The Stories We Tell

[W]ithin each of our individual introcosms we are always “seeing” ourselves as the central characters in the drama of our lives. However, a certain selectivity to this inner theater is apparent, since we choose those images of ourselves that fit into our favored scripts and ignore those that do not. This attribution of causes to behavior or “saying why we did a particular thing is all a part of narratization. Such causes, as reasons, may be true or false, neutral or ideal.” An interiorized self is “ever ready to explain anything we happen to find ourselves doing,” and a “stray fact is narratized to fit with some other stray fact.” We are not “consciously aware of all the information our mind processes or of the causes of all the behaviors we enact, or of the origin of all the feelings we experience. But the conscious self uses these as data points to construct and maintain a coherent story, our personal story, our subjective sense of self.”
~Brian J. McVeigh, A Psychohistory of Metaphors (Kindle Locations 2736-2743)

I’ve lost what little faith I have in rational public debate, democratic process, and the liberal dream. The stories we tell about ourselves and our society.

We don’t live in a free society. I’m not sure what a free society would look like in a country such as this. I simply know it would not be this way. In a free society, corrupt power-mongers would not become leading candidates in elections and certainly not elected into positions of power. A free people wouldn’t tolerate it. But we aren’t a free people in a free society.

Freedom is an odd notion. It is an ideal, a social construct that is reified through repetition. We talk about it so much that we take it for granted without understanding what we’re talking about. It relates to other notions, such as free will—the ability to act freely. The term ‘free’ etymologically goes back to a basic meaning of being among friends, which is to say being treated by others as they would treat themselves. As such, it actually has more of a connotation of mutual relationship than of independent individuality. To be free, in the oldest sense, is to belong among those one knows and trusts.

Our modern sense of freedom is rather abstract. It’s become entirely disconnected from the concrete reality of human bonds within a specific community. We know freedom from the stories we tell or rather from the media we consume, not so much from our lived experience. American communities aren’t locations of freedom, in any sense of the word. And we don’t have a culture of trust.

When I observe people in American society, I don’t see freedom of thought and action. What I notice most of all is how blindly and unconsciously people act, the dissociation and ignorance that rules their minds, how trapped people are in the life conditions that have shaped them, the persuasive rhetoric of media and politics, and the reactions to emotional manipulations. Even the ruling elite who love to play their games of power aren’t any more free than the rest of us, maybe even less so as they exist within the echo chambers of a self-enclosed establishment, based on the demented belief that they make their own reality.

The entire society forms a near hermetically-sealed reality tunnel. That is what it means to be in a society like this, to be a subject of the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. We can’t see out, much less see beyond to other possibilities.

I keep coming back to a basic insight. We humans are a mystery to ourselves. I mean that profoundly but also simply. We don’t know why we are the way we are or why we do what we do. We know so little about the very things that matter the most, specifically our own nature. The ideals of a liberal society are the light glinting off the surface of deep waters, indicating mere ripples while leaving the currents beneath unseen. That nice-sounding rhetoric does not make the world go round nor does it tell us where the world is heading.

It’s pointless to expect a functioning democracy under these conditions. We are like children at play, knowing not what any of it means. Asking for democracy from an American politician is like asking for healthcare form a child playing doctor. Games, endless games. We are better able at imagining than in acting, for our imaginings are but daydreams and fantasies. As for voters, they only demand one thing, to be told comforting lies and entertaining stories. Our political system is a spectacle of lights that blinds us to the darkness around us, as we stumble along, more likely over a cliff than out of Plato’s cave.

We are all stuck in this mire and sinking deeper, even those who claim to be outside of it. The critics, left and right, are simply hypnotized by other scripts. Genuinely original thought and deep insight is so rare as to be practically irrelevant. Nothing will change, until conditions force change, and when it happens no one will be able to predict where those changes will lead.

At some point, the stories we tell ourselves stop making sense, as the world refuses to conform. What then?

* * *

The Elephant That Wasn’t There

The Stories We Know

Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions

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Nordic Theory of Love and Individualism

We Americans like to talk about freedom and liberty.

We idealize the self-made man and the lone cowboy, the inventor who works in isolation and the hero who stands alone, the artist who creates from his own imagination and the rebel who through sheer determination fights the system, the independent thinker and the daring innovator. We praise the individual to such an extent it becomes not just a fantastical story but an abstract ideal.

But in reality, American society doesn’t create independent individuals and autonomous agents, much less self-responsible citizens. Instead, it creates dependence and even codependence based on fear and uncertainty, based on threat and punishment, and based on manipulation by those who hold power and control the fate of others.

This creates a mindset of clinging desperation and subservient obedience or else disconnected isolation. What it doesn’t lead to are healthy individuals, relationships, families, and communities—the foundation of a well-functioning culture of trust and social democracy.

Nordic countries have a different way of doing things.

