The Art of the Art of the Deal

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I read the first half of Donald Trump’s 1987 business-advice book cum memoir Art of the Dealer last weekend. A fun read, actually. The prose are simple and concise. The stories are amusing and replete with dropped names and power plays. The book spent 51 weeks on the best seller list in the late 80’s and I can see why. It gives the common person a window into the life of a very rich and powerful man. The first chapter is just an hour by hour recounting of a week in Donald Trump’s life. We hear about the phone calls he makes, the deals he’s considering, the charity benefits he goes to, the “work” he does at his office in Trump Tower in Manhattan. I think for a long time people appreciated it for the narrative voice. The book is written in the first person, presumably by Trump, though the book’s co-author Tony Schwartz has come out in the last year as saying that he wrote the entire thing himself with little to no input from Trump. If this is the case—and it probably is, in all honesty—then Schwartz does a magnificent job of matching Trump’s signature cadence and diction. I think it’s in line too with how people would expect an impatient and aggressive businessman to speak: short sentences with few subordinate clauses, uncomplicated ideas left largely unsupported, unfailing confidence in the truth of what’s expressed, a complete absence of anxiety. The Donald Trump of Art of the Deal, whether contrived or genuine, is very much a “don’t sweat the small stuff” kind of guy. He is shown to have an innate ability to reduce complicated matters to their most basic and essential components. He rejects doubt and counter-argument as mere distraction. A true pragmatist, Trump seems to care only about what that which prompts him to act, or the alternative, to wait it out and “keep your options open.”

One imagines the initial intent of the author and the publisher was for Art of the Deal to be an advice book brimming with useful negotiating tactics and investment tips and only a chapter or two of Donal Trump aggrandizement, just enough to establish his authority on the subject matter. Instead that formula was reversed: just one chapter of Art of the Deal is devoted to actual dealmaking; the rest is shallow memoir with a few insights thrown in about the lessons Trump learns from different episodes in his life. Reading the advice chapter, one discovers quite quickly that there just isn’t that much to the report when it comes to the Trump philosophy for doing business. The chapter even begins, “My style of deal-making is quite simple and straight forward.” Trump uses no theories of negotiation or of rhetorical persuasion. He has no special sense of how markets behave or where to find undervalued assets. He simply “aims high” and keeps “pushing” until he gets what he wants. And if you’re already playing from a position of advantage, that apparently is all you need.

Trump does have a handful of strategies for leading and dealmaking, which are referred to in the book as “Trump Cards.” Perhaps it could be worthwhile to consider a few of these individually:

 

Think Big

“If you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.”
I can imagine Tony Schwartz writing that line with some relish. The thinking big mentality here means simply placing larger bets to reap larger rewards. Of course, to bet high you have to have some money to begin with, and you have to be far enough ahead that you can absorb the loss and live to bet again. One has to wonder for whom this advice is intended. It assumes the actor commands some degree of advantage already and that that advantage can be leveraged for still greater opportunities. I think the point of including it here has less to do with effective business strategy and more with motivational encouragement to seek—and expect—better returns. It tracks with a lot of prosperity gospel nonsense that tells people what they want to hear and not what they can come to expect. It also conveys a lot of what makes Trump appealing to people, that being the swagger and bravado of a winner.

 

Protect the Downside and the Upside Will Take Care of Itself

“It’s a very good business being the house.”

This one seems to have been thrown in to balance out the bullishness of the Think Big section. Here Trump tells us to minimize our exposure and take the easy money when you find it. I actually think the two ideas taken together constitute something that might approximate a coherent business strategy. When you are able to raise the kind of capital that Trump can, your business dealings start to transcend basic commerce. You come into the ownership of things that are so big that they are not simply properties and assets; they are things that compose the greater apparatus of society and the economy. Such investments are sure to pay, so long as society—or the part of the society that’s being laid claim to—remains solvent. Skyscrapers in Manhattan remain profitable if people keep doing business in New York. Casinos generate revenue so long as people go on vacation. The likelihood of any of these capital goods diminishing in value is comparable to the likelihood of there being some kind of social revolution that changes the way people on earth go about their daily lives. It goes without saying that the risk of losing under such conditions is quite low.

 

Maximize Your Options

“I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first.”

All he’s doing here is telling us to hedge our bets. It’s such a banal insight that I hesitate to even lend it any thought. Though I do think it could strike an average person with average finances as novel that the more money you have to invest in things, the more options one is given for investment. Again, this advice is really only practicable if you literally have more money than you know what to do with.

 

Know the Market

“…I don’t hire a lot of number-crunchers, and I don’t trust fancy marketing surveys. I do my own surveys and draw my own conclusions.”

It has taken us all a very long to time to admit it, but Trump does know his customer. He has an instinct for seeing what people want most and a willingness to deliver. He doesn’t say it anywhere in the book, but if you look at the sort of businesses Trump runs and the message he reflects back to the consumer, you can unmistakably see what he thinks people want—and he isn’t wrong. People want to feel like they’re winners. They want to feel like they’re prospering and doing well in life. They want to think that they’ve been blessed with intelligence, prowess, and good luck. In the beginning of his career Trump sold newer, slightly nicer apartments to middle income people, and these apartments gave them the feeling of upward mobility. Then he moved on to Manhattan and began selling to a nouveau riche, people who actually were winning at capitalism and wanted material affirmation of their success. He bought casinos knowing that that brief and fleeting sense of victory the gambler gets from the occasional win will always keep the people coming back. Seeing professional sports as yet another delivery mechanism for getting the consumer his fix of vicariously experienced victory, he bought a football team. And of course now he is running for President of the United States on a one plank platform of making people feel as though America is winning again.

Understand, I see nothing wrong with people wanting to feel like they are doing well in life. It makes perfect sense that we should want to succeed as individuals in a world dominated and defined by market competition. There is no shame in demanding one’s dignity and wanting to be acknowledged and admired. I take issue with the man who presumes to sell our dignity to us to us as a fungible commodity. The scam here is that Trump is not offering a means for obtaining victory in life. He’s only offering the feeling of having won. There’s no guarantee that the feeling will signify real accomplishment, or that it will persist, or that there will be any truth to it at all.

