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I can’t believe this became news to me only this morning: Obama is a heretic. His alleged sin? Failure to believe in American exceptionalism.

The irony, already pointed out, is that he is no such thing. He just expresses his beliefs differently. Pity.

Dude, where's my country?

What this country needs is someone to point out the absurdity of the belief. Hello! People in every country believe their homeland has some special quality or mission.

For us, it happens to be our political system, which is increasingly indistinct from our economic system. Other countries are proud of their social safety nets, their excellent taste in wine, their clean, roomy prison systems, etc. No one is sitting around thinking, “Why can’t we merge our garden-variety nation with our cooler, more exceptional neighbor to the north/south/east/west?”

It takes courage to see the world as it is, not the way we imagine it to be. But it’s not the kind of courage we expect from a politician, liberal or conservative. But why shouldn’t we?

 

 

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A lot, and we might go blind. So with that out of the way, I hope you enjoyed President Obama’s State of the Union speech.

Rock, paper...shredder!!!

What I love best are the critics who blast it as just words. Um, it was a speech. Of course it was just words. Did you expect Obama to pick up a hammer and start building that wall we want erected along the Mexican border? Or did you expect him to whip out some federal grant checks and run them through a shredder? “This is how serious I am about cutting spending!!!!”

His speech is just words. The response is just words. And all those people pointing out that Michelle Bachmann wasn’t looking at the camera? Words. What can we say? We’re in love with them.

 

The news cycle has mostly moved on from discussing alleged links between violent political rhetoric and the Tucson, Ariz. shooting. And the spectacle of our legislators sitting boy, girl, boy, girl, er, D, R, D, R, will further move us beyond it.

Nonetheless, let’s postulate this as  one of the reasons we react so strongly to the alleged links: If media and messages can make someone do that, what other, smaller things can they make us do? In other words, the discussion beckons us to question the source(s) of our own thoughts and desires, and that’s not something we really want to dwell on. And if we do dwell, we don’t want to stay too long or venture beyond the poles of conventional wisdom.

A clever invention, but it doesn't light up all by itself.

How much of us is really us, and how much comes from outside, whether it’s all those Smurf cartoons we watched as children or that odd tension we recall from our childhood homes?

There’s no easy answer, so it’s inevitable that our national attention will move on to something else. Human motivation is just too complicated. But you don’t have to be crazy to acknowledge that we hear other people’s voices coming from our own mouths sometimes–namely, the voices of our parents. But if we are honest, we can likely name other voices as well.

 

 

My goal today is to get better at sitting and typing even if I have nothing to say, hence the title of this post. Really, things could go either way. I could produce a placebo, or I could plumb some unknown depth.

The wrench is both a help and a hindrance to thieves.

Then I began looking for pictures, and wrenches seemed to predominate. So, they call the work plumbing, yet it involves a lot of wrenching. That seems fitting, somehow. But it doesn’t offer me any place to go. So, I will move to another interesting chapter in Tales of a Pathfinder, the 1920 memoir of highway pathfinder A.L. Westgard.

In this particular chapter, Westgard spills a great deal of ink describing the many languages he encounters in hamlets and towns across America. Here is his take on a Norwegian man, living in western Illinois, who spoke no English:

The wonder of it was that he had lived right on that land for forty-two years. As the country was settled almost exclusively by his countrymen, he had never learned English, though he had been a productive citizen for a generation and voted regularly at every election.

Westgard, an immigrant himself, was undoubtedly a sympathetic audience not given to flights of outrage over someone voting yet not being able to speak English. Ironically, however, Westgard’s work as a highway pathfinder helped connect those pockets of people speaking Norwegian, German, Italian and Spanish–no doubt ratcheting up pressure for everyone to learn English.

 

 

 

It’s another new era in Pennsylvania, another attempt to get it right. Welcome, Tom Corbett. It’s your state now. But all this talk of making PA more business-friendly has me a little bit concerned.

Never shake a baby's hand.

Oh, I understand that businesses need to make money and that they don’t like taxes any more than the rest of us. But we’ve been going in this direction a long time, and I’m not sure it has brought us much in the way of general prosperity.

What your promises are likely to mean is that people will have to sacrifice, people who already are suffering, so that people who have a lot can keep more of it. Yes, it sounds like class warfare…didn’t they earn it after all, and shouldn’t they be allowed to keep it (ah, the presumption–that government is the one “allowing” us to enjoy the fruits of our labor).

It’s easy to pump up the rhetoric. But in the end, it’s just sad. I predict that the libertarian right will be disappointed in the end results of the Corbett administration, but barring some greater economic catastrophe, they will remain convinced that the state just wasn’t friendly enough.

Technological innovation leads to greater efficiency: a simple maxim that seems to carry the force of law. But you don’t have to scratch deep to find other effects of innovation.

Hoping to stave off riots, Pennsylvania officials separated the red and white wines.

You can read books to discern those effects, including Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch or David Noble’s Forces of Production.

No time to read? Stroll into a Pennsylvania supermarket and gawk at a wine kiosk (left), a frightening cross between a vending machine, an ATM and a prison, brought to us by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

Anyone care to argue that this technology is the most efficient way to sell wine? The machine obviously serves other purposes, mostly having to do with control–and they haven’ t even been very good at that.