* * *

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life
By Anu Partanen
Kindle Locations 861-895

A characterization of Swedes as the ultimate loners may seem surprising, especially considering Pippi Longstocking’s global popularity. But there is some truth to it— we Nordics aren’t known to be especially outgoing, and we probably deserve our reputation as stoic, silent types who can be a bit dour. That said, the stereotypical Nordic person would probably also be thought of as someone who, although perhaps not particularly talkative, is sensitive to the needs of his or her fellow human beings, especially since we’re sometimes believed to have socialist tendencies. It follows that we ought to have a collective mind-set and some solidarity, not be extreme individualists.

In fact, however, a powerful strain of individualism is part of the bedrock of Nordic societies— so much so that Lars Trägårdh felt it was worth dusting off the old question “Is the Swede a human being?” and taking a fresh and more positive look at Nordic individualism. After years of observing the differences between Sweden and the United States, Trägårdh identifies in his book some fundamental qualities at the heart of Swedish society— qualities that also exist in all Nordic societies— that help explain Nordic success. Indeed, Trägårdh’s findings tell us a lot about why the Nordic countries are doing so well in surveys of global competitiveness and quality of life. And for me Trägårdh helped explain why I’d been feeling so confused by American relationships, especially those between parents and children, between spouses, and between employees and their employers. It all came down to the Nordic way of thinking about love— perfectly exemplified by Pippi Longstocking.

Trägårdh and his collaborator— a well-known Swedish historian and journalist named Henrik Berggren— put together their observations on individualism and formulated something they called “the Swedish theory of love.” The core idea is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal. This notion represents exactly the values that I grew up with and that I feel are most dear to Finns as well as people from the other Nordic nations, not just Swedes, so I like to call it “the Nordic theory of love.” For the citizens of the Nordic countries, the most important values in life are individual self-sufficiency and independence in relation to other members of the community. If you’re a fan of American individualism and personal freedom, this might strike you as downright all-American thinking.

A person who must depend on his or her fellow citizens is, like it or not, put in a position of being subservient and unequal. Even worse, as Trägårdh and Berggren explain in their discussion of the moral logic of the Pippi Longstocking stories, “He who is in debt, who is beholden to others, or who requires the charity and kindness not only from strangers but also from his most intimate companions to get by, also becomes untrustworthy. . . . He becomes dishonest and inauthentic.”

In the realm of Pippi— who, let’s remember, is a strong superhuman girl living alone in a big house— this means that exactly because she is totally self-sufficient, her friendship with the children next door, Tommy and Annika, is a great gift to them. That’s because they are absolutely assured that Pippi’s friendship is being given freely, no strings attached. It’s precisely because Pippi is an exaggeration of self-sufficiency that she draws our awareness to the purity and unbridled enthusiasm of her love, and elicits our admiring affection. In real life, of course, a child Pippi’s age would still have a healthy dependency on her parents, the way her neighbors Tommy and Annika do. But Pippi illustrates an ideal of unencumbered love, whose logic, in Nordic thinking, extends to most real-life adult relationships.

What Lars Trägårdh came to understand during his years in the United States was that the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly assumed. Rather the goal has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children. The express purpose of this freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.

Freedom From Other People’s Freedom

Here is a common right-wing view. They’ll criticize democracy as mobocracy, apparently too much freedom for too many. And they’ll criticize anything left of that as authoritarianism, supposedly not enough freedom for those who deserve it.

So, they don’t want either an entirely free society or an entirely authoritarian society. It appears what they actually want, if they were to admit it, is a society that gives freedom to the upper class and authoritarianism for everyone else. That is to say the freedom of the ruling elite to rule over the oppressed masses.

That is the exact recipe of how fascists take over countries. Of course, once fascists have full power, everyone but the ruling elite loses power. When you take freedom away from others, you’ll eventually lose your own freedom as well. It’s one of the oldest stories around.

You’d think humans would learn after repeating the same mistakes and getting the same bad results.

Frrrreeeeeddoommmm?????

Jared Dillian wrote an article simply titled, Frrrreeeeeddoommmm. I think we are supposed to imagine the title being screamed by Mel Gibson as his Braveheart character, William Wallace, is tortured to death. The author compares two states, concluding that he prefers ‘freedom’:

“If you want someone from Connecticut to get all riled up, drive extra slow in the passing lane. Connecticutians are very particular about that. The right lane is for traveling, the left lane is for passing. If you’re in the left lane for any other reason than passing, you are a jerk.

“So if you really want to ruin someone’s day, drive in the left lane at about 50 miles per hour. They will be grumpy for three days straight, I assure you.

“I was telling this story to one of my South Carolina friends—how upset people from Connecticut get about this, and how people from South Carolina basically drive however the hell they want—and he said ruefully, “Freedom…”

“He’s a guy who perhaps likes lots of rules to organize society, and perhaps he’d rather live in a world where some law governs how you conduct yourself in every aspect of your life, including how you drive. I tell you what, after growing up in Connecticut and then spending the last six years in the South, I’m enjoying the freedom, even if it means I occasionally get stuck behind some idiot.”

