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Moral equivalents of war
Manhood, hardship, Orwell, and Barbie: plus, a time without cell phones
Hi everyone — it’s been hot here in Barcelona. Of course, it’s been hot everywhere.
I now joke on Zoom calls for work that small talk about the weather has gotten much more interesting.
The heat has been unrelenting and it’s hampered my writing. The past two weeks are littered with discarded prose. I saw a study recently that productivity plummets in hot weather. The surprising finding though was that “white collar” productivity also plummets. Something about heat outside just makes us all want to slow way down.
I’ve been taking city bikes back and forth to the climbing gym after Spanish classes, taking the rides as an opportunity for a warm-up and warm-down to book-end the climbing. It’s about 15-18 minutes each way, depending on how motivated I am to blow through red lights. I love the bike lanes in Barcelona, and the city is generally pretty flat, so it all feels very friendly even on busy main streets.
The past two trips though I’ve relented: there are e-bikes available for a markup of a mere €0.34 per half hour, and rather than risk heat stroke I’ve opted for that sweet, sweet motor to get me home. But I do wonder about the escape to convenience (as you’ll see below I’m sensitive to). At least I haven’t bought a moped yet.
Tomorrow, my son arrives from the States, and next week he’ll start school. The routine will change, Summer will end, and so too, I hope, will the heat.
I. Moral equivalents of war
After my interview with Chris Blahoot, he recommended I read Pete Davis’ Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing.
It’s a book after my own heart about committing to places, investing in people, and in general laying out a value structure that is an alternative to what he calls the “Age of Infinite Browsing.”
Davis references a lot of writers and ideas I’ve encountered before, but it was some of his observations on struggle, hardship, and challenge that were really helpful for me to re-encounter.
One of those ideas is what William James called “Moral Equivalents of War,” or “collective projects that share the positive qualities of martial valor—projects that necessitate struggle, vigor, fidelity, and courage—while avoiding the negative ones, like division, dehumanization, and bloodshed.”
I’ve often thought of climbing mountains as fitting that bill. Any proper alpine climb in a remote area certainly requires struggle, vigor, fidelity, and courage. In the lead-up to World War II, many European countries were even sponsoring mountaineering expeditions almost as a proxy for war.
The kind of climbing I do doesn’t come close to the kind of struggle and courage required to push new boundaries in mountaineering—but it does contain some of the same challenges in miniature. Struggle, vigor, courage, and fidelity are all part of the deal when climbing outdoors.
Society needs more things like that, where instead of comfort, convenience, and sloth, we are required to struggle and be brave. As a parent, I can certainly see my son searching out these kinds of experiences to try and test his own bravery. Even if I don’t provide them, he’ll contrive them on his own with whatever is available.
The more you look around, the more you see it—wealthy Western society writ large is in desperate need of struggle in service of shared purpose. And that lack has consequences that reverberate, especially over our politics.
For example, Davis also surfaces this pure gem of political analysis from George Orwell’s famous 1940 review of Mein Kampf:
Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do.
Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.
However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.
As with many of Orwell’s writings, let that be a warning as relevant in our time as it was in his.
The solution for Western societies that want to avoid pseudo-fascist self-involved clowns from destroying democracy in actuality today is not merely to offer “ease, security and avoidance of pain,” but to find a way to fill the extreme want of purpose that all our wealth and progress have brought.
II. Reflections on manhood
I’ve been gravitating a lot lately toward writing, movies, and even songs about manhood.
Two months ago, I devoured Elizabeth Gilbert’s incredibly funny, empathetic, and intelligent The Last American Man, about a guy who has lived his life (he’s 61 now) as a kind of testament to a kind of old-fashioned American ruggedness and self-sufficiency, and with a long string of failed romantic relationships to prove it.
That was just after listening to a long Matter of Opinion episode in which the NYT op-ed writers dissected the current crisis of boys and men (takeaway: if we don’t fix this ourselves, ill-meaning politicians will leverage it for their own gain).
That same month I seemed to have Waylon Jennings’ Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys on heavy rotation on my Spotify, a song about a particular kind of manhood, and one I once used for soundtrack on a video I made of the bull-riding camp I attended just after college.
“They'll never stay home and they're always alone, even with someone they love,” Jennings croons, in a line that’s always resonated (Not that I’m a cowboy—but I’m from New Mexico, I can ride, and I like to think the spirit still resides.)
Even Barbie has something to say about it. There are already a million think pieces about Ken’s crisis of masculinity, so just to say—I really liked the movie. “Just Ken” is a fun song that Ryan Gosling was born to sing, but it’s also short-hand for the idea that men need purpose and identity separate and apart from their relationship to and with women.
I think part of the solution to all this crisis is, at least in part, to search out the aforementioned moral equivalents of war. Here’s more from Orwell in an almost uncomfortably prescient passage from his book, The Road to Wigan Pier:
How often have we not heard it, that glutinously uplifting stuff about ’the machines, our new race of slaves, which will set humanity free’, etc., etc., etc. To these people, apparently, the only danger of the machine is its possible use for destructive purposes; as, for instance, aero-planes are used in war. Barring wars and unforeseen disasters, the future is envisaged as an ever more rapid march of mechanical progress; machines to save work, machines to save thought, machines to save pain, hygiene, efficiency, organization, more hygiene, more efficiency, more organization, more machines–until finally you land up in the by now familiar Wellsian Utopia, aptly caricatured by Huxley in Brave New World, the paradise of little fat men.
When I read that I think of ChatGPT, which has transformed many aspects of my life, including my work—so far for the better. Or, I think of driverless cars, which I can’t wait for.
