Make “Porching” Great Again

Novak 2019 Fellowship
It is my profound honor to have been awarded 2019 Novak Fellowship for my original journalism on American civic renewal.  Run by The Fund for American Studies and named after eminent journalist Robert Novak, the awards ceremony occurred at the Metropolitan Club in New York Sept 12th. Throughout the year that I am a Novak Fellow, the program offers financial support and writing mentorship. Find the link to the official announcement here.

The project for which I won the Novak Fellowship is my current book project, tentatively entitled Make “Porching” Great Again: How Front Porch Citizenship Can Save Democracy and the Soul of a Nation. This book relays my research over the last year and a half, investigating ways that Americans across the country are healing their social fabric, creating new institutions, and fixing problems that effect our nation everywhere, right where they are. My research shows that, as Tocqueville praised in 1835, America is still a nation of fixers. Inspired by the seminal essay “From Front Porch to Patio” in The Palimpsest by Richard H. Thomas, my book unpacks the concept of “porching” as a cultural metaphor for the ways that people engage in local solutions to fix local problems—and how people are “Front Porch Citizens” no matter where they live. Stay tuned for more updates about my forthcoming book!

To Heal Polarization, It’s Time To Revive Popular Art
It was a surprising privilege to be asked by POLITICO Magazine to contribute to their series “How to Fix Our Politics.” In the “How to Fix Polarization” sub category, my proposal of reviving thoughtful and inspiring patriotic art was alongside many other fascinating ideas, from Jonathan Haidt, Francis Fukuyama, Mitt Romney, and many other great leaders of our day. Would love your thoughts on my essay, and on what you think is the most innovative solution in the series! Find it here.

Things I’m reading: 

When the Culture War Comes for the Kids. This fascinating essay in The Atlantic recounts one father’s experience navigating the complex and convoluted system of New York’s private and public schools. He describes his disillusionment with the radical and doctrinal approach schools and administrators took toward very personal and controversial policy issues. Touching on important questions of our day such as education, meritocracy, and the definition of “equality,” I think you’ll find this essay thoughtful and worth your time.

The Reporter Fired In The “Busch Light Guy” Scandal Said He Feels “Abandoned” By The Des Moines Register.  When a reporter published unflattering tweets made by a local celebrity in Iowa—who had become famous for appearing on television holding a sign asking for beer money, and then ultimately raising a million dollars for charity—crowds retaliated against the reporter by people uncovering tweets that the reporter had made. This story gets to the heart of questions about “cancel culture” and the extent to which we should hold others accountable for words said, deeds done, and tweets sent years or decades in the past. In our post-Christian era, it seems we have kept notions of judgement, but forgone the concept of grace. Why? 

Trickle Down Norms. This National Affairs essay argues that, a la Charles Murray’s thesis in Coming Apart, the lifestyle habits of elites trickle down to effect the rest of the nation for better and for worse. Though the essay’s author is optimistic that elites have good habits today, he is rather pessimistic about issues of growing inequality and lessening economic opportunity for people outside of the middle class. I think the author is unduly pessimistic because he misses some key data points—such as the fact that parental involvement has increased over the last three decades across racial and socioeconomic lines. I’m also of the opinion that the author hasn’t sufficiently studied and observed some of the community building at the local level across the country—all across socio-economic lines—the gap in our national conversation I hope my book will fill. All in all, an interesting read! 

Miscellany:
The Goodwood Revival: My husband and I stepped back in time earlier this month when we attended the Goodwood Revival, a vintage car race in southern England. All the cars raced were from the 1940s through the 1960’s, and—in proper, peak-English manner—all of the attendees were dressed to the nines in era-appropriate attire.

Can Popular Art Revive American Identity?

Debut on Fox News
Has our existential crisis of meaning in America contributed to mass shootings? Why is American health care so expensive? It was great to discuss these important topics and more with Steve Hilton on Fox News’ Next Revolution in-studio last weekend in New York. You can watch here—I welcome your thoughts!

How Did the ‘Religion of Humanity’ Replace Christianity?
In The Catholic Herald, I reviewed Dan Mahoney’s latest book, about the idol of our age in our post-Christian culture. Read the review–and find a Dostoyevskian interpretation of our secular, materialist age–here.

Can Popular Art Revive American Identity?
It was a wonderfully full July as I hosted over six events for our rare books and art exhibit about American identity, including a day with over 150 high school students, a conversation on citizenship with an esteemed panel, and more. It was amazing to see students and audiences come alive with excitement about ideas and this important conversation about what we have in common as Americans. Find a two-minute documentary of the exhibit here.

