Monday, May 25, 2020

Tending to One's Garden

Two lives, well-lived, in environments well and lovingly (dis)ordered. In the end, whether it be Monty Don walking through his gardens, or the late Umberto Eco walking past his shelves of books, I see little difference. Two vocations worth memorializing this Memorial Day, perhaps.



Thursday, April 30, 2020

What Mayors Need

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

Last week, Mayor Whipple had a rough time during the city council meeting, with his request for a deputy somewhat embarrassingly tabled in the face of both criticism from other council members and a long list of online attacks that got read into the record. The whole affair has already been critically commented on, but as a break from talking about the coronavirus pandemic all the time, let me beat this dead horse one more time--most because I hope it will revive.

Not immediately, to be sure. Some members of the city council argued that any discussions about additional staff in the city's government needed to wait on the completion of a comprehensive review currently being conducted by the city manager's office; others pointed out that the politics of hiring a major new city employee at a time of government furloughs, increasing unemployment, and great economic uncertainty are pretty dubious, to say the least. And beyond that, there was disagreement between Mayor Whipple and different council members over how best to describe the duties of such a deputy, over who would be the likely candidates for such a position, and over whether or not a city employee already exists who could fill exactly the sort of policy research and community outreach role he's requesting. (The office in question is part of the city's Communications Team; it seems unlikely to me that any such a person could serve as full-time city-wide assistant to the mayor, in the way that community service representatives may at least potentially serve individual city council members within their districts, but the lack of specificity in the mayor's proposal and his subsequent presentation of it leaves the challenge somewhat unresolved.)

For all those reasons and more, it will probably be a while before Mayor Whipple contemplates trying again. But when the pandemic lessens and the staffing review is complete, as they both eventually will be, and when he can bring forward a more detailed proposal that better clarifies and responds to all of the above, he definitely should. Why? For reasons closely related to those I advanced back in December: that Wichita, when it looks at itself, and when at its peer cities around the country, should realize the need for a stronger, more democratically responsible form of government, and giving the mayor a deputy--a chief of staff, an executive assistant, call them what you will--is a small but important part of moving in the direction of such empowerment.

What does empowering the mayor have to do with democratic accountability? It is, in my view, a matter of public expectations. Wichita, like every American city over the past 30 years (which, incidentally, was when our current city council electoral arrangement was established), has changed. Our slow-growth (or steady-state) city certainly hasn't changed as much or as quickly as many others, but Wichita's urban population is nonetheless more diverse, its economy more complex, and its political culture even a little more blue than was the case a generation ago. Cities are organic entities, to be sure; new changes will always be overlaid on those that came before. But that's not a reason to take seriously where things stand at present. And the present situation, partly due to increased (and, unfortunately, often justifiable) frustrations about transparency and decision-making in our city government, is one that looks to the city government, and the person who at least nominally leads it, with the expectation of seeing a genuinely balanced, genuinely responsive, and most importantly genuinely decisive path providing, one that works through the welter of conflicting needs and demands presented by the various constituencies in our city. Hence, the argument goes, to deal effectively in our present (and still evolving) urban environment, whomever is elected mayor deserves more direct help, more resources for information and analysis, so as be more fully accountable to the citizens who look to that office for leadership.

One obvious response to this is reflected in the previously mentioned editorial: but Wichita's mayor isn't supposed to lead! Instead, under the council-manager system of government Wichita currently has, the mayor is just the chairperson of the city council, which collectively sets policies for our city manager, who executes all the actual decisions. Isn't asking for a deputy or chief of staff disregarding all that?

Now Mayor Whipple and some of his advisors insisted in some online discussions of his proposal that his request isn't connected to a desire to change Wichita's city charter, and thus re-structure form of government. Personally I suspect--given that so many, when they first saw this proposal, immediately thought in terms of power grabs anyway--that the mayor’s proposal would be better served, and thus would better serve the city in the long run, by just connecting it to various arguments about our government structure outright, and talking explicitly, alongside the need for mayoral assistance, about the need for a more accountable form of leadership in Wichita. That might involve thinking about the number or term length of city council members, or the role of the city manager, or any number of other possibilities.

But even if one is determined not to go so far, it doesn't change the reality of the aforementioned evolving public expectations, which are being experienced by city leaders everywhere. True, Mayor Whipple, when he made reference to other cities whose mayors have chiefs of staff, executive assistants, or deputies to assist them, did mention some which have (wisely, I think) made the change over to a strong mayor form of government: Tulsa, Omaha, Colorado Springs, etc. However, he could have just as easily mentioned various cities in our region which still operate under the council-manager system--Kansas City, KS, Kansas City, MO, and Oklahoma City, for example--all of which also have recognized the need to provide their mayors, as individuals representing the city at large, with chiefs of staff, to do exactly the kind of community engagement and research that our mayor asked for last week.

