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.

Simple Economic Truths

There is no capital without labor.
There is no land value without community.

Capital in the form of money is invested in capital in the form of raw materials and tools and labor-power, which is transformed — by the squeezing of actual labor out of the labor-power of the workers — into capital in the form of the commodities thereby produced, whose increased value is realized through the sale of the commodities for more money than was originally invested, which is the increased capital out of which the capitalist extracts his profits, only to be driven to invest more capital for the purpose of achieving ever greater capital accumulation.”
 – – –

Public Good vs Splintered Society (pt 3)

I’ve been in a mood of retreat recently, less spiritual retreat and more battle retreat. I’m fed up with the whole shebang. Even NPR is pissing me off (NPR: Liberal Bias?“This is the type of issue I’m tired of posting about. But I’m posting it because the lying pundits and deceiving political strategists never tire… and, more annoying to my everyday interactions, because the un-/mis-/disinformed followers never tire.”).

It’s not just about disagreeing. It’s more fundamental. I want truth, authenticity. I want to know what is real, feel it in my gut. All the spin and rhetoric is getting to me. I’ve hit breaking points before, but this one is different. I’ve been studying history and politics in great detail for a number of years now. I’m not entirely giving up on that, but I can feel a part of me beginning to back off from it all.

Various things clarified this for me recently. What really pushed me over the edge was actually reading something inspiring, something that felt authentically real. The book in question is Homegrown Democrat by Garrison Keillor, the inspiration then led to sadness when I watched and listened to some mainstream media and politics. A while back, I was similarly inspired and saddened by reading Harvey J. Kaye’s Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Thomas Paine was a classical liberal I could respect).

Inspiration and depression have always gone hand in hand for me. I’ve always thought that if modern society doesn’t make you feel suicidally depressed, then there is something seriously wrong with you. I say that only half humorously.

“From a certain point onward, there is a no turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”
 ~ Franz Kafka 

– – – 

Here is a long comment from a recent post where I expressed my feelings:

What Paine and many others realized is that civilization is built on and dependent on violence. All the good of our modern lives is inseparable form horrible violence. It’s a conundrum, but one that must be faced. The worst violence doesn’t come from a gun or not in a direct sense. There is no choice between violence or no violence in this world. A completely peaceful world is a nice utopia, but for right now we have to deal with the reality in front of us.

As for guns democratically controlled, this happened because they were controlled undemocratically in the past. The world is violent. That is just the way reality is, like it or not (which isn’t to say we shouldn’t aspire toward peace). It’s just that a gun controlled democratically is better than a gun controlled by a tyrant or a gang or a corporation. I’m not a fan of choosing between the lesser of two evils, but in this case there is no other choice… except by either fundamentally altering human nature or fundamentally altering all of human civilization (both being very long term projects that certainly won’t see fruition in our lifetimes, if ever).

Freedom from violence is an abstract ideal. The land you live on is made of the corpses of Native Americans who unwillingly sacrificed their freedom for yours. The products you buy are made through an oppressively violent global economy. If you own property, you are participating in the continuation of a history of colonial genocide and oppression. The land you own is theft from the indigenous and theft from the commons. The landless peasants, many who are homeless, still suffer because of an ownership class that defends it’s stolen land by use of violence, both public and private. How many more people have to die and how much longer does oppression have to last for the sake of these abstract ideals?

“I might disagree, for example if you were asserting that the label “socialism” can be interpreted to mean MERELY valuing the collective good, and fairness.”

I’m not asserting anything in describing what socialism is. I didn’t invent socialism. What I was doing is pointing out the fact that many people are misinformed about socialism. Many of the criticisms of socialism are against views that many socialists don’t advocate. ‘Socialism’ is a favorite straw man of American society, In response to this sad state of affairs, I was offering accurate definitions of socialism.

It’s just a fact that socialists care more about the common good than any other group. It’s the very heart of socialism: social good, social concerns, social-ism. Socialists merely point out that in an interconnected world as we live in it’s literally impossible to separate individual good from collective good, private good from public good. The distinctions between these things only exist in the human mind and in human language, but they don’t exist in the actual lived reality of the world we all share. I know many Americans don’t want to accept these facts. Still, the facts remain.

The distinction I put forth is that anyone who cares will always put people before ideology, including the ideology of ‘freedom’. The question is: Freedom from what and towards what? Whose freedom at whose cost? Too many people want to defend their own freedom while trampling on the freedom of others and then rationalizing that it isn’t their fault that their freedom is built on violence and oppression. People suffer, there are winners and losers, some are just inferior and deserve the horrible fate an oppressive society forced on them. In my heart of hearts, I hope such people one day experience the suffering of those they look down upon or simply ignore. The distinction I put forth is between those who know suffering in the marrow of their bones and those who live comfortable, contented lives.

I’m tired of ideology. I really don’t know how to communicate what I feel other than to say I feel frustrated. The freedom to be poor and oppressed isn’t a freedom I want. The freedom to live in a dog eat dog world is a freedom that makes me want to commit suicide, not joking. If that is freedom, then I’m with Derrick Jensen and I want to see civilization be demolished.

I’m tired of people who, while seemingly meaning well, promote an ugly view of society and of human nature. I’m tired of people who act patriotic about ‘America’ when it’s obvious they have little faith in what America stands for. To them, America just means an attitude of ‘me and my own’ (“Real Americans”).

And I’m tired of people who righteously defend freedom while not acknowledging that most people still live without basic rights and opportunities, that the freedom they defend is in reality just the denial of the freedom of others. Freedom can’t be taken away when it has yet to exist in our society (yes there is some freedom for some people, but even that limited freedom is mostly held by a minority… when freedom means wealth and power, then freedom no longer has any valid meaning).

I’m just plain tired. The worldview that America has come to stand for is something I feel compelled to stand against. Freedom has become a choice between Coke or Pepsi, between Republican or Democrat, between America or the Commies. It’s a simpleminded, black/white conception of freedom. It’s an empty, superficial freedom… just propaganda for mass control.

What inspires me is very simple: people caring about people. Not people caring about people because they think it will boost their own self-interest. Just people caring about people because it’s the right thing to do. We can worry about abstract ideals later… after the starving are fed, the freezing are housed, the sick and dying are cared for. Jesus didn’t ask for money before healing someone, didn’t wonder if such actions conformed to some abstract ideal of liberty. Jesus just helped people.

Basically, what I’m proposing is Midwestern liberalism which partly originates from the early settlers who brought along with them a pragmatic socialism (from Northern Europe). Midwestern liberalism/socialism is just basic Heartland values. The Milwaukee socialists were known as the Sewer Socialists because they were concerned about very practical issues of community life such as making sure there was clean air and water so that people didn’t get sick (which was a major problem with the rise of industrialization). The Sewer Socialists were proud of having a sewer system that actually worked (quite an achievement at the time), to have public services that actually served the public. They didn’t give a damn about ideology. They just wanted people in their community to be healthy and cared for.

Such simple pride in having a healthy community seems almost odd today, but such Midwestern liberalism/socialism still exists… at least in some parts of the Midwest. I was just reminded of this tonight while reading Garrison Keillor’s Homegrown Democrat:

“The state was settled by no-nonsense socialists from Germany and Sweden and Norway who unpacked their trunks and planted corn and set about organizing schools; churches; libraries; lodges; societies and benevolent associations; brotherhoods and sisterhoods, and raised their children to Mind Your Manners, Be Useful, Pay Attention, Make Something of Yourself, Turn Down the Thermostat (If You’re Cold, Go Put on a Sweater), Share and Share Alike, Be Satisfied with What You Have—a green Jell-O salad with mandarin oranges, miniature marshmallows, walnuts, and Miracle Whip is by God good enough for anybody. I grew up in the pure democracy of a public grade school where everybody brought a valentine for everybody on Valentine’s Day so we should feel equally loved though of course some valentines are more equal than others, some have lace and little flaps under which special endearments are written, and others are generic, printed six to a page with bumpy edges where they were torn on the dotted line. But you should be happy with what you get and Don’t Think You’re Special Because You’re Not. (Those people on daytime TV talking about how their parents never gave them the positive feedback they needed and that’s why they shot them—those are not Minnesotans. Nor are the people who go to court to win their children the right to not say the Pledge of Allegiance or not be in the room when other children are saying it.) We take pains to not be Special. If there is one meatball left on the platter, you do not take it, you take half of it, and someone else takes half of that and so it is endlessly divided down to the last crumb. Not a state of showboats or motor-mouths.

“[ . . . ] there is a high value placed on public services. If you call 911 in St. Paul, the cops or the EMTs will arrive within four minutes. In the Republican suburbs, where No New Taxes is the beginning and end of politics and emergency services depend on volunteers, the response time can be anywhere between ten or fifteen and thirty minutes.”

Keillor is the first person I’ve come across in a long while who captures that down-to-earth sense of the common good. It’s very Midwestern thing and so I’m not sure people from other parts of the country can fully understand it. In the Midwest, community has more centrality than individuality. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, it’s farming country. When it was first settled, farmers were fairly isolated and were dependent on their neighbors. They shared their resources to have schools, roads, bridges, hospitals, etc. They truly had a government for and by the people.

Second, it’s partly the religion of the first settlers. They were largely Catholics and Quakers who are very community-oriented. Catholics and Quakers built public schools, orphanages and hospitals where ever they settled. They put collective action and collective benefit above individual freedom and self-interest. It’s why the Catholic Church has often had an uneasy relationship to unbridled capitalism and it’s why the areas of the US with the highest rates of Catholic membership are also the same areas with the highest rates of union membership.

– – –

In case you didn’t notice from that comment, let me state it obviously: I’M TIRED! Lordy Lordy!

But, more importantly, I was impressed by Garrison Keillor. He is what is known as ‘good people’. I just finished reading his book. It made me so happy… well, while reading it. Paine made me proud to be an American. And Keillor makes me proud to be a Midwestern liberal. Keillor is so down-to-earth and easygoing. Reading Keillor’s words, I felt a genuine attitude of emotional honesty, an open-hearted sense of humanity. Whatever it is, it’s a rare thing. Some people thought Bush jr was the type of guy you could have a beer with by which I assume they were referring to his past as an alcoholic frat boy. Well, Keillor is the kind of guy you imagine having breakfast with in a cheap diner while discussing important issues such as weather, town gossip and last Sunday’s sermon.