A Little American Myth-Making Never Hurt Anyone
We live in a myth-starved world. Throughout time and place, people have understood themselves and the world around them through stories. From Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Aeneas, and Hercules, to Sinbad, King Arthur, and Thor, heroes have served an important role in embodying cultural ideals. And no figure better embodies American mythology and ideals than our nation’s first President. Here you can read about mythmaking in America, past and present—and how a revival of storytelling can heal our country.

The Truth About Civility

I had a lovely time talking about civility with my friend Ericka Andersen on her podcast. You can listen to our conversation here.

Discussing Forgiveness & Stand-Up Comedy on the Lisa Valentine Show
In our post-Christian culture, we’ve kept the Christian notion of judgment but forgotten the Christian virtue of forgiveness. This applies to the evolving landscape of stand-up comedy, and that’s a major problem; time and place, comics have been society’s truth-tellers. I talked about this and much more on the Lisa Valentine Show on BYU Radio. Listen here.

Interviewing EconTalk’s Russ Roberts
Can capitalism without morality survive? I asked Russ Roberts, of EconTalk and the Hoover Institution, this question and many more. Listen to our Adam Smith-filled conversation, for the American Institute for Economic Research’s new podcast, here.

Things I’m reading: 
Training your mind the way athletes train their bodies.
No son of mine is going to be a Benthamite Utilitarian. This is a John Stuart Mill family, dammit!
When memes dehumanize: the story of Florida Man.
How might we recover our lost love of humanity? A look to the Renaissance might help.

Miscellany:

I had a very fun evening on set in San Antonio with the cast of the new Karl Marx and Ludwig von Mises rap video produced by AIER—coming this September! Our AIER team were extras, pretending to be the “wealthy patrons,” and Marx’s nemeses!

The Surprising Lesson About American History Hidden in Emily Post’s Classic Etiquette

When Emily Post (née Price) was born on Oct. 27, 1872, it was into a life of privilege. She was raised among America’s elite, her sole formal education was at finishing school and she met her future husband, Edwin Main Post, at a seasonal New York ball. She tried her hand as a columnist and novelist, but it was decades after she divorced her husband for infidelity that she began the career that has made her name famous all these years later, finding nationwide success with her 1922 book Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home.

As members of a “society of equals”—and without a God-ordained order of birth and rank—Americans have always suffered from a collective case of status anxiety. For this reason, they have often looked to manners manuals to guide them in interacting with others to succeed in business and in life. But that’s not all that etiquette books can offer. As the norms of a society always reflect the values it treasures, such books are also a window into the evolution of American values.

Most etiquette books popular in early American history were reprints or adaptations from English or French Sources—for example, widely read in the colonial era was Eleazar Moody’s School of Good Manners, originally based on a French courtesy book from the 16th century, first printed in the U.S. in 1715, and running through 33 editions into the mid-19th century. By the time Post’s Etiquette came along, however, the U.S. was undergoing many social and demographic changes. Mass urbanization meant people moved from close-knit communities and were thrust in close proximity with perfect strangers. Post’s work—alongside many other works of manners that proliferated in this era—helped Americans navigate the new world of anonymous commerce.
She wrote about manners from a position of affluence, though her philosophy of etiquette can be read as surprisingly egalitarian. Everyone who does not live alone in a cave is part of society, Post claimed, but becoming a part of “Best Society” requires education, cultivation and training. It is commonly thought, she asserted, that in Europe, Best Society is constituted by those of aristocracy of birth. In the U.S., by contrast, Best Society is made up of an aristocracy of wealth. But for Post, wealth or rank without cultivation was merely pretense; people who thought their wealth or status was sufficient to make them fit for Best Society were more accurately “classified as the court jesters of to-day,” she wrote in the first edition of Etiquette.
Post’s interest in an etiquette of equality during this time was noteworthy. Her Etiquette, published during the roaring 1920sspoke to both the old money and the new, upwardly mobile middle class alike. The resentment the former felt for the parvenus had intensified a few decades earlier during the Gilded Age, the era in which many new industrialists made their wealth. In order to distinguish themselves from the nouveau riche, the old elite established a series of elaborate and arbitrary norms in order to show explicitly who was “in” and who was “out.” One holdover from this era is the “no white after Labor Day” rule.
But, as historian John F. Kasson describes in his 1990 study Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth Century Urban America, the fluid cultural setting that social change produced made it difficult to impose a common code of public conduct. However, Post was up to the task.
She insisted that good breeding was far more than knowledge of, and compliance with, the rules: “Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it take to exclude those who are not of exulted birth; but it is an association of gentle folk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognize it’s chosen members.” Kindness and good breeding were open to anyone who took time to study and practice their ways.
Many of her admonitions are still relevant today. Thank-you notes were a sign of good character, Post argued. She also recommended ignoring “elephants at large in the garden,” otherwise known as wealthy know-it-alls: “Why a man, because he has millions, should assume they confer omniscience in all branches of knowledge, it something which may be left to the psychologist to answer.”
Above all, however, one must avoid pretense! Hence her indictment of the tastelessness of what today might be called a “McMansion”: “But the ‘mansion’ with coarse lace… and the bell answered at eleven in the morning by a butler in an ill-fitting dress suit and wearing a mustache, might as well be placarded: ‘Here lives a vulgarian who has never had an opportunity to acquire cultivation.’”