Here is my response. Mine isn’t exactly a contrarian view. Rather, it’s more of a complexifying view.

I take seriously the freedom to act, even when others think it’s wrong, depending of course on other factors. But there is no such thing as absolute freedom, just trade-offs made between benefits and costs. There are always constraints upon our choices and, as social animals, most constraints involve a social element, whether or not laws are involved.

Freedom is complex. Freedom from what and/or toward what?

The driving example is perfect. Connecticut has one of the lowest rates of car accidents and fatalities in the country. And South Carolina has one of the highest. Comparing the most dangerous driving state to the safest, a driver is 10 times more likely to die in an accident.

Freedom from death is no small freedom. Yet there is more to life than just freedom from death. Authoritarian countries like Singapore probably have low car accident rates and fatalities, but I’d rather not live in an authoritarian country.

There needs to be a balance of freedoms. There is an individual’s freedom to act. And then there is the freedom to not suffer the consequences of the actions of others. There is nothing free in externalized costs or, to put it another way, all costs must be paid by someone. It’s related to the free rider problem and moral hazard.

That is supposed to be the purpose of well designed (i.e., fair and just) political, legal, and economic systems. Freedom doesn’t just happen. A free society is a creation of choices made by many people over many generations. Every law passed does have unintended consequences. But, then again, every law repealed or never passed in the first place also has unintended consequences. There is no escaping unintended consequences.

There is also a cultural component to this. Southern states like South Carolina have a different kind of culture than Northern states like Connecticut. Comparing the two regions, the South is accident prone in general with higher rates of not just car accidents but also such things as gun accidents. In the North, even in states with high gun ownership, there tends to be lower rates of gun accidents.

In Connecticut or Iowa, it’s not just lower rate of dying in accidents (car, gun, etc). These kinds of states have lower mortality rates in general and hence on average longer lifespans. Maybe it isn’t the different kinds of laws that are the significant causal factor. Instead, maybe it’s the cultural attitude that leads both to particular laws and particular behaviors. The laws don’t make Connecticut drivers more safe. It’s simply that safety-conscious Connecticut drivers want such laws, but they’d likely drive safer even without such laws.

I’m not sure ‘freedom’ is a central issue in examples like this. I doubt Connecticutians feel less free for having safer roads and more orderly driving behavior. It’s probably what they want. They are probably just valuing and emphasizing different freedoms than South Carolinians.

There is the popular saying that your freedom ends at my nose. Even that leaves much room for interpretation. If your factory is polluting the air I breathe, your freedom to pollute has fully entered not only my nose but also my lungs and bloodstream.

It’s no mere coincidence that states with high accident rates also tend to have high pollution rates. And no mere coinicidence that states with low accident rates tend to have low pollution rates. These are the kinds of factors that contribute to the disparity of mortality rates.

It also has to do with attitudes toward human life. The South, with its history of slavery, seems to view life as being cheap. Worker accident rates are also higher in the South. All of this does have to do with laws, regulations, and unionization (and laws that make union organization easier or harder). But that leaves the question of why life is perceived differently in some places. Why are Southerners more cavalier about life and death? And why do they explain this cavalier attitude as being an expression of liberty?

To many Northerners, this cavalier attitude would be perceived quite differently. It wouldn’t be placed in the frame of ‘liberty’. This relates to the North literally not being part of the Cavalier culture that became the mythos of the South. The Cavaliers fought on the losing side of the English Civil War and many of them escaped to Virginia where they helped establish a particular culture that was later embraced by many Southerners who never descended from Cavaliers*.

Cavalier culture was based on honor culture. It included, for example, dueling and violent fighting. Men had to prove themselves. Recent research shows that Southerners are still more aggressive today, compared to Northerners. This probably relates to higher rates of road rage and, of course, car accidents.

Our culture doesn’t just encourage or discourage freedom. It more importantly shapes our view of freedom.

(*The apparent origin of Dillian’s article is a bit ironic. William Wallace fought against England which was still ruled by a Norman king, which is to say ruled by those whose descendants would later be called Cavaliers in their defense of the king against the Roundheads. The French Normans had introduced such fine traditions as monarchy, aristocracy, and feudalism. But they also introduced a particular variety of honor culture that was based on class and caste, the very same tradition that became the partly fictionalized origin story of Southern culture.)