In short, even without thinking about other ways to address Wichita's governance needs, the mayor's request is one that reflects the same political and policy realities that numerous other city governments have recognized. So I hope that this proposal--given some re-writing and lots of back-room discussion--will return, perhaps stronger and better grounded for having gone through the wringer once already. Mayor Whipple, and the city itself, deserve it.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Archangel on a Bicycle

And I imagine, bringing the Good News to the countryside on Easter morning. By Jean-Marie Pirot (Arcabas). Thank you, Alan Jacobs. And happy Easter, everyone. bicycle

Thursday, April 09, 2020

The Coronavirus in Kansas: Wichita's Weaknesses and Strengths

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, it's sometimes easy, here in Wichita--a large city nonetheless somewhat isolated and disconnected from the larger metropolitan areas of the country, a city which centers a largely rural and therefore much more low risk part of the state--to be unclear if we're overreacting or not reacting enough.But feeling as though we’re stuck in the middle, feeling divided, is nothing new for a mid-sized city like ours.

In general the news for Kansas overall seems to be pretty good. It is looking like the spread of the virus, as it peaks in April, won't be as deadly as we feared, almost certainly in part because of Governor Laura Kelly's (and locally, Sedgwick County Commissioner Lacey Cruse's) insistence on pushing for stay-at-home orders as early as possible. But is it true that, in taking these actions, Wichita will suffer even more than it would have had the city, and its surrounding county and state, not shut things down? Obviously you can find folks who self-righteously insist upon just that. The evidence suggests otherwise--but all the same, there's reason to worry. My best guess, on the basis of both observations and ongoing research, is that Wichita, and most of our state generally, will be able to weather this month, and the next, relatively well--but that rebuilding afterwards may be confronted with some real difficulties.

On the positive side, comparative data provided by Wichita State University shows that, as Kansas’s economy is generally much less dependent upon service, entertainment, and tourist sectors than is the case elsewhere, we haven’t seen quite the same level of job losses and business closures statewide. The mainstays of Kansas’s economy–food production, manufacturing, education, and health care–are broadly considered essential, and thus have mostly been able to continue to operate.

That’s no comfort, of course, to the many Kansans who are suddenly facing unemployment and real economic distress. Nor does it lessen the fear which so many of us have here about the possible loss of so much that adds to the quality of life here in Wichita–the restaurants, the theaters, the bookstores, the "third places," and so much more. And that is what puts a question mark beside this otherwise good news for the folks in this city--Wichita is actually enough of a metropolitan economy that it does, in fact, include significant service and entertainment sectors. Not nearly what New York City or Los Angeles or Chicago or even Kansas City has, of course, but still, enough that, as the Wichita State study shows, a few of the negative economic effects (like regarding air travel) which are below the national average for Kansas, are slightly above it for Wichita. Not much, but slightly. This is why it is vital for Wichita to take seriously questions about how to keep money in the pockets of as many Wichitans as possible (providing maternity leave for city workers whose vacation and sick leave are being used to help support their fellow furloughed workers is one good idea) that probably aren't even on the radar screen in many smaller cities. Small actions, such are withing the jurisdiction of the mayor and the city council, may make all the difference in enabling Wichitans to enjoy the same lower level of economic pain and disruption which will likely characterize the rest of the state for the duration of the pandemic.

Something similar might be said regarding psychological pain and family disruption. Nowhere in Kansas--and certainly not even here in Wichita, the largest single city in the state--do we see the kind of urban density which characterizes those cities that have seen the largest outbreaks, and thus have had to take the most extreme actions for the sake of public health. But even if such measures become necessary here--and again, given the success that we've had in flattening the curve they hopefully will not be--they still wouldn’t play out the same way that they have in larger urban agglomerations. Simply put, Kansans--and Wichitans too--generally have easy access to rural space. When it comes to mental health and minimizing domestic conflict, that matters. As one writer suggested in The New York Times, social distancing in an environment when families have gardens, fields, and locally grown food readily available to them, is a very different prospect from social distancing when three people in a cramped downtown apartment have to maintain 6 ft. distance from one another, and when even the parks and sidewalks are often so crowded with people trying to find some openness that they become sources of stress and have to be subject to further regulation.

In a way, it might be Wichita's very in-betweeness which will make this city a real model insofar as such matters are concerned. We have a genuinely large population with a low enough level of density that nearly all of its residents can take advantage of rural space for physical and mental rejuvenation relatively easily. That's not to say that there aren't problems which some Wichitans could face in this regard; one may think of transportation and access to some of that (mostly privately owned, and sometimes fiercely patrolled) open space, particularly for poorer Wichitans in the downtown and southern parts of the city. And of course, the safety and maintenance of the trails and bike paths and road shoulders by which we can make use of that space once we get there is a question as well. As city leaders take a look of where to cut costs in the face of the financial hit the city is taking, and will continue to take, one hopes they're recognize that is, also, is part of the value and resilience of the city, and will attend to the costs of those easily overlooked resources accordingly.