Nearly a century later, Etiquette is in its 19th edition. Post’s offspring ensure her immortality by maintaining the Emily Post Institute, which offers training and commentary on modern manners, and periodically updating her book to reflect cultural and social changes in society. For example, gone are the chaperone protocols from the first edition, or the ashtray etiquette from the 12th. Instead, there are sections on managing social media and mobile devices when with others.

It may seem that we live in a post-shame era, where each day reveals new norms breached. Yet the truth is that norms never go away: they merely change. Indeed, as Kasson notes in his book, each society tends to think its own era is the most uncivil. He recommends taking a historical perspective to disabuse us of that notion, finding that human nature—with its capacity for benevolence and predisposition for rudeness—doesn’t change much. But this only underscores the enduring need of latter-day Emily Posts, such as Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”) or Steven Petrow (“The Civilist”) who still help their readers navigate life with others.

In a moment where civility is under fire, this task—demystifying norms, and connecting them to deeper cultural values—can be a thankless one. But it’s not hard to guess what Emily Post might recommend if she were still around: a thank you note.

Alexandra O. Hudson is a writer based in Indianapolis, currently working on a book on American civility

Bring Back Patriotic Art

Alexandra Hudson is a former civil servant and a research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. She is working on her first book, about American civic renewal.
“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” held Samuel Johnson. This unflattering sentiment has been adopted widely by today’s chattering class. Some claim that, even at its best, love of country is merely the purview of the undereducated; others argue it is actively harmful. Yet in a moment of deep social and political division—when many question whether to be proud of being American—it can no longer be taboo to celebrate and discuss our national history and identity.

Popular art might just be the answer. Although patriotic art often gets a bad rap—it’s often derided as mawkish or uncritical—I’ve seen how it can bring people together.

Over the summer, I curated an art and rare books exhibit at Indianapolis’ Harrison Center meant to encourage viewers to confront our country’s shortcomings while also appreciating the good in our past. The manuscripts in the exhibit—on loan from The Remnant Trust, a private collection of rare books—ranged from a first English translation of Plato’s Republic to an original printing of the Gettysburg Address. Local artists responded to and interpreted the themes of these manuscripts in different visual media. For instance, we paired an original printing of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with a local artist’s oil painting of Madam C.J. Walker—an African-American entrepreneur who became one of the wealthiest self-made women in U.S. history, and who was an important advocate for racial equality and women’s rights.

At the opening of our exhibit, I spoke with an African American woman about Walker’s legacy, reflecting on the reality that there are villains in our history—but also heroes who fought against slavery, institutional racism and the marginalization of women. By reminding us of our shared past, art can galvanize Americans to strive to more perfectly live up to our ideals. Just think of the runaway success of Hamilton or the enduring popularity of the Statue of Liberty.

Artists can use their craft to provoke and heal in creating this type of art; state and local governments can subsidize their art in the interest of social cohesion. Individual Americans can recommit to studying our past. As former Congressman Lee Hamilton said to an audience at the exhibit, “The primary duty of citizenship is to make your community a little bit more beautiful when you leave than when you got there.”

Maners Maketh Man: How Conduct Formed Washington’s Character

When our first president was sixteen, he hand-copied 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, a book of etiquette originally compiled by a group of French Jesuits. Though Washington is not known as the most intellectually gifted of the Founding Fathers, he is remembered for his character, which he formed by serving others through his seemingly insignificant, everyday conduct.