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There are about a half dozen other Trump Cards in the “Elements of the Deal” chapter, all of them having to do with consumer manipulation, managing exposure, and exerting leverage from a position of power. None of these lessons are actionable for normal person, and I don’t think they were ever intended to be. Art of the Deal does not teach you how to get rich. It teaches you what it’s like to be rich. It lets you sniff the bankroll without giving you any of the bills. And sadly, for a lot of people, having tickets to the show of someone else’s life is good enough. I suppose luxuriating in fantasies of another’s luxury rather than putting something on the line to realize your own is a way of minimizing exposure.

Fish on Academic Inquiry

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Students at most American universities began returning to school these last few weeks. And with them has come a renewed discussion over intellectual freedom in the classroom. This year’s incoming freshman class at the University of Chicago was sent this letter from the Dean of Students in which the Dean, apparently responding to some perceived challenge, affirmed the university’s commitment to academic freedom and the administrators’ refusal to support “trigger warning” requirements and intellectual “safe spaces.” The tone of the letter is weirdly antagonistic though it names no adversary. In the absence of an organized argument to join, it seems the University of Chicago has resolved to create its own. In the last week, a new debate has arisen in academia and throughout the broader internet over free expression, inclusiveness, the role of the teacher in relation to the student, and the meaning of liberal values in the university enterprise. Here I’m using the classical meaning of liberalism advanced by John Locke, James Madison, John Stewart Mill and many many others, which rests on the free exchange of ideas, the impartial contestation of those ideas, and equity of power between contestants. In the modern university, Liberalism provides the rules and structure by which debate and inquiry are to be carried out with the aim of producing a reliable and credible result. To question Liberalism’s rule is a radical gesture and potentially very destructive. And yet Liberalism, when practiced correctly, demands that we regard it with some skepticism. For when Liberalism defeats its skeptics, it renews its reign and emerges ever more resilient and unassailable. We must always scrutinize Liberalism for flaws, because it does have some. I think the recent arguments over inclusion versus expression in universities emanates from the classic tension in Liberalism between freedom and equality.

There have been plenty of other attacks against the sacrosanct institution of liberalism, in the last few years, in the last few decades, in the last few centuries. One of the more interesting excursions into liberal disputation that I’ve found recently is this essay by Stanley Fish which ran in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few weeks ago. Fish comes to the defense of the old totems of academic persuasive writing: impartial analysis, exhibition of supporting evidence, citation of accepted authority, involvement with related counter arguments, and so on and so forth. He contrasts this grand old method of patient, plodding inquiry with a more activist approach–work that has an interest in some other agenda beyond the cold, mechanical pursuit of truth. He cites a student with whom he came to loggerheads over whether it is acceptable to submit work which betrays an obvious political bias and which proceeds from an unproven ideological proposition, rather applying the more orthodox method of starting from a posture of neutrality and building proof toward whatever conclusion the facts lead. It may seem like Fish is setting up straw men, but I’ve encountered people at my own university who do work this way and see nothing wrong with doing so. I know post-structuralists who reject any attempt at objectivity on the grounds that it is an imaginary precept and impossible to achieve. I know critical theorists whose explorations into identity politics are so wound up in their own narcissistic experience of themselves that they are utterly blinded to the ideas and arguments offered by others. I know social scientists who not only “study” subaltern populations but they also carry water for them politically and who would be the first ones at the barricades fighting for them when the revolution breaks out. And Fish is correct: challenge any of these activist types about the validity of their work as persuasive scholarship and their first response is to question the validity of an academy that fails to see the validity of their work. Yes, I’ve know plenty like this. I found it more than a little heartening to see them put in their place by one of the old masters.

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Regrettably, the Fish essay is behind the Chronicle’s paywall. Here’s a rough summary:

Paragraphs 1 to 3: Fish complains about the uncredited appropriation of his interpretive community idea by other scholars. Defines interpretive community as being “made up of those who, by virtue of training, experience, and practice, have internalized the norms of some purposive enterprise—law, eduction, politics, plumbing—to the point where they see with its eyes and walk in its ways without having to think about it.”

Paragraphs 4 and 5: Proposes that this episode demonstrates the value of originality in academic discourse.

Paragraphs 6 to 9: Cites critics of the originality value, those who question the possibility of originality given the supposed spuriousness of authorship. Observes that such critics, in spite of themselves, still sign their work and take proprietorship over their ideas.

Paragraphs 10 to 12: How to make good academic arguments. Fish discusses the imperative in academic writing of contextualizing ones work by citing the work of others and with addressing opposing viewpoints. Uses example of student’s non-persuasive polemic.

Paragraphs 13 to 15: The problem with academic programs that give admission to non-academic writing, that is, writing that is not rigorously argued using the traditional framework of persuasive writing.

Paragraphs 16 to 21: Challenge to professional norms is perfectly legitimate, but it must be made within the boundaries of liberal inquiry. “An academic discipline can tolerate any challenge so long as the challenge is conducted within its precincts. Supposedly subversive arguments are absorbed into the very intellectual structures they claim to overthrow.”

Paragraphs 22 to 30: Formation of acceptable norms of argumentation and what counts as a worthy argument. Example: Holocaust denial.

Paragraphs 31 to 36: Effects of academic arguments. Academic arguments are made to produce a better understanding of the world in their listener. This is in contrast to activist messages which are intended to inspire people to action. Because academic arguments can be purely speculative, it is possible to achieve a certain degree of objectivity. This is the utility of academic discourse—that participants may inquire into a topic without having an interest in the outcome. This utility must be preserved. “[Academic arguments] are weightless, that is, without weight in the give and take of political strife unless they are appropriated for political purposes. But their weightlessness is their glory, and that is why they are different from domestic arguments, political arguments, and legal arguments. Like virtue, the making of them is their own reward. Other rewards are left to time and heaven.”