However, it’s more than just that friendly, down-to-earth midwestern sensibility that values people over ideology and community over politics, that emphasizes the enjoyment of the simple things in life, that looks for the good in others while emphasizing that one is no better than anyone else. All of that is there in Keillor, but he also comes off as having great self-awareness and social insight. You can tell he has thought deeply and carefully. He isn’t expressing his opinions for the sake of proving that he is right and that those who disagree with him are wrong.

In thinking about Keillor, I was thinking of others of a similar authentic, easygoing bent. Some obvious examples are Jim Wallis, Noam Chomsky and Thom Hartmann. I might also add people like Henry David Thoreau, Philip K. Dick and Terrence McKenna. The common theme among all of these is a basic quality of humanness rather than ideology or ulterior motive. All of these people seem to genuinely like people, something I admire for the reason I too often fail at it. I realize I would be a better person if I was able to feel and express such empathy and compassion.

  – – – 

There is one part of Keillor’s attitude that is most relevant to my own recent focus. I described it somewhat in the above blog comment when I mentioned community as a traditional Midwestern value.

Community is such a simple thing, but these days it can seem like a strange alien artifact. Some American citizens are so messed up in the head that they think hating the American government is patriotic. Instead of being about people and community, patriotism has been made into self-righteous folk religiosity. Instead of being about democracy and public service, patriotism has become about partisan self-interest and xenophobic fear-mongering.

All of this got me thinking about individualism, specifically the American variety of hyper-individualism that became increasingly popular in recent decades. Although clearly popular among conservatives, it isn’t limited to conservatives. It’s not unusual for me to come across liberals who promote their own kind of hyper-individualism. There is a type of person who is so concerned about individual liberty and rights that everything else, at best, becomes of secondary value or, at worst, becomes entirely occluded from their vision of reality.

Basically, such a person can’t see the forest for the trees. You can point at the trees and they will see the trees and they might go on about the value of each and every tree. They might be sad as tree after tree is cut down or infested by insects or strangled by kudzu or becomes sickly from pollution, but they won’t put it all together, won’t see an entire ecosystem dying, won’t understand that when this particular ecosystem dies the entire life-supporting biosphere is further weakened. A rainforest, for example, can take hundreds of thousands or even millions of years to form. But once destroyed they can’t be replanted. They’re just gone, a major source of the very oxygen we breathe gone forever (or at least gone forever as far as the human species is concerned).

 – – – 

I had an insight about where hyper-individualism came from in American history. I see two major factors.

Right from the beginning America has been a favorite destination of people escaping oppression, violence and various other kinds of suffering and horror. Many first generation immigrants were psychologically traumatized which led to a rootlessness. These people had a mentality of escape and Americans are always getting away and moving on, always planning escape routes. The Native Americans also were traumatized, but we hid their trauma by sending them off to places we didn’t have to see them.

The history of America has been trauma, victim becoming victimizer creating new victims. It’s our founding mythology, told and retold: slavery, religious persecution, indigenous genocide, revolution, etc. After independence was declared, there soon followed the Civil War which was in many ways just re-opening old wounds of revolutionary era conflicts. The Civil War ripped America apart and we’ve never really healed from it. We are still a divided people.

This is where the second factor comes in. The symbol of American (hyper-)individualism is the lone cowboy, sometimes fighting the good fight but reluctantly, always escaping a haunted past. Have you ever wondered what the haunted past was that caused movie cowboys to often be silent and at other times violent. In reality, many Wild West gunslingers (such as Jesse James) were Civil War veterans, quite a few Southerners. They saw many friends die in the war. A lot of them lost their homes and their livelihood. For a few, the entire town they left behind was burned to the ground. Some lost family members or even whole families (My dad was telling me about one of our neighbors in South Carolina who told him about how on one side of his family every male had been killed in the Civil War; and he explained to my dad that, after losing a war of that magnitude, such personal losses aren’t forgotten even generations later).

These were severely traumatized veterans and they didn’t go to therapy to heal their trauma. They were real men, and as real men they turned to booze and prostitutes, guns and adventure. Many went West because of their haunted pasts that were driving them to get as far away as possible. As the first immigrants escaped the horrors of other countries, the Civil War veterans were escaping the horrors of America.

Here is a clear description of the horrors, both collective and personal, of the Civil War and its aftermath (from Rebirth of a Nation by Jackson Lears):

“EARLY AS April 1862 Americans had a sense of what happened when massive assaults provoked massive counterassaults. Near Shiloh Church in Tennessee, Generals Beauregard and Grant threw armies at each other for thirty-six hours. As reports of the battle filtered back to the home front, the staggering losses mounted, eventually up to 24,500 killed, wounded, or missing on both sides. The numbers were numbing; in any case there was little popular protest, North or South. A few Democratic newspaper editors in the North, never too keen on the war in the first place, deplored the losses and demanded Grant’s scalp. No one knew that they had seen the future. Shiloh was only the first of many bloodbaths—the first of many indications that the most successful Union commanders would be the ones most willing to sacrifice unprecedented numbers of men. The West Point Code was on the way out.

“Neither side sought to avoid bloodbaths; both seemed addicted to frontal assaults (preferably uphill) on entrenched fortifications. The casualties were fearful, in the mass and in detail. The failed assault on Fort Wagner in July 1863 by the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, the black regiment under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, left an eyewitness aghast: “The ditch was literally choked up with dead bodies and it was possible to walk upon them for fifty yards without touching ground.” Those who survived often faced their own protracted horrors, as Walt Whitman reported from a Washington hospital: a Union soldier shot through the bladder, marinating in his own piss; a Confederate soldier the top of whose head had been blown off and whose brains were suppurating in the sun, surviving for three days while he dug a hole in the ground with his heel. These scenes were repeated by the hundreds of thousands. And there were many witnesses.

“Looking back on the war in Specimen Days, Whitman strained to capture the enormity of the evil unleashed by raw rage. After describing John Mosby’s Confederate guerrillas gunning down the Union wounded they had captured near Upperville, Virginia, Whitman then recalled the Union cavalry’s counterattack, capture, and summary execution of seventeen guerrillas in the Upperville town square, where they left the bodies to rot. “Multiply [this scene] by scores, aye hundreds,” Whitman wrote, “light it with every lurid passion, the wolf’s, the lion’s lapping thirst for blood—the passionate volcanoes of human revenge for comrades, brothers slain—with the light of burning farms, and heaps of smutting, smouldering black embers—and in the human heart everywhere black, worse embers—and you have an inkling of this war.”

“Whitman’s recollection of “the light of burning farms” underlined the other major feature of total war: the treatment of civilians as belligerents. Early in the war, Confederates fantasized about bombarding Northern cities, and Stonewall Jackson was always champing at the bit to bring the war to the Northern people. But despite Jackson’s murderous ferocity, the Confederates did not have the resources to sustain an aggressive war. Apart from the two abortive invasions that ended at Antietam and Gettysburg, the main damage done by the Confederate Army to the Yankee population was the tactically pointless burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in 1864. The chief Southern war on civilians was conducted in Missouri, by guerrillas and other irregulars who resisted the Union army of occupation and terrorized its civilian sympathizers, torching their property and gunning them down at random. William Quantrell and his guerrilla band in Missouri, along with John Mosby and his raiders in Virginia, led what might today be characterized as the terrorist wing of the Confederate insurgency.

“Confederate guerrillas practiced insurgent terrorism, the Union Army gradually embraced a policy that can accurately be characterized as state terrorism. By 1865, fifty thousand Southern civilians had been killed as a direct result of Northern combat operations. The policy was embodied in Lincoln’s General Order #100, authored by Francis Lieber, a German émigré, romantic nationalist, and erstwhile professor at the University of South Carolina. The first part of the order aimed to restrict “savage” behavior, such as the bombardment of civilian areas in cities or the pillage of farms; the second part eviscerated those restrictions by stating that any of them could be ignored in the event of “military necessity.” In a counterinsurgency campaign, the phrase justified shelling cities and torching farms. Like other insurgencies, the secessionist movement depended for its support on the local population. The recognition of that fact was behind Grant’s famous order to Philip Sheridan: “turn the Shenandoah into a barren waste so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their own provender.” Other rationales for treating civilians as belligerents foreshadowed contemporary excuses for “collateral damage.” Sherman bombarded Atlanta neighborhoods, he said, because the Confederates were using civilians as human shields. The mass of the Southern population was neither armed nor dangerous. But they were in the war, whether they wanted to be or not. Total war swept all before it.

“Conventional accounts of Appomattox and its aftermath have everyone rolling up his sleeves and getting ready to pitch into an expansive economy. But given the ravages of total war, North and South, one could just as easily describe a postwar landscape littered with lost souls. Consider, for example, how the war shaped the lives of two James boys: Garth Wilkinson James and Jesse James.

“James was the younger brother of William and Henry James, one of the two less favored sons in a talented, ambitious family. Plump, good-natured, and fervently antislavery, Wilky enlisted in the Forty-fourth Massachusetts regiment in September 1862. Both his older brothers managed to avoid the army, with their father’s approval and connivance. Henry James Sr. showed no such solicitude for his younger boys. But war would be Wilky’s one chance to step out of his brothers’ shadow. Transferred to Shaw’s Fifty-fourth, Wilky became one of the white officers who led the black regiment’s doomed charge on Fort Wagner. He was seriously wounded, hit by a shell in the side and a canister ball in the foot. After months of convalescence he returned to the Fifty-fourth, but he never really recovered from his wounds. He survived for eighteen years after Appomattox, in nearly constant pain from rheumatism in his wounded foot. He bumped from one bad business venture to another, beginning with the failure of his idealistic plan to provide recently freed black families an economic foothold by employing them on his farm in Florida. Having run through many thousands of his father’s dollars, he was finally disinherited and died in poverty in Milwaukee, where he and his family had been scraping by after several failed business ventures. For Wilky the war brought not regeneration but ruin. He was one of many men whose physical and emotional wounds never healed.

“James, in contrast, was not physically wounded but psychologically brutalized by the war. Coming of age amid the white-hot hatreds of wartime Missouri, he grew up in a world where casual murder was a manly sport and a rite of passage, the only conclusive proof that you had become (and remained) a man. He proved himself many times during the war, when he rode with Quantrell’s raiders. After Appomattox new opportunities presented themselves. In Missouri, ten years of blood feuds had bred widespread longings for retribution. Many returning veterans could not give up the habit of violence and helped to swell a postwar crime wave. Gunslinging became a way of life.