Still, in general, it would be fair to conclude that Wichita, and south-central Kansas overall, has available to it the opportunities and the resources keep the economic damage and the social consequences of the pandemic minimal. But that, unfortunately, is not the whole story. We have to think about long-term impacts, and not just short-term ones.

As the same Wichita State study warns, food production and manufacturing in Kansas is heavily dependent upon supply chains in equipment and trade that the overall economic health of the nation effectively determines. Service workers and others who work in more creative or information-dependent sectors of the economy can snap back as soon as paying customers return; the same cannot be said for larger industries that need to wait for raw materials to ship or are dependent upon extended networks of specialized workers. The fact that Wichita, as mentioned above, actually does have a decent-sized service sector, will mean that, as the larger mainstays of Kansas's economy slowly struggle back to life, it may be the collective action of activists, entrepreneurs, and urban creatives in our city that will be end up being essential to whatever support will be needed for workers in the aircraft industry and others in the meantime. Of course, given how much of Wichita's workforce is tied up in heavy manufacturing, which over the past year has already taken many 737 Max-related hits, maybe the best we can hope for is a wash.

Agriculture may be another problem. True, the likelihood of the virus spreading widely in isolated Kansas farming towns is quite small. But as the work force in Kansas’s rural counties is also quite small, and as many of those counties–thanks to Republican opposition to extending Medicaid—lack basic health care resources, even a small outbreak could be devastating. The resulting could be a domino effect, with unproductive or failed farms and feedlots forcing closures in ancillary food industries across the state, many of which are concentrated in south-central Kansas, with Wichita as their hub. Ultimately we may see a hastening of the already underway rural population collapse in western Kansas, with long-term social, economic, and political consequences for our city, as more and more people throughout the region come to Wichita seeking medical care and basic economic opportunities, contributing our aging population and probably not adding much to the overall tax base. It's a good thing that Sedgwick County's population is just over the half-million mark, thereby qualifying it for at least a slice of the $150 billion the federal government has earmarked to help out state, county, and municipal governments; in the months to follow this pandemic, with so many liabilities building up and so much potential revenue off the table, it's going to need it.

As we wait to see what this plague brings into our lives, our task as Wichitans must be to use the resources we have–a large population, one which is likely to find ways to remain relatively stable, socially and economically, in the short-term–to reach out and help make more resilient those places likely to struggle the most as Kansas recovers from this pandemic, whenever that recovery fully comes.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Coronavirus in Kansas: A Week of Triage

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

This has been a week of triage for our city.

With the Sedgwick County Commission at first resisting and then finally submitting to medical opinion (and political pressure) regarding the need to order many businesses and places of public gathering to close for the sake of minimizing the potential spread of the coronavirus on Monday, the other shoe--which every small business-owner and all of their thousands of supporters throughout the city have known was just waiting to be dropped--came down on Tuesday, and the scramble find a new normal began in earnest. We'd seen libraries, movie theaters, restaurants and shops of various kinds, and so much else start to limit their hours or close down entirely last week; this week it finally became official. The question becomes the classic one which arises in every emergency, every instance of limited resources: what can be sustained, what can be changed, and what can't be saved?

Like many Wichitans, towards the end of last week I made the time to check in on places of business I was most worried about surviving the loss of commerce which this order--and, let's be honest, the even stricter ones likely to follow it--is going to entail. We stopped by Manna Wok and Grace Asian Market to get some bulkogi and kimchee (and commiserated with the owners who said they were praying their business would survive), and Little Lion Cafe for some ice cream (and commiserated with the one worker on staff who was slammed with orders from worried folks like me). We checked in at Bagel Haus, Pollo Express, TJ's Burger House, and Prost. Everyone has their favorite little spots, of course, and fortunately there are a couple of websites providing regularly updated lists of what places have online ordering, which ones have curbside pick-up, and which have simply closed for the duration. How well online patronage will help the local dining scene over the weeks (and perhaps months) to come remains to be seen.

What I worry about the most, though, isn't the loss of the wonderful and diverse food these local restaurants provided, but rather the spaces they created. You don't have to be an devotee of urban sociology or civic republican theory to recognize the immense value of "third places"--those locations where one is not at work, nor at home, but rather in an open-ended (while still closely defined) arena of connection and interaction. We're talking about the YMCA, or the public library, or community centers--all of which, of course, have needed to close down to prevent people congregating and spreading the virus further.

Places of commerce do this too--not all of them, and not all equally well, but some specialize in it. Indeed, for some the fact that they can provide a space for young and old, rich and poor, regulars and newbies, like-minded folk and trouble-makers, all to occupy a particular place and observe, listen to, laugh with, and learn from other actual flesh-and-blood human beings is exactly their business model. There are many establishments which may advertise this--but none embody it as well as Wichita's bookstores.