Reading this essay for now the third or forth time, I’m led to ask what I find so compelling in it. The argument isn’t particularly original; it’s just a version of Adorno’s theory and praxis dialectic decontextualized to the cloister of academic disputation. Fish’s language has a remarkable clarity, but the structure of the piece is a bit diffuse and he seems to begin to lose focus by the end. The Holocaust denial example is not fully explicated, I think. In spite of its shortcomings, the essay is still an interesting and even exciting piece of writing to read. I think it demonstrates exactly what good academic writing is supposed to do and what bad “non-professional” writing fails to accomplish. It arouses curiosity and intrigue. It weaves taught, marvelous ideas for the reader and then immediately calls them into question. It puts forth a proposition that offers the reader a means of making meaning of the ideas that are presented. It offers credible evidence to support that proposition. It persuades the reader to its side but also shows her the merits of the other side and what of interest can be found there. I find this to be a much more effective and worthwhile mode of writing than the dreck it inveighs against, because it seems to be at its very core motivated by honest curiosity. It is a path of thought beaten by an inquisitive spirit. And of all the motivations that propel humans forward, I think that is the best.

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The Sin of Idle Sport

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Today another September starts. As evidenced by my complete neglect of the Golden Assay I had a very enjoyable good summer. I wasted it all in games, sports, outdoor pursuits; all the things one ought to do with good weather. But one can indulge too much in leisure and become ashamed of his idleness. I am reminded here of John Bunyan’s “conversion” on the Elstow village green. As roads to Damascus go, his was wonderfully banal. Bunyan, of course, was an obedient Christian his entire life, but he enjoyed sport and bell-ringing on Sabbath days and apparently considered himself a spiritual delinquent for doing so. I think he was hard on himself. The wretch worked six days a week as an itinerant tinker, and understandably, needed a day off from time to time and a little diversion to go with it. But the Creator won’t even give us that, sadly, for one Sunday, while he was playing Tip-Cat with the other sinners, a numinous voice from the heavens admonished him to find shame in fun-having and quit sports. The line at the time was that Christ disapproved of sport because it was wasted effort and an idler’s refuge. A pious Christian works six days and spends the seventh in prayer. Any deviation from a rigid schedule of industry and devotion is depravity. I think this had to do with the Calvinist position of determinism and their equating sin with rejection of God’s plan. If you spend your life in work and worship, you are carrying out the destiny God intends for you and are therefore a righteous being, a saint even. Idle pastimes, observance of leisure, general amusement, are not evils in and of themselves; it’s simply that they divert people from more meaningful activity. Bunyan’s sin was not that he was playing Tip-Cat; it was what he was not doing while playing with his friends.

This animosity towards sport has almost completely vanished in the minds of modern people. Today sport is considered a noble pursuit. The exercise one gets from sports is understood to be essential to physiological health. The signs of regular exercise on the body are considered attractive. In a complete reversal of previous opinion, the practice of sport is now thought to be an indication of personal discipline and integrity. We even use athletics as a method of instilling discipline among young people in school. It is hard to imagine how totally different our conception of sports is in the protestant Christian world from the view of past generations. It feels like it has been with us forever, but it’s actually only recently that people began having even a positive view of exercise. Before the Industrial Revolution, physical activity was associated with manual labor and low social status. Sport encompassed hunting and riding and had nothing to do with physical exertion. Beginning in the late 19th century, the inchoate science of modern medicine demonstrated physiological benefits from vigorous exercise and proper diet. This led to the growth of a spa culture among the new leisure classes and a practice of new sports like aquatics, gymnastics, tennis, etc., the performance of which was done not just for diversion but for health.

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Of course, there had always been a custom of physical conditioning and training in martial life. Within the context of military service a young man was encouraged to develop his physique through exercise and perfect his combat technique with regular drills so that he might become a more effective soldier. This tradition of militarism, of cultivating virility and strength, of meeting the adversary and besting him in an honorable contest, informs the formation of modern athletics as much, if not more, than the institution and normalization of exercise and the desire for good-health.

It is surprising how many of our sports today are abstracted pantomimes of warfare; not modern war but antiquated, non-mechanized warfare. One of my favorite sports from this past summer’s Olympics was the pentathlon, a multi-event competition comprising five extremely varied disciplines: swimming, running, fencing, riding, and shooting. It only narrowly made it into the games. Though held continually in every Olympiad since 1912, many have questioned its relevance in modern athletics. First devised by Baron Peirre de Cobertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, the pentathlon was intended to model the skill-set of a 19th century cavalry soldier caught behind enemy lines: he must ride an unfamiliar horse, face the enemy with sword and pistol, swim in lake or river, and run great distances to return to his encampment. What I appreciate most about de Cobertin’s introduction of the pentathlon into the 1912 games is that these skills would have already been obsolete by the onset of the 20th century, and any doubt of this would have been completely erased with the Great War just a few years later. And yet the sport is still practiced. 72 men and women representing nations around the globe competed in the pentathlon last month, executing antiquated maneuvers of warriors from centuries ago. And lest we think our other sports are free of such influence, remember that our modern pentathlon itself is an updating of the classic contest from the ancient Olympiad. In the pentathlon of 500 BC the events were running, jumping, throwing, and wrestling. What sport does not include at least one of these most basic movements of the human body? What is athletics if not the practice of an old ritual of physical urgency? A solemn and determined preparation for the unforeseen contest to come.

Pharaoh’s Tomb

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A couple weeks ago I was in Dallas for a work conference and I had the opportunity to visit the George W. Bush Presidential Center. It was, like all presidential libraries, a fantastic spectacle of power and wealth. Ostensibly, the point of these places is to preserve the papers and records of the executive administration for historical research. Most presidents treat them as a means for securing their legacies. This is done with a mixture of awe-inspiring architecture, propaganda-laced museum exhibits, and, of course, very careful control of the vital information buried within.

Compared with the LBJ’s towering monolith at the University of Texas or Reagan’s mountaintop fortress overlooking the Simi Valley, the George W. Bush Presidential Center has a more understated grandeur. It’s built in a weird neo-neoclassical, antebellum style that appears to mimic the old mansion residences of the Highland Park neighborhood that surrounds it. The public is allowed access to only a small portion of the building’s interior, giving one the false impression that the space is not very large. In fact, the George W. Bush Center is the second largest presidential library and comprises 207,000 square feet. President Bush raised an astounding $500 million for the construction and maintenance of the library. Of the building’s several wings, I only visited one: the museum.

