Wickedness of Civilization & the Role of Government

I’ve become aware of an inner conflict in the American psyche that goes back to even before the country was founded. This inner conflict includes those on both the left and the right, but it often seems the clearest on the right since the right has taken a more radical stance these past decades.

This inner conflict was expressed by Thomas Paine.

On one side, Paine advised that the only role of government was in punishing wickedness. So, he saw the role of government more in preventing the negative than in promoting the positive. He stated this in no uncertain terms.

On the other side, Paine perceived that all of civilization was built on certain core issues of wickedness which meant such wickedness was immense and pervasive. So, he saw the necessity of a government strong enough and centralized enough to counteract the strong, centralized private power that had come to form in the colonies from the lack of a strong, centralized government (for, in the early centuries of the British colonies, the British government had a hands-off approach).

Paine fought against American elites as strongly as he did British elites. The problem was elitism along with the corruption and cronyism that followed from it, no matter it’s source.

It was Paine who first spoke of America in terms of being a united people. And it was Paine who most strongly spoke of economic and political inequality which led him to be the first American to describe in detail an early version of social security. Paine was a radical democrat, not an anarchist or a libertarian (his having placed fairness as being the necessary foundation for liberty). Paine believed in putting the power in the hands of the people, rather than in the hands of an elite. He believed a democratic government was the only way to accomplish this.

Today, someone like Paine might be called a liberal or progressive. Conservatives, if they met him now, would likely call him a Marxist or something. And it is true Paine’s words even all these centuries later still has a left-wing resonance about them. After all, by the time he came to America, he no longer was seeking reform from within the system as a centrist, moderate liberal would do and for damn sure he wasn’t interested in conserving all things British simply because he was born an Englishman, as was conservative Burke’s main concern.

Whatever Paine was or how we now perceive him, he was a profound thinker who was capable of complex understanding and not afraid of hard questions. But what makes him most interesting is how ordinary he was, only coming to revolutionary thinking in what is now called middle age (in a society where most people never lived that long). The kind of ideas he gave voice to had been in the air at that point for generations or even centuries, slowly percolating. He was both a man of his times and yet, in seeing more clearly than those around him, he was far ahead of his times.

It was this that allowed him to simultaneously see the problems of British rule of the colonies and the necessity of a new kind of self-rule, which is to say government was both the problem and the solution. That said, it’s true that he differentiated society from government and saw society as the more fundamental. He wrote that,

“Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best stage, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”

His point seems to have been that a necessary evil is still necessary. Also, what he meant is that government should serve society (i.e., the people), not the other way around. He came to this nuanced thinking because he realized there was no way to undo modern civilization without causing mass suffering. He agreed that the Native Americans had more basic liberty in their everyday lives, but the problem was that the colonial population was too large and growing to have that kind of lifestyle.

These two sides of Paine represent the two sides of the inner conflict that have haunted Americans ever since. Conservatives, in particular, find themselves in a tough spot in advocating one side of Paine while dismissing the other. Liberals, however, tend to agree more with Paine in emphasizing both sides. Still, both conservatives and liberals have failed in coming to terms with this inner conflict. The problem is that conservatives won’t even acknowledge the inner conflict. They’ll praise the side of Paine they like while ignoring the other side as if it didn’t exist.

Without Paine who inspired the masses to fight for democracy, the American Revolution wouldn’t have won. And if the American Revolution hadn’t been won, there would be no America in which the elite Founding Fathers could squash democracy by once again disenfranchising the majority. All that happened in early America is that we switched from one ruling elite to another. The problem of elites ruling politics was never dealt with.

Conservatives like to think that if we just had wise elites like in the past then all problems would be solved. They don’t mind having elites to rule over us like oligarchs, just as long as those oligarchs conform to conservative oligarchy. As for liberals, they’ve offered little in the way of a vision to counteract this belief in a conservative oligarchy, instead adding liberal reform to smooth out the sharp edges and cover up the uglier aspects. Liberal moderation and compromise has too often just meant weakness and complicity.

Radical liberals like Paine no longer have the influence as was seen in early America.

What is a Church? Soul vs Spirit

This post is third in a series, but it is more narrowly focused than the previous posts. I wanted to isolate a single issue that I presented in my first post:

“Many people have a nonchalant attitude about community. They just don’t understand its value or they don’t appreciate how difficult it is to create and maintain. This is particularly true among fiscal conservatives which is a distinction between them and more traditional conservatives.

“I spoke to a fiscal conservative who is a Christian (a combination I’ve always found odd, at times verging on the hypocritical with some views) and he demonstrated this difference. The church he attended had reached capacity and would require a new building for the church to grow. As a fiscal conservative, he assumed growth was better than maintaining the past. This fiscal conservative also had moved around a lot because of career and so had little investment in the community. He didn’t understand why many church members didn’t want to move. It took my liberal mindset (or, rather, my Midwestern liberal mindset) to explain it to him. The church wasn’t simply a physical structure. It was part of people’s sense of community and home. It was where people grew up, got married, and raised their kids.

“Fiscal conservatives, however, just see the economic and the physical aspects, and so they can’t see the difference between one building and another, between an old church and a new church, between a thriving neighborhood of beautiful old houses and a multi-use apartment building with no character. I understand what might be gained by building something new. I’m not against economic improvements if they are done with foresight and done with a goal of long-term benefits for the entire community. The problem isn’t that I don’t understand or value such faith in improvements through entrepreneurial investments. Rather, the problem is that fiscal conservatives and many capitalists don’t understand the view of those living in a community who want to defend their community.”

* * *

I’m not a religious person. So, it might seem odd that I would defend the value of churches against the criticisms of a church-going Christian. In another mood, I would gladly criticize Christians being overly attached to churches. But my present motivations aren’t about religion itself, rather about the more intangible (which one could label ‘spiritual’) aspects of human experience as it relates to the more tangible aspects of human community.

Even though I’m not  a religious person, I am a spiritual person in my own way. I’m oddly going to make a ‘spiritual’ defense of churches and, more generally speaking, of “The Commons”. From this perspective, I will use ‘spiritual’ terminology to make my argument. (The second paragraph down, I make a distinction between ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’, but here I’m speaking of ‘spiritual’ in the sense of including both aspects.)

Before I begin my commentary, let me briefly clarify where I’m coming from when I speak of being spiritual in my own way. The idea I will focus on is that of an ensouled world which, at least in my mind, connects with: Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, David Abram’s sensuous world, Julian Jayne’s bicameral mind, Paul Shepard’s theory of social evolution, various authors writing about the imaginal/daimonic such as Patrick Harpur and Henry Corbin, Terrence McKenna’s philosophizing on psychedelics and nature, the Fortean views of Jacques Vallee and John Keel, and on and on. These form the background of my thinking, but none of these are directly important at the moment and so I won’t discuss any of the above authors and ideas.

However, I should explain the most important influence on my thinking in this context. Thomas Moore and James Hillman speak of ‘soul’ as different than ‘spirit’, something like the Taoist yang in relationship to yin. The ‘soul’ is worldly, personal, and messy. The ‘spirit’ is other-worldly, impersonal, and pure. Monotheistic religions tend to idealize the ‘spirit’ while demonizing the ‘soul’. I will, therefore, be defending the ‘soul’ against the typical monotheistic view of an authoritarian ‘spirit’.

* * *

I feel the need to add a caveat.

I’m not just criticizing the view of others that I disagree with. I’m ultimately speaking of a conflict within myself. I struggle with my relationship to the larger world. I haven’t come to terms with my sense of community and my sense of the spiritual. I’m far from being a conservative Christian and even further from being a fiscally conservative Christian, but I have some sympathetic understanding of the seeming conflict between the soul and the spirit.

So, my defense of soul doesn’t come from a superior vantage point. That is the point of soul, after all, in that it doesn’t proclaim the superiority of God-like certainty, rather it acknowledges the humility of being in the muck and the mud along with everyone else (‘humility’ being etymologically related to ‘humus’ and ‘human’). Many events and issues in my life such as depression have humbled me. I offer my humbled opinion, for whatever it is worth.

That said, I will not withhold my criticism of those who are overly certain of the truth of their own opinions, especially conservative Christians who claim to know the Mind of God. Conservatism is built on the premise that some issues can be known with certainty and that the conservative has a monopoly on such truth, this conservative position being seen in opposition to the more ‘relativistic’ (open-minded and humble) view of liberals that the world and human nature is too complex for simple moral judgments… and that Biblical studies is too rife with subjective biases of interpretation to make any claims about the Mind of God.

The fiscally conservative Christian ignores the fact that Jesus was far from being a fiscal conservative and that the Christian tradition for most of its history was highly critical of laissez-faire capitalism. Jesus even points out that such a focus on material wealth makes it more difficult to gain entrance into heaven (i.e., camels passing through the eye of the needle). I would love to see a fiscally conservative Christian who truly had a change of heart and followed Jesus’ commandment to “Give away all your riches to the poor and follow me.” Such a commandment helps explain why Jesus was so angry about moneylenders in the temple, moneylenders being laissez-faire capitalists of the Jewish world at that time. The fiscally conservative Christian forgets that Jesus declared Love to be the new commandment, rather than following the old laws of authoritarian submission and righteous judgment.

Because of this, I criticize the self-righteousness of some fiscally conservative Christians from a desire to make humble, to bring down to the equalizing level of earthly life where the rich man dies just the same as the poor, not to set myself above anyone else. A person enthralled by spirit becomes arrogant in their sense of being above it all or at least above others, a very unChristian attitude. I’m of course not arguing spirit is inherently wrong or immoral, but it can be unhealthy, ugly and dangerous even, when it becomes out of balance with and unanchored from soul. Only through soul can love manifest on the human level as empathy and compassion, a very Christian attitude.

I say this as a person who isn’t unfamiliar with the experience of being enthralled by spirit (by self-certainty) and who at times have felt arrogantly above others, although being humbled once again tends to quickly follow. That is a normal human experience. However, certain social philosophies and economic theories become encoded into theological certainties which can make for an almost unassailable stance of righteous self-certitude. Occasionally falling into the error of arrogance isn’t problematic in itself, but theologically defending that error is problematic to the utmost degree. That is always the danger of theology. Our self-rationalizations can become reality tunnels writ large to encompass the entire cosmos, our opinions seemingly declared by God Almighty. As such, fiscal conservatism as a theory is simply an opinion no more worthy than any other opinion, but fiscal conservatism as theology can become an oppressive ideological force that attempts to remake the world in its image. From its earliest development, capitalism was promoted by Christians and has always had behind it the force of evangelism spreading the Good Word (an issue already analyzed by many others such as Max Weber).

There is a safety mechanism in the worldview of soul. As balance to spirit, it sees the many in the one. Soul helps us to see our opinions as just opinions even as we aspire toward greater understanding.

* * *

So, what is ‘soul’?

Soul is life, is the vital essence of who we are, our being in and part of the world. When soul is denied, it goes dormant or is otherwise submerged giving the appearance of death like plants in winter. If soul is denied long enough, it can be irretrievably harmed and manifest in unhealthy ways.

When natural environments are treated as things, they become mere natural resources; trees become lumber; animals meat; rivers water. When communities are treated as legal constructs, they become mere physical locations filled with isolated things, interchangeable parts; homes become property; churches structures; neighborhoods opportunities for development. When people are treated as demographics, they become mere labels; humans become voters, consumers and target audiences; neighbors strangers; workers human resources, cogs in the machine.

The living breathing worldview of the soul undermines and protects against the worldview of isolated objects devoid of spiritual meaning, devoid of all value besides what is projected upon them. Humans and all other beings aren’t isolated objects, aren’t even isolated subjects. We all are meeting points of endless relationships. When we forget that, we become like billiard balls where the only relationships occur when we crash together in a series of events beyond our control and comprehension, meaningless causation of physical laws and forces.

Some argue that they don’t value objects for the reason they value people, but they make all the world into objects as a stage for human action. This inevitably destroys meaning in human relationships, isolating people, inevitably making the subjective conform to the objective… or else see the subjective as trapped in the objective like a ghost in the machine. I don’t see how this is better. They precisely aren’t valuing life in all of its forms, human included, by projecting their lifeless vision onto a living universe. When the eye is dead to the life before it, what is beheld is seen as if dead and so is treated that way, a self-fulfilling prophecy of a lifeless universe. This is vision without heart, without soul. In place of God’s Creation or Nature’s Majesty, a tragic nightmare world of death takes form. A belief in an objective world of objects transforms life into death, an act of black magick, words denying life forcing reality to conform.

After creating this hell on earth, an escape is required. Humans become trapped in bodies hoping for divine salvation. The world is a place of ugly matter and base desires, a place of sin and corruption, a place at worst to be feared and at best kept at a distance. Our real home is elsewhere. We shouldn’t become too comfortable here in this world so far below God’s Heaven. As the Bible says, Satan is the “god of this world”. The result is that even humans become objects for the Eternal Spirit is trapped within human bodily forms that are easily corrupted and tempted by Original Sin, Eternal Spirit longing to escape into Heaven.

In my own way, I’m not unsympathetic to such a view for I have my Gnostic tendencies and I was raised a Christian in a Christian society. My psyche is enmeshed in the Christian worldview. As an American, I grew up watching apocalyptic movies tinged with Christian theology. More significantly, I grew up in New Thought Christianity and so I know the positive spin that can be overlaid upon this otherwise dark vision.

