Individualism and Isolation

“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”
~ Benjamin Franklin

“The Indians, their old masters, gave them their choice and, without requiring any consideration, told them that they had been long as free as themselves. They chose to remain, and the reasons they gave me would greatly surprise you: the most perfect freedom, the ease of living, the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail with us… all these and many more motives which I have forgot made them prefer that life of which we entertain such dreadful opinions. It cannot be, therefore, so bad as we generally conceive it to be; there must be in their social bond something singularly captivating, and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us; for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans! There must be something more congenial to our native dispositions than the fictitious society in which we live, or else why should children, and even grown persons, become in a short time so invincibly attached to it? There must be something very bewitching in their manners, something very indelible and marked by the very hands of nature. For, take a young Indian lad, give him the best education you possibly can, load him with your bounty, with presents, nay with riches, yet he will secretly long for his native woods, which you would imagine he must have long since forgot, and on the first opportunity he can possibly find, you will see him voluntarily leave behind all you have given him and return with inexpressible joy to lie on the mats of his fathers…

“Let us say what will of them, of their inferior organs, of their want of bread, etc., they are as stout and well made as the Europeans. Without temples, without priests, without kings and without laws, they are in many instances superior to us, and the proofs of what I advance are that they live without care, sleep without inquietude, take life as it comes, bearing all its asperities with unparalleled patience, and die without any kind of apprehension for what they have done or for what they expect to meet with hereafter. What system of philosophy can give us so many necessary qualifications for happiness? They most certainly are much more closely connected to nature than we are; they are her immediate children…”
~ J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur

Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. Such societies, as the acronym goes, are WEIRD. But what exactly makes them weird?

This occurred to me because of reading Sebastian Junger’s Tribe. Much of what gets attributed to these WEIRD descriptors has been around for more than a half millennia, at least since the colonial imperialism began in Europe. From the moment Europeans settled in the Americas, a significant number of colonists were choosing to live among the natives because in many ways that lifestyle was a happier and healthier way of living with less stress and work, less poverty and inequality, not only lacking in arbitrary political power but also allowing far more personal freedom, especially for women.

Today, when we bother to think much about the problems we face, we mostly blame them on the side effects of modernity. But colonial imperialism began when Europe was still under the sway of of monarchies, state churches, and feudalism. There was nothing WEIRD about Western civilization at the time.

Those earlier Europeans hadn’t yet started to think of themselves in terms of a broad collective identity such as ‘Westerners’. They weren’t particularly well educated, not even the upper classes. Industrialization was centuries away. As for being rich, there was some wealth back then but it was limited to a few and even for those few it was rather unimpressive by modern standards. And Europeans back then were extremely anti-democratic.

Since European colonists were generally no more WEIRD than various native populations, we must look for other differences between them. Why did so many Europeans choose to live among the natives? Why did so many captured Europeans who were adopted into tribes refuse or resist being ‘saved’? And why did the colonial governments have to create laws and enforce harsh punishments in their having tried to stop people from ‘going native’?

European society, on both sides of the ocean, was severely oppressive and violent. That was particularly true in Virginia that was built on the labor of indentured servitude, at a time when most were worked to death before getting the opportunity for release from bondage. They had plenty of reason to seek the good life among the natives. But life was less than pleasant in the other colonies as well. A similar pattern repeated itself.

Thomas Morton went off with some men into the wilderness to start their own community where they commingled with the natives. This set an intolerable example that threatened Puritan social control and so the Puritans destroyed their community of the free. Roger Williams, a Puritan minister, took on the mission to convert the natives but found himself converted instead. He fled Puritan oppression because, as he put, the natives were more civilized than the colonists. Much later on, Thomas Paine living near some still free Indian tribes observed that their communities demonstrated greater freedom, self-governance, and natural rights than the colonies. He hoped Americans could take that lesson to heart. Other founders, from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, looked admiringly to the example of their Indian neighbors.

The point is that whatever is problematic about Western society has been that way for a long time. Modernity has worsened this condition of unhappiness and dysfunction. There is no doubt that becoming more WEIRD has made us ever more weird, but Westerners were plenty weird from early on before they became WEIRD. Maybe the turning point for the Western world was the loss of our own traditional cultures and tribal lifestyles, as the Roman model of authoritarianism spread across Europe and became dominant. We have yet to shake off these chains of the past and instead have forced them upon everyone else.

It is what some call the Wetiko, one of the most infectious and deadly of mind viruses. “The New World fell not to a sword but to a meme,” as Daniel Quinn stated it (Beyond Civilization, p. 50). But it is a mind virus that can only take hold after immunity is destroyed. As long as there were societies of the free, the contagion was contained because the sick could be healed. But the power of the contagion is that the rabidly infected feel an uncontrollable compulsion to attack and kill the uninfected, the very people who would offer healing. Then the remaining survivors become infected and spread it further. A plague of victimization until no one is left untouched, until there is nowhere else to escape. Once all alternatives are eliminated, once a demiurgic monoculture comes to power, we are trapped in what Philip K. Dick called the Black Iron Prison. Sickness becomes all we know.

The usefulness of taking note of contemporary WEIRD societies isn’t that WEIRDness is the disease but that it shows the full blown set of symptoms of the disease. But the onset of the symptoms comes long after the infection, like a slow-growing malignant tumor in the brain. Still, symptoms are important, specifically when there is a comparison to a healthy population. That is what the New World offered the European mind, a comparison. The earliest accounts of native societies in the Americas helped Europeans to diagnose their own disease and helped motivate them to begin looking for a cure, although the initial attempts were fumbling and inept. The first thing that some Europeans did was simply to imagine what a healthy community might look like. That is what Thomas More attempted to do six centuries ago with his book Utopia.

Maybe the key is that of social concerns. Utopian visions have always focused on the social aspect, typically describing how people would ideally live together in communities. That was also the focus of the founders when they sought out alternative possibilities of organizing society. The change with colonialism, as feudalism was breaking down, was loss of belonging, of community and kinship. Modern individualism began not as an ideal but as a side effect of social breakdown, a condition of isolation and disconnection forced upon entire populations rather than having been freely chosen. And it was traumatizing to the Western psyche, and still is traumatizing, as seen with the high rates of mental illnesses in WEIRD societies, especially in the hyper-individualistic United States. That began before the defining factors of the WEIRD took hold. It was that trauma that made the WEIRD possible.

The colonists, upon meeting natives, discovered what had been lost. And for many colonists, that loss had happened within living memory. The hunger for what was lost was undeniable. To have seen a traditional communities that still functioned would have been like taking a breath of fresh air after having spent months in the stench of a ship’s hull. Not only did these native communities demonstrate what was recently lost but also what had been lost so much earlier. As many Indian tribes had more democratic practices, so did many European tribes prior to feudalism. But colonists had spent their entire lives being told democracy was impossible, that personal freedom was dangerous or even sinful.