In the grand, marble and granite lobby of the Presidential Center’s museum visitors may gather, purchase tickets, and gape bemusedly at the lavish gifts of state given to the President and to the First Lady by various dictatorial regimes from across the globe. I found that the ostentatiousness of the gifts roughly corresponded to the poverty of the country of origin. Africans autocrats seem to be fond of garish sculptures shaped from precious metals. Middle Eastern states gave gems. The Saudi royal family gave a jewelry set of diamond and sapphires which itself is probably worth a moderate-size fortune.

The museum exhibits were not as bluntly propagandic as I was expecting. I think there was a willingness on the part of the museum’s planners to acknowledge that a uniformly positive narrative of the George W. Bush presidency would be met with some skepticism. Bush’s approval ratings at the end of his second term were hovering around 30% and most of his economic and foreign policy had been roundly discredited. Consequently, the museum’s focus tends to be more on the historical events that took place during the Bush presidency and less on the extent to which the president shaped and had influence over those events. Not surprisingly, too, the museum gives a good deal of both physical and intellectual space to the 9/11 attacks, when Bush’s approval ratings were at an all-time high and the country was awash in patriotic sentiment. Special focus is paid to the speech President Bush gave at the Ground Zero a few day after the attacks, with artifacts like the bull horn that was used to deliver the speech, audio recordings, handwritten drafts of the text, and high resolution photographs all on display. I don’t remember this being a significant occurrence at the time, but the museum posits it as a galvanizing moment in the national consciousness and an heroic act that signaled strength and resilience to the nation and to the world. I don’t actually think the museum is trying to mislead visitors by over-playing the ground zero speech. I imagine Bush’s view this was a genuinely important moment in his life, and I think we learn more about the President—though perhaps less about September 11th—by seeing how it is presented in the museum. In this respect, the museum is honestly fulfilling its purpose by preserving the provenance of the president’s thought process.

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Be that as it may, the George W. Bush Presidential Center Museum cannot be said to be perfectly honest and measured in its representation of the Bush years. The omissions are noticeable: no explanation given for the failed occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, no justification for Abu Ghraib or the administration’s tacit approval of torture, no mention of Guantanamo, complete disavowal of the “Axis of Evil” speech, the Hurricane Katrina exhibit included nothing about FEMA’s disastrously inadequate response, nothing about how the financial crisis might have been averted through better regulation of the housing market, or about how the Patriot Act might have jeopardized our civil liberties. The countless blunders and errors in judgement, all of them danced around ever so delicately, as though the place was less a museum and more a white elephant preserve. But if I try to imagine a presidential museum that did plunge itself heedlessly into the controversies and debates of its day, what would it be but a pillbox of political partisanship and bitter antipathies? What lessons would it have to teach beside shameless historical revisionism and pointed bluster? In the story that the Bush library attempts to tell, there is a minor note of reconciliation. One of the more popular features of the museum is an interactive exhibit called the “Decision Points Theater.” Visitors are placed in front of individual video displays and introduced as a group to one of three key crises which President Bush was forced to confront during his presidency. Given a limited set of facts presented by a host of advisors, all in various states of disagreement with one another, you are prompted choose between three courses of action. At the end of the exercise all of the participants’ choices are averaged and a cumulative decision is presented. You are not told if your answer was right or wrong, only what the president decided and what the consequences of his decision were. It is a magnificent device of rhetorical ethos, one in which the president seems to be saying to his critics, you think you could have done better? And for the most part, we do chose the same decisions that the president did. I will say that the decision points are cherry-picked somewhat. Apparently, they removed the decision point about going to war in Iraq, presumably since there is been a good deal of debate about what the administration did and did not know in that situation. While the exercise fails to make Bush’s policy positions seem any less objectionable, it does succeed in making the president a more sympathetic character in the drama of our nation’s history. It really is difficult to make these decisions, when none of your options seems exactly right, and you are keenly aware of the extreme and unforeseeable consequences any decision is bound to trigger. It illuminates just how untenable the position of the president is. No one emerges from the apparatus of power with her or his soul entirely intact.

The Bush museum has other exhibits that create a similar effect of placing you, the average person, at the reins of power. There is, for example, an exact replica of the oval office, painstakingly recreated down to the upholstery and the wallpaper. The only thing missing, we are told, is the bust of Winston Churchill, because they could not get the size right apparently. The museum stations a photographer in the exhibit who can take pictures of you sitting at the president’s desk which can be purchased on your way out in the gift shop. I think this consonance with the average person underscores a lot about what made the Bush presidency appealing. Here we have a man of manifestly average intelligence and ability, friendly in his demeanor and firm in his beliefs, who after a series of improbably political victories finds his himself in the highest office in the land, this proving to all that it does not take that much really to be a great man. More than any other president, I think people saw themselves in George W. Bush, because he was mediocre, like most everybody else.

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Touring the oval office replica I was struck by the room’s artificiality. This was due I think not to the fact of the exhibit’s being a simulacra of the real thing, but more because the real thing has the uncanny feel of a museum exhibit. In every archival photo we have of the oval office, it always look so impeccably maintained. When a president is at the desk there is rarely nothing more in front of him than a single piece of paper an a cup of coffee. Most often we only see presidents using the phone or hosting guests of state. It makes one wonder if any work actually gets done in this room. I would wager that it doesn’t. The oval office is more like a stage upon which the gestures of governance are performed for a unsuspecting constituency. The real labor of statecraft, the schemes, the maneuvering, the intrigue, is played out behind closed doors. In this sense I think the oval office exhibit in the George W. Bush Presidential Center serves an almost identical purpose to its counterpart in the White House in that it functions as a sign or totem of a power whose true countenance remains obscured from view. It and the museum to which it is attached are a fun and palatable surrogate for the complex of secrets which lie hidden in the Center’s restricted archives.