“Much of the violence was rooted in Reconstruction politics. Bushwhackers wanted revenge against Radical Republicans and money from the companies the Republicans financed. That was enough, among embittered Confederates, to make the James gang seem more than mere bandits and killers. But that is what they were. For fifteen years, they took money at gunpoint from banks and later from express companies, whose monies were being transported on the expanding network of railroads. They also killed a lot of innocent people. Throughout his short life, Jesse remained irresistibly attracted to arbitrary violence.

“Wilkinson James and Jesse James were both permanently scarred by the war, though in profoundly different ways. Wilky limped through the postwar period, failing at everything he tried, knowing that nothing he did would ever match the heroism of storming Fort Wagner. Jesse was filled with partisan rage and vicious notions of manhood that transformed him into a driven killer. The war ravaged lives in unpredictable ways and left a wounded nation.”

In the years following the Civil War, some gunslingers became idolized as heroic lawmen and others became idolized as anti-heroic lawless gunslingers. Jesse James, mentioned above, is a good example of the latter. And Virgil Earp is a good example of the former:

“Private Virgil Earp was still a teenager when marched off to war in 1862 leaving his wife with a baby girl just two weeks old. He would not see his wife or daughter again for thirty-seven years because in the summer of 1863, Ellen was told that Virgil had been killed in Tennessee. Heartbroken, Ellen took her daughter and headed west with her parents. Unaware of the reports of his death, Virgil served throughout the Civil War seeing action in Tennessee and Kentucky. His regiment was assigned to the Army of the Cumberland commanded by Major General George H. Thomas. By the end of the war, the 83rd Illinois had lost one hundred twenty-one men and officers. Private Earp was not among those who died. He returned home in the summer of 1865, three years after he left, to find his wife and baby gone and no way to contact them.

“Like tens of thousands of Civil War veterans, the Earp brothers headed west for a fresh start and new opportunities. For the next ten years, Virgil Earp moved around the country holding various jobs such as farming, railroad construction, and stagecoach driver. He married, divorced, and married again.”

Whether lawman or lawless, it was a popular romantic myth of violent justice where the individual determined his own sense of justice. There was not much if any government in the Wild West. Both heroic lawmen and anti-heroic lawless gunslingers were uneasy of the encroachment of civilization with a new brand of lawmen who were a privatized law and military force, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. There were more Pinkerton agents than there were US soldiers, and probably quite a few Civil War veterans were hired as Pinkerton agents. The lawless gunslingers were seen as heroes because they were fighting big businesses that used violence and oppression to get their way. This was an era that was fomenting the public unrest eventually leading to the Populist Era.

At the same time, this was the era of the Indian Wars which continued into the early 20th century. The Native Americans were fighting their last battles as the unions were fighting their first battles. Between Indians and Pinkertons, the Wild West cowboy was in the middle of enemies. It was a time of violence that created a culture of violence.

 – – –

Furthermore, this violence became the mythology which was permanently emblazoned on the collective psyche through early publications of the exploits of gunfighters and later on with movies.

After those earliest cowboy movies, the lone cowboy myth was being modernized during the Reagan Era when hyper-individualism took on new meaning. Reagan was the actor pretending to be a cowboy who pretended to be a corporate spokesperson and then a president. The romanticized myth of the lone cowboy helped get Reagan elected. It was at that time when macho hyper-individualism fully became the new American mythos: the lone cowboy, the lone rogue cop, the lone businessman. And I suppose it was no accident that the rise of hyper-individualism came at the high point of communist paranoia, communism after all being the antithesis of hyper-individualism.

It was the death knell of liberalism. Rambo was one of the first modernized versions of the lone cowboy. There is the book The Spitting Image by Jerry Lembcke which analyzes how a legend formed around the claim that many Vietnam vets were spit upon by protesters (Damn hippies!) when they came home. In that book, he attributes the origins of this legend to movies such as Rambo: First Blood where there is a scene of Rambo raging about the injustices he met upon his return:

Colonel Trautman: It’s over Johnny. It’s over!

Rambo: Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war! You asked me I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win, for somebody who wouldn’t let us win! Then I come back to the world, and I see all those maggots at the airport, protestin’ me, spittin’, callin’ me a baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me?! Huh?! Who are they?! Unless they been me and been there and know what the hell they yellin’ about!

Of course, this ignores that the anti-war protesters directed their anger and criticism at the political leaders and not the soldiers. It also ignores the fact that a fair number of Vietnam vets became anti-war protesters. But facts never get in the way of a good story.

Obviously, the Vietnam War was traumatizing to the American psyche similar to the Civil War. Both wars created a generation of physically and psychologically battered veterans many of whom felt victimized and resentful. And out of that trauma was born a sense of isolation and a sense of the individual being against the world. Rambo describes this in his words directly following the above speech about “all those maggots”:

Colonel Trautman: It was a bad time for everyone Rambo. It’s all in the past now.

Rambo: For you! For me civilian life is nothin’! In the field without a code of honor. You watch my back I watch yours. Back here there’s nothin’! Col. Trautman: You’re the last of an elite group. Don’t end it like this. Rambo: Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment. Back here I can’t even hold a job PARKING CARS!!!! UUHHHH!!!!! (Throws M-60 at wall and then slight emotional pause. He drops to the ground in a crouched position out of breath and very upset) Wha…I can’t…oh, I jus–omigod. Where is everybody? Oh God…I…I had a friend, who was Danforth. Wha–I had all these guys man. Back there I had all these fucking guys. Who were my friends. Cause back here there’s nothin’. Remember Danforth? He wore this black head band and I took one of those magic markers and I said to Feron, ‘Hey mail us to Las Vegas cause we were always talkin’ about Vegas, and this fucking car. This uh red ’58 Chevy convertible, he was talkin’ about this car, he said we were gonna cruise till the tires fall off. (upset pause) We were in this bar in Saigon. And this kid comes up, this kid carryin’ a shoe shine box, and eh he says uh ‘shine please, shine.’ I said no, eh an’ uh, he kept askin’ yeah and Joey said ‘yeah,’ and I went to get a couple beers and the ki–the box was wired, and he opened up the box, fuckin’ blew his body all over the place. And he’s layin’ there and he’s fuckin’ screamin’, there’s pieces of him all over me, jus like–! (frustrated he grabs at his bullet chain strapped around his chest and yanks it off) like this. And I’m tryin’ to pull em off you know? And ehe.. MY FRIEND IT’S ALL OVER ME! IT’S GOT BLOOD AND EVERYTHING! And I’m tryin’ to hold him together I put him together his fucking insides keep coming out, AND NOBODY WOULD HELP!! Nobody help me. He sayin’ plea I wanna go home I wanna go home. He keeps callin’ my name, I wanna go home Johnny, I wanna drive my Chevy. I said well (upset and breaking down) WHY I can’t find your fucking legs. I can’t find you legs. (softly now) I can’t get it out of my head. I fuc..I dream of seven years. Everyday I have this. And sometimes I wake up and I dunno where I am. I don’t talk to anybody. Sometimes a day–a week. (Almost inaudible) I can’t put it out of my mind…fucking…I can’t…….(totally sobbing now)

For the Rambo at the heart of our culture, the past is never past. The violence is continually relived.

Rambo, of course, was overly simplistic melodramatic violence porn. Maybe for that reason it had such an impact on the American psyche. Rambo expressed something that Americans felt, something that Americans wanted to believe. It gave all of the conflicts and doubts an emodied form. It put it all into the context of a story. And stories have a way of informing our perceived reality, our shared sense of identity.

 – – – 

I touched upon these issues in my book review of David Sirota’s Back to the Future. Here is the relevant section:

First, Sirota argues that the 80s was when violence became normalized. Violence became a central part of our collective psyche: movies, video games, etc. Part of this had to do with the Vietnam War, the first major military loss that shook America’s collective confidence and righteous nationalism. Americans had internalized the violence from the Vietnam War footage and were now trying to come to terms with the sense of national failure that came after the withdrawl from Vietnam. It was maybe something like a collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sirota does mention the Vietnam War. He talks about the explanations given such as what he calls the “hands tied behind their backs” myth. I guess the idea was that if the soldiers weren’t held back, they could’ve demonstrated some real violence that would’ve forced the enemy into submission.

Second, the obsession with violence was inseparable from the obsession with hyper-individualism. This partly was represented by fear and hatred of government, the belief that the government can’t do anything right, that the government is the enemy of the people, of local governance, the enemy of communities, of religions, of capitalism, the enemy of all that is good. In general, all collective action and activism was looked upon with suspicion. Nothing good could come from people working together cooperatively toward the common good. Only individuals (or else individuals working together for the purpose of profit, i.e., private contractors: The A-Team, Ghostbusters, etc) could solve problems. People couldn’t rely on government, the FBI, or the police to solve their problems… and, so, people instead had to hope for a hero figure to come to town. And it was considered admirable when things got done, even if it meant breaking laws and committing violence.

In that same post, I gave an example that resonates with my having been a child in the 80s, a child who watched all of those 80s shows and absorbed their lessons. The 80s didn’t make me into a conservative, but the scars of cynical hyper-individualism are upon me.

Reagan considered Family Ties one of his favorite shows and offered to be in an episode. Sirota considers that show to have been central. Many young conservatives took inspiration from the Alex P. Keaton’s rebellion against his liberal former hippie parents. Alex stated a classic line when he complained about his parents being arrested for protesting nuclear weapons:

“You know what’s wrong with parents today? They still think they can change the world.”

Many Republican and Tea Party conservatives still feel that way today. It’s something like a Calvinist sense of fatalism combined with the self-assurance of a car salesman. Nothing good can be accomplished collectively and so you might as well narrowly focus on your own self-interest. Rambo’s despicable spitting protesters became Alex’s naive yuppie parents.

As I recall, in that episode Alex’s parents were protesting nucler weapons in an attempt to revive the memories of their past activism. Even if well intentioned, these old former hippies are almost pitiful. Alex maybe correctly perceives them as having sold out for careers and a middle class lifestyle. And so maybe he reasons that it would save time by going straight to the selling out.