Liberty in Spanish Florida

I was perusing books on early America. It’s one of my favorite topics, as it involves so many issues and influences. There were many interesting books I found, of course. But one in particular grabbed my attention. It is Black Society in Spanish Florida by Jane Landers. Here is the synopsis:

The first extensive study of the African American community under colonial Spanish rule, “Black Society in Spanish Florida” provides a vital counterweight to the better-known dynamics of the Anglo slave South. Jane Landers draws on a wealth of untapped primary sources, opening a new vista on the black experience in America and enriching our understanding of the powerful links between race relations and cultural custom. Blacks under Spanish rule in Florida lived not in cotton rows or tobacco patches but in a more complex and international world that linked the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and a powerful and diverse Indian hinterland. Here the Spanish Crown afforded sanctuary to runaway slaves, making the territory a prime destination for blacks fleeing Anglo plantations, while Castilian law (grounded in Roman law) provided many avenues out of slavery, which it deemed an unnatural condition. European-African unions were common and accepted in Florida, with families of African descent developing important community connections through marriage, concubinage, and godparent choices. Assisted by the corporate nature of Spanish society, Spain’s medieval tradition of integration and assimilation, and the almost constant threat to Spanish sovereignty in Florida, multiple generations of Africans leveraged linguistic, military, diplomatic, and artisanal skills into citizenship and property rights. In this remote Spanish outpost, where they could become homesteaders, property owners, and entrepreneurs, blacks enjoyed more legal and social protection than they would again until almost two hundred years of Anglo history had passed.

One part stood out to me. It is the statement that, “Here the Spanish Crown afforded sanctuary to runaway slaves, making the territory a prime destination for blacks fleeing Anglo plantations, while Castilian law (grounded in Roman law) provided many avenues out of slavery, which it deemed an unnatural condition.”

That touches upon a key difference between English and Spanish societies. It is a difference, as pointed out, that is ancient. Spanish culture and legal traditions were more influenced by the Roman Empire. England was more mixed in its influences, but a major influence was Germanic tribes. (I’ve written about this before.)

This demonstrates the power of ideas, as something beyond mere abstractions and ideals. Ideas are rooted in entire social orders and worldviews. In Germanic tribes, to have been free meant being born into and as a member of a free society. It was your birthright. Liberty in Roman society, however, wasn’t a given right for being born and so not the automatic default state.

Thinking about it that way, it seems obvious that being born free is better. But there is a dark side to this. If you aren’t born as a free member of a free society, then your freedom is as if non-existent. In Roman and Romanized societies, even if born a slave, it wasn’t necessarily a permanent state. Many regular citizens would find themselves temporarily enslaved, which was more along the lines of indentured servitude. Even a captured prisoner of war could work their way out of slavery.

The English in adopting a Germanic view of freedom also inherited the opposite side of the coin. To be a slave was a permanent condition you were born into. Even if you were enslaved as an adult, it was assumed that there was something inferior about you and your people that allowed you to be enslaved. It was conveniently ignored, of course, that Europeans were being enslaved at the same time by non-Europeans )(e.g., Arabs).

So, in Spanish Florida, an African-American would find more hope in a society more fully based on the social norm of liberty. Simply being of African ancestry wasn’t considered a mark against your inherent moral worth and character. You’d likely still experience prejudice, but it still allowed more opportunities.

This isn’t about just the past. The Anglo-Saxon view of freedom is still being used to justify prejudice and oppression of African-Americans. Every generation of racists and racialists, bigots and supremacists comes up with new rationalizations. There are new reasons that are popular today, but it is the same basic justification of racial hierarchy. Instead of being marked by God as the descendants of Cain or whatever, the permanent underclass of minorities is assumed to have inferior genetics or culture.

Many white Americans, especially right-wingers, talk about liberty. But they don’t really believe in it. Yes, in its original form, liberty did arise out of a slave society. Yet it wasn’t one of a racial hierarchy. Being enslaved didn’t inevitably imply anything about you as an individual or your people. That is different today. No matter how an African-American may struggle to get out of poverty, they can never escape their blackness and all that it symbolizes. It is a permanent yoke around their neck.

Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine

Here is some interesting stuff from the past few days. Included are online writings I’ve been perusing and my thoughts that were inspired.

First of all, in response to my last post on basic income, a regular commenter pointed out two articles, one from Inc. Magazine and the other from the Atlantic Magazine.

American Entrepreneurship Is Actually Vanishing. Here’s Why
by Leigh Buchanan

Welfare Makes America More Entrepreneurial
by Walter Frick

The second is the most interesting. That directly touches upon my thoughts about basic income. Like welfare, basic income is a form of social safety net that creates freedom from want and so freedom from fear, including freedom from being punished for taking risks.

As I’ve said before, this liberating support and protection breaks the oppressive morality-punishment link. A society can have rigid social control or a society can have experimentation and innovation, but to the degree it has one is the degree to which it constrains the other.

Putting those two articles together does make one think.

Much of what Americans, especially on the political right, assume to be common sense may very well be blatantly false. But we will never know one way or another, until we try something new or else we’ll keep getting more of the same, which is the point. The stifling of innovation and experimentation is no accident.