Watermark Books & Cafe (full disclosure: my wife worked there for over eight years) has had to cancel all its book clubs, reading groups, and story times. Sarah Bagby and her management staff have had to let their booksellers go, and close their doors, which has been a terrible loss for the College Hill community--to say nothing of the innumerable elementary and middle schools which Watermark regularly brought authors out to--which the store has become so entwined with over the years. Eighth Day Books, the tiny linchpin of a sprawling spiritual community (the Eighth Day Institute, of which I am a member) that connects together churches and faith groups throughout the whole region, is focusing on online and phone orders, as EDI's regular gatherings have had to be suspended, and access to the store limited, with the small, devoted staff of Eighth Day hunkering down to weather the storm. And Prairie Dog Comics, home of some of the best RPG game nights anywhere in the state (and where I buy my daughters copies of  Ms. Marvel), has had to pack up its tables and end its evenings of gaming, restricting itself to fulfilling phone and online orders, and only allowing browsers into the store on a strict reservation basis. All of this, and more, doesn't just threaten businesses--it threatens a by-product of commerce which is far more important that the commercial transactions themselves: namely, people getting together and sharing their literary passions, their spiritual insights, their geeky delights, with those in the same space.

In the larger sense, of course, cities have always been about the civic and commercial creation of such spaces. The reigning ideal of urban life, after all, is to live in a place where complex social connections could co-exist with what an old professor of mine once called "the heterogeneity of anonymity"--that is, a place where we are sufficiently strangers to each other to allow all sorts of original communal associations to emerge, without the burden of the past traditions, prejudices, or authority. That ideal is rarely achieved, obviously--and considering the importance of traditions to who we are, making that urban ideal into an idol is plainly wrong-headed. But it's appeal is undeniable all the same.

Recently Michelle Goldberg, a New York Times columnist, mourned seeing the people of NYC forced to isolate themselves. "Historically, cities have made it easier for people to live alone without experiencing constant loneliness," she wrote, noting that choosing to live in a city is "to depend on interdependence." To be isolated from one another, in particular from those third places where the rich possibilities of community are most regularly realized--as they were and, God willing, still will be, at Watermark, Eighth Day, and Prairie Dog--strains urban interdependence as nothing else.

In some ways, our city might be considered better able to handle such a strain than many other, larger cities--which, not incidentally, is where coronavirus outbreaks have been most severe. Because Wichita dominates, but does not encapsulate, its rural surroundings, there is still plenty of space for mandated isolation to take fulfilling--or at least less cramped--forms. Goldberg quoted a psychologist who observed how the impact of quarantine and the closure of beloved spaces depends much upon where you live; the loss of socially enriching spaces will be felt differently "if you’re able to stroll around your farm and pick the produce you’ve been growing,” in contrast to those who are “living in a one-bedroom apartment with three roommates" whom they have to nonetheless keep separated from. While not every Wichitan can easily get out to Andover or Yoder to pick up farm-fresh food from local butchers and producers, the obstacles to doing so--or to even having immediate access to such oneself--are far smaller than they are to even the residents of Kansas City or Oklahoma City, much less Dallas or Chicago or Denver.

At the same time, a city like ours, perhaps exactly because common places of complex interaction and community feeling are spread far apart and are relatively few in number (not to mention too easily bought out and torn down by local financial players), when a crisis comes it is that much easier to retreat to our private locales, set aside public concerns, and forget about the ways in which a city could be made more resilient in the face of threats to its urban existence--and particularly, threats to those spaces which ground the emergent communities and associations central to city's character. You saw some of this, perhaps, in the Sedgwick County Commission's initial reluctance to face the questions of triage which this pandemic is making unavoidable. Wichita's political culture isn't one which has been historically characterized by a great deal of openness to affordable alternative transportation, sustainable food networks, and other strategies for keeping cities' cultural and commercial connections functioning even as the threat of disease mandates a distancing for a time. Perhaps, though, surviving this pandemic will bring about a change.

First we have to survive it, though, and that means helping our essential places survive, even if--maybe especially if--they aren't considered "essential" in the eyes of the government. Talking with Warren Farha, the owner of Eighth Day Books, this week, he expressed his determination to find a way through this challenge, and get to the other side. People--maybe not all the people, all the time, but enough of them, often enough--want and need to come into a place they know, among people they know, looking for the books and art and insight they know they will love, if they can only find it. "You can't replace all that with online shopping,” Warren said to me; “the door has got to be open so that people can come in and be part of something larger than themselves." Maybe they're not going to come in for a time, he admits--but that just means the desire will be all the greater afterwards. I think our job, as we sort out our next steps in this unprecedented week we've experienced, is therefore to find ways to triage our limited time and dollars, and to deliver them in whatever ways we can to help keep these wonderful places alive, until the community connections they enable are able to fully bless our city once again. I've no simple solution as to how any particular Wichitan can or should do that--but I'm pretty we should all think about how.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Star Trek, The Original Series, Season 1: The First Binge