What is the point of trying to make the world a better place? What did the hippies accomplish? The answer from conservatives is that at best hippies accomplished nothing and at worst they helped destroy everything that was good about America. Specifically, the 60s hippies are the archetypal enemy of the idyllic 50s. It was all going so well until the hippies came along. Never mind the fact that the 50s was the era when liberalism reigned unchallenged. Never mind the fact that what ended the idyllic liberal 50s was the rising neo-conservatism of the 60s. Never mind inconvenient facts.

To me, facts matter. But in the culture wars, story matters even more. It saddens me that there is such a dark and ugly story at the heart of American culture. It’s a festering wound that needs to be opened in order to let out the puss and be cleansed. There is a conflict of narratives, a conflict that I feel like a knot in my chest. It’s scary to believe in something as great as the collective good. It’s so much easier to be cynical or merely focused one’s own individual life, one’s own private concerns. Why stick one’s head out onto what might turn out to be a chopping block? The veterans who fought the wars know that there is rarely much reward offered for their sacrifices. Most homeless people are veterans, forgotten and uncared for. The conservative politicians campaign on sending young men to war and upon their return they seek to cut benefits for veterans.

It’s hard to blame anyone in feeling cynical after such treatment. And it’s not just veterans. Recent decades have been an endless parade of lies and deceit, an endless betrayal by politicians who serve their corporate masters and their ideological bases. As I write, Washington elites are discussing how far they can get away with balancing the budget on the backs of the average Americans. Tax cuts for the rich and bailouts to the banks received less discussion than this.

 – – – 

Nonetheless, I refuse to believe that it has to be this way.

I know in my heart of hearts that humanity has such great potential. I want to believe in what America stands for. I want to believe in it in the way Thomas Paine believed in it. Yes, to believe so passionately is foolhardy. Even so, if there were no fools, there would never have been an American Revolution in the first place. If the founding generation didn’t foolishly believe in the common good they shared with their countrymen, they wouldn’t have fought for and won their independence. And none of us would be here to argue about the potential of the American Dream.

But I realize that my cynicism too often wins out. My cynicism is constantly confirmed and what little hope I have is constantly dashed. Still, I want to believe. I don’t want to live in a world where I have to fear of losing my job and becoming homeless, of going bankrupt because of health problems, of one day becoming yet another forgotten and lonely elderly person who barely gets by eating God knows what. I’m tired of it all. It’s so depressing because there is no practical reason it has to be this way.

It reminds me of how there is enough food in the world to feed every single person and yet hunger, starvation and malnutrition are widespread. If we spent even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of our military budget on medical research, we probably could have found cures or improvements for all of the major illnesses. If instead of spending money on fighting over oil we spent that money investing in R&D, we would already have viable, cost effective alternative energies. Rather than helping the poor, we build prisons to house the poor. Rather than funding public education, we fund the military-industrial complex.

In heartfelt despair and bewilderment, Derrick Jensen writes (The Culture of Make Believe, pp. 140-1),

“As this dawning dissonance began to tear at my insides, again and again I considered that the confusion must come from within, that I must be missing some simple point: No one could be so stupid as to kill their own planet, all the while chatting breezily about golf, “reality-based TV” (whatever that means), bulging stock portfolios, and How ’bout them Cubbies? What seemed profoundly important to me seemed of no importance whatsoever to most people, and what seemed important to so many people seemed trivial to me. I couldn’t wrap my my mind aroundit. Lawrence Summers promotes the poisoning of poor people, and is elevated to secretary of the treasury. People profess concern over child prostitution as they continue to promulgate the economic and familial conditions that lead to it. The United states bombs Vietnam to save the Vietnamese people, it arms death squads through Latin America to save the people there, it bombs Iraq to save the people there. I kept thinking: Is there something I’m missing?”

Endless violence. Endless stupidity.

I sympathize with those who seek to escape into stories detached from reality. But I also understand that stories have the capacity touch upon deeper truths.

“There is a language older by far and deeper than words. It is the language of the earth, and it is the language of our bodies. It is the language of dreams, and of action. It is the language of meaning, and of metaphor. This language is not safe, as Jim Nollman said of metaphor, and to believe in its safety is to diminish the importance of the embodied. Metaphors are dangerous because id true they open us to our bodies, and thus to action, and because they slip – sometimes wordlessly, sometimes articulated – between the seen and unseen. This language of symbol is the umbilical cord that binds us to the beginning, to whatever is the source of who we are, where we come from, and where we return. To follow this language of metaphor is to trace words back to our bodies, back to the earth.”
~ A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen, p. 311

In the end, maybe I’m just hoping to find a story I can believe in.

Public Good vs Splintered Society (pt 2)

This is a continuation of my thoughts from my previous post. I won’t summarize my thoughts from that post. So you probably should read it first to understand the context of what I’m writing about below.

 – – – 

I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t directly speaking of racism. There is something more fundamental that can manifest as racism but not necessarily. It’s related to xenophobia. More generally, it’s related to the conservative predisposition of fearing that which is different or new.

This type of fear doesn’t inevitably manifest in negative ways. Sometimes there are good reasons to be mistrusting or cautious… and sometimes not. Also, everyone including liberals are prone to extreme wariness and even fear at times, but research shows that conservatives are even more prone and that right-wingers are so prone they live in almost constant state of mistrust and suspicion.

This is important because it goes beyond fear. If you’re afraid of something, you probably won’t deal with it well because fear constricts your options of how to respond. A conservative who is afraid of the strange and new probably won’t respond constructively to the strange and new. Is it any surprise that right-wingers who mistrust the government also are very bad at governing? Is it any surprise that research shows that those who believe in conspiracy theories admit that they would conspire if given the opportunity? Is it any surprise that conservatives who dislike compromise seek to attack anyone who wants compromise and then blame the other party for their failure to submit to the conservatives’ position?

Liberals are the only demographic that has a majority support for compromise. This is very problematic for a democracy where compromise is absolutely necessary in order for the government to function and for different groups to be fairly represented by the supposedly representative government. In an increasingly diverse society, this is increasingly problematic. Conservatives will only ever agree to policies when those policies are in their favor which means when they have the power to enforce policies in their favor.

Well off white conservatives have always become anxious whenever new groups asserted their right to be fairly represented.

It happened when the second wave of Scots-Irish immigrants arrived. It happened with the Chinese and German immigrants later on. It happened when slaves were freed and when women got the vote. It happened with the Catholics and Jews who sought political positions. It happened with the Japanese during WWII. And now it’s happening with Hispanics and Arabs.

It doesn’t matter how many generations these people lived here. All that matters is that they were and in some cases still are perceived as being different.

Racism is often the end result of this xenophobia, but it is’t the fundamental issue. In America, there is this ideal of diverse people working together. Not just conforming. Some conservatives and right-wingers say other groups should conform to the WASP culture. It’s fine to be a Catholic or Muslim just as long as y0u keep it to yourself. It’s fine to be gay or an atheist as long as you don’t speak about it openly.

The WASPs will claim that their culture is and should be the dominant culture.

They will rationalize this in saying that this should be so because they are the majority. Well, once upon a time Native Americans were the majority before European diseases and genocide wiped out most of their population. In Texas, Spanish-speaking Hispanics are the majority. Should all Texans conform to that majority? Why not? Shouldn’t Hispanics be fairly represented?

When their majority argument is challenged, WASPs will simply say their culture should be dominant because it’s always been dominant. So what this dominance was created and maintained for centuries through horrific violence and oppression. Might makes right, after all.

In the end, as a good liberal, I don’t want to blame anyone, not even WASPs. I’m tired of the blame game entirely, no matter who it’s directed at. If you’re a genuine conservative, sure feel free be cautious about the changes happening in society. But enough with the fear-mongering and race-baiting. Don’t use bigotry as an excuse to hate the democratic government. Don’t promote class war to push away the ladder once you’ve made it to the top. Don’t distort Jesus’ message of love to defend a system of injustice and suffering. Conservatism has a healthy role to play, but radical conservatism is unhelpful, dangerous even.

Americans have proven to be able to do great things when we all work together. Republicans, Libertarians and Tea Partiers, I ask this of you: Please quit attacking what makes America great simply for reasons of your personal agenda. America isn’t just about the upper classes or whites or Christians. It never was and never will be.

During the Populist Era, Northerners and Southerners worked together to fight those seeking to take over the government and oppress the lower classes. In some of the first labor unions, blacks and whites worked together.

Earlier last century, conservatives didn’t hate the government but actually sought to create a government that was truly for and by the people. The Republican Party used to be the party of progressivism and moderation, the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Republican Party helped create the infrastructure (the interstate highway system, the national parks system, etc) of America through progressive taxation including high taxes on the rich. The Republicans, instead of fighting their own dark fantasies about ‘welfare queens’, used to fight the KKK.

The Progressive Era was also a time when liberalism reigned. Liberalism reigned all the way through Nixon’s early political career. Some of the greatest progressives were Republicans. Eisenhower used the military to enforce desegregation. Nixon campaigned on helping blacks and later helped pass the EPA. It was a time when people believed that America was a great nation and that it was the responsibility of the government along with the support of the public to do great things. The government used to send men into space and used to build great technology such as the internet. The Progressive Era created high-paying jobs that were secure and had pensions. Manufacturing jobs were kept in America and Americans were proud of our growing economy. Everyone benefited. It was a good society where literally everyone’s boat was lifted. Progressives gave a generation affordable higher education and created the middle class.

This isn’t patriotic propaganda. This isn’t just history. We are still benefiting from the sacrifices our grandparents and great grandparents made to build this great society. For decades, we’ve been living off the work of past generations while allowing the infrastructure crumble around us. It’s become an age of hyper-individualism and endless wars, in fact wars that are often against the American people. Instead of wars on drugs, why don’t we have a war on political corruption? Instead of tough on crime against the poor and minorities, why don’t we have tough on crime against the corporatists and bankers who nearly destroyed our economy?

It’s not too late. We can take responsibility as generations past did. We could create a great society once again.

At times, it seems so simple. Maybe it is as simple as our collectively creating what we collectively hope for or what we colletively fear. However, when digging deeper, there are all kinds of factors.

I was reading the book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State by Andrew Gelman. The following passage caught my attention last night while I was thinking about why conservatives seem to trust less or value less the ideal of a shared community, i.e., community beyond their own in-group.