It is so rare that people scientifically formulate their ideological beliefs as falsifiable hypotheses to be tested, but most things could be tested if people had the courage to do so. What we perceive as common sense and counter-intuitive depends on the beliefs we dare not question, which often leads to a self-reinforcing reality tunnel where our assumptions create the conditions that result in the evidence that conforms to our assumptions. That is what makes experiments, social or scientific, so dangerous to the status quo.

What little data we have about basic income experiments, it appears that the results are not as many would predict. Social problems decrease while unemployment doesn’t appear to increase, except within specific demographics such as young mothers and students (who are doing non-paid forms of work). One wonders, if such an experiment was ever done on the large scale, that there might be a large increase in such things as entrepreneurship.

What certain people actually fear isn’t the stifling of innovation, but the possibility of encouraging too much of it. Innovation is always dangerous to the status quo. Some of those on the political right might talk a good game about such things, but too many of them want a highly constrained and uneven playing field to determine only a narrow set of innovations are possible, those that can’t challenge the social order itself. What they fear isn’t that a social safety net can’t work, but that it might work too well.

While I was at the website of The Atlantic, I noticed a few other interesting articles about a different topic. They are all by the same author, James Fallows.

Language Mystery Redux: Who Was the Last American to Speak This Way?

That Weirdo Announcer-Voice Accent: Where It Came From and Why It Went Away

Language Mystery: When Did Americans Stop Sounding This Way?

There is another kind of societal change. There once was a faux aristocratic dialect in the US. It survived into the early era of mass media. Along with it, there existed some of the remnants of the ideal of an enlightened aristocracy with its noblesse oblige.

The Roosevelts were among the last major example of an American family of inherited wealthy that embodied both these ideals and the way of talking, and noblesse oblige was a major force driving the Progressive Era and the New Deal. The last wave that still carried on the faux aristocratic dialect were those like William F. Buckley Jr who used it as a pose, although no longer held the worldview of noblesse oblige that went with it.

The post-war period with its rising middle class ended the old order with its quirks of language and such. It was also a time of mass assimilation, some combination of chosen and forced. For example, German-American culture was annihalated in a generation or two, despite it having been the single largest ethnic culture in the country, larger than that of the English ancestry. The German-Americans dominated the most populous region in the US (the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest), as French-Canadians still do in Quebec.

This is what is known as the Midlands culture, which German culture heavily influenced since before the American Revolution. Out of this formed the Midlands dialect. One particular variety of this became Standard American English. This dialect then replaced the faux aristocratic dialect that had previously dominated mass media.

Here is another article from The Atlantic.

America’s Largest Mental Hospital Is a Jail
by Matt Ford

It’s a sad state of affairs.

Prisons have become the one-size-fits-all solution for America’s problems. If we incarcerate the people afflicted with social and psychological problems, then we can pretend that we don’t need to face the problems themselves. The poor, homeless, unemployed, mentally ill, etc are then reclassified as criminals. The problem is dealt with by locking away the victims of the problem, but that is a bandaid on a gaping wound.

Whatever it is, it certainly isn’t justice. This brings me to some other things I’ve come across. There is a book I just noticed, Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado. It could be a worthy read and it sounds like it might be a useful extension and broadening of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Two related articles, the first from Yes! and the second from The New Yorker, are about the long-term costs this has had for the African-American population, often quite personal costs.

40 Acres and a Mule Would Be at Least $6.4 Trillion Today—What the U.S. Really Owes Black America
by Tracy Loeffelholz and DunnJeff Neumann

Kalief Browder, 1993–2015
by Jennifer Gonnerman

The second is particularly heartbreaking. A kid was locked away and tortured for years. It turns out he was innocent the entire time and there never was a trial. Most people don’t get a trial with a jury of their peers, as most people assume is their right, but it turns out many people don’t even get a trial.

Where are the right-wing libertarians when big government steps on the rights of the poor minorities? Where is Fox News to argue that failed, money-draining big government programs like mass incarceration need to be shut down? Where are the GOP politicians, or any mainstream politicians for that matter, to demand a full investigation of the entire US prison system and the industrial-prison complex that promotes it?

Another article from The New Yorker is about one of the main costs of these divides in justice.

What Poverty Does to the Young Brain
by Madeline Ostrander

This is how the personal meets the political, when an entire social order of dysfunction causes brain damage to a significant part of the population. This is also how this dysfunction gets perpetuated as a vicious cycle. This stunting of brain development leads to all kinds of cognitive and psychological problems, which create massive stumbling blocks for those inflicted.

That article reminded me of Robert Putnam’s recent book, Our Kids. I haven’t read it yet, but I noticed some reviews, articles, and interviews mention the neuroscience research.

Poor kids’ brains don’t work as well as rich kids’ brains do
by Doyle McManus

Growing Up Alone?
by Hope Reese

Review – Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
by Carrie Sheffield

Author Robert Putnam sounds alarm about growing inequity among rich and poor youth
by Leslie University

All of that and, from what others have written, it appears that Putnam mostly ignores the larger and deeper structural issues, from rigid class hierarchies to entrenched power. One review pointed out that he was avoiding talking about anyone as the bad guys, as if this shift was a mere side effect.