The difference today is that none of this is within living memory for most of us, specifically Americans, unless one was raised Amish or in some similar community. The closest a typical American comes to this experience is by joining the military during war time. That is one of the few opportunities for a modern equivalent to a tribe, at least within WEIRD societies. And maybe a large part of the trauma soldiers struggle with isn’t merely the physical violence of war but the psychological violence of returning to the state of alienation, the loss of a bond that was closer than that of their own families.

Sebastian Junger notes that veterans who return to strong social support experience low rates of long-term PTSD, similar to Johann Hari’s argument about addiction in Chasing the Scream and his argument about depression in Lost Connections. Trauma, depression, addiction, etc — these are consequences of or worsened by isolation. These responses are how humans cope under stressful and unnatural conditions.

* * *

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
by Sebastian Junger
pp. 16-25

The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing—it seems obvious on the face of it—but why Western society is so unappealing. On a material level it is clearly more comfortable and protected from the hardships of the natural world. But as societies become more affluent they tend to require more, rather than less, time and commitment by the individual, and it’s possible that many people feel that affluence and safety simply aren’t a good trade for freedom. One study in the 1960s found that nomadic !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert needed to work as little as twelve hours a week in order to survive—roughly one-quarter the hours of the average urban executive at the time. “The ‘camp’ is an open aggregate of cooperating persons which changes in size and composition from day to day,” anthropologist Richard Lee noted with clear admiration in 1968. “The members move out each day to hunt and gather, and return in the evening to pool the collected foods in such a way that every person present receives an equitable share… Because of the strong emphasis on sharing, and the frequency of movement, surplus accumulation… is kept to a minimum.”

The Kalahari is one of the harshest environments in the world, and the !Kung were able to continue living a Stone-Age existence well into the 1970s precisely because no one else wanted to live there. The !Kung were so well adapted to their environment that during times of drought, nearby farmers and cattle herders abandoned their livelihoods to join them in the bush because foraging and hunting were a more reliable source of food. The relatively relaxed pace of !Kung life—even during times of adversity—challenged long-standing ideas that modern society created a surplus of leisure time. It created exactly the opposite: a desperate cycle of work, financial obligation, and more work. The !Kung had far fewer belongings than Westerners, but their lives were under much greater personal control. […]

First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about the human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.

The evidence that this is hard on us is overwhelming. Although happiness is notoriously subjective and difficult to measure, mental illness is not. Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern society—despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology—is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history. As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.

Suicide is difficult to study among unacculturated tribal peoples because the early explorers who first encountered them rarely conducted rigorous ethnographic research. That said, there is remarkably little evidence of depression-based suicide in tribal societies. Among the American Indians, for example, suicide was understood to apply in very narrow circumstances: in old age to avoid burdening the tribe, in the ritual paroxysms of grief following the death of a spouse, in a hopeless but heroic battle with an enemy, and in an attempt to avoid the agony of torture. Among tribes that were ravaged by smallpox, it was also understood that a person whose face had been hideously disfigured by lesions might kill themselves. According to The Ethics of Suicide: Historical Sources , early chroniclers of the American Indians couldn’t find any other examples of suicide that were rooted in psychological causes. Early sources report that the Bella Coola, the Ojibwa, the Montagnais, the Arapaho, the Plateau Yuma, the Southern Paiute, and the Zuni, among many others, experienced no suicide at all.

This stands in stark contrast to many modern societies, where the suicide rate is as high as 25 cases per 100,000 people. (In the United States, white middle-aged men currently have the highest rate at nearly 30 suicides per 100,000.) According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities—like the United States—run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders. A 2006 study comparing depression rates in Nigeria to depression rates in North America found that across the board, women in rural areas were less likely to get depressed than their urban counterparts. And urban North American women—the most affluent demographic of the study—were the most likely to experience depression.

The mechanism seems simple: poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities. Inter-reliant poverty comes with its own stresses—and certainly isn’t the American ideal—but it’s much closer to our evolutionary heritage than affluence. A wealthy person who has never had to rely on help and resources from his community is leading a privileged life that falls way outside more than a million years of human experience. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthier society—but a trade it is. […]

The alienating effects of wealth and modernity on the human experience start virtually at birth and never let up. Infants in hunter-gatherer societies are carried by their mothers as much as 90 percent of the time, which roughly corresponds to carrying rates among other primates. One can get an idea of how important this kind of touch is to primates from an infamous experiment conducted in the 1950s by a primatologist and psychologist named Harry Harlow. Baby rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers and presented with the choice of two kinds of surrogates: a cuddly mother made out of terry cloth or an uninviting mother made out of wire mesh. The wire mesh mother, however, had a nipple that dispensed warm milk. The babies took their nourishment as quickly as possible and then rushed back to cling to the terry cloth mother, which had enough softness to provide the illusion of affection. Clearly, touch and closeness are vital to the health of baby primates—including humans.

In America during the 1970s, mothers maintained skin-to-skin contact with babies as little as 16 percent of the time, which is a level that traditional societies would probably consider a form of child abuse. Also unthinkable would be the modern practice of making young children sleep by themselves. In two American studies of middle-class families during the 1980s, 85 percent of young children slept alone in their own room—a figure that rose to 95 percent among families considered “well educated.” Northern European societies, including America, are the only ones in history to make very young children sleep alone in such numbers. The isolation is thought to make many children bond intensely with stuffed animals for reassurance. Only in Northern European societies do children go through the well-known developmental stage of bonding with stuffed animals; elsewhere, children get their sense of safety from the adults sleeping near them.

The point of making children sleep alone, according to Western psychologists, is to make them “self-soothing,” but that clearly runs contrary to our evolution. Humans are primates—we share 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees—and primates almost never leave infants unattended, because they would be extremely vulnerable to predators. Infants seem to know this instinctively, so being left alone in a dark room is terrifying to them. Compare the self-soothing approach to that of a traditional Mayan community in Guatemala: “Infants and children simply fall asleep when sleepy, do not wear specific sleep clothes or use traditional transitional objects, room share and cosleep with parents or siblings, and nurse on demand during the night.” Another study notes about Bali: “Babies are encouraged to acquire quickly the capacity to sleep under any circumstances, including situations of high stimulation, musical performances, and other noisy observances which reflect their more complete integration into adult social activities.”

As modern society reduced the role of community, it simultaneously elevated the role of authority. The two are uneasy companions, and as one goes up, the other tends to go down. In 2007, anthropologist Christopher Boehm published an analysis of 154 foraging societies that were deemed to be representative of our ancestral past, and one of their most common traits was the absence of major wealth disparities between individuals. Another was the absence of arbitrary authority. “Social life is politically egalitarian in that there is always a low tolerance by a group’s mature males for one of their number dominating, bossing, or denigrating the others,” Boehm observed. “The human conscience evolved in the Middle to Late Pleistocene as a result of… the hunting of large game. This required… cooperative band-level sharing of meat.”

