Plumb Lines

September 30, 2009

Plumb Lines Talks Gay Tweens

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 3:35 pm

As a special feature, we have two Plumb Lines contributors and a couple newcomers talking about what’s in the news.

KS: The sky grows darker yet, and the sea rises higher:

DS: The article KS links to is extremely interesting. The weirdest angle is the ubiquitous bisexuality, which has fewer immediate political ramifications and so is talked about less, but is perhaps more ultimately significant than the mainstreaming of conventional homosexuality. The most telling quote in the article: “he’ll make out with anyone.” Might our society eventually come to see any orientation at all as an intolerable limitation of desire? I often think of that splendid line from Troilus and Cressida when contemplating these end-of-civilization moments: “And appetite, a universal wolf… must make perforce a universal prey, and last eat up himself.”

BHD: Encouraging tweens to cement a sexual identity is surely a kind of child-abuse.

DS: BHD, I would be interested to know whether you believe this to be true of heterosexual identity as well. Presumably we all find the article’s token conservatives’ lines about how tweens shouldn’t be thinking about sex at all unconvincing, but it’s unclear to me how one should in fact go about encouraging the cementing of a particular identity, if we think that one best, or discouraging cementing of identity without implicitly endorsing ‘experimentation,’ even if only experimentation of desire.

BHD: A good question, and one that I was thinking about shortly after I wrote that.

I think it’s healthy and prudent to promote tweens’ growing sense of masculine or feminine self; and my pet theory of psychosexual development predicts that this would tend to reinforce their heterosexual identity as an important but appropriately indirect effect. Parents and mentors should model distinctly masculine or feminine virtues. They should encourage tweens to look forward to and prepare for, and eventually embrace, the distinct privileges and responsibilities of their sex (whether these are dealt them by nature or by benign nurture or cultural fiat–the duties of marriage and parenthood being, however, always chief among them). They should more directly foster in tweens the kind of identity that doesn’t develop naturally–supernatural identity as a son or daughter of God, which elevates and perfects whatever other identities do develop naturally, and prepares them to deal adequately with any misshapen identities.

In short: father-son fishing trips; bar mitzvahs; other cultural and religious equivalents of these; and their feminine counterparts. Actually, I think this is less developmentally necessary for girls than for boys, which by the way may account for some of the qualitative differences between male and female homosexuality, but that’s all for another discussion.

WK: I agree with BHD that the most healthy sexual identity develops naturally. But to bring that point out a bit, perhaps the mere practice of self-consciously “cementing a sexual identity” is a bad idea for the vast majority of normal boys and girls. Other pursuits should take up all of a tween’s – and perhaps anyone’s – life, such as identifying one’s vocation, abiding by our responsibilities to God and man,  participating in wholesome endeavors among friends, growing in knowledge and wisdom of life (including the proper exercise of our sexual faculties), and fulfilling family and community duties. A good healthy sexual identity seems incidental to a life well lived, whereas a warped sexual identity often seems to be the result of hyper self-consciousness.

DS: The question hinges on what is meant by “natural,” I suppose. It seems true that a healthy sexual identity should generally develop unself-consciously. This doesn’t mean, though, that sexual identity could develop “naturally” in the sense of “independently of culture.” The mechanisms for the development of healthy sexual identity, some of which, I presume, are those that BHD described, seem to have altered, or to be no longer effective in the same way. The challenge, then, might be to make explicit what was formerly implicit — to preserve, or invent anew, mechanisms for the transmission of the right kind of sexuality from generation to generation. What’s particularly challenging is that these new kinds of mechanism must be oppositional, in that they must provide not just an unself-conscious, virtuous sexuality, but a mode of articulation with public perversity, a counter-discourse of desire. These mechanisms might turn out to be things like going on fishing trips, but I doubt it.