I’m purposely portraying this worldview in its most melodramatic form. There are many milder and more subtle forms of it, some with no overt religious elements at all. I don’t mean to attack anyone in particular in my portrayal. I don’t even mean to say anyone is wrong in holding such views, whether or not the ‘accused’ see my portrayal as accurate or fair. What I’m trying to get at is the essence of what it means for actual human beings in this world we find ourselves in, our shared lives held together by community institutions and social systems, by the complex ecosystems we live in, the environment and atmosphere we are enmeshed in, the air and water flowing freely from place to place acknowledging no mapped boundaries or legal constructs of property.

* * *

The problem I see is that the religious version of the ‘objective’ worldview doesn’t go far enough. Those advocating it continue to cling to the material world even as they deny it. Maybe the failure is in their conception and therefore perception of the material world. If they truly pushed into spiritual territory, they might discover their perception of the material world is transformed. In seeking the divine elsewhere, maybe they miss the divine all around them. Maybe the divine can only be known in specifics: specific relationships and connections, specific communities and churches, specific places and senses of place, etc. Maybe it is in holding back from the divine that they devalue certain manifestations of the divine.

Those advocating this ‘objective’ worldview don’t seem aware of the transaction being made. There is a sleight-of-hand going on that is built into the belief system at a level not easily discerned. An arbitrary distinction is being made about where the human ends and the world begins, where the divine ends and the earthly begins. This is an attempt to create a metaphysical trick or manipulation, an ideological lifting oneself up by the bootstraps… to keep one’s boots out of the mud by floating on a divine breath of air… to be in the world but not of the world. It is like trying to use the Holy Spirit as a barrier between oneself and the world so that it becomes an act of spiritually dividing instead of spiritually relating, spritually denying instead of spiritually affirming. There is a profound refusal at its core, an emphatic ‘No!’ declared to the world like an incantatory protection.

The belief system behind it necessitates most, if not all, of the world to be seen as lifeless (or even Godless) objects without fundamental value or inherent meaning. People holding this worldview put value in seeing the world without value. Despite the claims of some, they still value objects even if it is a negative value, a negating value, a soul-denying and soul-deadening value. Negative values aren’t just passively implied, rather are actively enforced within one’s worldview which includes the perceptions, choices and actions determined by the constraints of that worldview.

* * *

The destruction of nature that has followed civilization where ever it goes, gaining momentum with modern industrialization, wouldn’t be possible without nature first being turned into objects to be used and abused, discarded and destroyed. Scientists used to cut the vocal cords of animals they were dissecting so that the screams of pain and terror wouldn’t interfere with their psychotic delusion that animals were objects. The very act affirmed what the scientists claimed to deny. This dynamic continues to play out in new forms of behavior we all participate in as part of modern society.

We continue to metaphorically cut the vocal cords of the living world surrounding us, the ensouled world enfolding us. When we see a church as just a building or a stream as just water, we cut the vocal cords of the living essence and the living beings that form them.

To focus just on the human component, it is obvious that a church is so much more than a mere building. A church is an expression of the devotion to God and the love of community. It is the shared creation of specific people living in a specific place and time, specific people sharing their loves and their lives, specific people in relationship to one another and to the world around them, an integral part of what makes a community tangibly real rather than an empty abstraction. A church is the embodiment of the divinity of human relationships, the Holy Spirit one might say, in the way that the human form is the emodiment of the human soul. A church consists of relationships of family, friends and neighbors, of newcomers looking for community, of travelers looking for solace, for the needy looking for compassion and assistance. Generations of people are raised in a church where babies are baptised, couples are married, and departed loved ones are given funeral services. The value of a church is beyond any monetary assessment. A church is an expression of the living memory and share space of a community of people. A shared soul forms out of such expressions of community for a piece of each person’s soul becomes part of the soul of that place, an anchoring not just of the human in the world but the divine as well.

Where people gather God is present. This isn’t to be taken lightly. A manifestation of the divine isn’t something to be taken for granted.

* * *

This doesn’t even need to be thought of in metaphysical terms. When I speak of the divine, you can replace it with your understanding of the more intangible parts of culture. When I speak of a shared soul, you can replace it with tangible experience of community. I’m not arguing about ultimate reality here for that is beyond the limits of rational debate. What I’m speaking of is the experience itself of humans as a social species. This is hard to understand and it inevitably takes on religious overtones for theological language was designed for describing such intersubjective territory.

History demonstrates that community is an endless challenge, hard to create well while easy to destroy. To annihalate a people, you don’t need to commit genocide. All you have to do is annihalate all outward forms of their culture. And at the heart of every culture is religion: traditions and practices, rituals and ritual objects, iconography and places of worship, etc. It’s easy to dismiss the value of outward forms for it is easy to take them for granted. Most people, especially in Western developed countries, don’t know the value of outward forms of community and culture because they’ve never experienced their absence.

Maybe ‘God’ can’t be killed, whatever one may think God is or isn’t. However, I would argue that specific manifestations of the divine (or cultural expressions thereof) can be essentially killed. When the outward forms that help invoke a God (or make a particular spiritual experience possible) are eliminated, the God (or spiritual experience) is also eliminated. New outward forms may take their place and people may not realize anything has changed, but new outward forms create a whole new sense of community and culture, a whole new relationship to the divine. Something once gone may be gone forever. When I observe the outward forms of many modern Christians, I feel certain that they aren’t worshipping the same thing that Christians worshipped in the first century. The outward forms of those early Christians have almost been entirely lost to us, only tattered fragments remain.

* * *

Let me respond to a Christian perspective, specifically that of a fiscally conservative Christian (in opposition to a traditional Christian).

Jesus taught first and foremost the value of love. He taught to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. There is nothing in such a teaching that denies or dismisses the outward forms of religious community. Jesus never suggests worshipping any place or thing, but neither does he suggest against worshipping any place or thing. As far as I know, Jesus says nothing at all on the matter. It’s like trying to read modern views of homosexuality into the Bible.

Anyway, the issue isn’t about worshipping a building for that entirely misses the point. It’s about have basic respect for humans and human nature. God doesn’t command you to disrespect and disregard the outward forms of community and the other values that God instilled in human nature, does he? Even the earliest Christians constructed buildings for communally living in and worshipping in. Jesus never argued that it was morally wrong or religiously irrelevant for there to be a Jewish place of worship, never argued that the temple was just a building without spiritual value or divine relevance. It was because the temple was a religiously important place that he cast out the moneylenders. If Jesus thought the temple was just an object without meaning, he wouldn’t have become so angry at it being desecrated by what he considered religiously unworthy activities.

Let me get even more specific. The Christian I was discussing with has incorporated a lot of New Thought style of theology. For example, we were discussing A Course in Miracles which is a very New Agey channeled text. It might seem odd that a highly conservative Christian would embrace what would appear as hyper-liberal theology, but in America this is actually rather common for America has never had a strong traditional culture especially not among Protestants. Even the average conservative Protestant in America is liberal compared to the average traditional conservative of Catholicism.

This was made poignantly clear in something I recalled from What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank (Kindle Locations 2004-2013):

“One more thing about the backlash personality type: every single one of the bitter self-made men of my youth was a believer in the power of positive thinking. If you just had a sunny disposish and kept everlastingly at it, they thought, you were bound to succeed. The contradiction between their professed positiveness and their actual negativity about nearly everything never seemed to occur to them. On the contrary; they would oscillate from the one to the other as though the two naturally complemented each other, giving me advice on keeping a positive mental outlook even while raging against the environmentalist bumper stickers on other people’s cars or scoffing at Kansas City’s latest plan for improving its schools. The world’s failure to live up to the impossible promises of the positive-thinking credo did not convince these men of the credo’s impracticality, but rather that the world was in a sad state of decline, that it had forsaken the true and correct path.2 It was as though the fair-play lessons of Jack Armstrong, Frank Merriwell, and the other heroes of their prewar boyhood had congealed quite naturally into the world bitterness of their present-day heroes, Charles Bronson, Dirty Harry, Gordon Liddy, and the tax rebel Howard Jarvis.”

This cuts to the conflict I sense in the weird combination of fiscal conservatism and Christian conservatism. This is particularly made clear with New Thought Christianity or what, in Evangelical circles, goes by the label of Prosperity Gospel and other names as well. It’s a spiritual ‘positive’ idealism combined with a material criticalness, the latter even manifesting as cynicism or outright apocalyptic visions. In less extreme forms, the conflict is more subtle.

I will explain by returning to the Christian I’ve already mentioned above. He has a mix of enjoying the materially good life and being critical of those who spiritually value the shared aspects of community life such as a church for he sees a church as being essentially unreligious since it is a material structure (of the world instead of God, the two apparently perceived as being in oppositional conflict). It’s because his religion can be disconnected from economics in this manner that economics can become to varying degrees be disconnected from the moral aspects of community. From this perspective, the decision to keep or sell a church should be an entirely economic decision rather than a religious decision, a decision informed by individual personal opinions rather than the fellowship of a shared vision. His God (i.e., his projections onto an image of ‘God’) doesn’t necessarily care about the material world and so his religiosity has no necessary impact on economic decisions. This is why a fiscally conservative Christian could feel no hypocrisy in laying off thousands to increase profits no matter its impact on community (because corporations are legally required to base their decisions solely on profit) and then going to church to donate money that will go to help those in need. As such, the two worlds don’t necessarily have any relationship to one another.

To return to A Course in Miracles (ACIM), I’ll explain a little about it. It was a channeled text that was ‘channeled’ by a psychologist at a time when Eastern philosophy and Gnostic texts were gaining popularity, and so it contains many non-Christian elements (or what more traditional conservatives would consider non-Christian).  ACIM promotes psychologicalized Eastern philosophy of cognitive detachment (“this item has no real meaning”, “the only value this item has is the value I give it”, etc), but combines this with Christian terminology through a more Valentinian Gnostic theology (a tradition considered heretical by both Catholics and Protestants). The detachment aspect conveninetly can be used to reinforce the fiscally conservative Christian worldview in that it can be interpreted as detaching the spiritual from the physical. However, I would counter by pointing out it also teaches acceptance of and not judgment of others (in their own attachments). The particular fiscally conservative Christian in question was surprised by how his fellow Christians were ‘attached’ to their church, a church that he felt no attachment to since he had only been attending it for a few years. In response, I was surprised by his being surprised by normal human behavior. It’s not clear that the spiritual value of the outward forms of a religious community have anything to do with what the ACIM teaches.

Plus, I would add two other criticisms of using ACIM to criticize the average Christian. First, if one wants to be nitpicky, there isn’t a perfect correlation between what Jesus teaches in the New Testament and what Jesus teaches in ACIM. The channeled ACIM Jesus, in fact, corrects some perceived mistakes made in the recorded sayings of the New Testament Jesus. Second, I see potentially dysfunctional aspects in the ACIM psycho-spiritual theology. It is a product of our culture with the same problems of disconnection from the world we are a part of. It’s just a book. Why would I value the abstract ideas in a book over the tangible realities of shared community life? I have much bigger issues with those who form idolatrous attachments to a holy book (few Christians know the original meaning of God’s Word/Logos, confusing it with the NT) than with those who may form idolatrous attachments to churches and other social institutions that help maintain a healthy sense of community in this world we share, this world which the generations following us will inherit. Even the ACIM advises against idolatrous attachment to ACIM or any practice or tradition, and it explains that there is no single right path.

I don’t mean that there is nothing of value in the view I’m criticizing. As the Christian I spoke with explained, “God cares about people, not objects, as should we.” The belief that God cares about people obviously isn’t a bad thing taken in isolation, but the larger view encompassing it is problematic. Besides, I have no interest in speaking for God as if I know the Divine Mind behind all of Creation. I perceive this as an arrogant certainty that many conservative Christians are prone to. Ignoring claims of knowing God’s Mind, I see no logical reason behind this stance. If God is unlimited, why would He be limited or limit Himself to only caring about humans. In this vast universe, humans are a tiny speck and yet the conservative God cares only about that tiny speck while actively denying any interest or concern, any compassion or love for the rest of His Own Creation. I can’t comprehend such a belief, can’t comprehend it in my mind or in my experience, certainly not in my heart.

That is precisely the problem from my perspective. To see humans as spiritually independent of and separate from the rest of the world is to try to make us into individual objects possessed by God, i.e., Godly objects temporarily lost in a Godless world. I would instead argue that people are relationships: people’s relationship to what is beyond the human (God that is the Creator of the world and the Holy Spirit that is the Breath of God in the world), people’s relationship to other people (made in the image of God), people’s relationship to the earth (God’s Creation), etc. To see something as mere object is to not see God in it. That is a choice you can make, but not one I would recommend. It seems sad to me that one would choose to see the world empty of the Divine. Most Christians acknowledge God isn’t limited to church, but Christianity does teach that God is present where those gather in His name and that includes churches. To say God doesn’t care about objects is to say God doesn’t care about God’s Creation which just doesn’t make sense to me.

Maybe God in a sense isn’t in objects, but if so I would also argue God isn’t in subjects either. If anything, God is the relationship between all things, subjects and objects. Anyway, the division between subject and object is a very modern human construct that has no clear relevance to divine reality or the teachings of Jesus.

* * *

I have one last aspect to consider. I realized that Cartesian dualism of subject/object has infiltrated very deeply into society and into our collective conscious, thus framing so many discussions that occur. Even though it was a product of Enlightenment thinking, Cartesian dualism has been embraced even by conservative Christians who have reinterpreted traditional theology accordingly.

The battle going on in our society right now isn’t between traditionalists and non-traditionalists for one could argue that there are no traditionalists left besides maybe some indigenous tribes that have managed to remain somewhat isolated from civilization. Even the Catholic Church has embraced so much that is modern such as no longer burning witches and including aliens as potentially being part of God’s Creation. We aren’t in Kansas anymore.