Because tribal foragers are highly mobile and can easily shift between different communities, authority is almost impossible to impose on the unwilling. And even without that option, males who try to take control of the group—or of the food supply—are often countered by coalitions of other males. This is clearly an ancient and adaptive behavior that tends to keep groups together and equitably cared for. In his survey of ancestral-type societies, Boehm found that—in addition to murder and theft—one of the most commonly punished infractions was “failure to share.” Freeloading on the hard work of others and bullying were also high up on the list. Punishments included public ridicule, shunning, and, finally, “assassination of the culprit by the entire group.” […]

Most tribal and subsistence-level societies would inflict severe punishments on anyone who caused that kind of damage. Cowardice is another form of community betrayal, and most Indian tribes punished it with immediate death. (If that seems harsh, consider that the British military took “cowards” off the battlefield and executed them by firing squad as late as World War I.) It can be assumed that hunter-gatherers would treat their version of a welfare cheat or a dishonest banker as decisively as they would a coward. They may not kill him, but he would certainly be banished from the community. The fact that a group of people can cost American society several trillion dollars in losses—roughly one-quarter of that year’s gross domestic product—and not be tried for high crimes shows how completely de-tribalized the country has become.

Dishonest bankers and welfare or insurance cheats are the modern equivalent of tribe members who quietly steal more than their fair share of meat or other resources. That is very different from alpha males who bully others and openly steal resources. Among hunter-gatherers, bullying males are often faced down by coalitions of other senior males, but that rarely happens in modern society. For years, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission has been trying to force senior corporate executives to disclose the ratio of their pay to that of their median employees. During the 1960s, senior executives in America typically made around twenty dollars for every dollar earned by a rank-and-file worker. Since then, that figure has climbed to 300-to-1 among S&P 500 companies, and in some cases it goes far higher than that. The US Chamber of Commerce managed to block all attempts to force disclosure of corporate pay ratios until 2015, when a weakened version of the rule was finally passed by the SEC in a strict party-line vote of three Democrats in favor and two Republicans opposed.

In hunter-gatherer terms, these senior executives are claiming a disproportionate amount of food simply because they have the power to do so. A tribe like the !Kung would not permit that because it would represent a serious threat to group cohesion and survival, but that is not true for a wealthy country like the United States. There have been occasional demonstrations against economic disparity, like the Occupy Wall Street protest camp of 2011, but they were generally peaceful and ineffective. (The riots and demonstrations against racial discrimination that later took place in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, led to changes in part because they attained a level of violence that threatened the civil order.) A deep and enduring economic crisis like the Great Depression of the 1930s, or a natural disaster that kills tens of thousands of people, might change America’s fundamental calculus about economic justice. Until then, the American public will probably continue to refrain from broadly challenging both male and female corporate leaders who compensate themselves far in excess of their value to society.

That is ironic, because the political origins of the United States lay in confronting precisely this kind of resource seizure by people in power. King George III of England caused the English colonies in America to rebel by trying to tax them without allowing them a voice in government. In this sense, democratic revolutions are just a formalized version of the sort of group action that coalitions of senior males have used throughout the ages to confront greed and abuse. Thomas Paine, one of the principal architects of American democracy, wrote a formal denunciation of civilization in a tract called Agrarian Justice : “Whether… civilization has most promoted or most injured the general happiness of man is a question that may be strongly contested,” he wrote in 1795. “[Both] the most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized.”

When Paine wrote his tract, Shawnee and Delaware warriors were still attacking settlements just a few hundred miles from downtown Philadelphia. They held scores of white captives, many of whom had been adopted into the tribe and had no desire to return to colonial society. There is no way to know the effect on Paine’s thought process of living next door to a communal Stone-Age society, but it might have been crucial. Paine acknowledged that these tribes lacked the advantages of the arts and science and manufacturing, and yet they lived in a society where personal poverty was unknown and the natural rights of man were actively promoted.

In that sense, Paine claimed, the American Indian should serve as a model for how to eradicate poverty and bring natural rights back into civilized life.

* * *

Dark Triad Domination
Urban Weirdness
Social Disorder, Mental Disorder
The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness
It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!
How Universal Is The Mind?
Bias About Bias
“Beyond that, there is only awe.”

 

Hunger for Connection

“Just as there are mental states only possible in crowds, there are mental states only possible in privacy.”

Those are the words of Sarah Perry from Luxuriating in Privacy. I came across the quote from a David Chapman tweet. He then asks, “Loneliness epidemic—or a golden age of privacy?” With that lure, I couldn’t help but bite.

I’m already familiar with Sarah Perry’s writings at Ribbonfarm. There is even an earlier comment by me at the piece the quote comes from, although I had forgotten about it. In the post, she begins with links to some of her previous commentary, the first one (Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture) having been my introduction to her work. I referenced it in my post Music and Dance on the Mind and it does indeed connect to the above thought on privacy.

In that other post by Perry, she discusses Keeping Together in Time by William H. McNeill. His central idea is “muscular bonding” that creates, maintains, and expresses a visceral sense of group-feeling and fellow-feeling. This can happen through marching, dancing, rhythmic movements, drumming, chanting, choral singing, etc (for example, see: Choral Singing and Self-Identity). McNeill quotes A. R. Radcliffe about the Andaman islanders: “As the dancer loses himself in the dance, as he becomes absorbed in the unified community, he reaches a state of elation in which he feels himself filled with energy or force immediately beyond his ordinary state, and so finds himself able to perform prodigies of exertion” (Kindle Locations 125-126).

The individual is lost, at least temporarily, an experience humans are drawn to in many forms. Individuality is tiresome and we moderns feel compelled to take a vacation from it. Having forgotten earlier ways of being, maybe privacy is the closest most of us get to lowering our stressful defenses of hyper-individualistic pose and performance. The problem is privacy so easily reinforces the very individualistic isolation that drains us of energy.

This might create the addictive cycle that Johann Hari discussed in Chasing the Scream and would relate to the topic of depression in his most recent book, Lost Connections. He makes a strong argument about the importance of relationships of intimacy, bonding, and caring (some communities have begun to take seriously this issue; others deem what is required are even higher levels of change, radical and revolutionary). In particular, the rat park research is fascinating. The problem with addiction is that it simultaneously relieves the pain of our isolation while further isolating us. Or at least this is what happens in a punitive society with weak community and culture of trust. For that reason, we should look to other cultures for comparison. In some traditional societies, there is a greater balance and freedom to choose. I specifically had the Piraha in mind, as described by Daniel Everett.

The Piraha are a prime example of how not all cultures have a dualistic conflict between self and community, between privacy and performance. Their communities are loosely structured and the individual is largely autonomous in how and with whom they use their time. They lack much in the way of formal social structure, since there are no permanent positions of hierarchical authority (e.g., no tribal council of elders), although any given individual might temporarily take a leadership position in order to help accomplish an immediate task. Nor do they have much in the way of ritual or religion. It isn’t an oppressive society.