Keith Staples is a contributor to Plumb Lines

David Schaengold is a contributor to Plumb Lines

B. Higgins Dass is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy

Will Kane is studying law


Asked and Answered

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 2:38 pm

“Is there some reason this is a bad idea?” asks Conor Friedersdorf, about his plan to plant fruit trees on city streets. Yes, there is. Most of the fruit will be unpicked, and will fall on the ground and rot. This will result in a greatly increased burden on muncipal street-cleaning employees. If many of them roll into sewers (the fruit, not the employees), as seems likely, actual disaster could ensue.

That said, many street trees currently are fruit trees, just of a genetically modified variety that produces only very small and entirely inedible fruit. The Bradford Pear is particularly common.

David Schaengold

September 29, 2009

Pro-life Fashion?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 3:35 pm

I’ve been told that being pro-life isn’t just about opposition to abortion, it’s also about the celebration of new life.  Well, here’s your party outfit:


“We want to highlight the belly,” says designer Marisol Rodríguez. “This is happiness that is showing through your clothes.”

If the clothing line’s design shows a fun-loving appreciation for new life, the way it is made is equally telling:

She was particularly troubled by high unemployment among women who are in their 50s — many of them fired from jobs despite their skills, but not yet eligible for retirement assistance, which begins at age 62. “What do you do when no one wants to hire you, and you still have to support your family and pay your rent?” Rodríguez asks.

Hoping to help this segment of the female population that has fallen through the cracks, the designer and her 63-year-old mother teamed up: they established a small workshop in Bogota that employs women in their 50s to hand-craft goods. Housed in a two-bedroom rental apartment, their Bogota Factory doubles as a showroom over which Rodríguez’s mother presides — people come in and see samples of clothing, knitwear and painted wood pieces, then place orders. Mother calls in workers on an as-needed basis (currently there are three women, paid an hourly wage), while daughter provides design and business expertise from afar [. . .]

The idea of expanding the business and exporting goods to Europe is tantalizing to Rodríguez, who is the first to admit that Bogota Factory’s small-scale, low-tech, labor-intensive operation is not the most efficient business model. Sending the fabric to a laser-cutting facility would certainly get the cotton cut faster, and with greater precision, than having a worker use a pair of scissors to execute the job by hand. Then again, the entire dress line could easily be produced overseas.

But for the designer and her mother, the aim is not to eliminate jobs locally, but rather to create them. They would like to be able to employ at least one more woman. Their immediate goal, however, is to offer their current workers a labor package that includes health insurance.

Need I say how (no doubt unintentionally) Catholic this all is?


Fun hood. The baby looks kind of like it is in a minimum-security baby prison . . . did I mention that these things only cost $30?

-Matthew Schmitz

September 28, 2009

Monday Movie Still: Amarcord

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 3:04 pm


– David Schaengold

September 24, 2009

You Might Suck

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 2:11 pm

Speaking from experience, Ivy-League students don’t often hear truth like this. From the Daily Princetonian:

I hate to say it, Class of 2013, but some of you might suck. Some of you might at this moment be on a crash course with a future of hurting people and leaving society the worse for your presence . . .

We will not all go on to be the next Nash or Sotomayor or Forbes. Very few of us will even come close — and whether you will be a “great” might already be out of your control. Always in your control, however, is whether you are good. Whether you cheat on your spouse, disappoint your friends, harm your country, or break the Honor Code — these are things forever in your hands. You’re at Princeton, but so what? In the words of Han Solo: “Great, kid. Don’t get cocky.”

-Matthew Schmitz

America’s Greatest City-Hater

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 11:06 am

At the New Republic’s new urbanism blog The Avenue, Jennifer Bradley takes issue with Thomas Jefferson’s placement on a recent list of history’s hundred greatest urban thinkers. The textual evidence, she notes, is damning. Jefferson wrote frequently about the noxious moral effects of cities and condemned them as inimical to true self-governance.