Cartesian dualism has led to Cartesian anxiety. Various groups have proposed different ways of dealing with Cartesian anxiety, some more successful or at least less dysfunctional than others.

Some Christians, especially fundamentalists, have declared a divinity that simply negates the issue or rather banishes the issue from the minds of said fundamentalists who then can pretend the issue doesn’t exist. God cares about subjects and so objects are irrelevant: Let Capitalism reign supreme! Or Bring on the Apocalypse! Let the world fend for itself as the Christians prepare for their Heavenly reward. I personally don’t consider that an optimal response to the predicament, but I can see the allure in the comforting confidence of blind faith.

Many other non-Christians have offered other responses, but let me stick closer to the Christian view since it directly relates to the topic of this discussion. The first thing that came to mind was Martin Buber’s philosophy of I-Thou vs I-It; although a Jew, he had major influence on 20th century Christianity. I was actually wondering if this might be behind the theology of fiscally conservative Christianity. That would be ironic if it were the case for Buber was a socialist Jew (the socialism he advocated was of a libertarian, although not anti-statist, variety that emphasized the importance of community, especially religious community, as part of a larger organization of commuity, “a community of communities”; but he warned against ideological dogma which is why he so strongly emphasized the importance of relationships over abstractions).

Here is Buber clarifying that there is something beyond the false dichotomy of subject vs object:

“Subjectivism is psychologization while objectivism is reification of God: One a false fixation, the other a false liberation; both departures from the way of actuality, both attempts to find a substitute for it.”

Buber’s Thou inhabits the space of betwixt-and-between, the interstitial and liminal… or rather it is the witness to and affirmation of that space.

Buber wanted to create a modern theology that could take into account modern human experience in a changing world, maybe in particular in context of industrialization as he was born in 1878 when all of society was being transformed by new technology and a new kind of economy, when the majority of humans were moving from farms into cities. He clarified his distinction because of his criticisms of how capitalism objectifies the world and how individualism distorts human relationships, although he also acknowledged the problems of statist communism (ideologies not being the specific problem and so exchanging one ideology for another wouldn’t solve the problem).

Buber was initially inspired by his experiences of and his relationships with non-human nature:

“The demanding silence of forms (of nature), the loving speech of human beings, the eloquent muteness of creatures — all of these are gateways into the presence of the word.”

As one person explained Buber’s theology:

“The eternal Thou is not an object of experience, and is not an object of thought. The eternal Thou is not something which can be investigated or examined. The eternal Thou is not a knowable object. However, the eternal Thou can be known as the absolute Person who gives unity to all being.”

Unity to all being, not just human beings. Unity rather than division. Not subject vs object. Not this ideology vs that ideology. Not any division of any kind, instead relationships that transcend false dichotomies.

I was reading an article that compares Buber with Winnicot. It gave me some insight into Buber’s ideas about relationships, fellowship and community, in particular in terms of worldly objects such as a building used as a church. Winnicot had two very important ideas: 1) tansitional object, and 2) holding environment. A transitional object such as a teddy bear allows for a healthy transition from dependency on mother to a more independent sense of individuated self. A holding environment is a space that can be safely explored as an extension of the experience of safety that the mother provides.

Religion potentially provides both. A church could act as a holding environment. It is easy as mature adults to look down upon those who need a holding environment, but we all at one point needed a holding environment (as we all once were children) and at various times in our life we will continue to need holding environments (the offices of ministers or psychotherapists create this for us when they assist us with our problems as adults). Transitional spaces and objects provide for an experience in between subject and object. It is this in-between aspect that creates the creative space for entry of the divine into this world.

Religion in particular along with culture and community in general wouldn’t be possible without such in-between spaces. Consider “The Commons” which includes everything from public libraries to public recreation centers to public parks, all the places that form the safe transitional spaces of childhood and which continue to to play a major role into adulthood. It is “The Commons” that creates a shared space between your space and my space. A church where even strangers are welcome also very similar to the experience found in “The Commons”.

Since Christianity has been the focus of this discussion, I’ll end with an interesting application of Buber’s thought to Christian theology:

“Communion leads to community through mutual surrender and reciprocity. Each person is open to the other,accepting the other unconditionally,giving the best one has to offer and receiving from the other in kind.25 The Trinity is one such community;within the Trinity we find three different entities or “persons”. Each one is distinct from the other,yet cannot be defined without the others. Each divine person is affirmed by affirming the others,and through surrendering to the others. Boff points out the richness in this unity which is not mere uniformity;here individuality is respected. Community emerges through communion and mutual self-surrender,26 a self-surrender which is the meaning of kenosis.

“This perfect community of the Trinity is illustrated by the statement “God is love”(1 John 4:8). According to Himes this classic expression is the basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. To claim that God is love means that God is pure self-gift,God is revealed as the One who is perfectly self-giving. From this statement flows the commandment:“Love one another as I have loved you”(John 3:34). The Trinity depicts a relationship of mutual self-giving:the Father gives himself completely to the Son and the Son gives himself completely to the Father. The Spirit,proceeding from both,is the bond of the love between them:“God is the lover,the beloved,and the love between them.”27 Thus God is not a person,that is,one entity of the relationship,but the fullness of relatedness.

“This perfect community,moreover,is not restricted to the Godhead. Boff explains that the divine communion is a mystery of “inclusion”,with the Three opening the divine community to the outside and inviting human beings to share in their community and life. This message goes to the heart of Jesus’final discourse,part of which is quoted at the beginning of this essay. The incarnation of the Son of God,argues Boff,inserted the Trinitarian community into human history,making it possible to eliminate the barriers of distinction and to create a community of equals.

“I think that a renewed appreciation of Trinitarian theology will help expose the inherent individualism of the current consumer ideology,and foster a genuine means of belonging. The claim that the Trinity is the basis for human belonging makes a strong political statement,for it insists not only that human beings are social but that the ground of all being lies in belonging to one another. Moreover,the Trinity provides the deepest foundation possible within the Christian tradition for the rejection of the bias towards individualism. Within the Trinitarian model the individual and community are inter-related. And the means by which one enters into this relationship is through the exercise of self-giving. We could argue then,with Himes,for the right of a person to become a self-gift. To claim that God is Triune points to the perfect relationship within the Godhead exercised through a mutual giving and receiving. To maintain that the human being is made in the image and likeness of God is to claim that the human person is capable of becoming a self-gift.

“This argument seeks to expose the shortcoming of individualism. Those who champion individualism think of freedom as the absence of interference from outside forces. In contrast,those who advocate a communitarian society based on the divine Trinity think of freedom as the ability to make our lives a gift through which we deepen our relationship with the community. Human relationships are meant to mirror the divine communion. A person is a being-in-relationship,and to exist is to be in a relationship. According to Himes,human nature is characterized by the capacity to know and to will relatedness. To limit relatedness is to limit one’s very existence. To deny relationality is to hover on the brink of non-being. But the more we belong to one another–the more we are able to make ourselves a gift–the more fully we exist.

“There are three spheres,says Buber,in which the world of relation is built:

  1. our life with nature,
  2. our life with men,
  3. and our life with ‘intelligible essences.’ 

“Each of these gates leads into the presence of the Word,but when the full meeting takes place they ‘are united in one gateway of real life.’ Of the three spheres,our life with man ‘is the main portal into whose opening the two side-gates leads,and in which they are included.’ It is here alone that the moments of relation are bound together by speech,and here alone ‘as reality that cannot be lost’ are ‘knowing and being known,loving and being loved.’ The relation with man is thus ‘the real simile of the relation with God,’ for ‘in it true address receives true response.’ But in God’s response all the universe is made manifest as language. (I and Thou,op. cit.,p. 101 ff.)

 “The fundamental beliefs of Buber’s “I-Thou” philosophy are the reality of the I-Thou relation into which no deception can penetrate,the reality of the meeting between God and man which transforms man’s being,and the reality of the turning which puts a limit to man’s movement away from God.

“On the basis of these beliefs Buber has defined evil as the predominance of the world of It to the exclusion of relation,and he has conceived of the redemption of evil as taking place in the primal movement of the turning which brings man back to God and back to solidarity of relation with man and the world. Relation is ‘good’ and alienation ‘evil.’ Yet the times of alienation may prepare the forces that will be directed,when the turning comes,not only to the earthly forms of relation but to the Eternal Thou.”

Opportunity For Leftist Reform

I realize often think about things differently than others. What seems obvious to me doesn’t seem obvious to so many people I might agree with on various issues.

Many liberals fear the Republicans which I find odd because Republicans are weaker right now than they’ve been in my entire life. Many liberals fear Ron Paul, but what they don’t understand is that most Republicans and conservatives in general fear Ron Paul even more. It is people like Ron Paul who are forcing the Republican party to run toward the center, Romney being the most centrist GOP presidential candidate in a long long time. For a half century, Democrats have run toward the center as Republicans ran to the extremes. But now the complete opposite is starting to happen (or that is what I sense, the future will prove me right or wrong).

Why can’t the average liberal see this as the first real opportunity for reform they’ve had in decades? This is the new liberal moment. We should take advantage of it while we can, rather than hold to the center out of fear. What I fear is that a centrist Democratic party will continue to disempower the liberal movement from making real change and instead help to reinforce the status quo alliance between neoliberals and neoconservatives, between big business and big government.

It seems to me that all of the older generations, maybe including GenX as well, are afraid of any and all change at this point. The irony is that by resisting change the negative changes already made become even more difficult to reverse. It seems the only hope we have left in this country is from the younger generation, Millennials, who are the most liberal generation in American history. All the older generations are too afraid to fully challenge the status quo, whether of partisan politics or of corrupt capitalism.

I’m hoping that there will be enough left-leaning GenXers, especially the youngest GenXers, to form an alliance with Millennnials to force change. 2012 will be the first year Millennials will be eligible for running for congress and so this will be the first opportunity to dislodge the divisive Boomer majority since they took power a decade ago. This is an opportunity to be seized if people can just see it and take the chance of seeking real reform of the kind not seen since the Great Depresssion.

There is a class war going on. The demographics most affected by the class war, the young and minorities, are also the demographics most strongly pushing for left-leaning reform. The Tea Party represents the older established demographic that grew up in a prosperous white America during a time when economic inequality was low, economic mobility was high, college and housing was cheap, jobs were high-paying with good benefits, and opportunities were plentiful. This older demographic just wants to cling to the few programs left that benefit themselves while wanting to deny anything that will help anyone else. To put it simply, they are reacting out of fear and so creating a politics of fear where everyone loses.

So, this class war is ultimately a generational and race war. The fastest growing demographics are the young and minorities.

This conflict is even seen within my own generation, GenX. Older GenXers grew up in Reagan’s America when politics and society was dominated by the GOP’s Southern Strategy and anti-communist Cold War rhetoric. Younger GenXers grew up in Clinton’s America during a time when the Cold War had ended, when immigration was at its highest in a century, and when Democrats advocated moderation and the right-wing was offering ugly culture wars and militant violence (terrorist bombings, abortion doctor shootings, etc). It was in the middle of GenX that America hit a turning point.

Young GenXers like me are hardly spring chickens. The very youngest of GenXers are in their thirties while the oldest GenXers are moving toward middle age. Still, the divide is clear in that younger GenXers seem to have more support of such things as the Occupy movement while older GenXers either support the Democratic Party status quo (Obama being on the oldest edge of GenX) or support the Tea Party partisans (Beck and Palin also being first wave GenXers). It’s the older GenXers who are goading the already divisive Boomer majority.

I’m curious how this will play out. From here on in, Boomers will be losing power and they won’t go out easily. Nonetheless, the stupidest and ugliest of older GenXers (such as Beck and Palin) have already lost their popular support which leaves room for younger GenXers to take their place. I’ll be on the lookout for these younger GenXers who will be able to speak to the Millennials who desire real change. It is important to keep in mind that Millennials are the only generation, according to recent data, that has more positive views of socialism than capitalism.

Is Banking Bad?

“A Pew Research Center poll in December found that only 50 percent of Americans reacted positively to the term “capitalism,” while 40 percent reacted negatively. Among Americans ages 18 to 29, more had a negative view of capitalism than a positive view, the survey found. Those young Americans actually viewed socialism more positively than capitalism. In other words, America’s grasping capitalists are turning young Americans into socialists.

“The Financial Times recently published a series about “capitalism in crisis.” It noted that the Edelman Trust Barometer, a survey, found that only 46 percent of Americans had confidence in business to do the right thing (and only 25 percent trusted banks).”

Rising Share of Americans See Conflict Between Rich and Poor | Pew Social & Demographic Trends

“As a result, in the public’s evaluations of divisions within American society, conflicts between rich and poor now rank ahead of three other potential sources of group tension—between immigrants and the native born; between blacks and whites; and between young and old. Back in 2009, more survey respondents said there were strong conflicts between immigrants and the native born than said the same about the rich and the poor.

“Virtually all major demographic groups now perceive significantly more class conflict than two years ago. However, the survey found that younger adults, women, Democrats and African Americans are somewhat more likely than older people, men, Republicans, whites or Hispanics to say there are strong disagreements between rich and poor.

“While blacks are still more likely than whites see serious class conflicts, the share of whites who hold this view has increased by 22 percentage points, to 65%, since 2009. At the same time, the proportion of blacks (74%) and Hispanics (61%) sharing this judgment has grown by single digits (8 and 6 points, respectively).”