It was through the diligent performance of mundane tasks that Washington learned what the ancient sages taught: character is formed by conduct.

The very first of the 110 Rules of Civility emphasizes that civil conduct involves a mindfulness of others in all circumstances—“Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present”—and then explains the importance of not killing vermin like lice and flees (at least in the presence of others!) and the peril of spitting or picking your teeth at the dinner table.[1] These rules may seem hopelessly antiquarian, but they demonstrate an important truth that Washington understood: we owe, and are owed, a bare minimum of civility because of our inherent human dignity, and that respect for others in ways great and small is the stuff of character.

This first maxim of civility informed all the rest and guided Washington throughout his life. He strove to demonstrate respect to all he encountered and often made a good first impression—especially among the ladies. His presence so impressed the wife of his vice president, Abigail Adams, that she gushed to a friend after meeting him: “He is polite with dignity, affable without familiarity, distant without Haughtiness, Grave without Austerity, Modest, Wise & Good. These are traits in his Character which peculiarly fit him for the exalted station he holds.”

Even amid this sort of praise, and even as a young man, Washington’s conduct reflected an other-regarding humility.

COMING TO BLOWS, COMING TO TERMS

For example, in 1754, when he was twenty-two years old and a colonel stationed in Alexandria, Washington argued with one William Payne over competing candidates for a Virginia Assembly seat. The argument became so passionate that Washington hurled an insult Payne’s way, prompting Payne to take a swing at Washington, knocking him to the ground. Washington’s men rose to avenge their leader, but he stopped them. He instead asked Payne to meet him at the local tavern the following day.

Payne arrived armed and prepared for a duel. He was surprised instead to see Washington seated with two wine glasses before him. Washington rose, greeted him with a smile, and extended his hand. “Mr. Payne, to err is nature; to rectify error is glory,” Washington said. “I believe I was wrong yesterday; you have already had some satisfaction, and if you deem that sufficient, here is my hand—let us be friends.”

Washington’s willingness to put aside his pride benefitted not only him but also his country. One crisp afternoon in February 1781, Washington summoned Alexander Hamilton, his aide-de-camp. On his way to meet Washington, Hamilton was met by the Marquis de Lafayette. After a brief exchange, Hamilton finally made his way to the general.

Washington fumed. “Colonel Hamilton, you have kept me waiting at the head of the stairs these ten minutes. I must tell you, sir, that you treat me with great disrespect!” Hamilton replied, “I am not conscious of it, sir, but since you have thought it necessary to tell me so, we part.” With that, Hamilton resigned.

Within the hour, Washington sent Hamilton a message apologizing for the outburst. They reconciled, and Washington in the end elevated the talented Hamilton to a post of active command at Yorktown. Washington knew that exercising true civility is to employ moderate words and actions for the sake of respecting the dignity of others.

CITIZEN VIRTUES

Washington realized, too, that true civility must also be true to the literal sense of the word: conduct befitting membership in the civis—being a good citizen in a republic. This meant respecting the humanity and dignity of others with whom one might have deep differences. Moses Seixas, a member of the first Jewish congregation in Newport, wrote to Washington in advance of his trip to Rhode Island, thanking him and his government for “generously affording to all liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental machine.”

Washington’s letter in response affirmed the U.S. government’s commitment to respecting the varying beliefs, backgrounds, and practices of all citizens: “For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

These stories and examples show that Washington was a man with great inner strength and moral fortitude, which he built over a life of practicing respect for others. Washington’s interior life—the motives of his heart that drove his outer action—was not perfect, but we know that he strove to demonstrate respect for others despite differences, to acknowledge his own shortcomings, and, above all, to consider the good of others alongside his own. Such was the strength of Washington’s character, fortified by years of repetition—starting with his hand-copied etiquette rules.

Washington began practicing his humility, selflessness, and other-orientedness at an early age, cultivating a habit of mind and soul that culminated in his ultimate selfless act: refusing a royal crown for the sake of the republic for which he had fought.

Parson Weems, Washington’s first biographer, wrote of him, “No wonder every body honoured him who honoured every body.”


[1] Washington’s Rules No. 13, 95 and 100, respectively.

Alexandra Hudson is passionate about the way that ideas and storytelling can change people’s lives. A writer, bibliophile, and refugee from federal politics, she earned her MSc from the London School of Economics, currently lives in the American Midwest, and is writing a book on civility. Follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson.