Monthly Archives: September 2013

Quantifying the American Dream for Fun and Profit

So this just came across my newsfeed: The American Dream: New Models Show How Close – Or Far Away – It Is. It’s a Fox report on an exciting new something called the “American Dream Composite Index (ADCI) … a trademarked new metric developed by a team of researchers at Xavier University in Ohio.”

That may sound a little confusing at first. But don’t worry, once you visit the ADCI’s website and watch the video, it all makes perfect sense, really. You see, these three professors have come up with a way not just to quantify the American Dream, but to track how we’re all doing in relation to achieving it. And they want to sell that insight to business clients.

Now I’m out of my depth here but I’m not worried. Between their three specialties – marketing, economics, and information systems – I think these guys have all the bases covered.

Greg Smith, the Information Systems Professor, explains that it took him and his colleagues some three years to develop the ADCI – a “unique, robust measure of American sentiment.” The ADCI supposedly offers a comprehensive snapshot of what Americans  “do, strive for, wish for, and ultimately hope for”- a quantifiable metric for how we’re “living the dream.” It’s measured on a scale of 1 to 100.  That scale works for both individual Americans and the nation as a whole, by the way. But they don’t score quite the same way, because, you see, America is always going to have some unhappy people. “As long as there are people who are not satisfied with any aspect of their lives, the ADCI will never be able to reach 100 percent as a national scale. However, it is possible that there are individuals who could potentially achieve an ADCI score of 100.”

Just how it is, really.

Oh, and in case you were wondering whence the ADCI draws its impressive diagnostic power, it’s based on an internet survey of 1,000 Americans that is conducted monthly by a California polling firm.

He doesn't need to use that dream-stealing machine anymore!

He doesn’t need to use that dream-stealing machine anymore!

Now I’m not an economist, so I can’t gainsay their claims of predictive power vis-à-vis the markets, and I’m not a sociologist, so I can’t really impugn the representative depth of their survey sample – or figure out whatever it is up with the patented American Dream Diversity Index™ (ADDI). And I wouldn’t even   know where to start with evaluating whatever algorithms are going on in their patented five-part sub-indices, which include something  called the American Dream Environment Index™ (ADEVI).

But I can totally get down with the ADCI’s message of faith, the good news that “the American Dream is alive and now for the first time we can truly know its value and where to look for it.”

And the thing is, we don’t really have time to ask questions, because there’s bad news that demands our immediate attention – the dream is going down, people:

“The rating for September clocked in at 64.1, a decline of slightly more than a full percentage point. That rating doesn’t reflect the percentage of Americans who say they have fulfilled the American Dream; rather, it is a metric for how the country as a whole is doing in meeting that ideal. The minimum healthy measurement is considered a rating of 66.”

Talk about grim news. There is currently a yawning gap of 1.9 units between where our bulk national dissatisfaction should be and where it currently is. I am not exactly sure what those units are – but it can’t be a good thing that we’re down 1.03% in them. We’ve got to get our numbers up.

Thankfully, the folks at the ADCI have the answers. You can pay for access to data that will give your sales figures and dream scores a boost you won’t believe.

I can’t find the price for a subscription, but can you really put a price on your dreams?

On Indebtedness


After kicking things off with a footnote and a historical picaresque, I’m going to share something else: an acknowledgement of indebtedness by way of a translated epigram.

The text I’m translating from is the Anthology of Passages from the Forests of Zen (Zenrin-kushū  or ZRKS, 禪林句集), a crucial text in the Rinzai (臨濟宗) school of Japanese Buddhism. Compiled by Tōyō Eicho (東明英朝, 1428-1504) the ZRKS is a sort of miscellany that draws upon the canon of Classical Chinese poems, puzzles, and epigrams to present a series of what are called “capping-phrases” (jakugo 箸語). The ZRKS and the jakugo it contains serve as a kind of study guide for use in conjunction with Rinzai’s koan practice. Basically, the way it works is that after being assigned a koan to contemplate, a practitioner will select a jakugo that best reflects whatever insight they’ve achieved and bring that quote back to their teacher.