Iowa City: Public Good & Democratic Government (pt 2)

This is a continuation of a previous post which can be found here. Read that post first in order to understand the background to this post. I’m writing this post with the assumption someone already knows what I’m talking about.

* * *

I first noticed outsourcing in Iowa City government when I began working a seasonal job for Parks & Recreation, the job I had immediately prior to being hired by the Parking Department. I worked in the Central Business District (CBD) at that time. Our job was to clean the downtown area, mow some grass, and occasionally do a bit of gardening. Their were garbage cans that needed to be changed regularly and it was part of the work that was the responsibility of Parks & Rec, but it had been contracted out. I’m not sure the reasoning for it being outsourced. All the work I did in Parks & Rec could have been outsourced. There was no obvious logic for why some jobs are outsourced and others not.

The same goes for Parking. They are trying to outsource some of the janitorial work, although the City Council supposedly denied the request earlier and Parking management is planning to make a second request. I know neither the ultimate reasons of management in making the request or the reasons of the City Council in their initially denying the request. I also don’t know why management is making a second request. I did go to a meeting where management explained their basic reasons, but I still don’t know what is motivating their choices. I see no rhyme or reason it beyond saving money. However, why not outsource all of parking? Instead of just taking part of the work away from city maintenance workers, why not just outsource all of their work and eliminate their positions entirely? These are questions I have no answers for.

A maintenance worker told me that management wasn’t entirely sure how to keep the maintenance workers busy if and when the outsourced workers take over the janitorial part of their work. This maintenance worker was wondering why they had outsourced the work of maintenance workers when it was that work that partly justified the very existence of maintenance. They still have other work to do. There is always equipment to be fixed, painting to be done, and other maintenance type work. However, in the past, maintenance workers in Parking did more janitorial than they ever did maintenance. So, it makes one wonder about the future of maintenance positions. Once a part of the job has been outsourced, it logically follows all parts of the job can and should be outsourced if saving money is the priority.

The City government combined the Parking Department with the Transit Department, and so the work and some of the positions of the two is now combined. The building where the buses are housed and where the offices are located was partly funded by federal money. From what a bus driver explained to me, they can’t outsource the work done in a federally funded building. Management has dealt with this challenge by having Parking maintenance workers take over some of the janitorial work in that Transit building. So, some of the work is being shifted around while some positions are being entirely eliminated in Transit.

This outsourcing seems like a possible trend. Even before recent problems in the national economy, Parking management had already contracted out some of the work: window cleaning, ramp washing, etc. As far as I can tell, outsourcing has increased over time, at least in the departments I’m familiar with. However, not all work is being outsourced which is what I find curious.

Some office work, for various reasons, has increased in the Parking Department. So, even as they’ve been eliminating the lower jobs, they’ve been increasing the office jobs which includes an increase in management positions since I began working. Why do they need more managers if they are outsourcing more? They could outsource much of the management as well and just have a head of the department to oversee it. They could even eliminate both Parking and Transit as an independent department and put it under the management of some other department. Or they could contract the entire ramps to be run by a private company while the city would maintain ownership and certain control of standards and pricing. Certainly, they could at least outsource most of the office work, especially that which deals with secretarial work. And they could have the entire fiscal side of parking taken over by the department that deals with the city’s other areas of fiscal management.

Parking management, by going down this path of increasing outsourcing, might be making it inevitable that their own jobs will eventually become obsolete, assuming the reasons they have given are followed to their logical conclusion. Ignoring logical conclusions, let us just consider it from a moral angle. Why do managers who eliminate other people’s jobs feel so safe that their own jobs won’t be outsourced? This relates to a similar conundrum: Who watches the watchers? I remember when management put in cameras to watch cashiers, but they conveniently didn’t put cameras in their own offices. Managers handle money as well and have many more opportunities for illegal activities than cashiers do. It’s similar to congressmen having publicly funded health care while refusing to cooperate with health care reform that would create single payer or public option. Obviously, there is a moral hypocrisy involved in this. I don’t think it’s intentional. It’s just people acting like people, and it is simply difficult for people to take as seriously what effect others as they take what effects themselves. It’s not a matter of management or politicians being bad people, but only a fair system can ensure fair results. If the system isn’t democratically operated with public transparency and public responsibility, then unfair results are inevitable no matter how good the people or how good the intentions.

The point I’m trying to make isn’t about the moral intent or moral self-awareness of management. They are just normal people doing their best in a challenging situation where a lot is expected of them in terms of finding solutions. Everyone’s motives and biases can be questioned. My intentions can be questioned for I’m certainly not a neutral observer, both as a city employee and as a union member along with being a longtime resident of this city who feels a part of the community. The intentions of the union can be questioned since union members are specifically being targeted. The intentions of private businesses seeking government contract work can be questioned, especially if there were any personal or professional ties to government officials (crony capitalism) and maybe even more especially if there was any lobbying that happened about this issue (a slippery slope toward possible corporatism). Anyway, everyone’s intentions are potentially suspect because these are decisions that affect everyone in this community, even random citizens who are completely unaware of what is going on. Everyone has skin in the game for the future of Iowa City is at stake.

It’s precisely because everyone has skin in the game that I hold the position I’m advocating here. Government decision-making, especially at the local level should be as public, as transparent, and as democratic as possible. What I’m advocating, however, isn’t how the decision-making has been done so far. In particular, issues involving local government increasing outsourcing and/or privatization of public services are obviously publicly important and should therefore be publicly discussed. I only learned of management’s decisions long after they were made, although I should be fair in pointing out that management has made some efforts in being transparent such as eventually telling about what they are trying to do. Still, it is obvious that transparency hasn’t been the priority of Parking management (along with city manager and city council). That is the main issue that the recent article pointed out:

“In an email to the City Council, Steven Miller, president of A[F]SCME Local 183, took city administrators to task for notifying workers of the layoffs a week before the holidays and days after the union and city had reached a tentative five-year contract deal that included union concessions.”

This kind of dealings creates mistrust. The union made concessions in good faith. Having learned of this afterwards, it is impossible for the union to not feel deceived and betrayed. The management knew about this when asking for concessions from the union. It is conveniently self-serving that management decided to withhold this information until after the conclusion of a five-year contract discussion. That is not democracy. In fact, that is anti-democratic or at least undermining of democracy which amounts to the same difference.

This isn’t about pitting employees against management or unions against union bashers. That is part of the problem. We are all part of the same community. What harms any of us harms all of us. And what helps any of us helps all of us. I doubt management was intending to attack or undermine democracy, but intentions aren’t the point. Rather, the point is about results, intended or unintended.

If democracy is harmed, then it should be seen as undesirable by all involved, including management. To be democratically fair, management should go back to the discussion table with the union. They essentially lied to the union in order to manipulate them or that is how it appears from the outside. In essence, that seems like union bashing in that it has the seemingly intentional result of targeting the union in an unfair way (without such an intention, such actions make no sense). I realize management wouldn’t think of it that way. That is what I keep coming back to. It doesn’t matter how any of us perceive ourselves or how we rationalize our own actions. The main thing that matters in a democratic society is democracy itself. Everything else should follow from democracy and everything should reinforce rather than weaken democracy. That is what we should aspire toward in all of our dealings, even when it isn’t to our personal advantage. If we give up on democracy for short term personal gain (or even just for bureaucratic efficiency and cost-savings), then we don’t deserve democracy. When the government acts contrary to democracy, the consent of the ruled becomes invalidated.

From my perspective, this keeps coming back to clarifying the purpose and meaning of democracy. Our government, in theory, is based on the consent of the ruled, i.e., “We the People” (note how “People” is capitalized and directly referred to with the plural “We”). According to the Constitution, what exactly is it that We the People do? We the People establish the government, not the other way around. As later clarified throughout the 19th century, this is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (the wording of which was probably based on the similar wording of previous Americans, specifically the abolitionist Theodore Parker and the Senator Daniel Webster; but the idea behind the wording probably was most compellingly expressed by Thomas Paine). Despite the imperfections and failings of Democracy and the American Dream, it is this ideal of self-government that has continued to inspire generation after generation of Americans.

It’s easy to forget this in the messy details of running a government bureaucracy. That is understandable. People are just trying to do their jobs. Democracy and bureaucracy don’t always mesh well together, not without a lot of self-sacrificing effort and seeking of consensus. Democracy is not easy. If you want easy, then try dictatorship or monarchy, try theocracy or fascism. But democracy is purposely designed to be difficult, at least in the short term. It is the long term that democracy most clearly proves its worth. Because of this, many people feel uncertain about democracy. Do we really want to put all that effort into protecting our freedom and rights? Why not just be lazy by going for for the quick and easy answers? The democratic process of transparency and consensus is messy, tiresome and often irritating.

It’s something Americans have struggled with from the beginning. Even early colonists, founding fathers and otherwise, were of mixed opinion about democracy. Many wanted democracy, especially the majority of Americans who were being oppressed and disenfranchised (non-whites, non-protestants, indentured servants, slaves, women, those without property, etc). If it was up to the majority, we would now have a democracy where all were treated equally. But among the elite, opinions were more conflicting. Some of those with influence (Paine, Franklin, Jefferson, etc) were more egalitarian in their vision of a democratic society while others opposed democracy because they correctly understood that democracy undermined their elite status and power over everyone else. It was class war right from the beginning. The Revolutionary War wouldn’t have been a success if the majority hadn’t fought for democracy, but the moment independence was won the democratic majority was legally and militarily put back in their place.

This class war continues to this day in every decision made by every government, local and national. Recently, this has been seen with the Occupy movement. The legal question has been raised about who owns public lands, i.e., “The Commons”. In a democracy, “We the People” own “The Commons”. So, to ask who owns “The Commons” is to ask whether this is or isn’t a democracy. If the government owns “The Commons”, then such public property is no longer “The Commons”. Either the government is “of the people, by the people, for the people” or it isn’t. Either the people own and control the government or otherwise the opposite becomes inevitable. The consent of the ruled necessitates that there is actual consent. If decisions are made undemocratically by Parking management or anyone else, then there is no opportunity for consent of the ruled. It simply is rule that seeks to force consent or else to disenfranchise anyone who doesn’t consent.

I’m trying to be very clear that this isn’t just some small, insignificant issue of local politics. It’s symbolic of everything going on in the country right now. And it is symbolic of the conflicts that have existed for longer than this country has existed. In every decision our government makes, in every government decision “We the People” do or don’t accept, the future of our communities and our society is being formed. This isn’t ultimately about outsourcing. It is about a collective vision of who we aspire to be. We become what we do. We become what we allow to be done to us, what we allow to be done in our name.

Deep South, American Hypocrisy, & Liberal Traditions

This post is a continuation of my previous post: Deep South, Traditional Conservatism, & Future Possibilities. I have a couple of points to add to my analysis/commentary. First, I want to point out the consistent culture and politics of the Deep South, not just recently but for its entire history. Second, I want to point out an element of hypocrisy in the American psyche and how it relates to the Deep South.

* * *

Deep South’s Unique Place In American History

In the book American Nations by Colin Woodard, I found a good summary of the agenda of the Deep South or rather the agenda of the oligarchs of the Deep South who have maintained their dominance of local politics for its entire history (Kindle Locations 4915-4927):

“The goal of the Deep Southern oligarchy has been consistent for over four centuries: to control and maintain a one-party state with a colonialstyle economy based on large-scale agriculture and the extraction of primary resources by a compliant, poorly educated, low-wage workforce with as few labor, workplace safety, health care, and environmental regulations as possible. On being compelled by force of arms to give up their slave workforce, Deep Southerners developed caste and sharecropper systems to meet their labor needs, as well as a system of poll taxes and literacy tests to keep former slaves and white rabble out of the political process. When these systems were challenged by African Americans and the federal government, they rallied poor whites in their nation, in Tidewater, and in Appalachia to their cause through fearmongering: The races would mix. Daughters would be defiled. Yankees would take away their guns and Bibles and convert their children to secular humanism, environmentalism, communism, and homosexuality. Their political hirelings discussed criminalizing abortion, protecting the flag from flag burners, stopping illegal immigration, and scaling back government spending when on the campaign trail; once in office, they focused on cutting taxes for the wealthy, funneling massive subsidies to the oligarchs’ agribusinesses and oil companies, eliminating labor and environmental regulations, creating “guest worker” programs to secure cheap farm labor from the developing world, and poaching manufacturing jobs from higher-wage unionized industries in Yankeedom, New Netherland, or the Midlands. It’s a strategy financial analyst Stephen Cummings has likened to “a high-technology version of the plantation economy of the Old South,” with the working and middle classes playing the role of sharecroppers.”

The Deep South has had limited power over national politics ever since the Civil War. However, several factors have lead to their gaining power: decades of Cold War attacks and propaganda against Leftist politics, Civil Rights movement bringing Appalachia into alignment with the Deep South, the Southern Strategy which created an effective way to campaign, and the globalizing of the economics that favored deregulation and vast wealth disparities. Because of this, national politics has fallen under the sway of the Deep South worldview. The results are what has happened in recent decades (Kindle Locations 5002-5017):

“From the 1990s, the Dixie bloc’s influence over the federal government has been enormous. In 1994 the Dixie-led Republican Party took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years. The Republicans maintained their majority in the U.S. House until 2008 and controlled the Senate for many of those years as well. While perhaps disappointed with the progressivism of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Deep Southern oligarchs finally got one of their own in the White House in 2000, for the first time since 1850. George W. Bush may have been the son of a Yankee president and raised in far western Texas, but he was a creature of east Texas, where he lived, built his political career, found God, and cultivated his business interests and political alliances. His domestic policy priorities as president were those of the Deep Southern oligarchy: cut taxes for the wealthy, privatize Social Security, deregulate energy markets (to benefit family allies at Houston-based Enron), stop enforcing environmental and safety regulations for offshore drilling rigs (like BP’s Deepwater Horizon), turn a blind eye to offshore tax havens, block the regulation of carbon emissions or tougher fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, block health care benefits for low-income children, open protected areas to oil exploration, appoint industry executives to run the federal agencies meant to regulate their industries, and inaugurate a massive new foreign guest-worker program to ensure a low-wage labor supply. Meanwhile, Bush garnered support among ordinary Dixie residents by advertising his fundamentalist Christian beliefs, banning stem cell research and late-term abortions, and attempting to transfer government welfare programs to religious institutions. By the end of his presidency—and the sixteen-year run of Dixie dominance in Washington—income inequality and the concentration of wealth in the federation had reached the highest levels in its history, exceeding even the Gilded Age and Great Depression. In 2007 the richest tenth of Americans accounted for half of all income, while richest 1 percent had seen their share nearly triple since 1994.