Accordingly, Everett observes how laid back, relaxed, and happy they seem. Depression, anxiety, and suicide appear foreign to them. When he told them about a depressed family member who killed herself, the Piraha laughed because assumed he was joking. There was no known case of suicide in the tribe. Even more interesting is that, growing up, the Piraha don’t exhibit transitional periods such as the terrible twos or teenage rebelliousness. They simply go from being weaned to joining adult activities with no one telling them to what to do.

The modern perceived conflict between group and individual might not be a universal and intrinsic aspect of human society. But it does seem a major issue for WEIRD societies, in particular. Maybe has to do with how ego-bound is our sense of identity. The other thing the Piraha lack is a permanent, unchanging self-identity because such as a meeting with a spirit in the jungle might lead to a change of name and, to the Piraha, the person who went by the previous name no longer is there. They feel no need to defend their individuality because any given individual self can be set aside.

It is hard for Westerners and Americans most of all to imagine a society that is this far different. It is outside of the mainstream capacity of imagining what is humanly possible. It’s similar to why so many people reject out of hand such theories as Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind. Such worldviews simply don’t fit into what we know. But maybe this sense of conflict we cling to is entirely unnecessary. If so, why do we feel such conflict is inevitable? And so why do we value privacy so highly? What is it that we seek from being isolated and alone? What is it that we think we have lost that needs to be regained? To help answer these questions, I’ll present a quote by Julian Jaynes that I included in writing Music and Dance On the Mind — from his book that Perry is familiar with:

“Another advantage of schizophrenia, perhaps evolutionary, is tirelessness. While a few schizophrenics complain of generalized fatigue, particularly in the early stages of the illness, most patients do not. In fact, they show less fatigue than normal persons and are capable of tremendous feats of endurance. They are not fatigued by examinations lasting many hours. They may move about day and night, or work endlessly without any sign of being tired. Catatonics may hold an awkward position for days that the reader could not hold for more than a few minutes. This suggests that much fatigue is a product of the subjective conscious mind, and that bicameral man, building the pyramids of Egypt, the ziggurats of Sumer, or the gigantic temples at Teotihuacan with only hand labor, could do so far more easily than could conscious self-reflective men.”

Considering that, it could be argued that privacy is part of the same social order, ideological paradigm, and reality tunnel that tires us out so much in the first place. Endlessly without respite, we feel socially compelled to perform our individuality. And even in retreating into privacy, we go on performing our individuality for our own private audience, as played out on the internalized stage of self-consciousness that Jaynes describes. That said, even though the cost is high, it leads to great benefits for society as a whole. Modern civilization wouldn’t be possible without it. The question is whether the costs outweigh the benefits and also whether the costs are sustainable or self-destructive in the long term.

As Eli wrote in the comments section to Luxuriating in Privacy: “Privacy isn’t an unalloyed good. As you mention, we are getting ever-increasing levels of privacy to “luxuriate” in. But who’s to say we’re not just coping with the change modernity constantly imposes on us? Why should we elevate the coping mechanism, when it may well be merely a means to lessen the pain of an unnecessarily “alienating” constructed environment.” And “isn’t the tiresomeness of having to model the social environment itself contingent on the structural precariousness of one’s place in an ambiguous, constantly changing status hierarchy?”

Still, I do understand where Perry is coming from, as I’m very much an introvert who values my alone time and can be quite jealous of my privacy, although I can’t say that close and regular social contact “fills me with horror.” Having lived alone for years in apartments and barely knowing my neighbors, I spend little time at my ‘home’ and instead choose to regularly socialize with my family at my parents’ house. Decades of depression has caused me to be acutely aware of the double-edged sword of privacy.

Let me respond to some specifics of Perry’s argument.  “Consider obesity,” she writes. “A stylized explanation for rising levels of overweight and obesity since the 1980s is this: people enjoy eating, and more people can afford to eat as much as they want to. In other words, wealth and plenty cause obesity.” There are some insightful comparisons of eating practices. Not all modern societies with equal access to food have equal levels of obesity. Among many other health problems, obesity can result from stress because our bodies prepare for challenging times by accumulating fat reserves. And if there is enough stress, studies have found this is epigenetically passed onto children.

As a contrast, consider the French culture surrounding food. The French don’t eat much fast food, don’t tend to eat or drink on the go. It is more common for them sit down to enjoy their coffee in the morning, rather than putting it in a traveling mug to drink on the way to work. Also, they are more likely to take long lunches in order to eat leisurely and typically do so with others. For the French, the expectation is that meals are to be enjoyed as a social experience and so they organize their entire society accordingly. Even though they eat many foods that some consider unhealthy, they don’t have the same high rates of stress-related diseases as do Americans.

An even greater contrast comes from looking once again at the Piraha. They live in an environment of immense abundance. And it requires little work to attain sustenance. In a few hours of work, an individual could get enough food to feed an extended family for multiple meals. They don’t worry about going hungry and yet, for various reasons, will choose not to not eat for extended periods of time when they wish to spend their time in other ways such as relaxing or dancing. They impose a feast and fast lifestyle on themselves, a typical pattern for hunter-gatherers. As with the French, when the Piraha have a meal, it is very much a social event. Unsurprisingly, the Piraha are slim and trim, muscular and healthy. They don’t suffer from stress-related physical and mental conditions, certainly not obesity.

Perry argues that, “Analogized to privacy, perhaps the explanation of atomization is simply that people enjoy privacy, and can finally afford to have as much as they want. Privacy is an economic good, and people show a great willingness to trade other goods for more privacy.” Using Johan Hari’s perspective, I might rephrase it: Addiction is economically profitable within the hyper-individualism of capitalist realism, and people show a difficult to control craving that causes them to pay high costs to feed their addiction. Sure, temporarily alleviating the symptoms makes people feel better. But what is it a symptom of? That question is key to understanding. I’m persuaded that the issue at hand is disconnection, isolation, and loneliness. So much else follows from that.

Explaining the title of her post, Perry writes that: “One thing that people are said to do with privacy is to luxuriate in it. What are the determinants of this positive experience of privacy, of privacy experienced as a thing in itself, rather than through violation?” She goes on to describes on to describes the features of privacy, various forms of personal space and enclosure. Of course, Julian Jaynes argued that the ultimate privacy is the construction of individuality itself, the experience of space metaphorically internalized and interiorized. Further development of privacy, however, is a rather modern invention. For example, it wasn’t until recent centuries that private bedrooms became common, having been popularized in Anglo-American culture by Quakers. Before that, full privacy was a rare experience and far from having been considered a human necessity or human right.

But we have come to take privacy for granted, not talking about certain details is a central part of privacy itself. “Everybody knows that everybody poops. Still, you’re not supposed to poop in front of people. The domain of defecation is tacitly edited out of our interactions with other people: for most social purposes, we are expected to pretend that we neither produce nor dispose of bodily wastes, and to keep any evidence of such private. Polite social relations exclude parts of reality by tacit agreement; scatological humor is a reminder of common knowledge that is typically screened off by social agreement. Sex and masturbation are similar.”