Looking at people who moved from red (strongly Republican) states: those who move to other red states are poorer, those who move to purple states are slightly richer (on average), and those who move to blue states are richest. Among those who moved from purple (battleground) states, we see the same pattern: the poorer go to red states, the richer go to blue states. Looking at those who moved from blue (strongly Democratic) states, we again see that the poorest went to red states and the richest went to other blue states. In fact, people who moved from one blue state to another are in the richest category, on average. This does not demonstrate that people move to states or regions that are more culturally compatible to them, but the data are consistent with that possibility. A related idea is that higher earners are moving to richer states because of the economic opportunities available for educated professionals in these places.

One link between economics, voting, and social attitudes has been noticed by journalist Steve Sailer, who hypothesizes that rich, coastal states now favor the Democrats because of increasing house prices, which reduces affordable family formation (marriage and childbearing), in turn limiting the electoral appeal of Republican candidates running on family values. Sailer attributes some of this home price difference to what he calls the Dirt Gap—coastal and Great Lakes cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco are bounded by water, which limits their potential for growth, as compared to inland cities such as Dallas or Atlanta: “The supply of suburban land available for development is larger in Red State cities, so the price is lower.” The Republicans do better among married voters, who are more likely to end up in more affordable states that also happen to be more culturally conservative.

This reminded me of the distinction I noticed between more conservative Southern states where people value family as community (Scots-Irish fundamentalism and kinship ties) and more liberal Midwestern states where people value community as family (Catholic and Quaker focus on community-building: schools, hospitals, orphanages, homeless shelters, etc).

As the above passage describes, working class and lower middle class conservatives who vote Republican tend to live in or move to Republican states for a simple reason. Unlike poor social conservatives who vote Democratic, these slightly more well off conservatives have enough money to move and yet not enough money to move to the more wealthy communities. So they go to places where there are suburbs which means places with vast open land to build suburbs. The Midwest doesn’t have such vast unused space and maybe that is why the value of community has survived in the Midwest whereas it hasn’t survived as much in Republican strongholds.

The thing about suburbs is that they’ve tended to be very lacking in traditional community structure. People tend to work far away from where they live. Suburbs often aren’t designed for walking and often don’t have parks or neighborhood schools. They are the antithesis of community and at the same time they are the destination of socially conservative Republicans, especially those who are white (which is most socially conservative Republicans). Suburbs tend to lack multiculturalism and racial diversity which might be another thing that attracts socially conservative Republicans.

This cuts to the core.

Research has found that those who grow up with multiculturalism and racial diversity will as adults be more socially liberal. It’s probably also relates to the research that shows liberals tended to have many friends in their childhoods.

As such, the type of communities we create (rural farming, cities, metropolises, suburbia, etc) creates a particular mindset that allows certain ways of seeing community and disallows others. Community doesn’t just happen. It is created. And if we don’t create it consciously, it might not take very positive forms. We’ve destroyed the natural order (i.e., hunter-gatherer communities) upon which human nature evolved. Our society has become dysfunctional because it’s gone so far beyond our origins as a species. Returning to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle isn’t possible without the complete destruction of civilization and a mass die-off of most of the world’s population. A ‘natural’ (i.e., unplanned) community isn’t a choice that we have at this point. Even conservatives in refusing to invest in the larger community are creating a particular type of community.

From an anecdotal perspective, Garrison Keillor describes (in his book Homegrown Democrat) the difference between liberal city-dwellers and conservative suburbanites:

“[ . . . ] there is a high value placed on public services. If you call 911 in St. Paul, the cops or the EMTs will arrive within four minutes. In the Republican suburbs, where No New Taxes is the beginning and end of politics and emergency services depend on volunteers, the response time can be anywhere between ten or fifteen and thirty minutes.”

Keillor is basically what has in the past been called a Sewer Socialist. In an earlier time in Milwaukee, there were socialists in political positions. They were of the pragmatic (i.e., non-ideological) sort that is common in the Midwest. Like Keillor, they were proud to have some of the best public services around at that time. On a practical level, socialism just means that you care about your neighbor rather than seeing community as merely a collection of self-focused individuals.

Many Americans have so completely forgotten what community is. When they see community, they have a fearful knee-jerk response: Socialism! Communism! Oh no, those who care about the public good are going to destroy our society!

 – – –

There is one factor that explains the impossibility of discussing all of this fairly and openly. I recently came across research about the backfire effect.

Basically, the backfire effect is when someone becomes stronger in their beliefs (more unquestioningly dogmatic) when they are confronted by facts that contradict or disprove or bring doubt to their beliefs. It intuitively makes sense, although I’m sure there are complex psychological mechanisms behind it.

What is relevant to my discussion is the demographic most prone to the backfire effect. Do I even need to say it? Unsurprisingly, conservatives are more likely to become more dogmatic when challenged even when or especially when the facts are against them. Liberals, on the other hand, don’t necessarily change their beliefs with new facts; it’s just that they’re less likely to become even stronger in their beliefs which seems to imply that liberals perceive facts as being less threatening.

This puts liberals in an almost impossible situation. Is it any wonder that no matter how much liberals seek to compromise they rarely ever get any compromise in return from conservatives. Liberals love compromise, a weakness and a strength. It’s because liberals love to compromise that they are able to live in multicultural, multi-racial cities. Study after study shows liberals love anything new and different, including ‘foreigners’. But the typical conservative response to anything unusual, even rotting fruit as shown in one study, is to respond with disgust.

Love of compromise is one ‘failing’ of liberalism. The other ‘failing’ is love of knowledge. Even when a fact disagrees with a liberal position, a liberal is more likely to welcome the new info, even if just for reasons of intellectual curiosity. Most (by which I mean the vast majority of) academics, scientists, writers and journalists are self-identified liberals. It’s a combination of liberals loving knowledge and the love of knowledge inducing a liberal mindset. Sadly, the more conservative someone is the less they probably love knowledge, and studies have shown right-wingers are prone to outright anti-intellectualism.

So, what is a poor liberal to do?

The answer isn’t to give up on compromise and knowledge. The real problem is that many liberals don’t understand the conservative mindset. The dogmatic tendency of conservatives and right-wingers correlates to their religiosity. I suspect that religiosity explains one other thing. A fact by itself is less convincing to a conservative. What convinces a conservative the most is anecdotal evidence and stories. Essentially, the Bible is just a bunch of anecdotes and stories, an anecdote being a story is considered real. Also, the evangelical tradition is all about personal experience of God or Holy Spirit which is the ultimate anecdotal evidence.

Everyone loves stories, but I think conservatives put a special importance on stories in a way liberals don’t. To a liberal, a story is a story. To a conservative, a story is reality. The story of Jesus is real, despite the lack of historical fact and even despite the internal contradictions of the New Testament. The most powerful story is the story that is seen as fact. Such a story is especially powerful if it actually is based on fact. It’s not that conservatives hate knowledge, but between a fact and a story conservatives will prefer the latter.

This is why conspiracy theories and global warming denialism are so convincing to conservatives and right-wingers. A conspiracy theory is a story and global warming denialism is often couched in terms of conspiracy theory. It just doesn’t matter to many conservatives that it’s a fact that most climatologists agree that human-caused global warming is real. It doesn’t matter because climatologists aren’t trained, as preachers are trained, in telling a good story.

Liberals love story as well. I do think stories are more powerful than anything else. Stories are what cultures are built upon. Liberals fail when they forget this. As George Lakoff explained:

“Progressives too often fail to clearly state the moral principles behind the American tradition. Our arguments often sound like an abstract defense of distant “government” rather than a celebration of our people, our public, and the moral views that have defined our tradition and the real human beings who work every day to carry them out.”

The root word for ‘science’ means to split or dissect. The root word for ‘art’ means to put together or join. This might be why knowledge and story so often conflict, but they don’t have to. Knowledge and story can work together. Old stories can be taken apart so as to create new stories that bring together. In a multicultural society as we live in, we can take the pieces of our cultural heritage and form something greater than the sum of the parts.

Story can be the bridge that brings liberals and conservatives together. In the past, America had a story about a shared society and that story inspired many generations of people in the first half or so of the 20th century. The greatest story is that which is lived through collective enactment. I’ve often wondered what story (i.e., myth) we are collectively enacting.

The dangerous part is unconsciously enacting a story. When that happens, a society is controlled by the story, trapped in a narrative. We can be mere characters in someone else’s story, such as an ancient story from an ancient book, or we can be storytellers. As William Blake said,

“Invent your own mythology or be slave to another man’s.”

To translate that into the terms of this discussion: Invent our own cultural narrative or be slave to the narrative of another culture. Invent our collective sense of community or be slave to the broken remnants of the past.

If we react out of fear, we will create a society driven by fear. Such a fearful society will result in dysfunctional communities, isolated communities set against one another, broken communities where past traumas are never healed. Only an act of creation can heal. Only retelling the story of community can heal a community.

 – – – 

George Lakoff summarized well the situation we collectively face:

Democracy, in the American tradition, has been defined by a simple morality: We Americans care about our fellow citizens, we act on that care and build trust, and we do our best not just for ourselves, our families, our friends and our neighbors, but for our country, for each other, for people we have never met and never will meet.

“American democracy has, over our history, called upon citizens to share an equal responsibility to work together to secure a safe and prosperous future for their families and nation. This is the central work of our democracy and it is a public enterprise. This, the American Dream, is the dream of a functioning democracy.

“Public refers to people, acting together to provide what we all depend on: roads and bridges, public buildings and parks, a system of education, a strong economic system, a system of law and order with a fair and effective judiciary, dams, sewers, and a power grid, agencies to monitor disease, weather, food safety, clean air and water, and on and on. That is what we, as a people who care about each other, have given to each other.

“Only a free people can take up the necessary tasks, and only a people who trust and care for one another can get the job done. The American Dream is built upon mutual care and trust. 

“Our tradition has not just been to share the tasks, but to share the tools as well. We come together to provide a quality education for our children. We come together to protect each other’s health and safety. We come together to build a strong, open and honest financial system. We come together to protect the institutions of democracy to guarantee that all who share in these responsibilities have an equal voice in deciding how they will be met.

“What this means is that there is no such thing as a “self-made” man or woman or business. No one makes it on their own. No matter how much wealth you amass, you depend on all the things the public has provided — roads, water, law enforcement, fire and disease protection, food safety, government research, and all the rest. The only question is whether you have paid your fair share for what we all have given you.