Richer and Poorer
by Jill Lepore

““Our Kids” is a passionate, urgent book. It also has a sad helplessness. Putnam tells a story teeming with characters and full of misery but without a single villain. This is deliberate. “This is a book without upper-class villains,” he insists in the book’s final chapter. In January, Putnam tweeted, “My new book ‘Our Kids’ shows a growing gap between rich kids and poor kids. We’ll work with all sides on solutions.” It’s easier to work with all sides if no side is to blame. But Putnam’s eagerness to influence Congress has narrative consequences. If you’re going to tell a story about bad things happening to good people, you’ve got to offer an explanation, and, when you make your arguments through characters, your reader will expect that explanation in the form of character.”

(If you want some hard-hitting analysis of how corruption and power go hand in hand, see the recent Salon piece by Corey Robin, Your boss wants to control your vote: The real reason to fear corporate power. The society we have is created by intentional policies that are promoted by those with concentrated wealth and power. We shouldn’t fear pointing fingers at those who are responsiblte.)

If anything, Putnam puts the focus on poor parents.

Putnam misses the mark
by Nicki Ruiz de Luzuriaga

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D Putnam review – concerned, scholarly
by Richard Reeves

Book review: ‘Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis’ by Robert D. Putnam
by Alan Wolfe

It reminds me of clueless people wondering where black fathers are, because of the lower marriage rates. Well, like other disproportionately poor and disadvantaged populations, many of them don’t have the opportunity to spend as much time with their kids as they’d like; plus, research has shown how destructive poverty and social stress is to relationships, often either preventing marriages or breaking them up. Also, there are economic disadvantages for poor single mothers to hitch themselves to a poor man, an issue discussed in Putnam’s book and elsewhere.

That said, many black fathers are doing quite well in their rates of visiting with and helping their kids (see here and here). As for those fathers who genuinely are missing, if they aren’t excluded from contact with their kids because of incarceration or criminal records, they likely are working long hours at multiple jobs, forced to seek work elsewhere, or simply unemployed and not in a position to play a supporting role.

Forgotten Fathers: Parenting and the Prison Industrial Complex
by David J. Leonard

Sampling Again: Shawn Carter and the Moynihan Report Remix
by David J. Leonard

6 Actual Facts Shatter the Biggest Stereotypes of Black Fathers
by Antwaun Sargent

About these systemic problems, some people see hope for reform, whether social reform or political and economic reform. Putnam puts his hope in the former. Others look to the latter, including sometimes myself (as in my last post on basic income).

A Practical Vision of a More Equal Society
By Thomas Piketty

Of course, Piketty was reviewing a book written about reform in another country. Many Americans are too cynical to believe that kind of thing is possible here.

This brings me to my last item for consideration. Corey Robin had another recent piece, that can be found on his blog. In it, he offers an extended quote from an article by William Hazlitt.

“The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. . . . Wrong dressed out in pride, pomp, and circumstance has more attraction than abstract right.”

What is possible is largely based on what we can imagine is possible. Hazlitt makes a case for the power of imagination wielded by the reactionary right-wing, a topic of particular interest for Robin. There is power to the conservative imagination because it idealizes and serves power. Power of imagination relates to power in the world, and there is a blunt force in how those on the political right use this power, their aesthetic sensibility being as subtle as a hammer (the reason there are few highly successful conservative comedians).

That said, in one response to Robin’s post, someone pointed out that imagination is obviously not owned by any single group. There is also a long history of its power being used by the political left.

With both Hazlitt’s view and that of the response to it, I felt a resonance to my own thinking. I want to dig below the surface. It’s great to read discussions of data, policies, and real world examples. But that doesn’t get to the beating heart of the matter.

Freedom and Public Space

Along the Upper Mississippi River and on the Iowa side, there is Fort Madison.

It is a medium-sized town, not exactly thriving but far from being in decline. It is an old river town that once had much wealth and still has many well-kept old houses. Some of the nicest and largest houses are located around a couple of parks in the center of town, just north a couple blocks from the downtown shopping area.

My brother moved there not too long ago and so I’ve since visited the town several times. He lives only a few blocks from these parks and only a few blocks from the river. It is a long and narrow strip of a town and so I guess everyone there lives within blocks of the river.

It is one of those places where you can sense the history. It is fairly quiet town now, but it had to have been a bustling at one time, back when the Mississippi River was more of a major transportation route. The old buildings still standing are of a wide variety of architecture. It has made me curious.

Much of the town has a standard Midwest feel, although of a river town variety. For example, there are the kinds of alleys I knew from my Midwestern childhood. Most of the houses wouldn’t be out of place in any other Midwestern smaller town. Still, there is much else that stands out. There are old federalist style houses. There are also quite a few houses with a clear Southern influence. One house across the street from Old Settlers Park reminds me of the houses in Charleston, SC, although it isn’t as narrow along the front.

