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GP 29 November 2006: The Good Society

New York City is a Walled
Maximum Security Prison.
Breaking Out is Impossible.
Breaking in is Insane.
                      - Poster for Escape from New York 

We Gather Together.  Originally sung to celebrate a Dutch victory in 1597, “We Gather Together” made itself successively into the Latin and German tongues.  Finally in 1894, Theodore Baker, an American who took his PhD at the University of Leipzig, converted it to English.  Along the way, he put in some time with G. Schirmer, a music publisher whose descendants, as we remember, had some pretty good Jersey cattle.  Baker himself passed away in Germany. 

We’ve always wanted to believe that this song hearkened back to the first Thanksgiving in Virginia or at least to the Pilgrims up North.  But that’s just another child illusion lost.  While it’s about ‘thanks,’ it is really a rather bombastic hymn, asking the Divine to favor us over our enemies.  Rather than something to be sung later in the day, it’s a good way to get the Thanksgiving celebration started, well before you sit down at the table.  Perhaps it should be an accompaniment to the TV football fixation that sets in at this time of year.  Rooters could then call out, “So from the beginning the fight we were winning….” 

The Good Society.  Of course, the goal of life in the present era is much different than was paramount in the Age of Nation States.  Even 40 years ago, under LBJ, we were constructing the Great Society.  But we’ve had about all the conventional greatness we can endure.  Now we need some goodness on an agonized planet.  We’re not on a crusade to slay our enemies, but a quest to be a peace with Mother Nature. 

As we said last week in “Easy Shopping,” New York City must no longer figure out how many sardines it can stuff into Manhattan, but instead must address how we can swim around in this crowded morass. For instance, it must relieve the traffic congestion.  Less bigness, more betterness.  Quality over quantity. Goodness instead of greatness. The current mayor clearly does not understand this. 

But there’s an idea or two about to restore sanity.  There’s a “Bigger Push for Charging a Fee to Drive on Manhattan’s Busiest Streets” (New York Times, November 24, 2006, p. C9).  Transportation Alternatives gathered on the steps of City Hall to get Hiz Honor to think about it.  The idea of laying on a toll to come into the center city was invented by Red Ken Livingstone, the current Mayor of London, who came up with a stiff charge in 2003.  It’s had a good effect on London traffic.  Red Ken is a fun, annoying guy who is the bane of  Labor and Tory leaders alike.  We’ve come to like him, not because he’s a Leninist, but because he manages to offend the politically correct of all sensibilities.  He was also ornery enough to hire the tough, knowledgeable American Bob Kiley as his first Chairman of London Regional Transport. 

All this is interesting because America’s convoluted transportation mess is a threat to its economic health.  Already it is bottling up large swathes of the South and Southwest, both areas that are 50 years behind in their planning processes and objectives.  Local government bodies throughout these regions are rapidly creating huge cityscapes that mirror Atlanta and Los Angeles.  Again, the question is whether we can stop some of the huge stuff, and migrate to some of the right stuff. 

Second Life.  One way of dealing with inoperable New Yorks and ozone Atlantas is to model new worlds.  That’s what the extraordinary Second Life is all about, a community  with 3/4 million online residents that is now growing 20% a month.  For some it may be an escape from reality.  For others we think it permits utopian modeling to free ourselves of the notions of the past and begin to figure out how to get on with the future.  A few politicians—the interesting Mark Warner of Virginia, for instance—visit or rent space in Second Life, so it’s a hopeful development.  Not untypically, it was launched in San Francisco by Philip Rosedale of Linden Lab: the Bay Area is a grand conceiver, though it is less able to give birth and nurture the ideas of the future.  We’ve yet to visit Second Life—proof positive of how retrograde we are.  Some computer genii down in Houston promise to take us on a journey.  Do read more about it in “Living a Second Life,” Economist, September 28, 2006. 

Giving Thanks.  David W. Miller, executive director of the Yale Center of Faith and Culture, was asked by Tyson, the food company from Bill Clinton country, to compile a booklet called “Giving Thanks at Mealtime.”  You get a half-baked sampling on the Tyson website.  This effort is pleasing since Tyson is not renowned for its virtue, but for its huge factories that make it a behemoth in the poultry and meat business.  In its ‘thank you’ notes, it is acting much less amoebic, suggesting that it, too, realizes that there is a Second Life where cholesterol has less of a role. 

Who-Ah!  If there’s depression about during Thanksgiving or Christmas, the Army shout of ‘Who-Ah’ might be the preferred way to leaven a meal.  As we have heard, many family meals are so fraught with tension, the battleground of ancient neuroses embedded in the household, such that neither levity nor peace ever threaten to break out.  The whole of the Army has a shout, once just the call of the infantry, that hearkens back to the Seminole Wars, the most protracted engagement(s) in American military history.  During one attempt at peace in the Second Seminole War, the Army staged a banquet for Chief Coacoochee, a truly brave warrior.  He did not understand all the toasts, until the translator Gopher John said that they were sort of hellos.  Getting in the spirit of things, he did a version of Who-Ah.  This should be a lesson to us.  That is, eat hearty and make toasts, not war. 

Last in Their Class.  Dr. James Robbins, who teaches international relations at the National Defense University, has clearly learned this lesson.  In fact he has included this tale in his writings.  He has written an amusing book about those who placed last in their classes at West Point—the “goats,” those pranksters who would otherwise have gotten Gentlemen C’s at Ivy League colleges.  Custer, Pickett, and a bunch of other future generals distinguished themselves by not excelling academically.  Quite charming, they were often as not very bright chaps who simply did not think that high scores in college were worth a hill of beans when there was so much fun to be had and a life to be lived.  A goodly number, incidentally, were Virginians, back when that state was a breeding ground for gentlemen. 

Come, Lord Jesus.  The Moravian Church, or Unitas Fratrum, is a small denomination in the Carolinas and Pennsylvania that best teaches us how to come together for Thanksgiving and to overcome giantism. We are very fond of its dinner grace.  The Church originated in the Czech Republic, a country hailed for heroism but not imperial adventures.  We think of it as a unifying rather than a dividing religion: 

Come, Lord Jesus, our guest to be
And bless these gifts
Bestowed by Thee.
And bless our loved ones everywhere,
And keep them in Your loving care. 

P.S.  To deal with all your leftover turkey, we suggest the spicy cranberry-tangerine chutney you will find on our sister site SpiceLines.  And to complement your repast, pick your wine from The WineAccess Buyer’s Guide:  The World’s Best Wines and Where to Find Them (2006), just forwarded to us by Stephen Tanzer, New York City’s foremost wine critic. 

P.P.S.  In On Aggression, Konrad Lorenz revealed that animals of all kinds don’t too well when they are sandwiched together.  Proximity seems to breed aggression.  We suppose that applies to traffic jams and certain kinds of dinner gatherings.

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