“We are now faced with a nontraditional, radical view of “democracy” coming from the Republican party. It says democracy means that nobody should care about anybody else, that democracy means only personal responsibility, not responsibility for anyone else, and it means no trust. If America accepts this radical view of democracy, then all that we have given each other in the past under traditional democracy will be lost: all that we have called public. Public roads and bridges: gone. Public schools: gone. Publicly funded police and firemen: gone. Safe food, air, and water: gone. Public health: gone. Everything that made America America, the crucial things that you and your family and your friends have taken for granted: gone.

The democracy of care, shared responsibility and trust is the democracy of the American Dream. The democracy of no care, no shared responsibility, and no trust has produced the American Nightmare that so many of our citizens are living through.

Public Good vs Splintered Society

I was talking to a conservative about local politics and economics. This helped me to clarify my own liberal views about this liberal community.

I’ve lived in this relatively small city (Iowa City, IA) for most of my life and I’ve worked in many jobs here, including the last 10 years spent working for the city. I’ve seen the town change and I’ve studied the town’s history. To put it simply, I’m ‘invested’ in this town. This town is my childhood home. This town is the only community I’ve ever felt a part of.

I’m not sure how typical this city is, but it’s a good example of a planned city. It originally was intended to be the capital of Iowa. They even went so far as to build the capital building around which much of the downtown formed, but the capital was later moved to a more central location in the state. Iowa City wouldn’t exist as we now know it if not for that initial taxpayer funded investment. Instead of a capital, we got the University of Iowa which also has brought in massive state funding.

However, this city doesn’t survive on just the taxpayers kindness. There are two hospitals, a Catholic hospital and the University hospital, the latter being one of the best hospitals in the country. There is also a thriving downtown with hundreds of businesses, although it’s of course changed much over time.

Also, Iowa City has many parks, recreation centers, public parking ramps, a very nice public library (plus the university has numerous libraries all open to the public), and a very nice pedestrian mall (where many of the businesses are located). At one end of the pedestrian mall, there is a hotel and a conference center, both having been built on publicly owned land (the hotel being built on the very public street that was closed when it was turned into a pedestrian mall. The pedestrian mall was built and the entire downtown renovated in the 1970s with public funding (some combination of federal and local). A mall was also built near the pedestrian mall and was planned by the city government as part of the downtown renovation. The mall now only is half stores and half offices for the university (besides it now only halfway serving as a mall, it seems to be thriving as well).

Near downtown, there is a historic district which still has the original brick roads. The city government has only approved buildings in that area to fit in with the historical architecture. There is a genuine care (by the public and by the local government) about this town’s history… along with care about its future.

All of these public investments have paid off massively. Iowa City has often been listed in various top 10 lists of cities to live in. It’s even a favorite destination for the elderly and the disabled because of our fine public services, including a large senior center downtown. And, of course, people from all over the country and all over the world come to Iowa City to either attend or to work at the university. Because of the university, we have the oldest writers’ workshop in the world and have been given the title of the first UNESCO City of Literature in the US. The pedestrian mall, the downtown in general, the various parks and recreation centers; all of these are extremely popular destinations. During the warm times of the year, there are bands that play in the pedestrian mall every week and there are several festivals. Between the university, the city and the senior center, there are always events, activities and groups available for people of all ages and interests. We have a fairly popular public access channel with tons of locally produced shows.

There is a strong sense of community in Iowa City, but community doesn’t happen on accident. It must be created through civic action, through public participation and, yes, through a willingness of taxpaying citizens to support it all. People are willing to pay for it because they believe in the vision of a thriving community. We have community theatres, including a theatre building that was saved through public donations. Furthermore, there are many churches in Iowa City that are strongly community-oriented. This town is a place where even the most destitute will find their basic needs met.

Community is an odd thing. It’s hard to measure its value. The only aspect that can indirectly be measured is land value which is mostly created through public investment in infrastructure (road building and maintenance, plowing, water, emergency services, etc). Without such public infrastructure, land has little economic value in and of itself. But even the land value doesn’t begin to capture the value of community. As social animals, we collectively are the value of a community. We swim in and breathe community like fish in water. Community is often easier to notice when it’s gone.

“Not much that we do in our personal lives makes much economic sense, just as most things we do for money make no sense in personal terms.”
~ A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen, p. 138

For some strange reason, most American ‘conservatives’ no longer seem to believe in community. Yes, they like community, but they don’t like what is required to create community. They’ll argue that governments can’t create jobs. If that was so, Iowa City wouldn’t have a thriving downtown with a strong downtown business association. Maybe it’s a midwest thing. Iowa City is a very liberal city, but many people on the city council are business owners. Even business owners want public investment. The nice downtown wouldn’t exist without public investment. Iowa City is an example of what Republicans think is impossible.

Before Iowa City’s renovation, the downtown was becoming rundown. There had been political upheaval with riots downtown. There were many old buildings that weren’t being maintained. There were empty gravel lots all over. The downtown wasn’t thriving and many citizens were afraid to go downtown. It would have been easy to let the downtown turn into a slum or simply die as has been allowed to happen in many cities. It would have been easy to have privatized all the parks and public services. It would have been easy to lower the taxes on the rich using the rhetoric that this would increase job creation and trickle down. But if that had been done, the downtown would probably still be rundown.

It wasn’t just taxpayer money that saved downtown Iowa City. The money could have been wasted, even with good intentions. What makes Iowa City unique is that it’s filled with liberals (and traditional conservatives) who actually believe in community and are willing to personally invest in building community. When the downtown was renovated, someone or some group obviously had great vision and it was far from utopian. This vision was very practical in its implementation and in its results.

 – – – 

So, why don’t conservative Republicans have faith in community in the way liberals do. I’ve written about this before, but it continually bewilders me.

Why is it that Republicans only trust the government when they are in power?

Why is it that conservatives have so little faith in what makes America strong?

If conservatives truly believed communism was inferior, why did they have such immense faith that it was probable communism might succeed?

“The core presumption of Soviet communism was that people would work hard for the well-being of the state, even with no personal payoff. That always seemed unlikely to me–in fact so unlikely that I always believed that Soviet communism was destined to fall of its own weight. The communist conspiracies were inconsequential because the system was certain to fail. I was then struck by the odd perception that the people most paranoid about the rise of this doomed ideology were the conservatives who should have been the most confident of the ultimate success of the American economic experiment. They were instead the least confident and the most fearful of being overwhelmed by the Soviet system.

“When communism fell at last I was not surprised because it seemed to me always destined to fall. Why was my liberal mind more confident of our system than the conservatives that constantly pronounced us doomed to fall to the evil Soviets?”

This demonstrates my point. Liberals have less fear of enemies because liberals are more confident in American society, in the American public, in the American economy, in American communities, and yes even in the American government. Liberals simply believe in America. Full stop.

So, why don’t conservative Republicans have an equal confidence?

I’ve recently become more clear in a particular insight. Republican conservatives, for the most part, aren’t traditional conservatives. The American political tradition originates from the British political tradition. The British conservatives were the the traditionally conservative Tories; and the Tories defended the British government. Since the American revolutionaries were fighting the British government, by default they were fighting against the conservatism of their day, the Tories. Henry Fairlie clearly differentiated between traditional conservatives and modern conservatives:

“The characteristics of the Tory, which separate him from the conservative, may briefly be summarized: 1.) his almost passionate belief in strong central government, which has of course always been the symbolic importance to him of the monarchy; 2.) his detestation of “capitalism,” of what Cardinal Newman and T.S. Eliot called “usury,” of which he himself calls “trade”; and 3.) his trust in the ultimate good sense of the People, whom he capitalizes in this way, because the People are a real entity to him, beyond social and economic divisions, and whom he believes can be appealed to, and relied on, as the final repository of decency in a free nation. The King and the People, against the barons and the capitalists, is the motto of the Tory.”

A traditional conservative doesn’t hate his own government. The government is a social institution which maintains social order. There is nothing a traditional conservative cares about more than social order and there is no more basic manifestation of social order than government.

This was further clarified by another discussion I was having with the same conservative that got me thinking about all of this. In the second discussion, I mentioned the phenomenon of the black demographic (which applies to some other minority demographics such as Latinos).

Blacks mostly vote for Democrats. In fact, they are the most loyal base of the Democratic Party. This is interesting as they are conservative rather than liberal. Democratic-voting blacks are even more socially conservative and more conservatively religious than even the average Republican. The division between the two parties isn’t liberal vs conservative. Rather, it’s traditional conservatives (aligned with liberals) vs modern conservatives (aligned with right-wingers). There are still some traditional conservatives left in the GOP, but not many. They are the last remnants of the Eisenhower Republicans. Most people today label traditional conservatives as ‘moderate conservatives’ or even simply as ‘moderates’ because they are, after all, moderate compared to right-wingers.

As I’m bewildered by the right-wingers who call themselves conservatives, the conservative I was speaking with was bewildered by these minorities who are so traditionally conservative and yet vote Democratic. He genuinely thinks they are brainwashed. No, they are just religious. Upper class and upper middle class white people (the base of the Republican Party) simply don’t understand traditional conservatism, especially as it relates to religion. To a poor and disenfranchised person (i.e., minorities), religion plays a much more pivotal role. If you are a well off white person, you grow up with lots of advantages and privileges which makes life easy. The well off white person is less obviously reliant on community and so they can focus on a more individualistic worldview. Most black Americans don’t have such luxury. For them, religion is their community in a world that is often against them. Religion isn’t merely an individual choice, isn’t merely a nice moral group to belong to. For minorities, religion is about survival.

This is why blacks (and latinos) mostly vote Democratic. Liberals only make up a small portion of Democratic voters, far from being a majority. However, both conservative blacks and liberal whites are aligned in defending traditional conservatism. The only difference is that the former wants more involvement from churches. Minorities want churches to be allowed to accept government funding in order to participate in the improvement of their own communities. This love and appreciation of community (i.e., it takes a village to raise a child) is a shared ideal of conservative blacks and liberal whites.

Democrats only seem predominantly liberal as compared to Republican right-wing values and rhetoric. What many call liberalism, especially fiscal liberalism, is in many ways the same thing as traditional conservatism. Because right-wing Republicans have largely abandoned traditional conservatism, liberals have sought to defend it against those very same right-wingers. Right-wingers have increasingly become viciously critical of traditional conservatism. There is an obvious race element here. Most Republican right-wingers are upper class whites and most Democratic traditional conservatives are poor minorities.