Fort Madison was once a trade town. So, that allowed more diverse cultural influences for an old town so far north into the far reaches of the Midwest. Out of curiosity, I looked at the 1850 census, when Fort Madison was a young city and Iowa was a young state. In that census, there were people from diverse places within the United States (Washington DC, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland, Maine, New York, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) and from diverse countries (Canada, England, Scotland, France, Germany, and Switzerland).

Before being a trade town, it was the location of a major fort and hence the name. It was one of three forts in the new Louisiana Territory and the first permanent fortification on the Upper Mississippi. That touches upon the sense of history of the place.

The Mississippi River was the last natural boundary for the frontier. It is a massive river that back then would have been treacherous to cross. Iowa was one of the last areas Native Americans tried to hold ground to stop Westward expansion. Fort Madison was seen as an incursion and so immediately became a target of attacks.

One of the most famous Native leaders was Chief Black Hawk. He sided with Canada during the War of 1812. His first battle against US troops happened in Fort Madison and it was the only battle of the War of 1812 that happened West of the Mississippi. More than three decades later in 1838, he gave his farewell speech in Old Settlers Park, where today there is a plaque with a quote from that speech:

“I have looked upon the Mississippi since I have been a child. I love the great river. I have dwelt upon its banks from the time I was an infant. I look upon it now.”

As he described, just down the hill flows the mighty Mississippi. However, today the surrounding houses entirely block the view.

I walked to this park with my sister-in-law and niece. It has a large gazebo for bands and a playground. It’s quite beautiful with many old trees. The place is peaceful and it is hard to imagine the sadness Black Hawk must have felt as he gave that speech. As I stood before the plaque reading his words, I looked out across the park at the kids playing. It wasn’t lost on me that the park was filled with white kids. In fact, I never saw anyone who looked Native American in Fort Madison. The diversity the town once had never included the native population.

Where I live in Iowa City, there are two locations of former Native American villages. One of them was that of the tribe of Black Hawk’s medicine man. Iowa City was first settled by free blacks, many of whom were likely escaped slaves. Those free blacks sought the frontier for obvious reasons and I’m sure they were living there at the invitation of the local tribes.

In the pedestrian mall of downtown Iowa City, there is a small area that is called Black Hawk Mini Park. It also once was known as the People’s Park. It was the product of a fight for public space. On the side of the adjacent building there was a mural called “The Spirit of Black Hawk” that depicted the face of a Native American.

It’s telling that the freedom of public space often gets symbolized by Native Americans who lost their freedom and lost the very land they lived on, of which these parks represent a tiny portion.

Whose Human Nature?

Kenan Malik made a defense of unrestricted free speech. I agreed with his basic argument. But that wasn’t what got me thinking.

In the comments section, I noticed that a couple of people didn’t understand what Malik was trying to communicate. They were conflating the issue of free speech with all the issues related to free speech, as if the only way to enforce control over all of society is by strictly controlling what people are allowed to say, and I assume harshly punishing anyone who disobeys by speaking freely. One of these conflated issues was human nature (see this comment and my responses).

The one commenter I had in mind seemed to be basing his views on some basic beliefs. There is a belief that there is a singular human nature that can be known and upon which laws should be based. Also there is the belief that human nature is unchanging, uncontrollable, and unimproving… all that one can do is constrain its expression.

This kind of thinking always seems bizarre to me. It’s a more typical conservative worldview. It’s the belief that human nature is just what it is and can be nothing else. So, liberals and left-wingers are perceived as being utopian perfection-seekers because they point out that human psychology is diverse, plastic, and full of potential.

I was thinking about this more in my own experience, though, and not just as a liberal. I’ve long realized I’m not normal and I’ve never thought that my own psychology should be considered normative for the human race. If all humans were like me, society would have some serious problems. I don’t presume most people are like me or should be like me.

Here is what I see in others who have strong beliefs about human nature, both descriptively and prescriptively. I often suspect they are projecting, taking what they know in their own experience and assuming others are like them. My self-perceived abnormality has safeguarded me from projecting onto others, at least in my understanding of human nature.

American Imperialism: Freedom and Democracy

“Unfortunately, the United States has done for freedom and democracy what the Soviet Union did for socialism.”