Sometime in January it just occurred to me: I, a 51-year-old Star Trek fan of many decades, actually only know the Original (and best!) Series the same way practically every other Generation X nerd knows the series--as a rerun. For as many times as I've watched the original episodes--and we're talking many, many times--I'd never seen them in actual broadcast order. And for that reason, I knew there were a couple of episodes here and there that I barely knew, so rarely had they made it into the usual Saturday-afternoon rotations--or, for that matter, onto the ancient VHS tape collections I made decades ago and still have stuck in a drawer somewhere. Thus, a determination was born: since the entirety of the Original Series is available on Netflix in original broadcast order, why not just watch them all? And so I began. [Note that this was a determination that I came to months before any kind of coronavirus or quarantine talk; fortuitous to give myself a binging goal so early, don't you think?]

So what's this? My report on the complete first season, which we finished last night. Yep, that's right: we. To my surprise, my wife and youngest daughter (age almost-14) decided to come along on this ride. I'm grateful for them; they snark and ask questions and sometimes even get sucked into these more-than-a-half-century-old, 50-minute-long television episodes, making the whole experience that much better. I'm going to keep my comments to just a sentence or two about each; no need to provide any sort plot summary or extensive reviews, as there's a million people on the internet who have already done that much better than I. Indeed, if you somehow stumble onto these blog posts expecting any kind of thoughtful engagement, you're going to be sorely disappointed. I'm not looking for discoveries myself; just an attempt to re-familiarize myself, in a different way, with something so deeply a part of my pop consciousness that I couldn't extricate myself from it if I wanted to (and I don't). If you're in the same boat as me, though, well, enjoy!

[Additional note: now that we're stuck at home so much more than before, maybe it won't take us 2 1/2 months to get through each of the next two seasons. But really, who knows?

Season 1
"The Man Trap": B-
The very first episode broadcast. A decent premise, with some nice sci-fi touches (the alien appearing differently to Kirk and McCoy was well done), but overall a rather hammy execution.

"Charlie X": C
A spooky narrative concept, with lots of disturbing potential, and an ending that was genuinely sad and creepy. But with what was essentially an all-powerful immature brat onboard, wrecking havoc, why doesn't Kirk freak out? Kind of poorly acted, it seems to me.

"Where No Man Has Gone Before": C+
This is was the second pilot; you can't deny that Roddenberry & Co. didn't let anything go to waste. Once again, this one is built around a spooky--if predictable--science-fiction idea; mostly, the episode's story makes you think of a different, smarter Kirk which was never fully developed.

"Naked Time": B
Oh man, this episode is easy to mock, but it's really great fun. Filled with all sorts of 1960s-style sexism and stereotypes, it tells its story while playing all of them honestly and with great heart. A slight episode, but the show's first really solid one.

"The Enemy Within": B
Again, a ridiculously easy episode to mock, and again, one heavily dependent upon various sexist and deeply Freudian tropes. But the story itself is genuinely kind of scary as well as profoundly adult, deserving a remake today (consider what could be done with Yeoman Rand, a rape survivor who assumes she needs to cover up for her captain!).

"Mudd's Women": D
Their first real stinker. It's an offensive episode, more for its basic stupidity (the Enterprise ran out of power because it extended its shields around a cargo ship?) than its dumb, condescending, clumsily (as opposed to forgiveably dated) message.

"What Are Little Girls Made Of?": C
A decent sci-fi story (an ancient and long-dead alien civilization which left behind humanoid robots, good enough to replace the real thing?), but the whole thing is just weakly developed. Watch out for red-shirts falling into pits.

"Miri": C-
This one gets a lot of hate, but I don't think it's that horrible. Once more, a decent and spooky central concept (kids living on their own, their adolescence extended, eventually contracting the plague that killed all their parents when they hit puberty), but the casting is terrible--what, there were no 12-year-olds available?--and its ham-fisted treatment of "growing up" is just annoying.

"Dagger of the Mind": C+
Better developed than some; in Noel you have an actually competent 60s-era female character (and are we supposed to understand that Kirk was embarrassed or confused about his previous encounter with her, even before she messed with Kirk's memories?), elevating a by-the-numbers story of a megalomaniac needing to be stopped.

"The Corbomite Maneuver": B
This was supposed to be the first "official" episode after the second pilot was accepted; if you know that, then that'll help you look past the painfully obvious "morale of the story." Cheap sci-fi, but solid.

"The Menagerie," Part 1 and 2: C-
First part of this recycling of the original pilot is much better than the second part; it builds an interesting story out of the idea that Spock is faithfully executing one final order for his former captain. The second half drains any interest in what's going on, though, through various deus ex machina moves.