I wonder, though, if Jefferson’s thought is more amenable to modern urbanism than Hamilton’s, his famously pro-city rival. Hamilton supported effective technocracy and centralized planning projects, while Jefferson supported local organizing and as much direct democracy as possible. Perhaps we can recognize in these two rival systems of thought a foreshadowing of the confrontation between Robert Moses (#23 on the list) and Jane Jacobs (#1 on the list)? Aren’t Jefferson’s values, especially the idea that community participation is good in itself, the ones upheld in successful urban neighborhoods, while the Hamiltonian technocrats have decamped for the suburbs, whose muncipal governments strive to be nothing more than efficient deliverers of services?

David Schaengold

The Balance of Dependence

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 11:02 am

We will be dealing with the decay of that unstable isotope, the nuclear family, for a long time to come. The members of my generation suffered through the chaos of  divorce, remarriage, and custody battles while enjoying some of their rewards (two Christmases!). Now, the balance of dependence is tipping. The first Boomers entered their 60s two years ago. By 2030, the population over age 60 will have increased by 75 percent, with much of that number coming from the “me generation.” As boomers enter their second childhood, we are seeing a great historical irony: the uncertainty and chaos they inflicted on their children is about to be felt by them.

Our society has never been very clear about what obligations a grown child has towards his aging parents. But in the case of the Boomers, the question becomes exceedingly complex. What responsibilities of care does one have toward a stepfather? Toward a parent with more than one set of children? Forget the question Who will get the kids? It’s now Who gets stuck with the grandparents?

This is why I can’t quite agree with this comment on First Thoughts:

The original WSJ article and Schmitz’s addendum miss the point by advocating for “lifelong communities” where the elderly co-mingle with multiple generations. All the advantages they want for the elderly are met if parents, or widowed singles, live with or near their children and grandchildren. Building communities, or incorporating the elderly into communities, sidesteps the issue. No fruit stand customer, no matter how friendly, will attend to these “fogeys” as their health declines. Only a family member can do that. Just because the youngers are too selfish to bother and the elders are too selfish to entrust themselves to their children doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push for the ideal and morally correct solution. Families should stay together, especially as they age.

Of course selfishness is the problem, but if we were able to extinguish that vice, there would be no need for good public policy nor, for that matter, the Cross. The challenge is to promote patterns of living in which largely but not exclusively self-interested people make good choices. So to say that children should just have parents move back in with them is not enough. The single-family dwelling in an auto suburb doesn’t do a good job of accommodating the extended family, no doubt because it was never designed to do so. People who already drive their children to soccer practice don’t want to also drive their aging parents to the bingo parlor.

I would love to see families welcome grandparents into their homes, but those grandparents will desire varying measures of privacy. They will want to venture out and visit with their peers. Having a wider web of community interaction — promoted in part by a mixture of housing that includes smaller, single-person dwellings and walkable streets — actually strengthens individual families by relieving some of the pressure they have to bear and under which they so often break.

-Matthew Schmitz

Quote of the Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Matthew Schmitz @ 8:36 am

John Maynard Keynes:

“The two most delightful occupations open to those who do not have to earn their living [are] authorship and experimental farming.”

I never took Keynes to be the Wendell-Berry type.

Matthew Schmitz

September 23, 2009

Protecting Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 4:49 pm


A rugged fetal heart rate monitor could save thousands of lives in the developing world:

. . . robust form and hyper-simple interface are combined with sophisticated Doppler ultrasound technology that allows rural healthcare workers to track the cardiac response of babies in the womb and during birth. One minute of cranking by hand generates enough battery life for 10 minutes of use.

Matthew Schmitz

The Fogey Economy

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 6:00 am


From the Wall Street Journal:

Active-adult communities and assisted-living facilities exist to mitigate some of the drawbacks of growing old on a cul-de-sac. That said, the vast majority of older adults don’t want to move. Fully 85% of surveyed individuals age 50-plus told AARP, the Washington-based advocacy group, that they wish to remain in their communities for as long as possible. And those communities, invariably, want the same thing: a strong mix of ages, interests and abilities among residents.