Defecation is a great example. There is no universal experience about the privatization of the act of pooping. In early Europe, relieving oneself in public was common and considered well within social norms. It was a slow ‘civilizing’ process to teach people to be ashamed of bodily functions, even simple things like farting and belching in public (there are a number of interesting books on the topic). I was intrigued by Susan P. Mattern’s The Prince of Medicine. She describes how almost everything in the ancient world was a social experience. Even taking a shit was an opportunity to meet and chat with one’s family, friends, and neighbors. They apparently felt no drain of energy or need to perform in their social way of being in the world. It was relaxed and normal to them, simply how they lived and they knew nothing else.

Also, sex and masturbation haven’t always been exclusively private acts. We have little knowledge of sex in the archaic world. Jaynes noted that sexuality wasn’t treated as anything particularly concerning and worrisome during the bicameral era. Obsession with sex, positive or negative, more fully developed during the Axial Age. As late as Feudalism, heavily Christianized Europe offered little opportunity for privacy and maintained a relatively open attitude about sexuality during many public celebrations, specifically Carnival, and they spent an amazing amount of their time in public celebrations. Barbara Ehrenreich describes this ecstatic communality in Dancing in the Streets. Like the Piraha, these earlier Europeans had a more social and fluid sense of identity.

Let me finish by responding to Perry’s conclusion: “As I wrote in A Bad Carver, social interaction has increasingly become “unbundled” from other things. This may not be a coincidence: it may be that people have specifically desired more privacy, and the great unbundling took place along that axis especially, in response to demand. Modern people have more room, more autonomy, more time alone, and fewer social constraints than their ancestors had a hundred years ago. To scoff at this luxury, to call it “alienation,” is to ignore that it is the choices of those who are allegedly alienated that create this privacy-friendly social order.”

There is no doubt what people desire. In any given society, most people desire whatever they are acculturated to desire. Example after example of this can be found in social science research, the anthropological literature, and classical studies. It’s not obvious to me that there is any evidence that modern people have fewer social constraints. What is clear is that we have different social constraints and that difference seems to have led to immense stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Barbara Ehrenreich discusses the rise in depression in particular, as have others such as Mark Fisher’s work on capitalist realism (I quote him and others here). The studies on WEIRD cultures are also telling (see: Urban Weirdness and Dark Triad Domination).

The issue isn’t simply what choices we make but what choices we are offered and denied, what choices we can and cannot perceive or even imagine. And that relates to how we lose contact with the human realities of other societies that embody other possibilities not chosen or even considered within the constraints of our own. We are disconnected not only from others within our society. Our WEIRD monocultural dominance has isolated us also from other expressions of human potential.

We luxuriate in privacy because our society offers us few other choices, like a choice between junk food or starvation, in which case junk food tastes delicious. For most modern Westerners, privacy is nothing more than a temporary escape from an overwhelming world. But what we most deeply hunger for is genuine connection.

From Community to Legalism

The United States has become a legalistic society. It has always been more legalistic than some countries, for various reasons, but it’s become even more legalistic over time. Earlier last century, most problems weren’t dealt with through the legal system.

This is why it’s hard to compare present data to past data. A lot of criminal behavior never led people to the court system, much less prison. And even when people ended up in court, judges used to have more legal freedom to be lenient, unlike our present mandatory sentencing. This meant that there wasn’t much in the way of mass incarceration in the US until this past half century or so.

Take juvenile delinquents as a key example, far from a new problem. As urbanization took hold in the late 1800s and into the early Cold War, there was moral panic about teenagers being out of control, turning into criminals, and joining gangs. But most kids with problems didn’t end up facing a judge.

There were community institutions that figured out ways to deal with problems without recourse to legal punishment. Kids might get sent to family members who lived elsewhere, to a group home for delinquents, to reform school, etc. Or they might simply be made to do community service or pay restitution. But none of it would end up as a criminal record, likely not even getting reported in the local newspaper. It would have been dealt with quietly, informally, and privately.

There were cultural reasons at the time. It was assumed that kids weren’t fully responsible for their own behavior, as kids were treated as dependents of adults. The problems of kids was seen as the failure of parenting or social conditions. There was little tolerance for bad behavior in many ways at that time, but also society was much more forgiving. A kid would have to commit many major crimes before he would end up in a court and in jail.

The downside of this is that individuals had less rights, as people were seen more in social terms. It was easier to institutionalize people back then. Or if a girl got pregnant, her family would make sure she was sent somewhere else and not bring shame on the family. Juveniles were considered dependents until well into young adulthood. A 21 year old woman who was accused of prostitution, even if false, could find herself sent off to a group home for girls. Early 20th century childhood was highly protected and extended, although far different from present helicopter parenting.

Parents were considered legally and morally responsible for their kids, in a way that is not seen these days. Individual rights were still rather limited in the early 20th century. But there was also a sense of community responsibility for members of the community. It was accepted that social conditions shaped and influenced individuals. So, to change individual behavior, it was understood that social conditions needed to be changed for the individual.

In present American society, we see the past as socially oppressive and it was. We now put the individual before the community. We think it’s wrong to send juvenile delinquents off to reform schools, to separate the low IQ kids from other students, and to institutionalize the mentally ill. But this typically means we simply ignore problems.

The kid with severe autism in a normal classroom is not getting a good education or being prepared for adult life in any kind of way, although there is merit to his being socialized with his neurotypical peers. The mentally ill being homeless instead of in institutions is not exactly an improvement, even considering the problems of psychiatric institutions in the past. And the world is not a better place for our warehousing problematic people in prisons.

Our society has been pushed to an extreme. It would be nice to see more balance between rights of individuals and the responsibility of communities. But that isn’t possible if our main options are to either ignore problems or turn to the legal system. This is a difficult challenge, as increasing urbanization and industrialization have led to the breakdown of communities. There was a much stronger social fabric a century ago. It’s harder for us to turn to community solutions now since communities no longer function as they once did. And growing inequality has undermined the culture of trust that is necessary for well-functioning community.

Yet it’s obvious, according to polls, that most Americans realize that social problems require social solutions. But our political system hasn’t caught up with this social reality. Or rather the ruling class would rather not admit to it.

Gangs as Civic Institutions

I haven’t been following the news much lately, but I’ve caught snippets of what is going on in the Baltimore riots. Interestingly, the only video I’ve watched about it is the interview with the gang members, both Crips and Bloods, who called a truce.

The interviewer ended the piece with the question, “Is that not a very different perspective that you have ever heard?”

What she leaves out is the fact that the reason most Americans don’t hear other perspectives is because interviews like this rarely happen on the mainstream media. Instead, mainstream reporters tend to only report what officials tell them. In this case, the police officials made false statements that the truce was called so the gangs could work together to kill cops.