Here I’ve gone on for pages about the Bush Library’s museum exhibits and have largely ignored the central purpose of the place which is preserving and restricting access to the administration’s corpus of records and information. I imagine the museum being a mere tip to a vast iceberg of material concealed beneath the Center’s liminal surface. The public is not allowed access to the archives. Even if you have a stated research interest, you still must arrange an appointment with one of the Center’s 20 or so archivists and submit a request to obtain material from the collection. Of course, this would be rather difficult to do given that there is no comprehensive inventory of the library’s contents. If we look at the Library’s finding aids, we find surprisingly little in the way of documentation. There is no catalog, no metadata. And this for a collection of over 70 million leaves of paper and petabytes of digital information. How are we to know anything about the contents of this mountain of information? The only material that has been digitized and made available on the internet is a smattering of FOIA requests which the library has been compelled to service. I wonder what it must be like to be a librarian to a collection like this. It seems like you’d be more like a prison guard than a guide; that you would spend your days patrolling the vault, protecting its contents from the intrusions of sunlight and human thought.

Thus I concluded my trip to the George W. Bush Presidential Center, great monument to the old king. As we drove back through Highland Park on our coach bus, the driver, who was black, told us about how he had been pulled over by police while scouting the route the day before. He said they wanted to know if he had business in the community. We rode back to our suburban hotel, through the sprawl of Dallas and surrounding communities, this most American of places. I recommend visiting the Bush Library next time your are in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. It is something to do in a city famously empty and sedate for its monstrous size.

Bishop Berkeley and America

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THE MUSE, disgusted at an age and clime
  Barren of every glorious theme,
In distant lands now waits a better time,
  Producing subjects worthy fame.
 
In happy climes, where from the genial sun
  And virgin earth such scenes ensue,
The force of art by nature seems outdone,
  And fancied beauties by the true;
 
In happy climes, the seat of innocence,
  Where nature guides and virtue rules,
Where men shall not impose for truth and sense
  The pedantry of courts and schools:
 
There shall be sung another golden age,
  The rise of empire and of arts,
The good and great inspiring epic rage,
  The wisest heads and noblest hearts.
 
Not such as Europe breeds in her decay;
  Such as she bred when fresh and young,
When heavenly flame did animate her clay,
  By future poets shall be sung.
 
Westward the course of empire takes its way;
  The first four acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
  Time’s noblest offspring is the last.

These lines were on the minds of the early regents of the University of California when they selected the site for their new campus, and it was in honor of their author that they named the place Berkeley. It’s interesting that Bishop Berkeley holds such a revered place in the intellectual life of Anglo-America. In Europe, and especially in Britain, Berkeley has been viewed as an irrelevant distraction from the ineluctable march of materialism and the growth of the physical sciences. His writings were either ignored or ridiculed. In Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson we have the famous “I refute it thus” scene where Johnson kicks a stone and jokingly claims that his stinging foot disproves Berkeley’s theory that the universe is immaterial and purely ideal instead.

Berkeley has received far better treatment in America. This may be due to his own interest in the New World. He lived in Rhode Island for several years and tried to establish an school in Barbados. As “On the Prospect of Planting Arts…” shows, Berkeley plainly saw great promise in the Americas. But more than this circumstantial affinity, I think there is quite a lot in Berkeley’s philosophy that corresponds to American thought. I see elements of Berkeleian metaphysics in American Pragmatism, Transcendentalism, and the American spirit of exploration.

In addition to the excellent Youtube video above, my favorite explanation of Berkeleian metaphysics appears in the Encyclopedia Britannica Eleventh Edition

“[Berkeley’s principle] may be expressed in the proposition that no existence is conceivable—and therefore possible—which is not either conscious spirit or the ideas (i.e. objects) of which such spirit is conscious…. Matter, as an abstract, unperceived substance or cause, is shown to be impossible, an unreal conception; true substance is affirmed to be conscious spirit, true causality the free activity of such a spirit, while physical substantiality and causality are held to be merely arbitrary, though constant, relations among phenomena connected subjectively by suggestion or association, objectively in the Universal Mind. In ultimate analysis, then, nature is conscious experience, and forms the sign or symbol of a divine, universal intelligence and will.”

The article is split between two different contributors, R. Ad. and J. M. M. The first, who seems to have written the original article, does a passable job of summarizing Berkeley’s works and his biography, but makes no attempt to hide his prejudice against his subject’s ideas. The second author offers a kind of addendum to the main article in which he weighs Berkeley’s contribution to early inquiries into empiricism and contextualizes him within the Western philosophical tradition. He restates Berkeley’s position in a more measured and altogether more elegant manner:

“External things are produced by the will of the divine intelligence; they are caused, and caused in a regular order; there exists in the divine mind archetypes, of which sense experience may be said to be the realization in our finite minds. Our belief in the permanence of something which corresponds to the association in our minds of actual and possible sensations means belief in the orderliness of nature; and that is merely assurance that the universe is pervaded and regulated by mind. Physical science is occupied in endeavouring to decipher the divine ideas which find realization in our limited experience, in trying to interpret the divine language of which natural things are the words and letters, and in striving to bring human conceptions into harmony with the divine thoughts. Instead, therefore, of fate or necessity, or matter, or the unknown, a living, active mind is looked upon as the centre and spring of the universe, and this is the essence of the Berkeleian metaphysics.”

This idea of trying to decipher the “divine mind” through experience I think is central to American thinking and the method by which American thinkers have sought to understand the world. When Emerson describes how nature provides symbol and meaning to our thought, what is this but a recognition of nature’s archetypes and their relationships with one another? When Thoreau insists that Nature has most to teach us when it is wild and undisturbed what he is advocating is unmediated access to the divine mind as expressed through being and causality. When Natty Bumpo in the Leather Stocking Tales observes that there is no better cathedral than the woods, he is not denigrating churches and organized religion as some have interpreted, but rather he is extolling the natural world as an expression of the divine that is no less significant or sacred than scripture. Charles Sanders Peirce saw little to no meaning in existence if it could not be proven through experience, thus his Pragmatic Maxim bears a good deal of resemblance to Berekeley’s New Theory of Vision: “Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings you conceive the objects of your conception to have. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.”