"Conscience of the King": D
Actually kind of boring, with an entirely predictable twist, and Kirk's supposed obsession isn't well communicated at all.

"Balance of Terror": A
This is Star Trek's first truly great episode, and the fact that nothing about it is original is entirely forgivable. It's pure adventure story-telling, a straight-up submarine battle, both nicely told and really well acted.

"Shore Leave": C
Dumb, but take the whole thing as fundamentally unserious, and you can have an okay time. (Man, McCoy is a horn-dog.)

"The Galileo Seven": A-
I'm not sure what the problem some people have with this episode is; it's one of my favorites, because Kirk is actually mostly off-screen, and we're given time to follow the development of Spock as a commander, and the others dealing with a non-human commander (the only really weak bit of writing, if you can ignore the ridiculous ogres-with-spears as the requisite monsters, is why McCoy was on the shuttle craft at all).

"Squire of Gothos": B+
Another slight and not particularly serious episode, but it's a genuinely fun bit of science-fiction, and William Campbell turns Trelane into a actual comic tour-de-force.

"Arena": B
Kirk's willingness to put ship and crew in danger to pursue the enemy is out of character, but the build-up to the stand-off is pretty good, overall. The actual face-off with the Gorn isn't pretty good too, if pedantically handled; it's kind of a small tragedy that the whole thing is so meme-worthy

"Tomorrow is Yesterday": D
Our daughter actually thought it was a funny episode, so I'm glad someone enjoyed it. I though the acting was wooden and the narrative is poorly thought through and has enormous, annoying plot holes (why won't Captain Christopher and the guard remember everything when they're put back in their own time?).

"Court Martial": C
This one has some nice scene-chewing by Cogley, but on the whole a potentially great story is wasted with a bunch of perfunctory scenes and passion-less acting (just like Kirk never showed much concern for Finney--hey, maybe it was a meta-commentary!).

"The Return of the Archons": B-
Once more, a story with lots of potential (it's the Purge, 50 years before the movie!), but none of that potential is really ever explained or worked out. Plus, it introduces one of the worst of all Star Trek cliches: outsmarting the computer!

"Space Seed": A
Deservedly praised. This is a tightly plotted story, with far fewer of the usual loose strings in Original Series story-telling. Khan is consistently brilliant but also arrogant and dismissive throughout, as he should be. It's also interesting to see, through the eyes of the script-writers, how 1960s sexists imagine what a "real man" would be like. For once, Kirk isn't the alpha male!

"A Taste of Armageddon": B
Another smart and genuinely cool sci-fi idea. The episode shows that the writers hadn't thought much about the "prime directive" yet; is Star Fleet a bunch of imperialists imposing their beliefs on an alien culture, or are they the British in India putting an end to suttee, freeing a society from a stagnate murder cult? Also, I liked that the predictable jerk ambassador is given redemption.

"This Side of Paradise": B+
Continuing a run of mostly really great episodes, this one gives us, upon reflection, a sad, desperate, and somewhat manipulative woman (interestingly, it was my wife who spotted the undertone of a wanna-be lover finding an excuse for imposing her choices on Spock), and a Kirk whose heroic escape from the spores really fit with his character, even if it wasn't developed enough. Needed more Southern doctor McCoy!

"The Devil in the Dark": B
A monster conveyed through awesomely bad "special effects"--my daughter actually remembered this one from when she was a child, when we would pull blankets over ourselves and pretend to be "hortas" sneaking around the house. Overall, it's a fun story, with hilariously hapless miners and a hammy Spock.

"Errand of Mercy": A-
This is a wonderful introduction of the Klingons, with great--and really well-scripted--performances by the Organians. It's probably the best of all the many "the crew of the Enterprise meets a super-powerful race that just can't be bothered with humans" episodes; in Season 1 alone, we have, besides the Organians, the Metrons from "Arena," the Thasians from "Charlie X," and Trelane's mother and father from "Squire of Gothos." And there's more to come!

"The Alternative Factor": D
Ending a wonderful run of mostly top-flight Star Trek episodes, this one is confusing, poorly plotted and developed (did anyone on the Enterprise ever even ask where Lazarus came from, or why he was on that planet?), to say nothing of following through on a science-fiction idea that they no means of depicting except with some truly terrible visual effects.

"The City on the Edge of Forever": A
The best, most mature, most serious, tightest, and most effecting of all the Original Series episodes. Everyone knows it, because it's true.