I’m one of the atypical Americans who is mostly informed by alternative media and who is fairly well read about American history. So, to answer her question: No, it is not surprising to me.

Gangs have been calling truces since gangs have existed, and they often do so for political reasons. Gangs are just one of the many expressions of humans social nature, and they even can at times take form as civic institutions and repositories of social capital. They even act as employers for those who have few, if any, good job opportunities.

I must admit there was a time not too many years ago when I had a more simplistic understanding of many things. It has required massive self-(re-)education to understand American society. Because of my studies of history, I was able to recognize what this video represented. I’d seen a similar thing when doing research on the KKK in the early 20th century, a far more violent time than right now (when street gangs first became dominant) and yet the KKK was never only or even primarily about violence.

I would argue such organizations, including gangs, aren’t really about violence. The gangs in this country aren’t necessarily any more violent than the police. I’ve pointed out that for many communities gangs act in the role of militias where the police have failed to maintain order or, worse, where police have become part of the problem in destroying lives, families, and the social fabric.

Italians a century ago found themselves in an antagonistic relationship to the dominant WASP culture. Immigrants brought with them the Black Hand (origins of the Mafia), which was equal parts gang and civic institution. The Black Hand defended Italian communities and maintained cultural social standards, but they also kept other violent forces at bay, including that of bigoted police who targeted ethnic immigrants. Don’t forget that Italians once were sometimes called the ‘N’ word.

As a society, we need to think more carefully about the human instinct for social order. Humans want to have a sense of belonging, a sense of place and community. Humans want to feel safe and secure, to feel they have some control over their lives. If the dominant society acts in a destructive way toward this natural impulse, it does no one any good.

* * * *

Articles of interest:

Crips, Bloods Call Truce, Not to Harm Cops But to Protect their Community from Violence & Looting
by John Vibes, Free Thought Project .com

However, their promise to no longer be divided, was such a threat to the establishment that within 12 hours there were stories on the home page of every mainstream media publication talking about how the gangs were going to join up with the specific intention of killing cops and burning down the city.

Each of the mainstream sources had basically republished a press release that was put out by the Baltimore City Police Department, citing that there was a “credible threat” that gang members were planning to carry out attacks on police. There was no evidence to back this claim up, but the very fact that rival gangs were calling a truce in the streets was enough to drive the establishment into panic mode.

This should tell you something. The establishment wants people divided, and they fear other armed and organized groups providing their own communities with defense, effectively challenging the state’s monopoly on violence.

One thing that is often forgotten is that many of today’s street gangs have roots in activist groups that sought to provide protection for communities that were being ignored or oppressed by police. These groups became less organized over the years, lost their way and turned to corruption. However, this truce could be a positive sign that these groups are returning to their roots and becoming more concerned with protecting their communities.

Gangs
by John Hagedorn, gangresearch.net

In major U.S. cities, gangs were strongly influenced by revolutionary and civil-rights organizations. The ideologies of groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, and the Young Lords Organization attracted many youths away from the gangs. Many of these political groups in fact began as gangs and aimed their recruiting efforts at the children of the street. Federal agencies used COINTELPRO, an FBI operation aimed at disrupting political organizations, and other tactics to provoke violence between gangs and revolutionary organizations. Rivalry between gangs and political groups was balanced by negotiations between them, and gangs joined many movement demonstrations.

Gangs also initiated community service agencies, started local businesses, and got federal grants for education and job training. The Conservative Vice Lord Nation, for example, a Chicago gang that came into existence in the 1950s, began multiple social programs and businesses in the 1960s.

But the 1960s ended in a flurry of violence, both from the streets and the police. Revolutionary organizations such as the Black Panther Party were smashed, and the social programs run by gangs ended when they lost funding. Thousands of gang members and political activists were incarcerated. While repression crushed the political groups, gangs persisted and maintained ties to the streets even from prison. Jacobs’ (1977) seminal study of Stateville, a notorious maximum-security prison in Illinois, demonstrated how prison life was now linked back to the community through the gangs.

Gangs joined with revolutionary and Black Muslim groups in demanding better conditions in prison. Many gangs adopted religious doctrines and rituals, which some said were a cover for gang activities and others saw as a genuine response to oppression. Gangs controlled the cellblocks with violence and superior organization, and many also maintained their hold over the organization on the street. But in the 1970s and 1980s, when many gang leaders were released from prison, the neighborhoods were even more rundown than when they left them. The sociologist William Julius Wilson vividly described the impact of de-industrialization on the black community. Far from withering away, ghettos persisted, and their conditions had deteriorated.

* * * *

Previous blog posts:

Substance Control is Social Control

And on the issue of poverty and unemployment, I explained an insight I had in my post Working Hard, But For What?:

These people believe in the American Dream and try to live it best they can, under almost impossible conditions. They aren’t asking for handouts. They are solving their own problems, even when those problems are forced on them by the larger society.

Take gangs, for example. Most gangs are what white people would call militias. When the police fail in their job, gangs do the job for them. If you are a black who is targeted by the police and everyone you know is targeted by the police, you’ll organize in order to protect yourself, your family, your friends, and your neighborhood.

That is how community forms when all of the outside world is against you, when life is difficult and desperate, where daily living is a fight for survival. When there are no jobs available, poor minorities make their own jobs. When there are no police to protect them, poor minorities police themselves. When the larger society is against them, they make their own communities.

There is a strength that comes from adversity. This was demonstrated by ethnic immigrants in the past, such as the close-knit bootlegging community of German-Americans in Templeton, Iowa. People who have had histories of disadvantage and/or oppression sometimes learn amazing skills of social adaptation and survival. They develop forms of social capital that those more privileged lack.

The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence

The most powerful weapon against oppression is community. This is attested to by the separate fates of a Templetonian like Joe Irlbeck and big city mobster like Al Capone. “Just as Al Capone had Eliot Ness, Templeton’s bootleggers had as their own enemy a respected Prohibition agent from the adjacent county named Benjamin Franklin Wilson. Wilson was ardent in his fight against alcohol, and he chased Irlbeck for over a decade. But Irlbeck was not Capone, and Templeton would not be ruled by violence like Chicago” (Kindle Locations 7-9). What ruled Templeton was most definitely not violence. Instead, it was a culture of trust. That is a weapon more powerful than all of Al Capone’s hired guns.

What the mob forgot was that the Mafia began as a civic organization, the Black Hand. It was at times violent, as was the KKK, but most of what these civic organizations did was community work. They defended their communities and cultures, their traditions and customs. The Germans had their Bund, which served a similar purpose. Hispanics also have a history of forming tight-knit communities that will defend themselves.

African-Americans, however, have a tougher road to travel. Their unique African ethnic culture, language, and religion was annihalated by slavery. Even Native Americans fared better on this account. The social capital of African-Americans was intentionally destroyed. It has been an uphill battle for them to rebuild it, against all odds. They don’t even have the privilege of a jury of their peers, for the police targeting of blacks and the racial bias in the courts has disenfranchized so many of them from the opportunity of jury service. Many blacks find themselves before a jury of white people and, unlike the Templetonians, they have little hope of being saved from the jaws of injustice.