I think race is the key issue. There is still some overt racism, but mostly it’s not racism as we normally think of it. Research shows racial bias still exists and that it’s often institutionalized. It’s not individuals who typically hold racist beliefs, rather what some call racialism. More generally, it’s a sense of xenophobia.

Let me shift gears for a moment and then I’ll return to the racialism/xenophobia issue.

Americans once achieved great things as liberals still envision. The interstate highway system which allowed the post-WWII industrialized economy to boom. The national park system which might be the best in the world. The publicly funded higher education that almost singlehandedly created the middle class by encouraging social mobility. America wasn’t made great through privatization and tax cuts. During the Great Depression, the federal government created jobs (building the court houses and city halls we still have today, building the trails and picnic shelters we still use today, etc). We now have higher unemployment than even during the Great Depression. In response, our present federal government (along with local governments) have decided to cut government jobs and cut any services for those who have their jobs cut. This is what is called cutting off your nose to spite your face.

When Americans believe in and value community, they build community. When they don’t, they destroy community. Social mobility once was increasing in America and now it’s decreasing. Economic equality once was increasing in America and now it’s decreasing. Both directions are choices we collectively make through public policies and public investments (or lack thereof).

Right now, Germans are doing great things in their society as Americans once did. I brought this subject up with the same conservative with whom I discussed these other topics. His response went to the core of the problem. He pointed out that Germany has a more demographically consistent population, i.e., less multiculturalism and less racial diversity. This is true. And this is how racialism/xenophobia ties back in.

The Progressive Era and the post-WWII period were defined by three factors. Immigration was low, taxes were high, and liberalism reigned almost entirely unchallenged. It was the mirror of what America has been in recent decades (and it has similarities to what Germany is now).  It was also a time of cultural conformity because of the uber-patriotism during the two world wars. It was a weird mixture. Blacks were expected to know their place and yet prosperity gave a freedom for liberals and traditional conservatives to fight for civil rights. Whites dominated culture. It felt safe to whites to fight for the rights of blacks. But later on when blacks began fighting for their own rights it was seen as dangerous, especially by right-wingers.

Anyway, what my conservative discussion partner was saying was that Germany’s present success isn’t possible in the US because US no longer has a conformist culture. To be cynical (maybe overly cynical, I don’t know), what this translates to is that upper class white Christians (meaning the present conservative Republican demographic) are only willing to invest in the common good when majority of the population is like them or is forced through conformity to be like them. Most upper class white Christians if they were being honest wouldn’t disagree with my assessment, although they would state it differently.

Here is where my liberal attitude kicks in. Change isn’t something to be afraid of. Or, rather, change is only made fearful through resistance. Conservatives end up creating their own worst enemies. Even if conformity is always good, that is all the more reason to invest in the public good. If you want other groups to conform, you should encourage them to participate in society. Attacking Muslims and blaming minorities will simply splinter society. Wars on drugs and poverty, Culture and class wars will simply create a society of conflict and mistrust. Conservatives face the dilemma of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

As a liberal, I’d point out that even change passes. Yes, whites are becoming a minority. Yes, atheists and the non-religious are a growing demographic. Yes, change is happening. But change has always been happening in America. To mistrust change is to mistrust what America stands for. The previous 1950s status quo was built on massive changes that happened in the late 19th century. Now we face the results of massive changes that occurred with the late 20th century. But, as liberals understand, a new status quo will inevitably form. Society has to once in a while stop to catch its breath before moving on.

This doesn’t mean, however, that change can be stopped. Taking a snapshot of one moment in history such as the 1950s will offer a very distorted vision. But even if you admire the 1950s, then seek to re-create the positive conditions that made that era great: massive taxpayer investments in the public good (instead of massive taxpayer investments in the military-industrial complex, in building more prisons, in oil subsidies, etc).

We as a society have a choice. We can continue to invest in the future (our children’s and grandchildren’s future). We can continue to support the social compact America was built upon. And we can continue to believe in the American Dream. Or we can isolate ourselves and hope someone else will solve all of the problems that we collectively face.

Other Americans being different than you (whether black or Muslim or whatever) is no excuse. To believe in America is to believe in Americans, all Americans. Just realize that to not support a democratic government is to not support America. A representative democracy must represent, fairly and equally, all Americans and not just a single group seeking to maintain it’s power and privilege. As a liberal, I have faith that America is even stronger than the cynicism and political opportunism of even the worse racist right-wingers. As Americans, we will overcome the difficulties that face us, but there are many difficulties that could be entirely avoided if we were willing to work together.

Midwestern Values of Community & the Common Good

Here is a video about a local shooting of a man in his home by an officer. You might think this would lead to outrage, but these Midwesterners in typical fashion are calm. Instead of outrage, they simply want resolution and understanding. That is the complete opposite reaction of what I’m used to seeing, especially in other parts of the country.

In my post about the North/South divide, I made an argument that there are cultural differences between Northern and Southern states. Specifically, I wrote about my experience of living in Iowa as compared to my experience living in South Carolina. One difference I noted was that Southerners tend to treat their family as their community and Northerners (or, at least, rural Midwesterners) tend to treat their communities as family.

In watching the above video, it jumped out to me how important ‘community’ was to these people. They explicitly talked about community rather than about individual people or individual families. This is an event they all are experiencing together. And it is an event that threatens the fabric of their community. To attack the officer for his actions would feel like an attack on the whole community.

These people may become more angry later if it turns out the shooting was unjustified or if the officer doesn’t act adequately remorseful. But, for now, their immediate concern is ensuring a sense of community is maintained.

This community-obsessed culture makes sense when you consider the history of the region. Small family farmers in these rural areas were extremely isolated early on when these towns first formed. They depended on and still depend on one another. This is the origin of Midwestern neighborliness.

It’s easy to forget communities like this still exist. This is the most clear example I’ve seen in a while.

It reminds me of the speech Zach Wahls gave. Zach is a native-born Iowan who was raised by gay parents. Some might find it strange that Iowa would be one of the first states to legalize gay marriage, but along with the community-centered culture there is an egalitarian sense of everyone deserving to be treated equal.

Zach naturally used a conservative defense of gay marriage. He didn’t portray his life as being special nor that he wanted special treatment. He didn’t portray himself as defending gay rights but as defending human rights. There is a conflict-avoidance in this attitude. It’s not us vs them but us together as a community (and society just being community on the largescale). Zach made it even more clear by stating that his family was a normal Iowan family and by describing himself as a hardworking Iowan. He said, “And if I was your son, Mr. Chairman, I believe I’d make you very proud.”

Growing up in the Midwest, this way of viewing the world is a part of my sense of reality. It’s not that Iowa doesn’t have it’s own ideologues that like to fear-monger and stir up trouble, but such people just seem against the grain of the culture here. They are more the exception than the rule. I made this argument in another post. As evidence I quoted a Tea Party speaker to show how different the Tea Party is in Iowa as compared to other states:

Doug Burnett, the event’s first speaker, urged the crowd to stress the positive rather than the negative.

“Let’s watch our words.  Thoughts become attitudes, attitudes become words and words become actions.  I hear too often people saying, ‘I’m scared.  I’m scared for my country. I’m scared for my way of life’ and I don’t doubt the sincerity of that sentiment, but I do question the accuracy of the words.

“Scared is negative.  It’s powerless.  It’s debilitating.  Scared is what happens when you wake up in the middle of the night to that bump, right?

“We’re frustrated.  We’re angry.  We’re concerned and trust me, many times I look at our elected leaders and I see the boogey man, but we are the Tea Party and we aren’t scared of anything.  Are you scared?  We don’t do scared.

“Think of words that are positive and accurate, like ‘I’m engaged. I’m empowered. I’m moved to action.’”

A Tea Party that is positive instead of fear-mongering. Watching the mainstream media, it’s hard to believe such a thing exists… and yet it does exist, at least here in Iowa. Even the Tea Party in Iowa isn’t interested in dividing the community.

Whether a defender of gay rights or member of the Tea Party, Iowans seek a common vision to unite the community. When something threatens that sense of community, the response is to bring community closer together.

Sense of Place, of Home, of Community… or lack thereof

As I work as a cashier, I always have plenty of time to read and there are often newspapers available. Otherwise, I’d be mostly ignorant of old media. There is something quite relaxing about reading a paper. Anyways, the pleasure of physical reading material isn’t the point of this post. I just wanted to give credit to the dying old media.

The real reason for this post is an article I came across in the Wall Street Journal:

The Homeward Bound American
By Jennifer Graham

[taste.graham]

That article is about the data from recently published research:

Residential Mobility, Well-being, and Mortality
By Shigehiro Oishi and Ulrich Schimmack

The research is about moving and the impact it has on children (family being a topic that has been on my mind recently: Conservative & Liberal Families: Observations & Comparison). I guess it does relate to old media and to the world that once was. It may be hard to believe that there was a time when moving was uncommon. Once upon a time, every town probably had at least one if not several newspapers offering local perspectives on everything. Could you imagine reading the same newspaper your whole life which was reported by and which reported on the same local people you knew your entire life?

In the United States, though, the stable community has always been more of an ideal than a reality. We are, of course, the land of immigrants, the land of a people constantly moving Westward. At this point, it might be in our very genetics. All the people with homebody genetics stayed in their homelands while their restless family members ventured to the New World. Those who weren’t given a choice in making this ocean trip, such as slaves and refugees, often had their entire culture destroyed and their connection to their homeland lost. Americans are a rootless people, whether by choice or not (which I’ve written about before: Homelessness and Civilization; in that post, I point out the Christian theology of homelessness).

It took Americans to create something like the internet which has challenged old media and traditional communities. Even the media Americans create tend towards rootlessness. A lot of good things have come out of this American attitude of embracing innovation, of embracing the new. It’s easy for us to rationalize our national character as being a great thing. Americans idealize optimism, but optimism can’t deny reality. No matter how willing we are to move (with about half the population moving in their lifetime), the above linked research shows that it doesn’t necessarily lead to healthy results. I intuitively felt this to be true, but until now I haven’t had hard data to support my intuition.