"Operation--Annihilate!": C-
Man, why did you have to end the first season with the stupid flying pancake/amoebas? As so frequently the case--but thankfully, less so towards the end of the season--you have weak acting and weak plotting here, and a reset (the secret Vulcan eyelid!) that wasn't foreshadowed at all. A let-down of an ending, for what was, for the most part, a really decent season of television.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Coronavirus in Kansas: The First Week

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

It’s dark and quiet Wednesday morning here in the Fox household, March 18, 2020. It’s been dark every morning–and mostly grey and cloudy and cool all through the days as well–for pretty much a whole week now, appropriately enough. Partly that’s because our schedules, both external and internal, haven’t caught up with the hour in the morning we lost less than two weeks ago when Daylight Savings Time began. But most, I think, it’s because of the gloom which has descended upon many of us here in south-central Kansas in the past seven days, with the weather–unhelpfully but perhaps unavoidably, reciprocating.

A week ago, on Wednesday, March 11, I was wrapping up my classes at Friends University in anticipation of spring break. Students were handing in their midterms, and telling me about their travel plans. Of course people were aware of the coronavirus threat; I’m originally from Washington state, and my mother still lives there (my father having passed on some years ago), so as the news tumbled forth from Seattle and elsewhere about cancellations and quarantines, I got regular updates from siblings and others. We all knew it–meaning both the virus and the panic--would be in Kansas soon; every informed person did. Yet from the top of the national government all the way down to the local level, the mood was...ordinary.

Maybe that’s not what you were feeling a week ago; maybe you’re a prepper that had already rushed out and stocked up on toilet paper back in February. Most of us aren’t that, and I certainly wasn’t, and neither were any of my colleagues at Friends. Our president spoke at a regularly scheduled university-wide community meeting that afternoon, and she said she didn’t anticipate anything that would require any major changes. We talked about the mission of our small liberal arts college, talked about the integration of Christian values and higher education, talked about and made plans for all the usual things. She wished us all a good spring break, reminded us to wash our hands and stay home if we were sick, and then we left to get our Thursdays and Fridays in order.

But, of course, they weren’t in order.

Late that Wednesday night, the cold weather rolled back in, and the University of Kansas announced–following the decisions of various major institutions of higher education around the country made that same day–that they also would extend spring break by a week, ask students to vacate student housing, and go to online education thereafter. Immediately, the dominoes started to fall. An NBA players tested positive for the virus, and by the following morning the word was out: the league was suspending all games until further notice. Throughout Thursday, March 12, the announcements kept coming. Other local universities--Kansas State, Wichita State, more--were following KU’s example, telling students not to return after spring break, but to work from home. March Madness was announced to be going forward without an audience, and then was cancelled altogether.

By Friday, March 13, there were reported coronavirus cases throughout Kansas, including one patient who had just been released from Wesley Medical Center here in Wichita. Our younger daughters were home, with their spring break having begun, but I was attending another, hastily-called, university-wide meeting, where our president, having been in conferences with other college presidents and Sedgwick County officials since 7:30am, informed us that Friends was following suit: two weeks of spring break, followed by online instruction. The rush was in full swing. Sedgwick County and Wichita started issuing the first of their cancellations and restriction orders, with the grand re-opening of Naftzger Park being the first casualty. And still the weather remained cloudy and cool.

It was a rough weekend, as anyone who went shopping can attest and looked in vain (as I did) for certain particular items (really, a mad rush on powdered milk?) can attest. The early farmers market that Saturday, March 14, at the Sedgwick County Extension Center was cancelled, so I couldn’t stock up as I do once-a-month while the regular market is out of session. (I ended up driving to Hutchinson to hit up our long-time local meat connection, Phil Nisly, at his farm-slaughterhouse directly.) There was a death in our extended family–not coronavirus-related; it was an elderly relative, and had long been anticipated. But there would be no funeral, in the same way that there was no church on Sunday, March 15, as our congregation had cancelled all gatherings at church buildings for the foreseeable future, as so many other denominations had. So, no chance to say a final farewell, no chance to mourn with family we almost never see. We needed to cheer ourselves up and hence, anticipating that movie theaters would soon close as well, we sneaked out over the weekend to see the new Pixar film, Onward, in a mostly empty theater. (No Wall-E, but pretty good!) Just in the nick of time, as it turned out.

Monday, March 16, dawned--sort of, anyway--and the long-process of sorting out the weekend and finding a new routine begins. The YMCA had announced they were closing their facilities on Sunday, cancelling all their classes; hence, my wife did her Zumba class in front of a screen. She went into work, wondering how Watermark Books, where she has been a bookseller and event coordinator for eight years, will ride out these quarantines and cut-backs (shop local everyone–keep Wichita’s small businesses alive!). Our second-oldest daughter consoled herself with the fact that, while her end-of-semester concerts were cancelled, at least the Chipotle she works at has a drive-through, and thus may be able to survive social distancing better than some others. Then yesterday, Tuesday, March 17, the governor and state education commissioner finally dropped the other shoe, as we all knew they would: all public schools are closed for the remainder of the year. Our sixteen-year-old is freaked about what shifting to online assignments will do to her grades, and our almost-fourteen-year-old, usually a dismissive teen-ager, kind of teared-up, realizing that her eighth-grade formal won’t happen, and sadly counting up all her friends that she never got contact information for. And still the grey skies continued, with an oozing, tail-end-of-winter wet accompanying us all through Monday and Tuesday.