Ku Klux Klan and the Lost Generation

I told my dad that the KKK was basically the conservatives of their day and he agreed with me. Some months earlier, I had told him the exact same thing and he probably thought I was being unfair and mean. To most people, making a comparison to the KKK is about the same as making a comparison to Nazis.

We have a hard time seeing things for what they are or were. We put things into the context of our own time and judge them accordingly. That is problematic with something like the KKK which is easy to caricature and criticize with straw-man arguments. Most Klan members weren’t violent people who spent their every free moment thinking about how to oppress others. If anything is scary about the KKK, it is that completely normal people belonged to it and most of the time they did completely normal activities. They were good citizens, devoted husbands, loving fathers, and practicing Christians.

The KKK wasn’t necessarily all that different from any other number of civic organizations from that time. The Second KKK was even modeled on many of those other organizations:

“In an era without Social Security or widely available life insurance, men joined fraternal organizations such as the Elks or the Woodmen of the World to provide for their families in case they died or were unable to work. The founder of the new Klan, William J. Simmons, was a member of twelve different fraternal organizations. He recruited for the Klan with his chest covered with fraternal badges, and consciously modeled the Klan after fraternal organizations.
“Klan organizers, called “Kleagles”, signed up hundreds of new members, who paid initiation fees and received KKK costumes in return. The organizer kept half the money and sent the rest to state or national officials. When the organizer was done with an area, he organized a huge rally, often with burning crosses, and perhaps presented a Bible to a local Protestant preacher. He left town with the money collected. The local units operated like many fraternal organizations and occasionally brought in speakers.”

Those civic organizations have interesting histories. The KKK was created partly in response to new immigrants, but many fraternal and community organizations were created by and for new immigrants. The Germans were well known for their organizations that were a thorn in the side of those who wanted to force the non-English to assimilate. The Germans, until WWII, had more or less successfully resisted assimilation and the KKK didn’t like that. These ethnic and/or populist civic organizations, German and otherwise, were sometimes closely tied to labor organizing, another thing the KKK would have not appreciated.

Interestingly, the Second KKK arose at the same time and for the same reasons fascist movements arose in Germany and Italy. In the US, Germans formed the German American Bund which supported Nazi Germany before WWII. Like the KKK, the Bund formed large marches in cities where Germans were concentrated. Fascism was in the air. The characteristics of fascism included reactionary populism, social conservatism, folk religiosity, patriotic nationalism, ethnocentric nativism, etc. Despite their differences, the KKK and the Bund were expressions of the same basic shift within society at that time.

These organizations weren’t evil incarnate. They were simply people trying to bring order back to what felt like the chaos of a changing society.

Social Environment & Human Potential

A thoughtful article:

Cities and Ambition
By Paul Graham

“Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

“The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

“What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to.”

This reminds me of a report by Luminosity that claimed that Iowa had 6 out of 100 of the smartest cities in the US. There measure was a specific test for cognitive ability.

Some years ago, I read that Iowa City (where I live) had the highest per capita of degrees and PhDs, but I don’t know if that is still the case. Iowa City does have the second highest per capita of doctors. Sure has a lot of writers and artists as well. I’m not sure what message Iowa City puts out in all of this.

I have a friend who grew up in Iowa City. She moved to Portland, Oregon many years ago. She loves it there.

Like Iowa City, Portland has a writers workshop, although it is more alternative than the mainstream workshop here. Compared to other US cities, Portland has (or did have, the last time I checked) the largest bookstore in the US and the most book stores and coffee shops (either according to per capita or per block, I forget which).

Portland is a very creative town with tons of artists and writers. But it also seems a bit like a hipster town. Living there, you want to be or be perceived as intellectual and creative, but you also want to be hip and cool.

Iowa City lacks that hipster quality for the most part. Instead, it feels more middle class. In Iowa City, even the mailmen and bus drivers not unusually have at least a college degree. Artists and writers don’t starve in Iowa City for they just get a job at the University or the City or one of the other large employers here.

“You can see how powerful cities are from something I wrote about earlier: the case of the Milanese Leonardo. Practically every fifteenth century Italian painter you’ve heard of was from Florence, even though Milan was just as big. People in Florence weren’t genetically different, so you have to assume there was someone born in Milan with as much natural ability as Leonardo. What happened to him?

“If even someone with the same natural ability as Leonardo couldn’t beat the force of environment, do you suppose you can?”

That is the most important point to take away. I’ve been convinced by the theory that some of the most intelligent and innovative people in America have their skills squandered or else apply their skills toward ends the mainstream considers immoral, for example (Gang Leader for a Day by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, Washington Monthly):

“In the project, Venkatesh finds men and women who easily flit back and forth between the legal and illegal economies (depending, usually, on which pays more at any given moment). Drug dealers aspire to buy small businesses, and their subordinates move between legitimate jobs and the hustle of drug dealing and prostitution. What Venkatesh is able to develop, through the view J.T. grants him, is a new way of thinking about the ghetto and ghetto crime, as the consequences that come when morality is uncoupled from the law.

“J.T. is a good tutor. He is a learned and steady bureaucrat of the drug trade, a man with some college and management experience behind him. Most of his life is spent dealing with, somewhat endearingly, the small headaches of petit bourgeois career life—managing less-than-competent subordinates, handling the objections of Taylor Homes residents, and trying to restrict police access to the project.”

In a country like the US, with a shrinking middle class, social mobility and good job opportunities, with growing poverty and desperation, an entire underclass is created with its own separate communities. As with cities, what community or neighborhood you live in or come from can make a big difference, not just in your opportunities but in shaping who you become (often the opportunities you are able to see and the opportunities that you value).

Many potential Leonardo da Vincis are gangsters tagging alley walls and dumpsters or working at Walmart. Many, probably most, of them don’t even know about even an iota of the talent and potential they have within them.

Genius or even just above average talent doesn’t arise in a vacuum. Without social capital, potential remains potential. Countries, cities and communities that invest in social capital at the same time invest in human capital.

Individualistic Community vs Collectivist Clannishness

My mind seems to be stuck on human biodiversity (HBD) thoughts, not in a negative way though. I can’t help but be continually intrigued by hbd chick’s blog postings.

Her most recent post is clannish paradox? which is very insightful. The part I wanted to focus in on, however, isn’t a new insight of hers:

another clannishness paradox that i’ve mentioned before is that individuals from clannish societies often feel very independent. here, for example, is taki on the greeks:

“The highly individualistic Greek is too self-seeking to submit easily to others’ dictates. His unruliness has helped him survive through the centuries of oppression, as well as to rise above adversity. But it has also made him unaware of the advantages of a communal spirit and true democratic attitudes. This has created a climate where cheating is a way of life, where the highest and lowest of citizens do not hesitate to use dishonesty, especially in politics.”

yeah. well, the misunderstanding there is that greeks are “individualistic.” they’re not. they’re clannish. and because they’re clannish, they don’t like outside interference — they’re not going to “submit easily to others’ dictates” and they’re certainly not going to have “a communal spirit and true democratic attitudes.” clannish people — like southern libertarians— don’t want outside interference (like from the gub’ment), so they seemindividualistic, but what they are, in fact, is independent-minded — but in a clannish sort of way. the true individualists — the non-clannish peoples — tend to be communally oriented. and they are rare.