If you look at a list of State mottos, except for those that pertain to armed rebellion, every one invokes the necessity of providence. The motto of my own state, Colorado, is Nil sine numine, which translates to “Nothing without God.” If you read this as an ontological proposition, it essentially corroborates Bishop’s idea of a the divine mind and enshrines the concept in the state’s very identity. But my favorite state motto, and the one I think that gets closest to what Bishop Berkeley’s philosophy really means to Americans, is California’s Eureka. “I have found it.” Supposedly uttered by the 49ers upon having struck gold, I think Eureka captures the elation and astonishment with which we are met in our encounters with this miraculous world. It implies discovery and startling revelation. It is an expression appreciation over faith rewarded. Faith that that which we do not perceive is still nonetheless existent and waiting for us to uncover it. The utterance of Eureka accompanies the ecstatic communion with the divine will, when we are permitted a glimpse into the universe’s true identity and made familiar with yet another of God’s infinite secrets.

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Nesmania

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For almost two years I’ve been watch this guy on twitch.tv who calls himself “The Mexican Runner” try to beat every Nintendo game ever released. These are games for the original Nintendo Entertainment System with releases spanning from 1985 to 1994. In all, there are 710 games TMR is trying to beat. So far he has completed 395. He’s past half-way.

MR calls the project “Nesmania.” When he first started, it was a unique idea. No one had ever tried to master every game for a particular console, let alone one with as punishing a game library as the NES. I started following it back in August 2014 when he was at 60 or 70 games. In that time TMR has logged over 2000 hours of game play. That’s the equivalent of about one year of full-time work.

One of the things I really admire about Nesmania, besides just the insanely ambitious premise of the thing, is all of the meticulous documentation TMR and his followers create around the project. Every minute of every game is live streamed over Twitch, usually to online audiences of between 600 to 800 viewers. The gameplay video is then archived, both in the highlight section of TMR’s Twitch channel and on his Youtube channel. TMR even rates and reviews each game after he’s competed it.

I have to admit, I have a soft spot for the NES. It was the only video game console I spent considerable time playing when I was a kid. And what I’ve discovered watching Nesmania is that I never even scratched the surface of what the NES was about. I think I’ve played maybe 10% of the entire game library. I try to watch a little bit of every video, just to get an idea of what each game is like. Truth be told, though, I’m really not capable of sitting down and watching an entire playthrough. For one thing, I’m an adult man with a job, and I don’t have time. But also, most of the games are just really boring. Dull to watch but I’m sure also dull to play. Just this last month, TMR had to beat all three of the Bases Loaded games within a couple weeks of each other. For every title he had to win 80 nine inning baseball games. They each took him between 30 to 40 hours each to beat. It was painful to watch. He’d basically score a run in the first inning and then bunt out on every subsequent at-bat just to move the games along faster. But those are easy games. To watch him systematically destroy some of the hardest video games every made has at times been truly thing of beauty. He beat all of the Dragon Warrior games blind, without any maps, hints, or cheats. For Q-bert he basically had to memorized the game’s entire button sequence to get through. And his epic 37 hour slog through Ikari Warriors is one of the only documented instances of someone beating that game without resorting to the ABBA code.

Now, of course it goes without saying that Nesmania is an absurd and quixotic venture that helps no one, serves no real purpose, and is probably a complete waste of time. Yes, it is clearly nothing more than a bizarre fantasy quest of an eccentric shut-in. But there’s an undeniably poetry to what The Mexican Runner is trying to do. No one has ever passed all the NES games before, so in that sense TMR something like a gaming explorer, planting his flag atop a heretofore unassailable peak. Also, I think will ultimately be looked at as an activity in deep archiving. There is a lot of cultural content in the NES library that’s locked away in an obsolete digital format, which even when emulated can only be accessed by playing out the program. Nesmania unfolds each game and creates a record of its contents. It’s surprising that game developers aren’t already doing this to capture and preserve their work. Perhaps years from now, the Nesmania videos will be used for historical research. Even for people like me who still remember playing these games as kids, Nesmania is still a fantastic feast for nostalgia.

Trust in Civil Service

Last week President Obama nominated Merck Garland, Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, to the Supreme Court of the Unites States. After the President announced the nomination in the White House Rose Garden, Judge Garland was given a few minutes to speak. It was a simple speech. Garland introduced himself, spoke of his family, his personal background, his philosophy of service, his approach to adjudication. It was a very abridged auto-biography delivered by a modest man, a mere whisper in the public discourse against the backdrop of a provocative and spectacular campaign season. And yet many found the speech quite moving. Garland shows marvelous candor. Here we witness a man of great ability reaching his highest professional accomplishment, and there is not a single note of pride or ambition in his reaction. I think achievement must be sweeter to those who have devoted their lives to service. It justifies all of the sacrifice, invalidates all of the doubts with which you wrestled getting to where you are. It is vindication. I think Judge Garland must be an unusual embodiment of the best parts of Plato’s tripartite soul: the merging of logistikon and thymoedes, the logical and spirited soul, which when aligned strengthens one to virtue, making you a creature of duty and higher purpose.

Putting aside praise for a moment, I would like to examine more closely how Judge Garland characterizes his career in public service. Describing his work on the bar and bench, he repeatedly cites this value of trust-building. He talks about winning the trust of his witnesses as a prosecutor, not in him necessarily but in the rule of law. Of his prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombing, he speaks of the sense of responsibility he felt to restore the trust in the victims that the system will protect them and will respond justly. I think Garland’s statements can be summarized as follows: it is necessary in a just and orderly society that people trust their government, and that those individuals who make up the government do everything in their power to cultivate and sustain the trust of the people. To me, this has to be the driving principle of public service. More than investment in the common good or protection of markets or advancement of national interests, a government must first and foremost produce a stable platform of inextricable law and social order that can support all of the varied and diffusive activities of the nation. And that platform must be firm and consistent and utterly unassailable, and the people must trust that it is so. I think anyone working in civil service or in any other public interest capacity should constantly be asking her or himself, is what I am doing promoting trust among the people in their government and in the social system more broadly? Because this should be the primary concern of any government. Some would argue that this is all government should ever aspire to do. I’ll not go so far as to say that the government cannot be a positive force for change in society, but before it can even begin to be that, it must first create a degree of tranquility which would foster profit, progress, and improvement derived from the people. Not only would I call this the highest purpose of government, I would also suggest that it is what government is best at doing. No other entity in society is better positioned than government to preserve the public trust. In government you have a powerful and ubiquitous force whose only motive is to promote the public good. Now that isn’t to say those who control and carry out the business of government cannot abuse its systems for their own personal profit. But government itself, as a body, does not seek profit. It sets out only to enrich the people whom it serves. This makes it a unique manifestation of human community: an executive organization that is not ruled by profit motive but by the sacred requirement to maintain order and protect civil rights. Now, the fact that the defining principle of democratic government is one of reservation rather than action probably does place limits on what a state can plausibly be expected to accomplish. As we’ve seen time and again, the state falters when it is made to lead the people to social change or when it is compelled to carry out some utopian vision of its leaders. Government is not flexible or nimble. It cannot pivot to adapt to changing circumstances. It will never be an agent of change or disruption. But it shouldn’t have to be. Government is a regular, reliable, policy-driven, rules-based collection of unprofitable but incredibly necessary and useful services. We can look to business, labor, or the academy for the novel or the revolutionary. We turn to government when we need something to be permanent and lasting. And yes, this makes government boring and predicable, but that is why we rest our trust upon it, as the bedrock that underlies everything we do, the ballast the keeps everything upright. Such a government succeeds when it is guided by steady hands and a quite kind of leadership. Judge Garland is a crowning example of what a model civil servant should look like. We should be thankful that there were so many like him who came before, and do everything we can to ensure that there will be more like him in the future.