Some of these jakugo are reminiscent of pithy idioms we frequently use in English. 一箭兩垛, for example, means “one arrow, two targets” — almost exactly the same thing as the classic “two birds, one stone.” Other jakugo refer to stories that would be familiar to Japanese or Zen audiences, but not to most secular or Western ones. Thus, for example, and while we’re still on the subject of metaphorically killing hapless animals, 一刀一斷 can be glossed as “one blade, one slice” and is a reference to the parable of Nansen’s Cat. Juxtaposing this with the next jakugo in the collection (一刀兩斷,  “one blade, two cuts”), can give you a sense of how jakugo can carry a enigmatic, idiosyncratically “Zen” feel. That feeling is further reinforced by the accompanying commentary — for example, Zen Master Dōgen glosses the former with: “The whole universe, which the knife is in, so one piece results, whether the knife actually cuts or not.” That, for my part, I can’t quite understand, but, hey, who knows, maybe the bisected cat gets it.

Anyway, the ZRKS is organized with jakugo appearing in order of increasing length, and while the one I’m translating today isn’t quite as short as the ones above, it’s nowhere near as long as the ones at the end, either — whole poems that offer considerable resistance to my horribly rusty Gǔ Wén. But this one, for all its middling length, carries a meaning I’d like to share.

Here it is in the original: 知恩方解報. Read aloud, that runs zhī ēn fàng jīa bào ēn.

Now as with pretty much everything in Literary Chinese you can translate this in a whole bunch of different ways. Thus, in the edition I’m using, the translator, Zenrin Robert Lewis, has: “Be aware / of your debt of gratitude / to see how to repay it.” Taking a slightly different tack, the accompanying commentary by Eido Tai Shimano* offers: “If you know being really grateful, you won’t fail to requite the gift of it.”15077

I prefer a rather more concise rendering.

To know your debts is to repay them.

What does this mean? Clearly there are many kinds of debt, some good, some good bad. Despite the classic injunction to neither a borrower nor a lender be, we all carry debts – if not necessarily direct financial ones, then certainly historical, intellectual, and personal ones. Such is the basic condition of our interdependence.

Some debts can be repaid in specie, and others, depending on whom you ask, require a lifetime of sacrifices and commitments that are no less real for being intangible.

Some debts liberate and can never receive repayment in kind — nor do they ask for such; others are abhorrent and demand redress — not repayment.

But in every case we must know the debt in order to know how to respond to it, how to honor it. And even if we can never truly comprehend the full extent of everything that we owe each other — for this too may also be the condition of our interdependence, particularly in our contemporary moment — we can at least strive to learn of our debts what we can, and at all times to remain mindful of our basic situation of indebtedness to each other.

For my part, I owe family, teachers, students, colleagues, friends, and others for more than I can express. I try and will try each day to repay what I can. Within the more narrow context of this blog, and for the fact of this blog itself, I owe my friends Christian and Phil for steadily encouraging me to write, and I owe Christopher for coming up with its name, his invention. And I owe Katherine for putting up with me while I work on it.

Thank you, all of you, for these things, and thank you, out there, whoever you are, for reading this.

*For better and for worse, I feel obligated to append to any citation of Eido Roshi the caveat that, for all his Zen insights, and his influence on my own experiences of Rinzai, his legacy and leadership remain deeply problematic. Acknowledging an intellectual debt to someone – with gratitude or otherwise – demands, I think, precisely such candor.
I took all these photos at Plum Village Monastery in the Dordogne. I owe those folks a lot. There was a cat there, too.
15041In case you’re worried, he turned out fine.

Footnote FTW

Sometimes, the footnotes are the best part.

While working on a dissertation chapter about the German philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) I came across something delightful — a tiny biographical detail that, with a little research, soon blossomed into a miniature Borgesian picaresque. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t squeeze the story into the main body of my text. So instead I put it into a footnote, and that single footnote was more fun than to write than anything else in the 75 pages around it. It’s also feels perfect for sharing now.