It’s amazing when you think about it. That is a long time for an entire region to have so little power. And then when they regain power, they take national politics by storm. You might even say a perfect storm. The stage was in the process of being set for a takeover ever since the Southern Strategy began. Reagan argued he was against the Civil Rights Act because of his defense of states’ rights, the very same argument the Deep South oligarchs often used to defend slavery and originally used to steal the land of Native Americans living in their states. To rub salt into this wound, Reagan gave a states’ rights speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi that was famous for being the location where 3 civil rights workers were killed. If not for the strong racism, the Dixie bloc would not have been possible. There was very little love lost between Appalachia and Deep South, but white supremacy was something they could agree upon.

I’ve heard some argue that they’ve experienced worst racism in parts of the North. There is racism in the North like most places, but it would be disingenuous to say it is worse. The North doesn’t have a long history of killing uppity blacks and the white civil rights workers who would defend them. It wasn’t in the North where the KKK was so politically active and powerful. For all the faults of the North, violent and oppressive racism isn’t top on the list, especially not in the past century or two (although it is fair to say that long ago the Puritans were far from friendly to those perceived as different: Quakers, Native Americans, etc). The point being that the North, despite what racism existed, didn’t seek to create a politcal bloc based on racism.

There is another argument made about slavery in America being race-based and that slavery was somehow different in the past. As Skepoet wrote in response to a comment of mine:

“It’s racialization was part of the counter-enlightenment as there is NO talk of “race” before that recorded, and most prior slavery was not racialized but the result of war.  That is also true for slavery in the colonies, as there were many “endured servants” of all races, but it was increasingly racialized through time.”

Here was my counter-argument:

“I don’t know the history of racial attitudes, but I doubt that it is true that there was no talk of “race” before that time. Earlier people may not have used that term. There are many ways to speak of race since race is often connected to so many other factors in societies: culture, geography, national identity, language, religion, clothing, etc. But it would be true that globalized capitalism would lead people to make more generalized conclusions based on race as it would lead them to make more generalized conclusions about everything. I don’t think this would be limited to recent centuries, though. When the Greek and Roman empires were trading with other empires all over the world, I’m sure people began to increasingly categorize people according to ideas of race and other similar categories, although their particular ideas might look different than those of the modern era.

“Race isn’t just about skin color. The whitest of white people from Northern Europe sometimes weren’t considered ‘white’ in the US because they came from a culture very different than that of Britain. I’m sure, for example, that most Roman slaves weren’t both genetically and ethnically of Roman descent. Most slaves came from conquered people which usually meant in those days of a different race. To go further back, the Spartans had an overtly race-based slave society. The two models of Western democracy have always been that of Athens and Sparta.”

I was reading more from American Nations and so I have further clarifications. An important point is that a specifically racialized slavery was introduced by the Deep South because their colony was modeled on Barbados which was racialized slave colony. Tidewater later adopted this racialization of slavery, but never to the extremes of Deep South. Even Native Americans were enslaved to a greater degree by the Deep South than in the other colonies, sometimes shipping off Native American slaves in exchange for shipping in African slaves. Furthermore, Deep South and Tidewater were the only colonies that were primarily based on a slave economy. Here is what Colin Woodard writes on this particular issue (Kindle Locations 1447-1482):

“Of course, the Deep South wasn’t the only part of North America practicing full-blown slavery after 1670. Every colony tolerated the practice. But most of the other nations were societies with slaves, not slave societies per se. Only in Tidewater and the Deep South did slavery become the central organizing principle of the economy and culture. There were fundamental differences between these two slave nations, however, which illuminate a subtle difference in the values of their respective oligarchies.9 We’ve seen how Tidewater’s leaders, in search of serfs, imported indentured servants of both races—men and women who could earn their freedom if they survived their servitude. After 1660, however, the people of African descent who arrived in Virginia and Maryland increasingly were treated as permanent slaves as the gentry adopted the slaveholding practices of the West Indies and Deep South. By the middle of the eighteenth century, black people faced Barbadian-style slave laws everywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line.

“Even so, in Tidewater, slaves made up a much smaller proportion of the population (1 to 1.7 whites, rather than 5 to 1), lived longer, and had more stable family lives than their counterparts in the Deep South. Tidewater’s slave population naturally increased after 1740, doing away with the need to import slaves from abroad. With few new arrivals to assimilate, Afro-Tidewater culture became relatively homogeneous and strongly influenced by the English culture it was embedded within. Many blacks whose ancestors had come to the Chesapeake region prior to 1670 had grown up in freedom, owning land, keeping servants, even holding office and taking white husbands or wives. Having African blood did not necessarily make one a slave in Tidewater, a fact that made it more difficult to dismiss black people as subhuman. Until the end of the seventeenth century, one’s position in Tidewater was defined largely by class, not race.10

“The Deep South, by contrast, had a black supermajority and an enormous slave mortality rate, meaning thousands of fresh humans had to be imported every year to replace those who had died. Blacks in the Deep South were far more likely to live in concentrated numbers in relative isolation from whites. With newcomers arriving with every slave ship, the slave quarters were cosmopolitan, featuring a wide variety of languages and African cultural practices. Within this melting pot, the slaves forged a new culture, complete with its own languages (Gullah, New Orleans Creole), Afro-Caribbean culinary practices, and musical traditions. From the hell of the slave quarters would come some of the Deep South’s great gifts to the continent: blues, jazz, gospel, and rock and roll, as well as the Caribbean-inspired foodways today enshrined in Southern-style barbeque joints from Miami to Anchorage. And because the Deep South’s climate, landscape, and ecosystem resembled those of West Africa far more than they did those of England, it was the slaves’ technologies and practices that guided the region’s agricultural development. “Carolina,” a Swiss immigrant remarked in 1737, “looks more like a negro country than like a country settled by white people.”11

“In the Deep South, African Americans formed a parallel culture, one whose separateness was enshrined in the laws and fundamental values of the nation’s white minority. Indeed, the Deep South was for at least the three centuries from 1670 to 1970 a caste society. And caste, it should be noted, is quite a different thing from class. People can and do leave the social class they are born into—either through hard work or tragedy—and can marry someone of another class and strive for their children to start life in a better position than they did. A caste is something one is born into and can never leave, and one’s children will be irrevocably assigned to it at birth. Marriage outside of one’s caste is strictly forbidden. So while the Deep South had rich whites and poor whites and rich and poor blacks, no amount of wealth would allow a black person to join the master caste. The system’s fundamental rationale was that blacks were inherently inferior, a lower form of organism incapable of higher thought and emotion and savage in behavior. Although pressed into service as wet nurses, cooks, and nannies, blacks were regarded as “unclean,” with Deep Southern whites maintaining a strong aversion to sharing dishes, clothes, and social spaces with them. For at least three hundred years, the greatest taboo in the Deep South was to marry across the caste lines or for black men to have white female lovers, for the caste system could not survive if the races began to mix. Even the remotest suspicion of violating the Great Deep Southern Taboo would result in death for a black male.”

I quoted that passage in full because I wanted to be clear. The slavery of the Deep South wasn’t like anything else found in the other American colonies. As the author goes to great effort in explaining, it wasn’t just race or even class for it had a thoroughly structured racial caste system. This was necessary in a slave society where the slaves out-numbered the non-slaves, but it also was what Deep South inherited from the Barbados model of slavery. It is also important to note that this has everything to do with war. Britain was a war-mongering imperial power that conquered and built colonies. It wasn’t anything new. Empires have been warring and conquering new lands for millennia and it isn’t unusual for the conquered (typically of another race) to be made into slaves. There wasn’t anything particularly new about this. Even the Romans would ship in slaves from far away and treat their slaves brutally according to a strict caste system.

* * *

An American Hypocrisy

The hypocrisy part relates to the two regions most dominated by a capitalist worldview: Deep South and New Netherlands. The former has led to a more neoconservative authoritarian vision of capitalism and the latter a more neoliberal egalitarian vision, but it is the neoliberal vision that has been most powerfully used as libertarian rhetoric. The American colonies were already well established prior to the era of classical liberalism. However, because of the revolutionary times, classical liberalism had a great impact on what America was becoming.

Classical liberalism has had a profound impact on both the development of liberalism and conservatism in America. It is for this reason that America has never had any political tradition or party that was distinctly and solely conservative in nature. Also, classical liberalism in America has brought forth an egalitarianism that has be ever since shadowed by its ties to colonialism, serfdom and slavery. Classical liberalism was the perfect formula of promoting an equality where some were more equal than others. Even Yankeedom, born out of the Reformationist vision of Puritan egalitarianism, has had a hard time maintaining its distinct identity separate from the classical liberalism introduced into the regions to the South of it. Still, it is Yankeedom and Midlands that has remained most resistant to classical liberalism. Some people make the mistake of assuming all American liberalism originates from classical liberalism. As I explained in my discussion with Skepoet:

“The Yankees and Midlanders were influenced by the German notion of freedom where every person is born with equal freedom, no matter their parentage, their social status, or their race. The Midlands, of course, had a notion of liberty rooted in the more socialist tendencies of German and Scandinavian immigrants. [ . . . ] The two visions are the following: Northerners tend to view property rights being based on human rights; and Southerners tend to view human rights being based on property rights.”

The liberalism of the North originated in religious beliefs, rather than in secular philosophy. And these Northern religious beliefs originated from the Reformation, rather than the Enlightenment. This is why Northern liberalism, besides the exception of New Netherlands (New York City), has fought against unfettered capitalism. In Yankeedom, it was the Puritan vision. In Midlands, it was the Quaker vision. In both Yankeedom and Midlands, it was a vision of a society created by an educated middle class, rather than a capitalist elite. It was because of religious beliefs that Northerners promoted public education for all, the reason being that only if all people were literate could all people read the Bible and have a personal relationship to God. On the other hand, Deep South was originally one of the least religious colonies in America.

Because of certain historical events, classical liberalism has been associated most strongly with the South. The key figure in this development was John Locke who was born and spent much of his life in England. The odd part is that he was born to Puritan parents and so one would think he would have more in common with Yankeedom, but because of political and economic ties he became involved in the Deep South colony and the slave trade. In fact, he even wrote or helped write the Carolina constitution. This is where it becomes interesting. Through the Carolina constitution, Locke both fortified serfdom and slavery in the Deep South while also guaranteeing religious freedom. So, only the latter part could be considered liberal in any reasonable sense and it was precisely that part that was overturned by the Deep South aristocracy in order to stengthen their alliance with colonial rule in England. Deep South aristocrats basically took the classical liberal rationalizations that justified unfettered capitalism and got rid of the rest (American Nations, Kindle Locations 1422-1428):

“While not particularly religious, the planters embraced the Anglican Church as another symbol of belonging to the establishment. Locke’s charter for the colony had guaranteed freedom of religion—Sephardic Jews and French Huguenots emigrated to the region in great numbers—but the elite overturned these provisions in 1700, giving themselves a monopoly on church and state offices. Their Anglican religious orientation also gave the Deep South elite unfettered access to London high society and the great English universities and boarding schools, milieus generally denied to Puritans, Quakers, and other dissenters. Whether English or French in origin, the Deep South’s planters would also come to embrace the Tidewater gentry’s notion of being descendants of the aristocratic Normans, lording over their colony’s crass Anglo-Saxon and Celtic underclass.”

To understand the hypocrisy within Locke’s own beliefs, here is an explanation about one part of the Carolina constitution (John Locke, Carolina, And The Two Treatises Of Government by David Armitage):

“Therefore (as the Fundamental Constitutions’most notorious article put it), “Every Freeman of Carolina shall have absolute Authority over his Negro slaves of what opinion or Religion soever.”40 Though none of his later detractors could have known it, Locke himself had augmented the slaveholders’ “absolute Authority” by adding that “” in the 1669 manuscript nowamong the Shaftesbury papers.41 Had they known, that fact would have only confirmed their suspicion that “the most eminent Republican Writers, suchas LOCKE, FLETCHER of Saltown, and ROUSSEAU himself, pretend to justify the making Slaves of others, whilst they are pleading so warmly for Liberty for themselves.””

This would put Lockean classical liberalism more in line with the reactionary conservatism described by Corey Robin. A conservative critic of Locke, writing in 1776, summarized it well:

“Republicans in general . . . for leveling all Distinctions above them, and at the same time for tyrannizing over those, whom Chance or Misfortune have placed below them.”