Boundary Control

I found a curious passage in the newest edition of Brown’s Boundary Control and Legal Principles, which is a book about drawing and legally supporting boundaries lines to define real property:

“In the primeval forest, particularly in the plant kingdom, there are no known boundaries between living things. Although some horticulturalists dispute this, we accept the fact that plants do not create boundaries to separate themselves. Animals—especially humans—do create boundaries. We like to think that only humans create and appreciate boundaries, but it has been observed in nature that most mammals, some reptiles, and a few fish create, identify, mark, and defend boundaries… Field examinations and studies by naturalists have revealed that most animals really don’t create boundaries per se. However, it is recognized that they usually create terminal points (corners) and they identify the boundaries between these points.” (pg. 2)

It is true that we don’t think about the boundaries animals make, mostly because there is nothing forcing us to respect them. We often equate the wild with license, and we view wilderness as a place without rule or imposed order. Of course what we mean by this is that wilderness is a place free of human rule and human-imposed order. Wild places are actually thronging with rule systems put into place by the animals and plants. Any bit of landscape you might point to is really a palimpsest of ancient struggles and territorial claims asserted by the multitude of living things that reside there. These dictates of the animals are difficult to see because the animals are not issuing them to us. Except for antagonism resulting from predation, I think it is actually quite rare for animals to exchange their various warnings and threats across species. Animals law is promulgated within the species, mostly to enforce sexual hierarchies and to manage competition for resources. To my knowledge, the ants don’t make it their business to order around the birds, frogs remain indifferent to their neighbors the fish, and mice and marmots have little or nothing to say to one another. I have seen and heard of instances where animals of different species will fight if one threatens the other’s home with inadvertent destruction, as when my cat was stung by a hornet last summer after disturbing belligerent little thing’s nest. I once saw a large bird of pray snatch a newly killed chipmunk from the mouth of a fox. I suppose I cannot deny that conflict proliferates across the animal kingdom, but I don’t believe it can be said that animals of one species establish broad and complex strategies for dealing with animals of another. Were animals capable of such behavior they would have gone to war with human beings many generations ago. The fact that the animals have not committed themselves to our absolute destruction is proof that they know nothing about us and haven’t they faintest clue about how to interpret the meaning of our activities.

I think one important way we human beings are distinct from other lifeforms is our insistence that other animals listen to, fear, and obey us. We do this to some degree, ignorantly, with wild animals, but I speak mainly of our relationship with domesticated animals. We call these animals domesticated because they are trained to dwell within the domicile and acknowledge the home space’s boundaries. I sometimes wonder how much we confound our pets by imposing upon them what they must view as mysterious and incomprehensible restrictions. Our demand that a dog relieve itself only on grass must seem as baffling and perverse to the dog as God’s commandment that the descendants of Abraham be circumcised and that this somehow forms a convenient between man and God. I remember my grandmother used to rebuke her dog for licking its genitals, a perfectly common ritual for a dog, but entirely impermissible from my grandmother’s point of view. I am sure eventually she trained the dog also to see genital licking as shameful.

Of the myriad cruelties we inflict upon animals to make them more amenable to home life (removing a cat’s claws, clipping a bird’s wings, putting fish in bowls) one of the most unconscionable I think is using a shock collar to contain a dog within the parameter of a small suburban yard. I feel it to be worse than simply chaining the dog because at least the chain can act as a concrete signifier of the dogs captivity. The mechanics of it are simple enough for the dog to understand: the animal knows it cannot escape because it ascertains that it is caught with a cord. With the shock collar, the dog is controlled by the fear of pain, triggered by what it must understand only as a vague notion of proximity to something absent and unseen. What hope does the dog have of ever comprehending this human concept of a contiguous boundary, much less locate the thing and position itself appropriately in relation to it. I’ve been watching invisible fencing ads on Youtube to try to figure out how the boundary is supposed to be communicated to the dog. Apparently there are flags you erect to provide a visual indicator, something to avoid. At best, you might succeed in teaching your dog to fear small, white, triangular flags. You will never accomplish what you really set out to do, which is to get your dog to acknowledge and respect your boundary.

I think it is appropriate that so many of these invisible fencing commercials have such a sterile, upbeat tone to them. In addition to conveying the product’s usefulness to the customer, the ad also has to ameliorate whatever misgivings the customer might have about holding his or her pet captive with psychological trauma. I can’t help seeing a resemblance between these invisible fencing ads and North Korean propaganda art.

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Romances

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Of all Shakespeare’s plays I like the romances the best.  These are his last plays, written after 1607.  Typically included in this group are Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Cymbeline, The Winters Tale, and The Tempest.  Edward Dowden called these plays romances because they span great periods of time and distance, similar to the courtly romances of the chivalric age.  He also recognized other common themes between Shakespeare’s late plays such as redemption, reunion, reconciliation, and forgiveness.  I think these are the more salient points of late plays.  Coming as they do after the tragedies, in the twilight of his career, I think they represent a kind of thawing in Shakespeare’s conception of the world, an acceptance, perhaps an acquiescence, that comes with age and wisdom won from pain.

