open space” is not places that are dense or crowded, but places that are sprawling and spread out. A lot of Northern Virginia once looked like that huge nursery—but huge amounts of land have been developed at very low densities. . . .
Obviously, a lot of people like having a little piece of private land. Yet many of the same people dislike the ever-growing penumbra of sprawl in the region. And pretty much all growing metros see the same pattern. Does that screenshot look like the best use of the land shown?
I’d like raise an alternative arrangement: if you live in the D.C. area or a region like it, would you trade some private, small green space, and maybe even a little bit of privacy, for more coherent, functioning open space and countryside closer to the population center?
One of the reasons I like reading Del Mastro is because I disagree with his neo-urbanist worldview pretty strongly. For instance: I would absolutely trade a “more coherent, functioning open space” for my own “private, small green space.” Which is what we suburbanites usually call a “yard.”
Why would I make that trade? Many reasons. The first of which is that raising children in a suburban environment with a small, private green space is much easier (and more pleasant) that raising them in a dense, urban setting.
The second of which is that density raises the costs of everything, but particularly of housing. And because housing is a positional good, density disadvantages everyone, regardless of where they sit on the income scale.
Planners hate sprawl because it isn’t maximally efficient for the things they like. Families, however, like what sprawl gives them: Choice, space, control, privacy, and a release valve on cost pressures. Those things matter more to most American families than the theoretically optimal use of open spaces.
Anyway, Del Mastro clearly has a different view of all of this. And that’s why I enjoy reading him so much. Because the conflict between the views of the new urbanists and revealed preferences of families are also about life and how best to pursue human flourishing.
3. Why We Wear Masks
Matt Labash never explicitly references T.M. Scanlon, but I think he had What We Owe to Each Other in the back of his mind when he wrote about masks last week:
Are masks perfect at preventing infection? Of course not. (As the above video demonstrates.) But in the middle of a serious pandemic - one in which even the pros aren’t certain how soon the vaccines or natural immunity wane, while 40 percent of the country still refuses or isn’t old enough to get their full Fauci Ouchie (as public-health expert Lauren Boebert calls it) – masks do put a dent in it. Condoms aren’t perfect at preventing pregnancy. Yet we don’t still stubbornly insist that rutting without one is more effective than using one. The imperfect should not be viewed as the enemy of the good. Just because we can only (sometimes) control cancer, not eradicate it, doesn’t mean we encourage people to drink acid-mine drainage or smoke asbestos cigarettes. . . .
In the People’s Republic of Maryland, where I live, the state doesn’t require masks in public indoor places (though a couple counties do – not mine). So what is my relationship to the mask, you might ask? Love-hate, and kind of helter-skelter. I’m double-vaccinated, and never wear one outside or at family gatherings. Neither do I feed myself through a straw at restaurants. Unsure when my immunity will wane, and having not yet gotten the booster, I do still wear one where I’m coming into close proximity with lots of strangers indoors (especially unmasked ones who are afraid of the Fauci Ouchie), such as in grocery stores or at Toby Keith concerts. . . .
So does me wearing a mask when I think it’s appropriate make me a handmaiden of the state? No. My state’s not even asking me to do it. In some situations, I’m doing it on my own. Because I want to take care of myself, and the people around me, even if it causes me minor inconvenience. Because I believe that when walking into a store where a minimum-wage clerk is held captive for eight hours a day – where I have a choice to go, but they really don’t, since they need to make a living - I owe it to him or her to ease their fears, rather than to exacerbate them. Because I’m a grown-ass man who wants to do his very small part to help his country get through this and past it, since this virus has not only done in our lungs, but our brains, the latter of which have been rotted by political toxins.
Does that make me a hero like my grandfather and his WW II buddies? Clearly not. Though my grandfather would blanch at the “h” word getting used anywhere near him, as well. He was merely serving. Which is what we should all be doing, serving our country, and our world, and especially each other. Because we’re in a war too – not just with a virus, but with ourselves. And in order to win it, we have to stop being selfish, stop being vengeful, and to stop imagining that we’re Braveheart for breathing on a Food Lion cashier.
Look: Masks are not perfect deterrents of infection. And there are many cases when wearing a mask is not even nominally helpful—for instance, if you’re out walking the dog.
But there are situations when, even if you’re double-vaccinated, it is prudent to wear a mask. And even more than that, there are situations where, even if the prudence is uncertain, it may make someone around you feel better.
There are a handful of businesses in my neighborhood where the proprietors still request that patrons wear masks. Why is that a big deal? Why wouldn’t we be happy to put our friends and neighbors at ease in the middle of a pandemic which has caused so much death and destruction?
I could give you analogies about this all day: Let’s say you have a big dog and you go over to a neighbor’s house where they have a kid that’s scared of dogs. Would you have your dog on a leash? Or would you let him run around and just tell the kid that she’s got no reason to be scared?
Or, you go to a friend’s house and they’re one of of those weird families that take their shoes off by the door.1 Would you insist on wearing your shoes inside the house? Or would you take your shoes off and not think twice about it?
All of this—the metaverse, land use, wearing masks—is about community, society, and what it means to be human and live in a world that’s incarnate.
It’s not always easy. But the first thing to do—always—is to begin by acknowledging that we’re in this together.
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We are one of those weird families. Don’t @ me.