The Republican is, therefore, the penultimate reactionary conservative. They seek to level all the traditional distinctions above them which the traditional conservatives seek to maintain. Meanwhile, they seek to maintain the traditional distinctions below them simply out of a tactical effort of keeping more radical liberals/left-wingers from challenging the entire system. To put this in realpolitik terms, reactionary conservatives want to take away the power from those who have power over them and increase the power they have over others. It’s just another way of justifying power, but it is a new form of power being put in old garb. Even as reactionary conservatives attack traditional conservatives, they romanticize about a distant conservative past, which in this case means the oligarchic republics of ancient times.

In this light, classical liberalism is correctly claimed by contemporary American conservatives. Lockean classical liberalism is conservative in that it seeks to defend a class-based society, and it is specifically conservative in a reactionary sense because it is a counter-revolutionary response to the Enlightenment belief that all men should be treated as equals. An odd aspect of reactionary conservatism is that, because it is responding to liberalism, it often takes on the forms and appearances of liberalism… and so some even confuse it with the liberalism it mimics. Reactionary conservatism is purposely distinguishing itself from traditional conservatism which is why mimicking liberalism is such a clever tactic. It seeks to replace traditional conservatism while simultaneously co-opting the tactics and language of liberalism. Both liberals and reactionary conservatives speak of freedom. How you tell them apart is by looking for whether the freedom they propose is inclusive or exclusive.

Classical liberalism was partly formulated as a rationalization for colonization. Unlike the Spaniards, the English wanted a more convincing reason for their colonial power than merely the right over the conquered. What was proposed was that those who used the land had the right to the land. Since Native Americans were perceived as not using the land, they therefore had no right to the land. This was a capitalist argument for oppression. More from David Armitage:

“Locke’s argument from divine command to cultivate those “great Tracts”of unappropriated land became the classic theoretical expression of the agriculturalist argument for European dominium over American land. Precisely that argument underlay the rights claimed by the Proprietors over the land of Carolina, according to the terms of their grants from the English Crown. The original 1629 grant had called Carolina a region “hitherto until led. . . . But insome parts of it inhabited by certain Barbarous men,” and this description hadbeen reaffirmed in Charles II’s grant to the Lords Proprietors in 1663, which had charged the Lords Proprietors “to Transport and make an ample Colony of our Subjects . . . unto a certain Country . . . in the parts of AMERICA not yet cultivated or planted, and only inhabited by some barbarous People whohave no knowledge of Almighty God.”83 The agriculturalist argument wasthe best justification that could be given for dispossession after argumentsfrom conquest and from religion had been gradually abandoned. As the English learned from the Spanish, the argument from conquest could only justify imperium over the native peoples but not dominium over American land. Nor could Amerindian unbelief alone provide a justification for dominion. As we have seen, in 1669 the authors of the Fundamental Constitutions had speci-fied that “Idollatry Ignorance or mistake gives us noe right to expell or use[the Natives of Carolina] ill,” and that article remained in all later versions ofthe Fundamental Constitutions. Locke himself later upheld just that same argument in the Letter Concerning Toleration (1685): “No man whatsoever ought . . . to be deprived of his Terrestrial Enjoyments, upon account of his Religion. Not even Americans, subjected unto a Christian Prince, are to bepunished either in Body or Goods, for not imbracing our Faith and Worship.”84 The only remaining argument was the contention (first propounded in its modern form by Thomas More in Utopia) that dominion fell to those best able to cultivate the land to its fullest capacity, not least to fulfill the divine command to subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28, 9:1). The peculiar form of Locke’s argument therefore had identifiably colonial origins, though not exclusively colonial applications.”

As it had other possible applications, it was also an argument that became generalized beyond just colonialism. In its most extreme form, it meant that those who owned the capital had the right to political power over those who didn’t own capital. In Deep South, this meant a strictly enforced class-based society where the vast majority (hereditary serfs, slaves, women, and those who didn’town large tracts of land) didn’t have the right to vote or to hold public office, and this also included through the constitution the first hereditary nobility in America. In New Netherlands (which became New York City), this meant a corrupt anti-democratic political system that was powered by vast wealth and industry (the archetype, sadly, of many other major industrial cities).

It is interesting to consider the relationship of the land use argument to the American Dream. Many early Americans saw freedom in terms of land such as Thomas Paine with his ‘Agrarian Justice’ and Thomas Jefferson with his promoting agriculture over industry. It was, after all, agriculture that originally made America so vastly wealthy. America has some of the best soil in the world and our agricultural sector is still top notch to this day.

It was the agrarian reformists, along with abolitionists and socialists, who helped form the Republican Party. The Republican Party was originally the complete opposite of the Republican politics of the Deep South aristocracy. In fact, the Republican Party started in the North and of course produced the Lincoln presidency which led the North to fight against the aristocracy, slavery and caste system of the Deep South. Many Americans outside of the South were afraid of the Deep South aristocracy forcing their culture onto the rest of the country and they had good reason to fear. The Deep South was actively seeking to expand its slavery into new territories and to enforce its slave laws even onto non-slave states. The agrarian reformist Free Soil advocates were the most aggressive in fighting against the South’s attempt to impose slavery on, for example, the Kansas territory. The majority of Kansan farmers didn’t want slavery in Kansas, but unsurprisingly many elite wanted slavery there. This is why Kansas sided with the Union during the Civil War, Kansas by the way is split between Midlands and Far West (both areas known for having an uneasy relationship with centralized or authoritarian power, especially when it is commanded by people living far away whether in Yankeedom or Deep South).

To return to Locke in my concluding thoughts, I should clarify the claim of hypocrisy. John Locke experienced persecution himself. At one point, he moved to Netherlands which probably was a major influence on his thinking. Netherlands embodied the values of classical liberalism better than any of the other colonial powers of that era. Freedom of religion and of the press allowed Locke to write and publish his own work on religious freedom while in the Netherlands. This side of Locke seems genuinely liberal, but that didn’t change the fact that as an adult he was part of and dependent on the upper class of both English and American society. His liberalism was that of a respectable gentleman and not that of the working class rabblerousers of London who inspired Paine. Still, it seems odd that Locke would get tangled, politically and professionally, in an oppressive caste society like Deep South. It was New Netherlands that more fully embodied what Locke claimed to believe. New Netherlands, like its mother country, had a relative large degree of social freedom in terms of religion, race and social mobility. It’s true that New Netherlands had its ruling capitalist elite, but it at least wasn’t based on racialized slavery and a caste system.

Locke’s failings being what they may, he seems to have maintained some genuine streak of liberalism. Despite of or rather because of his close associations with the Deep South, he wrote in reference to the Deep South aristocracy, “The Barbadians endeavor to rule us all.” The Barbadians of course had limited interest in Locke’s ideals of freedom, other than how classical liberalism might be used to help maintain their power and authority.

Deep South, Traditional Conservatism, & Future Possibilities

I have a bunch of thoughts rolling around in my head: the cultures of early American immigrations and colonies, the different types of liberalisms especially the differences between contemporary American liberalism and classical liberalism, the defense by liberals of traditional conservatism against fiscal conservatives, and maybe a few other things besides. I’ll begin with the issue of colonies and go from there.

I’m presently reading American Nations by Colin Woodard and was having a discussion about it. I find it quite fascinating, although it probably would only interest someone to the degree that they have had personal experience in different regions of the US.

I was reading about the Deep South and my little mind was blown. I spent many years living in and/or visiting the South Carlina cities of Columbia and Charleston, the latter being the originating point of the Deep South colony, but during my years there I was mostly oblivious to the history of the Deep South. That region has experienced massive change over the centuries and, whatever problems it may still have, it is far away from where it began.

Among the colonies, the Deep South was unique in a number of ways. It is the only colony that began explicitly as a slave society. It is also the only colony that was started by people from another colony, Barbados, upon which it was modeled. At the time, Barbados was well known for being the most violently and horrifically oppressive slave colony in the entire English-speaking world. The Barbados colonists were immensely rich, but they didn’t have any more land to be developed. So, the sons of the Barbados elite sought lands on other islands as well as coming to America. It was because they had so much wealth that they could be so brutal. It didn’t matter that their slaves had such short lives under these conditions because more could be bought with the massive profits made.

The Deep South was the wealthiest and most heavily populated colony in America. They had so much money that they even bought most of their goods from Britain and so the Deep South colony had little need for industry. Many of the plantation owners sent their children to boarding schools in England. Also, many of them lived in England themselves rather than living on their plantations. Deep South was the only colony to have major political representation in England which allowed them to keep taxation low within their own colony.

I’m not even sure how to describe this kind of society. It was as anti-liberal as is possible for a society to be while still being functional. It was a capitalist nightmare where everything operated according to property. The ruling minority at the top owned everything and everyone. All legal rights were based on property rights. I suppose it was some kind of proto-fascism, but typically fascism is seen as a response to socialism and this was long before socialism was formulated.

Deep South was similar to the Tidewater colony in that it was based on plantations using indentured servants and slaves, but it was urban where Tidewater was more rural. Deep South plantation owners built a major city and spent much of their time and money visiting it. Plus, Deep South plantation owners lacked the paternalism of the Tidwater where the plantation owners were expected to care for the needs of those working for them. Tidewater plantation owners lived on their plantations and so lived closely with their indentured servants and slaves. Tidewater was a very kinship-oriented society and so those living on a plantation were a part of the daily experience of family life. Deep South didn’t have this same intimate way of running their plantations.

Deep South was similar to the New Netherlands colony (what would become New York City) in that it was a society undemocratically centered around capitalism. New Netherlands for some time was managed by a corporation. So, both had elements of proto-fascism. One difference is New Netherlands wasn’t founded as a slave society, although it was New Netherlands that first introduced slavery to America. Another difference is that New Netherlands was a more multicultural, egalitarian society. If any colony could make a claim to bringing classical liberalism to America, it would be New Netherlands. They believed in the more modern capitalist dream of working hard in order to better one’s station in life. Unlike Deep South, many of the wealthy in New Netherlands weren’t born into wealth. Even African slaves could become freemen and operate their own farms and businesses. New Netherlands was one of the most tolerant of the colonies and Deep South was one of the least tolerant.

And Deep South was similar to the Yankiedom colony in that it was politically centralized and expansionist. It was Yankiedom and Tidewater that had the longest history of conflict that tied them both back to the conflicts in England, but it was Yankiedom and Deep South that were two most major forces in their competing visions. Yankiedom was focused on an educated middle class whereas Deep South was focused on inherited power and wealth. Yankiedom was built on democratic ideals that were inspired by the Reformation (such as mandatory public education to ensure everyone could read the Bible and have a personal relationship with God) whereas Deep South was built on republican ideals that were inspired by the slave oligarchies of the ancient world. Despite their differences, both would use military force to ensure their expansion and both could be less than welcoming to those perceived as outside of their social in-group.

By the way, I should clarify what is included within the Deep South. It started in South Carolina from which it expanded South and West mostly going through states along the Southern coast and ending its expansion in Eastern Texas. It came to occupy Georgia, for example, even though Georgia was colonized as a utopian society very different from the Deep South colony. So, even within the Deep South, there are pockets or mixings of other cultures. The Deep South is almost entirely bordered by Appalachia on its Northern side. Many people conflate Deep South and Appalachia for they both share a number of states, including South Carolina, and they both have influenced each other greatly. I suspect that it is the anti-authoritarian Appalachian culture that has been a moderating force on the formerly authoritarian Deep South culture, and I’m sure the formerly utopian Georgia culture probably had its impact as well.

Still, no matter what changes have occured, Deep South still emphasizes the view that property rights are prioritized above all else. This property rights focus is a major point of agreement Deep South has with Appalachia. There is this idea of ownership as the basis of liberty. It was the Deep South (and maybe Tidewater as well) that promoted the idea that only land owners should have the right to vote. This cultural heritage is what has formed the basis of what is now known as fiscal conservatism. It was the GOP’s Southern Strategy that brought fiscal conservatism to dominance in national politics.

I was discussing the problems and dangers of fiscal conservatism in a recent post. Events in the local city government have made me aware of how much influence fiscal conservatism has had on the nation. Even in this Yankee-style liberal college town in the moderate Midlands, the local government has turned to fiscal conservatism as the preferred solution for economic problems. Even radically progressive states like Wisconsin which is in a stronghold of Yankiedom, fiscal conservative rhetoric helped to elect some of the most radically right-wing politicians seen in a long time. In the endless struggle between the superpowers of Yankiedom and Deep South, it does at times feel like the latter has won the war of who will dominate public debate and hence determine America’s future.

My point, as a Midlander, isn’t necessarily to take sides in this war between Yankiedom and Deep South. The former doesn’t represent my sense of liberalism and the latter doesn’t represent any normal notion of traditional conservatism. In the past, traditional conservatives fought against capitalism and classical liberalism. It’s hard to find many vocal traditional conservatives left in the so-called conservative movement, especially not in the GOP itself. The demographic most strong in their traditional conservatism would be minorities who vote for the Democratic Party. The two party system isn’t split between conservatism and liberalism. Rather, it is split between neoconservatives on one side and traditional conservatives on the other, between classical liberals on one side and neoliberals on the other. Conservatives have stopped defending traditional conservatism for the most part and liberals have come to akwardly defend it.

As a Midlander, I realize the culture of the region I live in isn’t the most influential, even though some think of it as being the most ‘American’ since it is the Heartland, after all. If traditional conservatism as a viable and established culture still exists anywhere in the US, it likely would be found in small pockets in the Midlands Midwest, especially in the small Catholic farming towns in states like Iowa. The great conflict I see right now in this country is between fiscal conservatism and traditional conservatism. It is during hard economic times that Americans remember the importance of traditional conservatism (family, religion, community, regionalism, ‘sense of place’, government regulations, public welfare, etc). Maybe at this point such traditional conservatism has become nothing more than a romanticized reminiscence of and projection onto a distant past. America has never had much of a culture of traditional conservatism and probably never will, but I think it is good for Americans to think what it might mean for society facing so much change. One thing to keep in mind is that socialism is closer than capitalism to the original meaning of traditional conservatism. So, to contemplate traditional conservatism is to be forced to confront the failures and problems with capitalism.