Perhaps a better solution, and one finding favor in more circles, is the idea of “retrofitting” suburbia and developing, as seen on the drawing board in Fayetteville, “lifelong communities.” Such projects typically involve taking a neighborhood or site within an existing town or suburb and creating a compact, walkable community—one with alternatives to single-family homes, such as condominiums or row houses. Ideally, older residents in large homes will have the option of downsizing and remaining in a community where they can access restaurants, shopping and other amenities and services on foot.

I recently spent a week in the Mercat Sant Antoni neighborhood of Barcelona. It’s not hip, but it is wonderful. Responsible for both of these facts is the unusually high number old people. They are everywhere, and they effortlessly mingle with the young and middle-aged people one is accustomed to seeing about town. Interestingly, these elderly people perform an economic role essential to the life of the neighborhood that no one else can fill. They run small stands selling fruit, or meat, or cloth that do enough business to supplement a retiree’s income but wouldn’t be able to support most middle-aged persons. The old people enjoy the chance to interact with younger people as vital members of the community, and the community enjoys services that would not be otherwise available. This is what I like to call “the fogey economy.” The fact that it exists almost nowhere in America means fewer services and higher prices.

We conservatives have little business decrying euthanasia unless we also stand against the elimination of old folks from our everyday experience. This, not Obama’s health plan, is our society’s significant step towards doing away with the elderly. Even if our beloved geezers  aren’t in danger, we should not accept having them sequestered in nursing homes and “assisted-living facilities.” In some areas today, one is hard-pressed to find any old people at all other than the gentleman who welcomes you as you enter the local Walmart. He’s nice, but where are all his friends?

Perhaps I shouldn’t worry since I’m only in my twenties, but the communities that are built over the next forty years will be of two kinds: ones in which my friends and I are able to grow old while remaining part of society, or else ones from which we are ejected once we start wetting beds and breaking our formerly hipster hips.

Update: Joe Carter kindly links to my post but sees a problem in my claim that we “have little business decrying euthanasia unless we also stand against the elimination of old folks from our everyday experience.”

I’ll admit that I was a bit carried away by my enthusiasm for our elders. It is better to oppose the culture of death only in its late stages than not at all. That said, I want to start at the beginning and fight it all the way down the line.

-Matthew Schmitz

Republicans Push for More Transit

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 12:05 am

At last:

“These individuals came all the way from Southeast Texas to protest the excessive spending and growing government intrusion by the 111th Congress and the new Obama administration,” Brady wrote. “These participants, whose tax dollars were used to create and maintain this public transit system, were frustrated and disappointed that our nation’s capital did not make a great effort to simply provide a basic level of transit for them.”

A spokesman for Brady says that “there weren’t enough cars and there weren’t enough trains.” Brady tweeted as much from the Saturday march. “METRO did not prepare for Tea Party March! More stories. People couldn’t get on, missed start of march. I will demand answers from Metro,” he wrote on Twitter.

-Matthew Schmitz

September 22, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 5:34 pm

I was a Congressional Page in 2002-2003. Those were the days when Congress authorized the president to invade Iraq, when Mark Foley ran free and Tom Delay ruled the House.  Delay was obviously a much more skilled political operator than most of his colleagues, but I had no idea he had this in him.

-Matthew Schmitz

Building a Culture of Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 6:00 am

How to build a culture of life? With bricks and mortar.

One of the truths to which this site is devoted is that the way we organize our physical environment both reflects and shapes culture. Anyone who wants to effect our culture should then pay close attention to the way our built environment is structured. It is time abortion opponents absorbed this lesson. In his classic work, A  Pattern Language Christopher Alexander makes the crucial observation:

The existing obstetrics service in most hospitals follows a well outlined procedure. Having a baby is thought of as an illness and the stay in the hospital as recuperation. Women who are about to deliver are treated as “patients” about to undergo surgery. They are sterilized. Their genitals are scrubbed and shaved. They are gowned in white, and put on a table to be moved back and forth between the various parts of the hospital. Women in labor are put in cubicles to pass the time with virtually no social contact. This time can last for many hours. It is a time when father and children could be present to provide encouragement. But this is not permitted. Delivery usually takes place in a “delivery room” which has the proper “table” for childbirth.