I’m sure I would find no one else who would agree with me that the late romance plays are Shakespeare’s best.  It is generally held that they lack dramatic tension, that the jokes are broad and lazy, and that the turns of plot leading to conclusion are obvious and unsurprising.  Ingram called these his “weak ending” plays, observing an absence of the clever resolution which we see displayed in the early comedies or of the panic and horror that unfold in which the tragedies terminate.  Endings in the romances come about either as foregone conclusions or as happy accidents.  At no point in The Tempest is one led to doubt Prospero’s command of events.  He seems to be the author of the play’s conclusion just as much as Shakespeare.  Pericles just happens to stumble across his lost daughter Marina when his wanderings bring him to Mytilene and then a literal deus ex machine device leads him to his lost wife.  In Cymbeline, just as it seems Posthumus might suffer the tragic fate of being executed by his own liege alongside the Romans, Jupiter himself appears to dispel the audience’s consternation and guarantees that destiny will grant happiness to Postumus and to Britain.  The plays aren’t much better leading up to the endings.  There’s a lot of pointless grab-assry, like the hammy shepherd jokes in A Winter’s Tale or Marina’s tangential plot line in Pericles, Prince of Tyre.  I don’t deny that a lot of the more traditional narrative structures fail in the romances.  That’s actually why I like them.  I think the romances represent a kind of intellectual transcendence for Shakespeare, both over the art form of theatrical storytelling and over simple mortal tribulations like time, misfortune, petty antipathy.  They signal a resignation from struggle and a triumph over it.  I think many have interpreted this as exhaustion.  I see it as a rejuvenation.

If Shakespeare had experienced exhaustion at any point in his career, it would have been during the writing and staging of Timon of Athens.  Timon is the culmination of Shakespeare’s late tragedies, both chronologically and philosophically.  It delves deeper into the tragic abyss than any other Shakespearian play and finds, in the furthest logical extent of tragic catastrophe, an intellectual dead-end.  The play follows Timon’s descent into misanthropy and cynicism.  Suffering betrayal from his friends and the loss of all of his wealth, Timon renounces society and flees to the wilderness where he dies alone.  Unlike previous tragedies where protagonists die in a heroic or dramatic fashion, Timon passes from the world feeble and ignored.  There is nothing redeeming in Timon’s existence.  His life is as pointless as his death.  I’ve never seen Timon of Athens performed but I imagine it would be dull.  I don’t see how it could convey any amount of emotional charge or dramatic urgency.  Even its ideas are superficial and small.  It has nothing to offer but nihilism, a bewildering night of meaninglessness.

The romances are Shakespeare’s triumphant return from the purgatory of tragedy.  Coming as they do directly following Timon, they are a reaffirmation of life and of meaning.  They are a vindication, an acknowledgement that life can and should be redeemed.  Even after the accretion of many years or a separation of many miles, things can be set right: grievances redressed, delusions dispelled, disunions rewed.  These plays proclaim a restitution of life’s value.  I think they are a spiritual reawakening for Shakespeare, his final, grand insight into the nature of being: that life, though poisonous, is also a sweet elixir.

I went to see a production of A Winter’s Tale just a few weeks ago.  It was being put on by some theater students at the University of Colorado.  I was impressed.  The staging was interesting.  The timing was good.  They seemed to have a very rich and deep understanding of the text and what was special about it.  And some of the kids could really act too.

I read all of Shakespeare’s plays in college.  I remember liking A Winter’s Tale almost as much as Hamlet.  The re-animation of Hermione from statute to human read to me like a miraculous dream, meant, I thought, to astonish both the characters and the audience.  What I discovered after finally seeing the play staged is that from the beginning of the scene it is perfectly clear to the audience that the statute is a living person and that Hermione has reappeared.  Paulina’s bid to Leontes not to touch her demonstrates that the audience was intended to be in on the ruse.  We do not share Leonte’s astonishment when it comes alive.  And yet we feel the same outpouring of emotion.  The miraculous reversal here is not that a statue has been made animate.  It is that one human being, after withholding for sixteen years, has forgiven another.  I could not keep myself from weeping.

Friends, with this post I hereby revive the Golden Assay.  I have been away for a long time, wandering.  I have not learned much, I am sorry to say.  But I have learned that the writing I do here is important to me, that it helps me understand things, and that I am a poorer person if I let myself neglect it.  I have resolved to make a regular effort of adding to this blog and to my writings.  My thanks to anyone who has found this website and has spent time reading any of what I have written here.  I look forward to sharing more ideas with you.

Frontier Libraries

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This past week at work I was reviewing some Colorado territorial laws that we just recently digitized and I found this great one from the 1872 about the establishment of the first public libraries. Apparently what happened was each little mining town would set up a fund where they would put all of the money collected from violators of the place’s the vice laws (it says any penal ordinance, but that was pretty much all there was in the way of municipal law back then), and they would use that fund to purchase books for the town library. So, as you might imagine, a lot of these towns ended up having really nice libraries.

The old jail in Telluride.  Built in 1885, it began as the town's library.

The old jail in Telluride. Built in 1885, it began as the town’s library.

It’s kind of ingenious when you think about it: you use people’s predilection for bad behavior to nourish institutions that promote the public good; because you if you can’t keep people from gambling and whoring around, you might as well harness that energy and put it towards something that could end up being corrective. It’s like they were trying to systematize moral rectitude. Pretty crafty for a bunch of semi-literate hack lawyers.

Reading these old session laws, one gets a sense of how these frontier people were essentially building a civilization from scratch. The Native American tribes in the area certainly had a social order, and I think during the early half of the 19th century when white people, trappers mostly, first began entering Colorado that’s what was used. Trade, war, friendship, and kinship were conducted in the Indian way, because it was a tried and proven system. But when people began doing other things in the region besides hunting and subsistence farming, an entirely new complex of rules and norms had to be devised. As evidenced by the strength of their laws and the prosperous communities they built, those early Coloradans did not fail at what they set out to do.