It’s that last part that got me thinking. The last hyperlink brings you to another one of her posts. In the beginning of the post, she summarizes the non-clannish side of the paradox:

in societies in which the members are MORE individualistic, those same members are oriented MORE towards the group, the whole group, and nothing but the group (i.e. NOT their extended families or clans or tribes) than in societies in which the members are NOT so individualistic.

I came to these same insights from a totally different direction. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in different regions and among people of different ideologies. Just from observation, I began to notice these patterns. Further reading helped clarify my thoughts, but all of that was long before I came across HBD.

What hbd chick presents reminds me of a couple of things.

First, I’ve often written about reactionary conservatism and community-minded liberalism. Corey Robin wrote a book about reactionary conservatism and it really shook up my thinking when I read it. His theory gave me a framework to make sense of my own observations. When hbd chick writes about libertarian crackers, I suspect she is basically speaking of this same reactionary conservatism.

Second, I just so happened to have written a post today about individualism and collectivism. I pointed out how Iowa is one of those strongly individualistic states. In the past, though, I’ve also pointed out that Iowa is strongly community-oriented. This is something many don’t understand about much of the Midwest (maybe Indiana excluded; let us just call it Kentuckiana).

All of this only appears paradoxical if you remain at the level of ideological rhetoric. If you dig deeper, it makes a lot of sense.

Localized Democracy and Public Good

To give balance to recent blog posts, I’ll share my thoughts that arose with a discussion I had with my dad.

He is definitely a conservative in most ways, fiscally and socially. However, he is intelligent and well informed which has caused him to adjust his views over time. I often use him as a way of testing the direction of political winds, specifically which way mainstream conservatism is blowing.

I can lean strongly left at times and my father can lean strongly right. This often leads to disagreements, but maybe just as often leads to certain kinds of agreements. As conservatism and liberalism meets in the middle, the right-wing and left-wing meets in the political desert.

It’s my dad’s fiscal conservatism that saves him from the ideological blindness of partisan politics. He is an economically practical man who has worked in and taught business management. It has been his business to consider new information. My leftism has maybe served a similar role. It’s basically within the general realm of libertarianism that my father and I can find common ground, although neither of us is an ideologically committed libertarian.

The discussion we were having was fairly typical, not unlike any number of other discussions we’ve had. I guess it stood out to me because I sensed my dad was struggling with new info and so reassessing a bit. There is a newsletter he reads and the financial advisor who writes it doesn’t seem particularly conservative. He was reading this newsletter and the info was food for thought.

For example, my dad is slowly coming around to taking environmentalism more seriously. He was reading about how we as a society can’t continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere. This might seem obvious to those on the left, but this is the type of info my dad has spent a lifetime avoiding and the conservative media has helped him avoid it.

Environmentalism isn’t the main issue my dad brought up, rather economics as it relates to politics. Environmentalism only connected because my dad was considering the commentary that oil will no longer play the role as a cheap energy source. This is problematic as our entire society has been literally fueled by cheap energy and it could be a while before we develop a new cheap energy.

The economics and politics angle, I think, related to developing new energy sources. My dad was telling me about how this financial advisor was saying debt itself wasn’t the problem, but whether deficit spending was being used toward pragmatic investments or not. This goes against my dad’s fiscal conservatism.

Both my dad and I agree that bailing out banks was a bad idea. I was telling my dad about Iceland and he wasn’t familiar with that example.  I also mentioned Sweden that is doing well, even with a massive welfare state relative to GDP. I used this as a jumping off point for explaining my personal theory (or rather set of theories), and my dad agreed.

My dad is wary of what he calls ‘populism’, but I pointed out that the policies in Iceland and Sweden seem to have been popularly supported in those countries. My speculation is that these countries represent optimal conditions for societal and economic health.

I see several essential factors. First and foremost, democracy seems key which doesn’t imply any single form of democracy, moreso just the general principles of democracy in society overall (not just politics, but also in social institutions, community organizing and economic systems). I suspect that democracy only functions well under certain conditions.

There are obvious differences between the US and countries such as Iceland and Sweden. The US is massive in terms of both population and geographical territory. This might be the most important part as I have yet to see it proven that genuine democracy can function at all on the largescale. With this massiveness, there also comes massive diversity that disallows easy organizing and governing. In the US, every special interest group seems out for their own private good. There isn’t a single shared culture to create a sense of social solidarity and common good.

For these reasons, you can only find some well functioning democracy on the local level of American politics. And even on the local level, well functioning democracy in the US is more rare as local communities have been undermined and in many cases decimated. The federal government helped to end much oppression and corruption on the local level, yet often just shifted the problems to the federal level. The closest the US has ever come to something akin to the Northern European social democracies is, to use one of my favorite examples, the early 20th century municipal socialism of Milwaukee.

To my mind, democracy and local governance go hand in hand. However, that local governance has to be supported by a shared local culture. The problem of  many post-colonial countries is that their boundaries were created according to political demands and compromises. This has meant that a single country might contain multiple tribal cultures while any single tribal culture might be divided between multiple countries. Unsurprisingly, these are conflict-ridden societies.

The US seems to be in an impossible situation. I see no likely way of getting democracy to function in the US, definitely not on the federal level and probably not even on the state level. There are just two many special interests and too many lobby groups, not to mention that most of the founding elites never wanted democracy.

My sense of democracy is somewhat open-ended. Democracy maybe isn’t a single ideological system in the way capitalism is. Democracy applies to all aspects of society and can allow for many possible ideological systems. My ideal well functioning democracy could manifest quite diversely depending on the local culture. It could be more capitalist or more socialist or even more religious.

This does seem to be a more libertarian interpretation of democracy. This could be minarchist democracy, but I don’t know that it wouldn’t also allow larger political alliances that might resemble the government of a larger country or union.

The problem with actual functioning capitalism is that it is completely opposed to my vision of democracy. If capitalism is supposed to be a free market, I don’t know what kind of freedom this is or whose freedom it is. It certainly isn’t a democratic economy.

My dad could agree with much of what I said, but he struggles with the notion of a democratic economy for his fear of ‘populism’. Nonetheless, the fact that a mainstream conservative like my dad could agree with my general argument is impressive. There is already a lot of agreement in American society, but the anti-democratic system gets in the way.

I wonder when global society and local communities will get shook up enough to begin implementing something entirely new, beyond a few exceptions found in isolation.

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.”

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.

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.