At the same time, I bike to the climbing gym. I hike mountains. I cook my own food for most meals (The best steak I’ve ever had in my life was the one I carried with me on a kayak that I paddled to an island in the middle of Lake Michigan, then cooked on a stone on top of a fire I ignited with flint and steel and built with rain-soaked wood. That was a great steak.)
I’m on high alert for products promising “convenience”—usually I want to know who was exploited or what part of the planet was abused to bring me that convenience.
…in a world from which physical danger had been banished–and obviously mechanical progress tends to eliminate danger–would physical courage be likely to survive? Could it survive? And why should physical strength survive in a world where there was never the need for physical labour?
As for such qualities as loyalty, generosity, etc., in a world where nothing went wrong, they would be not only irrelevant but probably unimaginable. The truth is that many of the qualities we admire in human beings can only function in opposition to some kind of disaster, pain, or difficulty; but the tendency of mechanical progress is to eliminate disaster, pain, and difficulty.
Of course, there’s a limit to how many artificial inconveniences I’m willing to erect in my path. I do house projects with power tools, not hand tools. I drive places. I use modern climbing gear that keeps me as safe as possible.
That said, I essentially agree with Orwell: the qualities we admire most are essentially impossible without some kind of disaster, pain, or difficulty. For an agnostic like Orwell, it’s actually a pretty Christian conception of virtue—that without suffering, we can’t reach our highest good.
III. Cell phones, hardship, and the rise of “effortless adventure”
Speaking of hardship.
Whenever I do the annoying parent thing of talking about how much more challenging things were in the “olden days,” the stories inevitably revolve around a lack of cell phones.
The time my car broke down in the middle of the night in the middle of a snowstorm on the side of the highway, a thousand miles away from anyone I knew, with all my stuff for College in the back.
The time hiked alone through Denali. No cell phone, no electronics, not even a compass. In that story, I have to explain that you can actually orient yourself and direction-find just fine with a topographical map.
In College, I was a counselor at a Summer camp where I led groups of kids on hiking trips through the White Mountains. Not only did we not have cell phones but we didn’t have any GPS devices at all. We knew where we were only because we paid attention to the maps in our pockets and the signs on the trail along the way.
The American Alpine Club recently ran a piece (no longer available online) about cell phones in the mountains: “A cell phone in your pocket erases maybe the most glorious part of being out there in the mountains,” Laura Waterman told the author. “You’re erasing any trace of self-reliance.”
The piece recounts how a lot of hiking accidents are actually caused by over-reliance on electronics—people think they’ve got the map on the phone in their pocket, but then the battery dies and they’re totally lost.
Another book I finished not too long ago was legendary outdoor writer David Roberts’ Limits of the Known, which he wrote late in life after a terminal cancer diagnosis. The book is Roberts’ answer to the question of why we pursue adventure and why some of us desperately crave it.
Roberts recounts the stories of explorers who left on expeditions of totally uncertain length and hardship. Would they be gone for two years? Three? Would they even come back alive? Their families back home had no idea, and no way of knowing, and no communication at all in the interim. Much less cell phone or satellite coverage.
That’s just how people lived. How adventures were undertaken.
Today, there is a guiding company I’ve come across once or twice in New Hampshire—they take people into the White Mountains who don't have much experience in the outdoors. The company is called “Effortless Adventure,” which to me is a complete and absolute contradiction in terms.
By definition, there can be no adventure without effort. It’s literally baked into the equation.
One of my strategies as a camp counselor in those mountains was to give rotating trip leaders the map and task them with leading the way. More than a few times, I watched at forks in the trail as 12-year-old trip leaders struggled to figure out which way was the right way, summoning all their effort at scale, direction, and sensory awareness.
One of my co-counselors once questioned me: what if the boys make the wrong call and take the wrong path… would you stop them?
That had never happened before, so it was a moot question at the time. But a few weeks later, I watched as trip leaders on a multi-day hike debated for 20 minutes before making the wrong call and leading the entire group up the wrong path. I turned to my co-counselor and signaled to keep quiet and go along. Five minutes later the path narrowed, then all but disappeared. The kids sensed their mistake and promptly turned us all around.
I’ll never forget the looks on the trip leaders’ faces as they hiked back past me in that moment. Touché, they seemed to say. I really had let them lead and make their own mistakes.
All of this might sound like I want to turn back the clock to some golden age of adventure. Of course, that’s impossible. And I’m not against staying safe, within reason. I don’t hip-belay my climbing partners. When the GriGri was invented, I learned how to use it, understanding immediately that it was safer than an ATC. When I hike, I let loved ones know where I’m going. And Google Maps is definitely my friend—I use it all the time, especially when navigating around new cities.
But I do fear that the kind of learning experiences I had and those kids had is next to impossible in today’s world.
It’s not just the ubiquity of technology like cell phones, but a culture of extreme safety that insists that the technology be used to mitigate every risk, even phantom ones.
For a hot second last year, I considered doing the “12-hour walk,” a kind of contrived challenge to walk around without any electronic distractions for twelve hours. The website promises a life-changing experience:
Last year, the challenge seemed to be having a moment. Its “inventor” (if one can be said to have invented such a thing) was interviewed on podcasts, and I saw a few peers writing and talking about having done it.
Of course, there’s also an app for it. The app’s job is—wait for it—to time the walk. On the website, people are also encouraged to take a short video about how they’re committing to the walk and post it. Meanwhile, there are reams of copy about safety precautions and how you need not leave your cell phone at home. In fact, better to take it with you, the website advises… for safety.