In terms of demographics, I think minorities have the strongest connection to traditional conservatism because of two reasons, both related to the Hispanic population. First, Hispanics are some of the most strongly Catholic of Americans. Catholicism is one of the oldest Christian traditions left in the world and so it still is rooted in ancient traditions (unlike Protestantism, Anabaptism, Mormonism, New Thought, etc). Second, Spaniards were some of the first to colonize North America. Their arrival here precedes the Enlightenment by many centuries. Also, the El Norte colony/nation (in the Northern parts of Mexico, along the Southern border of the US, up along Southern California coasts, and into the Southwest) is one of the few places where European culture mixed with native culture.

Interestingly, El Norte is known for having a history of seeking democratic reform. As the Hispanic demographic is the fastest growing in America, it makes me wonder what this will mean for national politics in the future. Combined with that, I could see a further impact of blacks returning to the South in large numbers after spending generations in Midlands and Yankiedom where they incorporated that culture. I portend major culture clashes in the coming decades.

I’m not sure I have any clear conclusions to add. I was just trying to bring together that jumble of thoughts. I feel like there is such a confusion of issues going on that it may be impossible to disentangle what it all means and where it all is heading. In pointing out the problems of the early Deep South, I don’t mean to praise Yankiedom as the better alternative culture. I do think we could use more of the Yankee emphasis on education. However, I’d gladly point out the hypocrisy of Puritan egalitarianism at the heart of the Yankee vision of society. I’m personally fond of the Midlands, but I don’t know that the Midlands has much to offer that would be acceptable to the powers that be. I don’t even know if the growing minority population will lead to any positive change, but almost any change would feel better than the status quo at this point. I don’t know what potential is left in American society. My hope is that understanding the past might help break us free from the sense of cultural hegemony that can blind us from other perspectives.

Tea Party Welfare

Books About Conservatism and the Tea Party
By Timothy Noah, The New York Times

“Today, nearly all political centrists are Democrats. And with the rise of the Tea Party, Republicans are experiencing another 1964 moment. Indeed, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson report in their exceptionally informative book, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” more than a few Tea Partiers “dated their first political experience to the Goldwater campaign.” But there are important differences between the two movements. For one, the Tea Party, unlike the Goldwater insurgency, has managed to win elections and thereby obtain some power at the national and state level. For another, the Tea Partiers’ anti-­government ideology is tempered by quiet support for Social Security and Medicare. That’s because the activists themselves tend to be middle-aged or older. Tea Partiers aren’t opposed to government benefits per se, according to Skocpol and Williamson; rather, they’re opposed to “unearned” government benefits, which in practice ends up meaning any benefits extended to African-­Americans, Latinos, immigrants (especially undocumented ones) and the young. A poll of South Dakota Tea Party supporters found that 83 percent opposed any Social Security cuts, 78 percent opposed any cuts to Medicare prescription-drug coverage, and 79 percent opposed cuts in Medicare reimbursements to physicians and hospitals. “So much for the notion that Tea Partiers are all little Dick Armeys,” Skocpol and Williamson write. The small government Tea Partiers favor is one where I get mine and most others don’t get much at all.”

“This poses a particular problem for a conservative Republican like Rep. Paul Ryan, who favors privatizing Medicare and shifting more of the financial burden onto recipients. But it’s also a problem for anyone seeking to lower the budget deficit, because it’s the “earned” benefits like Social Security and Medicare that are mainly responsible for runaway government spending. On the other hand, although Tea Partiers, who tend to be comfortably middle class but not wealthy, hate paying taxes, they don’t necessarily mind when other people pay taxes; the South Dakota poll had 56 percent of Tea Party supporters favoring a 5 percent increase in income taxes for people who earn more than $1 million a year.”

This is what I’ve been pointing out again and again.

The Tea Party conservative (and the fiscal conservatives who support them) isn’t against big government and isn’t against welfare. Rather, they are against big government that helps other people who aren’t like them: minorities, immigrants, and the young.

The GOP strongholds are the Deep South and the Far West which are the regions that receive the most federal benefits, meaning they receive more federal taxpayer money than they pay in federal taxes. The Far West, in fact, has been dependent on government funding since the 19th century simply to make the region habitable.

I see the same thing in Iowa. Eastern Iowa isn’t as dependent on farm subsidies and so Eastern Iowans don’t elect politicians to make sure they get this type of government welfare which means they more often vote for Democrats. Western Iowans, however, are dependent on government welfare through farming subsidies and so they vote for Republicans who always get federal funds for their constituents.

These kinds of conservatives will complain about spending other people’s money. Yet they are perfectly fine with other people’s money being spent on themselves and on what they care about (e.g., abstinence-only sex education, oil subsidies, military, etc). There is this fundamental disconnect from reality that is mind-blowing. If the Tea Party got rid of government, it is people like the Tea Party supporters (along with others living in Republican-voting states) who would be among those who would suffer the most.

They benefit from the welfare such as farm subsidies created by progressives and attack progressivism. They’ll tell the government to keep its hands off of their Medicare. Where do they think Medicare comes from? Who do they think pays for it? It’s just plain bizarre.

Iowa City: Public Good & Democratic Government

Here is a local issue that effects me personally, but it’s very similar to local issues all across the country.

Union calls city layoffs ‘deplorable’
Proposal would eliminate five full-time positions

“Miller says the union wants the city to explore other cost-cutting options before laying off workers, and he points to “extras” such as city vehicles driven by the city manager and police and fire chiefs, and the temporary specialists hired during the flood recovery process as areas that could be axed. Miller also questioned the immediate need for capital improvement projects like the $30 million parking facility slated for downtown and the multimillion dollar pedestrian ramp recently built over Interstate 80 on North Dodge Street.

““Not all avenues have been explored that we need to explore yet before we start laying people off,” Miller said Thursday. “That’s my opinion. We’d like to sit down with the city, get in touch with employees and see if we can find any cost-saving measures and suggestions they may have to avoid layoffs.”

“Vic Zender, the transit worker whose job is on the chopping block, has worked for the city for 15 years and said he is the city’s lone transit body mechanic. His job includes repairing not only the city buses but maintaining other vehicles, such as police cars.

““Since it’s a one-man operation, I cover everything for the city,” Zender said. “It doesn’t seem logical for the budget cut to come from that one area, since it’s a one-person area and it serves the whole city.”

 * * *

I have an insider’s view. I’ve worked for Iowa City Parking for more than a decade, and so I’ve been there longer than some of the people in the department’s management and longer than many people in the local government. I’m not even surprised by the changes that are happening. I saw it all coming. Some of the changes are even things I talked about with a supervisor years ago before I even knew the city officials were considering such changes. It was just inevitable that changes would come. These changes involve factors beyond mere economic challenges.

Let me explain where I’m coming from.

In attitude, I’m more or less a typical Midwesterner. And it is as a Midwesterner that I care about what happens in this Midwestern town.

In terms of politics, I’m liberal-minded and a union member, although I don’t vote for Democrats (actually, I’m supporting Ron Paul at the moment, not that such things should matter). Despite being on the left, I often have discussions with right-libertarians and fiscal conservatives, and so I know that perspective.

My ‘liberalism’ is of the moderate variety that seeks compromise and agreement, win/win instead of win/lose. Also, my ‘liberalism’ crosses over with libertarianism, especially with issues of civil liberties but I’m also suspicious of big government when it comes to collusion between the public and private sectors (hence the Ron Paul support). If I had been alive when the GOP was a moderate party, I would have voted for Eisenhower (corporatism and military-industrial complex being of the same cloth).

Even as a union member, the union angle isn’t my primary concern here. I am glad to see the union speak out, but I’m not writing this post from the perspective of a union member. Besides, it’s not as if I’m a union representative or anything. I’m not even an active member of the union. The union is small and very few employees belong to it. The union doesn’t even have the power to strike. Mostly the union just negotiates contracts. This is a rare moment when the union makes an offical criticism of the city government. And the reason the union spoke up is because they felt decieved and betrayed.

Even as a city employee, I’m not thinking about this in personal terms. It is true that the changes the city government is making threatens my job. My position will be eliminated in the near future and it’s not yet clear if I’ll be offered another position or if it will be a position I will want. My particular job isn’t being outsourced but is instead being eliminated because human cashiers are being replaced by self-pay stations (the future is here and the machines are taking over). My department is Parking which a while ago was combined with Transit, the former runs the parking ramps and the latter the buses. It is personal to me, of course, but my concern here is more as a citizen who happens to have an inside view of the situation.

It is, however, the personal angle that causes me to write this as a blog instead of as a letter-to-the-editor. As a city employee who still has a job at the moment, I have absolutely no desire to draw too much attention to myself and I for damn sure don’t want to be the center of attention. I made some comments to the article in the local newspaper, but that is as far as I wanted to take it. This post is a continuation of and an expansion on what I said in those comments.

 * * *

I’m skeptical of big government (as I’m skeptical of big business) and I’m strongly critical of our present corrupt political system on the national level, but I think about local government very differently than federal government. If democracy is possible (something I occasionally doubt), it is most likely to function well on the local level. I’m very Midwestern in my faith in community and grassroots democracy. I don’t hate government, but I do want a democratic government that is responsible to the local community and serves the public good.

I know the people who manage parking/transit. They are good people dealing with a difficult problem. Everyone is struggling with the economy in its present state, but that is all the more reason we should be careful about the decisions we make in duress. It’s true we must solve the short-term problem of saving tax-payer money. However, if we don’t use enough foresight, we might find that short-term solutions could lead to unintended long-term problems. The public good is a very precarious thing, difficult to create and maintain while easy to destroy and corrupt.

Iowa City, like many communities, is in a tight spot. But such difficult times can be opportunities when great improvements are made because people become aware of the need for change. In the past, this led to great public good such as the use of government funds to renovate downtown and build the ped-mall. We should be wary of wasting tax-payer money, but we should be also careful about slowly picking away at the government services that produce public good for our community.

Outsoucring easily becomes a step toward privatization. I don’t know if outsourcing is always bad, but we should consider the potential results of the choices we make, esepecially when those choices become permanent. Do we want to move in the direction of privatizing public services? It’s quite likely true that a private company could operate parking ramps, buses and even libraries cheaper than the government. But that doesn’t mean that a private company would necessarily charge less (might even charge more) to customers who use those services. And they might not even offer a better service (might even offer a worse service).

I take these issues seriously. Over the years, I’ve often wondered why the city operates parking ramps when private companies could do so. The reason the government does so is because the government has been able to offer a high quality service at a low cost to the public, something that a private company probably couldn’t accomplish. The government can do this because the government isn’t concerned about profit. So, do we or do we not value this service provided by the city? Oursourcing suggests private companies can do a better job in terms of offering cheaper services even if not a better service. If saving money is what the local government cares about, they could entirely privatize these departments and they would never have to worry about costs again. Why not?

I don’t mean this just or even primarily as a criticism of outsourcing. I mean this as a serious set of issues that should be publicly debated by the community rather than decided in private by non-elected government officials. We are at this moment experiencing changes that will determine the future of Iowa City. This is something everyone should be concerned about and so everyone should be involved in. I offer my opinions on this matter as both a public servant and as a concerned citizen.

* * *

The following is actually the first comment I made. Although I stand by the truth of what I wrote, I felt like I was being too harsh or too absolutist or else just no showing my full perspective. This led me to writing the above thoughts for balance. So, here is my initial gut-level response:

This is what I don’t understand. If something is done for the public good and can’t be done well by the private sector, then it should be publicly operated entirely. If something isn’t being done for the public good or can be done well by the private sector, then it should be privately operated entirely.

The city has sought to outsource work for both parking and transit (i.e., buses). If the city keeps outsourcing these jobs, obviously the city is saying that they think the private sector can do a better job than the city can do. The only rational reason why the city doesn’t simply privatize the entire departments by letting them be made into private businesses is that the city wants to keep the profit while using cheap outsourced labor.

The city likes outsourced labor because it isn’t unionized and the labor is cheap because such jobs rarely have good pay or good benefits. But mere profit isn’t a good reason for the city to continue operating these departments. Fiscal conservatism has caused a warping of the very purpose of public services run by the government.

Either privatize these departments or keep the jobs in the city. It is the mixing of private and public that has led to corporatism on the national level (especially with contractors in the military). Once businesses develop a dependency on government contract work, a cozy relationship develops between certain sectors of business and the government. Once money starts flowing back and forth between politicians and business owners, it is unlikely to lead to positive results in the long run. Do we really want our local government copying the bad habits of our federal government? Do we really want to risk the possibility of increasing corporatism in Iowa City?

* * *

More than anything, what is on my mind is the issue of community. As a liberal-minded left-winger (or as socialist-leaning left-liberal), I realize community isn’t something that happens by accident. This goes way beyond this or any other recent issue. For many years (much of this past decade), I’ve been thinking about the importance of community and what it means on the local level. I’ve even written about it before on a number of occasions (for example: Public Good vs Splintered Society).

The issue of community, however, has become particularly important with recent problems of economic downturn and political divisiveness. Add to that the risk to our very democracy, especially of the local grassroots variety, from rabid fiscal conservatism and corrupt neoliberalism. On the local level, there have been many things that have come up.