In this case, technology’s other purposes are obvious. Other cases are less obvious, which allows me to circle back to highways, my original inspiration for blogging this year. Highways are synonymous with freedom. But why?

 

Here is yet another curious fact about A.L. Westgard’s Tales of a Pathfinder, the book he published in 1920 to recount his experiences motoring across country in search of new highway routes. He rarely seems to encounter a horse and buggy (or a train, but we’ll leave that for another post).

This is curious because, supposedly, horses were the main method of transportation before the internal combustion engine came along. And Westgard was traveling mostly on existing trails, so somebody–or  some horse–must have been using them.

Buggies disappeared by the 1920s. Fringe stayed with us for another half-century.

When Westgard does finally encounter a horse, the poor animal is, of course, on death’s door. Westgard et al are winding their way up and through the Cascades in Washington state when they come upon this tableau:

an old man who was endeavoring to coax an emaciated old horse to exert another ounce of effort in attempting to drag a dilapidated buggy up the trail. The bony structure of the horse was so evident under its gray and mangy skin that he appeared more like a skeleton of a horse than one of flesh and blood.

Lest you wonder about what the horse was pulling, Westgard goes on:

The buggy was held together with generous applications and sundry bandages of baling wire. All in all, the whole outfit–man, horse and buggy–was about as nearly played out as any outfit I had ever seen in all my travels.

The man was apparently hoping to strike it rich in Canada (in case you thought he was hunting for cheaper prescription drugs). But instead, he served as a visible sign marking the end of the road for one technology and the birth of another.

Fittingly, the chapter ends not on a lament for the passing of the horse-and-buggy crowd, but on Westgard’s description of how the Snoqualmie Pass through the Cascades was eventually paved.

 

 

Note the absence of operating instructions.

Today’s college students are tech-savvy, sure. But here is how I would boil down my experience of digital natives trying to navigate the Internet:

People may grow up in a forest, but that doesn’t mean they know how to climb trees.

I resisted talking about the murders in Tucson because I didn’t think I had anything to add. I’ve also been happy discussing the highway pathfinders of early 20th-century America. But I changed my mind yesterday after lunch with a friend.

My first instinct was to raise questions about why people seem to develop schizophrenia in their 20s. But that’s what science is for: and the consensus seems to be that the sickness, like many other things, results from a combination of genetics and environment.

I forgot the question, but I'm sure that more medication is the answer.

So, we can’t really change our genetics (at least without risking world war). So that left me with questions about the environment.

The politico-pundit class seems focused on the political environment, the allegedly toxic rhetoric that spurred Jared Loughner to act–or at least gave him a road map for his murderous rage. The debate, no matter how long it lasts or what twists it takes, will end with a pox on both houses, a call to civility, a look ahead, and a return to bliss.

A key station on this path is the recognition that insane acts are ultimately random and unpredictable, even when the insane give off flashing red lights, as Loughner appears to have done. Our stop at this station includes commentary on what friends, family and institutions could have done better. It’s a perfect echo of what we heard after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Columbine High in 1999, and the list goes on.

What emerges mostly unscathed in all this analysis is the economy, and by that I don’t just mean the last two-plus years of devastation. I mean the structure itself, which seems to put an inordinate amount of stress on young people. Every 18-year-old hears that college is the surest path to economic comfort (despite abundantly clear evidence to the contrary).

What if you find you’re not ready for college, or you’re just not cut out for it? Our culture offers limited options. You flounder, you flunk, you bemoan the alleged scam of higher education–and you prepare to face your own personal economic doomsday. You may even act out in bizarre ways and, if you happen to have some genetic glitch in your system, well…

There’s a powerful force that quashes this line of thinking about economics as environment. We tend to see the economy as a stage on which all actors are presumed equal. It is summed up in the widespread belief that any American can be the next Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates if they just work hard enough. The onus is always on the individual, never the system. And I’ll bet, if I look, I’ll find this belief among highway pathfinders of the early 20th century. So I’m back where I started, at least for now

It is a short chapter in A.L. Westgard’s Tales of a Pathfinder, and it doesn’t appear until page 83. But it’s an important one. It clearly seeks to establish his claim as the most-traveled pathfinder of his day.

The chapter is curiously titled “Deadly Figures.” Westgard begins by listing the top two questions he gets: What kinds of tires do you use, and how far have you driven? His answer to the second?

My answer is invariably that I do not know, though I have most likely traveled more different (note the different) miles on rubber tires than any man in the world. This I believe to be true.

In the old days, drivers had to affix their own odometers to the dash. While inconvenient, it was much easier to roll back--or forward, depending on whom you were trying to impress.

But to establish the truth, Westgard needs more than  belief. So he  proceeds to deconstruct the assertion of some “relatively” young man who told reporters he  had traveled 800,000 miles in 15 years. A little math from Westgard reveals that the man would have had to travel 141 miles a day,  every day. It’s possible, Westgard writes. But given the condition of roads in those days, it is “hardly within the range of probability.”

Let the record show that Westgard was not one to make idle boasts, nor one to tolerate them either. After demolishing the young man’s claim, Westgard reassures the reader that he limits himself to a simple proclamation, that he has made “more trips across the United States, East and West, North and South, than any other man, and that those trips were mostly over different routes.”

I’m still wondering what was so deadly about those figures. I’m also wondering about his tires. Surely he could have earned a little extra cash for in-book product placement.