Related quotes (not from video):

“Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.”
— John Kenneth Galbraith

“Capitalism has defeated communism. It is now well on its way to defeating democracy.”
— David Korten

“In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism. In this country, capitalism triumphed over democracy.”
— Fran Lebowitz

“Look, America is no more a democracy than Russia is a Communist state. The governments of the U.S. and Russia are practically the same. There’s only a difference of degree. We both have the same basic form of government: economic totalitarianism. In other words, the settlement to all questions, the solutions to all issues are determined not by what will make the people most healthy and happy in the bodies and their minds but by economics. Dollars or rubles. Economy uber alles. Let nothing interfere with economic growth, even though that growth is castrating truth, poisoning beauty, turning a continent into a shit-heap and riving an entire civilization insane. Don’t spill the Coca-Cola, boys, and keep those monthly payments coming.”
― Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction

“Many believe that capitalism is synonymous with free enterprise and democracy. Capitalism is neither free enterprise nor democracy. After all, China is now a capitalist country. No one believes that China is a democratic country. This conflation has allowed all attempts to attenuate the deficiencies of capitalism to be construed as that grand evil, “socialism” or communism.”
― Egberto Willies, America’s form of capitalism kills free enterprise and democracy

The Cultural Determinants of a Voluntary Society

I was reading more of Beyond Liberty Alone by Howard Schwartz. The latter part of the book is getting more to what personally interests me. He has a detailed discussion about equality, equity, and fairness. This leads him into the issues of private property and the commons.

I’m learning much from this book. It focuses on these ideas, both as discussed by early thinkers and how they have developed over time. One thing I learned was how central the idea of equality was to so many early thinkers. Even before the Enlightenment, Thomas Hobbes and other more religious thinkers were arguing about equality, what it means and where it originated (and, of course, what became of that original state). Hobbes saw equality in a state of nature with Death as the great equalizer. Others saw it as coming from God.

John Locke made a different argument than Hobbes. He relied on a more religious argument. Schwartz goes into great detail about Lockean rights. He makes it clear that Locke left many gaping holes in his logic. He goes even further in seeing all rights talk as being problematic. It poses questions it can’t answer and makes assumptions it can’t justify. Instead of focusing narrowly on rights,  especially natural rights, some of the early thinking on equality might give us a stronger foundation for understanding the values that will better serve us, in our aspirations for a just and moral society. Equality was always an important concern in Western thought. It’s just that we Americans have come to overlook its importance and forget the role it once played.

I was also thinking more about the cultural angle not covered by Schwartz. Locke grappled with both the issues of rights and equality. I was wondering about his background. Maybe I should read a good biography of him one of these days. The detail of his life that has caught my attention is his having spent time in Netherlands, in order to escape repression back in England. Some have conjectured that he might have been influenced by Spinoza or else by the same atmosphere that helped to shape Spinoza’s thought.

That is an interesting conjecture because of the important role Netherlands played in British history. It was a relatively short distance across the channel from East Anglia. The Puritans also had left England to escape repression, some going to Netherlands. When they returned, many settled in East Anglia. The Puritans then carried a particular tradition of egalitarianism to America. This was the foundation of the regional culture of New England.

Following different pathways of influence, other regional cultures developed quite differently.

“The persistence of regional cultures in America is more than merely a matter of antiquarian interest. Regional diversity has created a dynamic tension within a single republican system. It has also fostered at least four different ideas of liberty within a common cultural frame.

“These four libertarian traditions were not forms of classical republicanism or European liberalism—even as those alien ideologies were often borrowed as rationales, American ideas of freedom developed from indigenous folkways which were deeply rooted in the inherited culture of the English-speaking world.

“Considered in ethical terms, each of these four freedom ways began as a great and noble impulse, but all at first were limited in expression and defective in their operation. The Puritan idea of ordered freedom was no sooner brought to Massachusetts than it became an instrument of savage persecution. The cavalier conception of hegemonic freedom, when carried to Virginia, permitted and even required the growth of race slavery for its support. The Quaker vision of reciprocal freedom was a sectarian impulse which could be sustained only by withdrawal from the world. The backcountry belief in natural freedom sometimes dissolved into cultural anarchy.

“But each of these four libertarian traditions proved capable of continuing growth. New England’s Puritan faith in ordered freedom grew far beyond its original limits to become, in Perry Miller’s words, “a constellation of ideas basic to any comprehension of the American mind.” Virginia’s cavalier conceit of hegemonic freedom transcended its association with inequalities of rank and race and gender to become an ethical idea that is relevant to all. Pennsylvania’s Quaker inspiration of reciprocal freedom developed from a fragile sectarian vision into a libertarian creed remarkable for toughness of mind and tenacity of purpose. Border and backcountry notions of natural freedom evolved from a folk tradition into an elaborate ideology.

“Each of these four freedom ways still preserves its separate existence in the United States. The most important fact about American liberty is that it has never been a single idea, but a set of different and even contrary traditions in creative tension with one another. This diversity of libertarian ideas has created a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be. It has also become the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States. In time, this plurality of freedoms may prove to be that nation’s most enduring legacy to the world.”

Fischer, David Hackett (1989-10-19). Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (America: a cultural history) (Kindle Locations 14541-14561). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

See also:

Liberty and Freedom
by David Hackett Fischer

Fairness and Freedom
by David Hackett Fischer

American Nations
by Colin Woodard

Revolution of the Mind
by Jonathan Israel