Most recently, for example, there is the plans to build yet another multi-use apartment building (Red Avocado, Defunct Books to make way for new multi-use building: Iowa City bookstore, restaurant ordered to leave). This is about the endless conflict between community and capitalism. There are already many multi-use apartment buildings and many aren’t even filled to capacity, specifically the ground-level storefronts. There is a boom in student numbers at the moment which has promoted growth, but this boom isn’t likely to last. More importantly, most of these new apartment buildings aren’t being built to last as long at the houses that they are replacing. It’s quite likely that these apartment buildings will not be maintained once a profit is made out of them which means they almost inevitably will fall into disrepair and get bought up by slumlords. Neighborhoods, like communities, are hard to rebuild after they have been destroyed. Besides, who wants a future city filled with decrepit apartment buildings where once beautiful old buildings used to be.

Many people have a nonchalant attitude about community. They just don’t understnad its value or they don’t appreciate how difficult it is to create and maintain. This is particularly true among fiscal conservatives which is a distinction between them and more traditional conservatives.

I spoke to a fiscal conservative who is a Christian (a combination I’ve always found odd, at times verging on the hypocritical with some views) and he demonstrated this difference. The church he attended had reached capacity and would require a new building for the church to grow. As a fiscal conservative, he assumed growth was better than maintaining the past. This fiscal conservative also had moved around a lot because of career and so had little investment in the community. He didn’t understand why many church members didn’t want to move. It took my liberal mindset (or, rather, my Midwestern liberal mindset) to explain it to him. The church wasn’t simply a physical structure. It was part of people’s sense of community and home. It was where people grew up, got married, and raised their kids.

Fiscal conservatives, however, just see the economic and the physical aspects, and so they can’t see the difference between one building and another, between an old church and a new church, between a thriving neighborhood of beautiful old houses and a multi-use apartment building with no character. I understand what might be gained by building something new. I’m not against economic improvements if they are done with foresight and done with a goal of long-term benefits for the entire community. The problem isn’t that I don’t understand or value such faith in improvements through entrepreneurial investments. Rather, the problem is that fiscal conservatives and many capitalists don’t understand the view of those living in a community who want to defend their community. They often don’t understand why laissez-faire capitalism shouldn’t always or usually trump local grassroots democracy, why individual decisions shouldn’t necessarily trump community decisions. They have faith in laissez-faire capitalism and it can take a lot to shake that faith.

There is a trade-off that should be acknowledged and taken seriously. It isn’t just a decision to be made by individuals. The impact of these decisions will be communal and will last a very long time, for generations in fact; the direction we choose to take as a community might even be felt a century from now by the future residents of this community. For this reason, these decisions should be made by the community. If the community doesn’t want a neighborhood destroyed, why should they allow it be destroyed?

It’s not even about being for or against free markets. What is about is how one chooses to define free markets. To me, a market isn’t free if the people involved in and impacted by the market aren’t equally free; this means feedom in terms of real impact on real people instead of just theoretical ideals of ‘freedom’; if some people are more ‘free’ than others in their influence over the future of the community, then it ‘freedom’ becomes a facade of power. Community is about everyone being involved, not just wealthy capitalists or well-connected politicians. It relates to a confusion many people have about socialism. Socialists are against laissez-faire capitalism but, despite what many think, not necessarily against free markets. Many socialists, in fact, are for free markets as an antidote to laissez-faire capitalism. For this reason, socialism has its deepest roots in the Midwest, a region that has always valued both community cooperation and a hardworking entrepreneurial spirit, both being seen as in alignment rather than in conflict. It was the Milwaukee Sewer Socialists who cleaned up the corruption of crony capitalism and built a thriving economy and community by working with small, local businesses.

In the Midwest, there is a history of small, local business owners who care about community. This culture of community still influences Midwestern business owners to this day, but it is a value system under threat. Capitalism has led to big businesses taking over family farms and thus destroying the once thriving communities that were built around those family farms. Having grown up and lived in this particular Midwestern town for most of my life, I have a good sense of and appreciation for the Midwestern business sensibility. When I was a kid, there were still many corner grocery stores, but they went out of business for various reasons such as licensing fees being put in place that favored big businesses. For most of the time I’ve worked for the city, I’ve rented from the Alberhasky family who have run a number of businesses for generations in this town. Doug Alberhasky operates the rental part of the family business is a perfect example of the Midwestern businessman. I’ve interacted with him a lot over the years. You can tell that he cares about the buildings he owns, many of them historic, and that he cares about this community he lives in and is a part of. Being responsible to his business isn’t separate from being responsible to his community.

Iowa City is lucky, unlike many other towns in Iowa (and the rest of the rural Midwest) that are facing far more severe problems. It’s people like the Alberhaskys who help maintain what is still good about this town, even during these economic hard times. Just because there are economic challenges, it doesn’t follow that we should stop prioritizing community. If anything, we should prioritize community and all aspects of public good even more during economic hard times. That is what made the Midwest so successful in the first place, what made it into what we now know of as the ‘Heartland’. As explained in The Middle West – Its Meaning in American Culture by James R. Shortridge (p. 19), the Midwestern conflict with laissez-faire capitalism goes back to the first generations who settled here:

“The economic depression helped to foster a sense of regional identity and independence for the Middle West, in part by bringing people together and forcing cooperation to temper frontier individualism,. The experience also broke many of the financial ties that bound the region to the East. Much Eastern capital had been invested in Kansas and Nebraska prior to 1887. Some of it had come as loans from family, some as support from the Free State movements prior to the Civil War, but most had been pure business investments. The money encouraged large-scale speculation in land, town sites, railroads, and nearly every other aspect of life that accompanied the settlement of the praire in the two postwar decades. Some fortunes were made from this speculation, but when hard times in the early 1890s produced defaults on loans, the two regions blamed each other for the troubles. Prairie farmers were irresponsible spendthrifts in Eastern eyes; Easterners were selfish, unfeeling exploiters from the Western perspetive. The financial troubles quickly became a regional political issue, spawning debates over free silver, protective tariffs, and populist reforms in general. They even created the first hero for the Middle West, Nebraska’s William Jennings Bryan.

“The financial crisis affected familial as well as financial ties, dividing peoples who had already begun to drift apart. Kansans and Nebraskans who had been Eastern born and thus were “full of Eastern thought, energy, method, and sympathies” were replaced by a generation who had known only the prairies. “To such people the West was home,” wrote a Kansan; “Western ways and Western ideas are inbred.””

In the past, economic hardship strengthened local communities. But now economic hardships are so much larger than in the past. And sadly it seems more likely that community will be weakened in the process.

* * *

This hard-earned community spirit is easily lost if we aren’t careful. This brings me back to the original topic that I began with. The city government, for good or ill, is often the last defense of local community. Citizens can’t protect their commuity if their government doesn’t represent them.

The challenge of modern government is that so many decisions are complex. I can understand why the management of city departments would rather not involve the public in their decisoin-making. Democracy is messy, difficult, and time-consuming. But that is also the strength and advantage of democracy. It disallows decisions to be made too quickly that might end up having very bad results. Careful decision-making is particularly important when considering issues that will have long-term impact on the community.

Working in government, it could be easy to lose sight of the community aspect of one’s job even if one grew up in the community. It could begin to feel as if it were a job like any other job and one might forget that it in reality isn’t a job like any other job. Running a government isn’t just about cutting costs and increasing efficiency. If government isn’t about the community, then it is worse than useless. This should never be forgotten.

In recent decades, however, fiscal conservatism has become dominant in politics. A major element of fiscal conservatism is either privatizing government services or else outsourcing them. That such fiscally conservative strategies have even been introduced into a liberal college town like Iowa City shows how much power social conservatives have over our society. Even conservatives in Iowa tend not to be radical right-wing fiscal conservatives. The Republican-voting Western Iowa gets more federal welfare through farm subsidies than does Democratic-voting Eastern Iowa. Iowans, whether on the left or right, tend to be very moderate.

I see this connected with community for moderation is necessary in maintaining communities where people sometimes disagree. Cooperation isn’t possible without a willingess to compromise when it benefits the public good.

I feel like those making the decisions to outsource maybe don’t fully appreciate what they are doing. Too many decisions are made without enough foresight. I don’t know if that is the case in this situation, but I would advise that we follow the precautionary principle in considering massive changes. The city hasn’t even offered any evidence that outsourcing would either save money or create better results for the public. That is their argument, but as far as I know they’ve offered no data to back it up. Yes, outsourcing is an easy answer for providing a quick fix of cost-saving. But is it the best solution for all involved?

All I want is public discussion, just the good ol’ fashioned grassroots and community-oriented democracy that the Midwest is known for. If the community decides it is in favor of outsourcing, then I’ll support it as part of this community.

Magical Marxism & Other Alternative Visions

I noticed the book Magical Marxism by Andy Merrifield (links at the end to give some understanding about the book and author). I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this post. I simply was interested in the basic idea as presented in the title.

I was thinking about how this could be taken in a slightly different direction: Imaginal Socialism, Fortean Anarchism, Zetetic Leftism, Gnostic Radicalism, Taoist Revolution, etc. My thought was combining two aspects: 1) the unknown and murky, desire and imagination, curiosity and wonder, questioning and seeking, etc; and 2) revolutionary politics, radical visions, ways of relating that challenge the status quo, etc.

The failure I see of left-wing politics seems connected to an overly masculine worldview. This made me think of the differences between a thick boundary type and a thin boundary type, and how these differences relate to the liminal, the imaginal, and the Trickster archetype. I see many left-wingers go back and forth between two masculine attitudes: 1) willful plans of action and tactics of directly challenging power; and 2) abstract intellectuality with in-group terminology to clearly define the boundaries and distinctions. The feminine aspects of being in the world are forgotten or dismissed or simply de-emphasized.  Politics, society and the larger world isn’t just about individuals acting. There is a being-in-the-world that goes beyond mere passivity toward a fecund creativity.

What if it isn’t about intellectually or tactically willing something into reality? What if, instead, there was some unknown to lure us forward into realms we could never find on purpose? Maybe the best way forward is to lose the path we’ve been following.

These are just thoughts. I haven’t cleared up my thinking. I was just wondering about a particular angle. I just wanted to pick at this crack I noticed at the foundation of leftist politics. I see some light shining out of the crack and it made me curious about what this light might be.







‘Capitalist’ US vs ‘Socialist’ Finland

Finland vs America is simply socialism vs capitalism. The Finnish are running their public education system according to the model of democratic socialism (in case you didn’t know, democratic socialism is what Marx was advocating).

In Finland, their social democracy doesn’t encourage or prioritize capitalist competition but instead encourages and prioritizes democracy in its best sense. In America, on the other hand, capitalism has had a long history of undermining democracy and hence public good.

It’s not even that Finland is an absolute perfect example of socialism any more than America is an absolute perfect example of capitalism. Rather, the point is that America strives toward a more capitalist worldview and Finland strives toward a more socialist worldview. Two different strivings leading to two very different results.

By the way, if you want to see where children get the best public education in America, just look at the states with high percentages of Scandinavian ethnicities. For example, check out the education data on the Upper Midwest; and while your at it look at the history of culture and politics. In America, the stronghold of democratic-socialism/social-democracy along with progressivism has always been the Upper Midwest.

What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

“In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.

In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland — unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway — was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.

That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. seems especially poignant at the moment, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford $35,000 in tuition per child per year — or even just the price of a house in a good public school district — and the other “99 percent” is painfully plain to see.

 * * *

“Pasi Sahlberg goes out of his way to emphasize that his book Finnish Lessons is not meant as a how-to guide for fixing the education systems of other countries. All countries are different, and as many Americans point out, Finland is a small nation with a much more homogeneous population than the United States.

“Yet Sahlberg doesn’t think that questions of size or homogeneity should give Americans reason to dismiss the Finnish example. Finland is a relatively homogeneous country — as of 2010, just 4.6 percent of Finnish residents had been born in another country, compared with 12.7 percent in the United States. But the number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn’t lose its edge in education. Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others, yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys across the same period.

“Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Teachers College, has addressed the effects of size and homogeneity on a nation’s education performance by comparing Finland with another Nordic country: Norway. Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country’s school system than the nation’s size or ethnic makeup.

“Indeed, Finland’s population of 5.4 million can be compared to many an American state — after all, most American education is managed at the state level. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, there were 18 states in the U.S. in 2010 with an identical or significantly smaller percentage of foreign-born residents than Finland.

“What’s more, despite their many differences, Finland and the U.S. have an educational goal in common. When Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country’s education system in the 1970s, they did so because they realized that to be competitive, Finland couldn’t rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had to invest in a knowledge-based economy.

“With America’s manufacturing industries now in decline, the goal of educational policy in the U.S. — as articulated by most everyone from President Obama on down — is to preserve American competitiveness by doing the same thing. Finland’s experience suggests that to win at that game, a country has to prepare not just some of its population well, but all of its population well, for the new economy. To possess some of the best schools in the world might still not be good enough if there are children being left behind.

“Is that an impossible goal? Sahlberg says that while his book isn’t meant to be a how-to manual, it is meant to be a “pamphlet of hope.”

“”When President Kennedy was making his appeal for advancing American science and technology by putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s, many said it couldn’t be done,” Sahlberg said during his visit to New York. “But he had a dream. Just like Martin Luther King a few years later had a dream. Those dreams came true. Finland’s dream was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or what kind of families they come from, and many even in Finland said it couldn’t be done.”

“Clearly, many were wrong. It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important — as a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform — Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.

The problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.”