Friedrich Schleiermacher

Schleiermacher. His head looks fine to me!

Here’s the only background you need. Someone whose work is still read a great deal today, Friedrich Schleiermacher was an incredibly influential thinker not just for a whole array of secular academic disciplines, but also for the tradition of Modern Liberal Protestantism. Yet for all his brilliance, Schleiermacher, a soulful Prussian with a deeply domestic bent, spent decades yearning to get married and have kids only to meet disappointment after disappointment. Unrequited love, impossible relationships with unhappily married women, failed engagements, et cetera — all the typical Romantic-era relationship drama, plus whatever other added problems may have arisen from Schleiermacher’s apparent conviction that the shape of his head was fatally unattractive to women.

But persistence pays off – or at least something like the Napoleonic Wars can open up the field. When Schleiermacher finally did get hitched at 37, it was to one Henriette von Willich (née von Mühlenfels, 1788–1840), the 19-year-old widow of a close friend, a young military chaplain who had died of typhoid while on a siege. Schleiermacher made up for lost time by building quite a large family with Henriette: in addition to the two children Henriette brought with her, she and Schleiermacher went on to have four more of their own. They also adopted the two orphaned sons of one of her distant cousins, a Prussian nobleman who had died in battle while serving as a Captain in the Hussars.

Here’s where it gets interesting. You see, the career of one of these adopted boys, Johann August Ernst von Willich (1810-1878) couldn’t have been more different from that of his adoptive father the pacifist minister — instead, it reads like something out of novel by George MacDonald Fraser. Except unlike Fraser’s Harry Flashman, August Willich – note the conspicuous absence of the noble ‘von’ – wasn’t a cowardly scoundrel. He was a total badass.

And so, without any further ado, my much-hyped footnote:

Three years old when adopted by Schleiermacher, August would later become a decorated Prussian army officer only to discover Communism and resign both his commission and title to lead a detachment of Free Corps against Monarchists in Brandenburg. None other than Friedrich Engels served as his aide-de-camp. Willich’s views apparently lay further to the left than Marx’s, whom he detested, and after fleeing to England he doggedly opposed Marx during the dissolution of the League of Communists in 1850.

August Willich

August Willich

Immigrating to America, Willich gave the vocation of “citizen” to the authorities at Port Control in New York, worked for a bit as an itinerant carpenter, and wound up moving to Ohio, where he published an ethnic newspaper. An adamant abolitionist, Willich responded to the outbreak of the Civil War by organizing several hundred German immigrants into enlisting as a brigade for the Union. Although his outspoken Communist sympathies at first prevented his advancement, his success at training men and singular feats of leadership rapidly earned him a series of promotions, and he ultimately rose to the position of Brigadier General. He rallied the 32nd Indiana at Shiloh by leading the regimental band in the Arbeiter Marseillaise while turning his back on direct fire, spent several months as a POW in horrible conditions, and joined William Tecumseh Sherman’s march on Atlanta; his personal intervention with Sherman allowed his all-German troops to retain their beer rations on the otherwise entirely dry March to the Sea.

After the war, he returned, wounded, to Ohio, where he wrote philosophical essays and became the leader of a group of intellectuals known as the Cincinnati Hegelians. He emerged briefly from retirement to travel to Germany and offer his services as General to Otto von Bismarck during the Franco-Prussian war, but the Chancellor demurred. Willich appears to have enjoyed himself nonetheless by spending the rest of the trip attending philosophy lectures in Berlin.

The boarding house in which he lived still stands in Ohio.

Not a bad footnote, right?


For Willich’s experiences in Revolutionary Europe, see Engels’ The Campaign for the German Imperial Constitution; for his relationship with the League of Communists, see Marx’s essay The Knight of Noble Consciousness; for his time and America and Civil War service, see his entry in Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography and web resources by Quigley, Peake, and Powell.