The profound insufficiency of such places for hosting one of the most important events in family and communal life was wonderfully illustrated by a recent episode of Mad Men. The show’s hero, Don Draper, spends the entirety of his new child’s delivery not with the mother and family, but  rather sitting in a sterile waiting room with an utter stranger and their mutual friend Johnnie Walker. Such things have changed since the ’50s, but nowhere near enough.

Those who wish to promote an ethic of life should replace the “delivery rooms” of today with free-standing communal birth places. Rather than treating pregnancy as a sickness to be prevented by contraception and cured either by abortion or delivery, these structures would be designed to reflect the wonder and respect with which each new  life should be welcomed. A just society will outlaw the intentional killing of the unborn, but in the absence of a consensus in favor of restricting abortion, this is one area where progress can be made.

Crazier things have been done: the Young Men’s  Christian Association implemented its reformist vision through a nation-wide building plan. A vast number of currently existing medical facilities were built by private, morally motivated parties, with Catholic  institutions alone accounting for 18% of America’s hospitals. The feasibility of constructing birth places is demonstrated by the success of these past efforts. They should be built first in only a few locations and then, after  a sufficient period of experimentation and improvement, constructed  in every community. A first step would be to assemble a panel of architects, doctors and laymen–mothers and  fathers–who would solicit designs and craft a general plan that could be adapted to local needs.

This may sound like a whimsical proposal, but  the way we structure our communities can be–and in this case in fact is–deadly serious.

-Matthew Schmitz

September 21, 2009

Monday Movie Still: Enfants du Paradis

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 8:50 pm

Marcel Carné’s Enfants du Paradis is sometimes called the French answer to Gone with the Wind, but it would be more apt to call it cinema’s answer to Père Goriot. A distinctly Balzacian atmosphere pervades the work, and one of the characters, the infamous criminal Lacenaire, even looks a bit like him.

In this still below, Jean-Louis Barrault portrays a pantomime. The mime intends to hang himself with the bit of string he is holding, but the girl wants to play jump-rope with it instead:


-David Schaengold

The Storm of Unreason

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 6:57 pm

Worried by the growing radicalism of political rhetoric? So was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 40 years ago:

Stalinoid rhetoric of apocalyptic abuse on the left, and its echoes on the right, have created a public atmosphere of anxiety and portent that would seem to have touched us all. It is with every good reason that the nation gropes for some means to weather the storm of unreason that has broken upon us.  The Public Interest, Fall 1969.

As bad as the summer of ’09 was, its legacy is unlikely to be anywhere near as pernicious as the Summer of Love. At least I certainly hope the tea parties won’t be remembered as our decade’s Woodstock.

-Matthew Schmitz

Libertarians and Transit

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 4:47 pm

rotooleSpeaking of falsely libertarian views on transit, Cato Fellow Randal O’Toole has just put out a report recycling some of his familiar attacks on transit. In July, Ryan Avent offered an assessment of O’Toole’s efforts:

O’Toole was without friends in a room of leaders that finally seemed to grasp how planning had gone wrong in the last half century. At this moment — with vehicle miles traveled falling, with central city population growth rates increasing as suburban growth rates fall, and with central city housing prices showing resilience as exurban neighborhoods continue to experience rapid decline — Cato’s myth of sprawl as the American dream seems more hollow than ever.

As Avent goes on to point out, libertarians should oppose regulations that, in much of the country, have made building walkable, mixed-use settlements illegal.