My thoughts on the matter are influenced by my own personal experience. I’m an American and I think I’m a fairly typical American in many ways. I moved around some while growing up. By the 8th grade, I had lived in 4 states. The place I spent my high school years in was a large city and so it wasn’t conducive to developing a sense of home and community. I actually ended up longing for the previous town we had lived in because I had many friends there and it was a small town with more of a stable community. In the different schools I went to, there was always a core group of kids who had known each other their entire lives. I could see the immense difference between them and I. This may have been made even more clear because I spent my early years in the Midwest before having moved to South Carolina. Along with the sense of having loss my home and my friends, I experienced some major culture shock. The entire time I lived there, South Carolina never felt like home. My brothers and I moved back to the Midwest as soon as we had an opportunity. I suspect this somewhat transitory childhood has had long-term impact on myself and my brothers.

Let me first point out some of the results of the research. Here is from a Science Daily article about the same research:

Moving Repeatedly in Childhood Linked With Poorer Quality-of-Life Years Later, Study Finds

The researchers found that the more times people moved as children, the more likely they were to report lower life satisfaction and psychological well-being at the time they were surveyed, even when controlling for age, gender and education level. The research also showed that those who moved frequently as children had fewer quality social relationships as adults.

The researchers also looked to see if different personality types — extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism — affected frequent movers’ well-being. Among introverts, the more moves participants reported as children, the worse off they were as adults. This was in direct contrast to the findings among extraverts. “Moving a lot makes it difficult for people to maintain long-term close relationships,” said Oishi. “This might not be a serious problem for outgoing people who can make friends quickly and easily. Less outgoing people have a harder time making new friends.”

The findings showed neurotic people who moved frequently reported less life satisfaction and poorer psychological well-being than people who did not move as much and people who were not neurotic. Neuroticism was defined for this study as being moody, nervous and high strung. However, the number and quality of neurotic people’s relationships had no effect on their well-being, no matter how often they had moved as children. In the article, Oishi speculates this may be because neurotic people have more negative reactions to stressful life events in general.

The researchers also looked at mortality rates among the participants and found that people who moved often as children were more likely to die before the second wave of the study. They controlled for age, gender and race. “We can speculate that moving often creates more stress and stress has been shown to have an ill effect on people’s health,” Oishi said. “But we need more research on this link before we can conclude that moving often in childhood can, in fact, be dangerous to your health in the long-term.”

My brothers and I all have some predispositions toward such things as introversion, depression and anxiety. I don’t think any of us deal with stress all that well. Of course, I can’t know how we would’ve turned out if we hadn’t moved around so much. The only comparison I can make is with my parents. Unlike their children, they had relatively stable childhoods at least in terms of growing up in a stable communities (I know my mom even lived in the same house while growing up, the house that her father built). The difference is that they chose to move after they had become adults and their relatively stable childhoods seemed to have provided an internal sense of stability that allowed them to adapt well to moving to new places. If they hadn’t wanted to move or decided they didn’t like their first move, they could’ve chosen not to move away from their home or they could’ve chosen to immediately move back to their home community. As children, my brothers and I had no such choice because our parents chose for us.

I’m of mixed opinion. I don’t know how much parents can be blamed, especially in the past. Much of this research is recent and so people didn’t used to know about it. On the other hand, my parents knew stability and have always stated a belief in family values. So, why didn’t it occur to them that a stable home and community might be an integral part of family values? To generalize beyond just my parents, why do conservatives (and other Americans as well) idealize the nuclear family as an isolated entity with extended family and community simply being nice things to have around if convenient? Part of me wants to pick on the conservatives because they particularly seem obsessed with the 1950s sitcom ideal of the suburban nuclear family. But to be honest I have to admit that this warped view of family cuts across ideological lines.

At the same time, Americans are obsessed with the idea of community maybe for the very reason we lack a traditional sense of community. I’ve heard Europeans note that Americans are very social in that we constantly like starting and joining groups. In the Midwest, there is even a popular type of group whose sole purpose is to welcome new people to the community. Over all, Midwesterners have more of a real sense of community because early farming communities were so isolated. Midwestern pioneers, quite differently than Southerners, were highly dependent on their neighbors for survival. My observation is that Southerners tend to base their sense of community on their sense of family rather than the other way around. As a general rule, beyond mere formalities, Southerners (in particular middle to upper class Southerners) aren’t very friendly with their neighbors. For example, when a Midwesterner invites you over for coffee they genuinely mean it, but when a Southerner invites you over for coffee it may just be a formality.

As for myself, I internalized from a young age the Midwestern sense of community and neighborliness. It’s not that I live up to it in my personal behavior, but it does form what feels normal to me. Because of this, my disjointed and rootless sense of the world somehow feels wrong. It seems to me the world shouldn’t be this way… and yet it’s the way my world feels. I’m not as close to my family as I wish I were, but I feel that a disconnection has formed in my family that can’t be bridged. One of my brothers became married and had kids. He ended moving away to a nearby town, but he is busy and is incapable of disentangling himself from his wife and children. My other brother has moved around following his career. He essentially has become like my dad in not settling down. Part of him values family and part of him likes the distance moving around provides. None of us in our family get along perfectly well and I think we all value distance to some extent, but I can’t help wondering if it could have been different. If our parents hadn’t sacrificed family and community for career (we were latchkey kids with both parents working), would our family have been much closer than it is now?

I suppose it doesn’t matter. It’s too late now. My parents made their decisions and the time lost can’t be made up. They had been down South for a couple of decades and only recently moved back to the Midwest. My brothers were at one time all living in the same town as I am now living in, but that hasn’t been the case for a number of years. The brother that has been moving around quite a bit did for a time move back to the area before moving away again just as my parents were moving into town. Even though my parents used to live here and used to have many friends here, they’ve been away too long and my dad in particular left behind the community he felt a part of in South Carolina. When you spend so much time apart in different communities and in entirely different regions of the world, you lose the basic daily experiences on which personal relationships are built. The people my parents know generally aren’t the same people I know. In chasing money and career, why didn’t my parents consider the clear possibility that it would undermine our entire family? People always think there is time later on to develop personal relationships, but then after retirement one realizes that some things once lost can’t be regained.

It pisses me off. I always wanted a family I could rely upon, but on an emotional level (which isn’t rational) I don’t have a sense of trust towards my parents. I don’t fundamentally believe they would necessarily be there for me if things ever went wrong. I understand it isn’t entirely rational. My parents do value family and they are caring people. It’s just that I have this very basic sense of disconnection. I’ve lived in this town longer than anywhere else and I love this town. It’s my home. Still, I don’t feel entirely connected to even this place, to the community that I’m surrounded by. My sense of place is always in the past, in the memories of my childhood in this place. It’s hard to explain. When I moved away after 7th grade, I spent years going over and over my memories of this place. Once I returned, everything had already begun to change. So, my sense of place is only loosely connected to the place itself. My suspicion is that it would be different for someone who lived in the same place their whole life because the place would have changed as they changed. One’s personal changes would be grounded in the changes in one’s sense of place. Once you move away, you can never come home again. So, it’s more than a desire for a stable sense of family. It’s a desire for a stable sense of community, a stable sense of place, a stable sense of personal reality. My whole life I’ve wanted to fit in, wanted to feel like I was accepted, like I belonged. Instead, I feel broken.

Of course, I’m not special. Everyone grows up and everyone loses their childhood, but it seems particularly traumatic for those who have moved around, most particularly if they have certain personality traits. Even so, this sense of malaise seems to be a common factor of modern civilization. From my studies, it’s my understanding that indigenous tribal people don’t share this sense of malaise… not until they’re introduced to modern civilization. We moderns are extremely disconnected from the world around us. Even the person who has never moved is unlikely to have a deep sense of place as was once common when all humans were indigenous.

I noticed the above research was mentioned in an article in The New York Times (Does Moving a Child Create Adult Baggage? By Pamela Paul) which led me to another article:

The Roots of White Anxiety
By Ross Douthat

Last year, two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, published a book-length study of admissions and affirmative action at eight highly selective colleges and universities. Unsurprisingly, they found that the admissions process seemed to favor black and Hispanic applicants, while whites and Asians needed higher grades and SAT scores to get in. But what was striking, as Russell K. Nieli pointed out last week on the conservative Web site Minding the Campus, was which whites were most disadvantaged by the process: the downscale, the rural and the working-class.

The reason I mention this article is because rural areas represent the last communities that have maintained some semblance of stability, although it’s eroding quickly. These poor, rural whites maintain their communities and their poverty by not moving much. That is what the author of this article didn’t fully comprehend but which some readers made note of in the comments:

dc wrote: “The issue is class, not race, not political affiliation, and certainly not religion.”

Yes, class AND culture… the two being inseparable.

Poor rural people (of any race or religion) are less willing to sacrifice family and community for social advancement in terms of education and career. They’re less willing to play the moving game. But, in a society that doesn’t value the rural culture, such stable cultures aren’t likely to represent the best of society. Loss of family farms and the decline of small towns has caused rural communities to become impoverished and so they have tons of social problems, but these communities once were relatively good places to live and to raise a family… and they still are in some ways. The article does make a point that whites have reason to be worried, paranoid even, about the undermining of this traditional rural culture. Still, no one in particular is to blame. What America is becoming is an almost entirely inevitable result of how America began. It’s noble that these rural folk self-impose (consciously or not) an isolated sense of community. They choose to homeschool their kids and send them to state schools or community colleges. By doing this, they maintain their family ties.

My parents, on the other hand, were willing to make sacrifices that many rural people are unwilling to make and because of it my parents have been more successful in their careers. My parents apparently weren’t contented to just be working class or to otherwise limit their careers to one specific community.

It makes me wonder about the future, my personal future and the future of society. I don’t feel optimistic about my own family and community. My depression and introversion combine in such a way that I lead a fairly isolated life. What really saddens me is that I’m far from unusual. Are people like me merely a sign of what our society is becoming? What is the future of communities and families? As a society, will we ever again collectively value community more than career, family more than success? Will we ever stop building ugly, soul-destroying suburban neighborhoods? Will the warped ideal of the nuclear family ever be brought back into alignment with concrete realities of the world we live in? Is there any hope for modern people to regain the sense of place without which “home” becomes a mere abstraction?

Noam Chomsky: An Interview with Barry Pateman

 I always enjoy hearing Chomsky talk on almost any issue. In this interview, Chomsky discusses: anarchism, community, technology, class warfare, wealth transferral, taxation, free market, outsourcing, command economy, totalitarianism, Marxism, neoliberalism, and globalization.