-Matthew Schmitz

September 20, 2009

A Slow Education

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 10:17 am

My fellow conservatives continue to senselessly oppose the kind of family-friendly, community-strengthening transit policies they should be championing. More evidence that conservative thinking on transit is destined for a head-on collision with reality comes from Arizona. There the Goldwater Institute has been embarrassed by its opposition to a wildly successful light rail system in Phoenix. From today’s Times:

Among the many detractors — and they were multitudinous — who thought a light rail line in this sprawling city would be a riderless $1 billion failure was Starlee Rhoades, the spokeswoman for the Goldwater Institute, a vocal critic of the rail’s expense. “I’ve taken it,” Ms. Rhoades said, slightly sheepishly. “It’s useful.”

She and her colleagues still think the rail is oversubsidized, but in terms of predictions of failure, she said, “We don’t dwell.”

-Matthew Schmitz

September 18, 2009

Awaiting the Real Obama

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 2:53 pm

If I was President Obama, I would be furious at David Brooks. In today’s column Brooks says that our history has been defined by the debate between Jefferson and Hamilton, which is nearly as old and deep as the division between black and white. This is tough news for Obama: here he just transcended our racial divide and he learns that having a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya is not enough. He also needs a father from the West Indies and another from the Virginia plantations. One’s racial makeup is insignificant if his identity and politics are 100% Hamiltonian.

I’m hoping Brooks will point out just what the Obama of Hamiltonian-Jeffersonianism might look like. Maybe he’ll be wonkish and whacky, one part Charlie Rose and one part Glenn Beck. Do I hear any calls for Newt 2012?

-Matthew Schmitz

Finding the Exit

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 6:00 am


In a probing reflection on small-town life, E.D. talks about why small towns don’t always make the best communities and makes the further claim that they can be hard to escape.

In 1990 my county in rural Nebraska had a population of 11,551 spread over a vast 2,412 sq. miles. By 2008 the population had fallen off to only 10,233, for a total population decline of 11%. I am one of the people who left.

This kind of crisis-level population decline is widespread in much of the nation’s interior. 71 of Nebraska’s 93 counties reached their population peaks in the 1940s or earlier. Today, 28 have a population density below six people per square mile, which is the historical definition of “frontier.” If we were to take that definition literally, many of these counties were “settled” for no more than a few decades.

I say all this to point up the fact that despite these statistics, Nebraska’s population has actually grown from 1.6 to 1.8 million over the past eight years. Nearly all this growth occurs in a few counties around Omaha where small-town kids of all educational achievement levels have gone to find opportunity and start families. I think E.D. is right to stay that the poorer you are, the harder it is to leave. That said, a great many of the poorest do leave. So it went among my high-school class. Of course, there are lots of problems with small towns. But one of the biggest is not that its hard to leave, it’s that it’s so difficult to stay. That, at least, is how things seem from my perch in Princeton, New Jersey.

None of this detracts from E.D.’s central point that strong communities might not be the most self-enclosed communities. Christopher Alexander tries to get at this in A Pattern Language (a book well worth reading) when he says that cities should be a “mosaic of subcultures,” which would mean (roughly) that they would consist of distinct communities existing in close proximity with definite but porous boundaries. That way identities are preserved, along with the opportunity for individuals to hop from one to another.

-Matthew Schmitz

September 17, 2009

The Left and Organized Religion

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 6:11 pm

In this month’s issue of the liberal journal Democracy, Ethan Porter makes a left-wing case for organized religion (registration required):

If we are to emerge from the current morass as not merely a prosperous nation once again, but a better one, we will have to confront the crisis underlying the economic crisis: one of meaning, of which the economic crisis is but a symptom. We have shirked the most profound questions for the sake of a vulgar materialism. To the extent that it can restore a sense of meaning and begin to chip away at the hollowness of our shared lives, organized religion may be an ideal candidate to step into the breach.

It’s great to hear an argument from the left in defense of institutional, organized religion, but what Porter goes on to propose sounds like more of the same old thin gruel of “ethics” and “spirituality”:

Insofar as religion has an important social role to play, especially at the present moment, schools with exceptionally large endowments should be required to expend a certain proportion of those endowments on religious and ethical instruction.

-Matthew Schmitz

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