Still, the seasons respect no virus; springtime is here (or will be, officially, tomorrow–and there’s even a chance of some proper sunshine by the end of the day on Thursday!). So all day yesterday, ignoring my wet socks and the mud, I did as I’ve been planning to do since January: redesigning and improving my garden space, with the aim of making for a more productive and more attractive crop this summer. So I plowed everything up--borrowing a rototiller from a neighbor, as I have ever year for close to a decade now--then raked it, purchased boards at Home Depot, built new raised beds, laid them down, hauled ten wheelbarrow-loads of compost over, then topped it off with 16 40lb. bags of topsoil from our local Ace Hardwart. It looks nice. Now I just need to put down the mulch on the walking paths, and step one of the garden rebirth will be ready, maybe just in time for spring.

One week into the full effect of the coronavirus panic here in Wichita, and we’re hunkering down for the long haul, like everyone is. Someday it will be summer, and there will be fresh peas and tomatoes to enjoy. Keep your eyes on the (still-distant) prize, everyone. Eyes on the prize.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Presidents' Day Questions for Ralph Hancock

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Ralph Hancock, a political theorist at Brigham Young University, is a fairly notorious figure in certain tiny Mormon slivers of the internet, which I happen to partake of regularly. I never took a class from him when I was a student at BYU, but I've interacted with him, in person and online, dozens of times over the decades; we're friendly, if not necessarily good friends. Recently, Hancock made waves with a piece he published in Utah's Deseret News (a Mormon Church-owned newspaper), arguing, in reference to the recent impeachment vote, that Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee, who voted, along with every other Republican save one, to find President Trump not guilty of the impeachment charges, had acted like a true statesman; Mitt Romney, the only Republican senator to voted to convict Trump, had not. This is a position I disagree with, to no one's surprise. So this President's Day, I'd like to pose some questions for Ralph--not with any illusion that anyone's mind will be changed by voicing such questions, but because I honestly want to understand just what it is he's claiming about American statesmanship circa 2020, and why.

Ralph's short piece spends most of its length setting up a philosophical argument regarding the place and the nature of partisanship in our odd political moment, in which we (or, depending on what kind of right-wing or left-wing critique of American voting practices you prefer, "we" in scare quotes) govern ourselves through a pluralistic democratic arrangement wherein certain civic republican ideals and standards are nonetheless at least ritually given a place (the senators taking an oath to judge impartially, and not in accordance with political pressures, during an impeachment trial, for example). Ralph thinks Romney's speech explaining his impeachment vote demonstrates a poor understanding of the place of partisanship today, thus making his appeals to conscience and ethical and religious principles an annoying distraction. (He's made this argument similar to this about Romney before, charging him with failing to recognize that the "foundation" of civic virtues like "decency" and "civility"--which Romney condemned Trump for lacking, as he obviously does--are more "vulgar" virtues like "courage and loyalty," which Trump, in Ralph's view, has plenty of.) The key paragraph in this section, I think, is this one:

To take political responsibility is to reckon with the inevitable fact of partisanship. Anyone really interested in making a difference for the better for our country must recognize the need to have political friends and to beware of enemies. To recognize the reality of allies and adversaries is not to debase political action but simply to reckon with the actual partisan situation. The question is whether Sen. Romney has frivolously spent his political capital (in Utah, especially) or wisely traded it in order to make some powerful new friends in the national political arena....[I]t is hard not to question the otherworldly “profile in courage” of a political gesture that results in immediate celebrity among the great and powerful, if not among the more vulgar in Washington or in Utah.

I'd like to understand whether Ralph, who has insisted multiple times over the years that he is a strong advocate for "original constitutionalism," sees this as a necessary correction to Madison's (I agree flawed, but important and admirable all the same) claim that a properly constituted "extended republic" could effectively sideline the problem of parties (or "factions," as he put it), or whether he actually does hold with Madison, and instead simply believes that "reality of...the actual partisan situation" today requires fighting fire with fire. I'd love to learn it was the former, and thus be able to count Ralph, whatever our other political disagreements, as an advocate for pushing our system in a parliamentary direction wherein partisan divides are treated more honestly and responsibly. My suspicion, however, is that it's the latter, in which case the long theoretical case he makes in the first four paragraphs seems like so much throat-clearing.

Either way, the meat of condemnation of Romney's vote, and his praise of Lee's, comes immediately after this:

Senator Lee deftly framed his decision in the context of the larger partisan conflict over the design and purpose of our constitutional republic. For decades...progressives have worked to overcome the limitations of federalism and the separation of powers by transferring more and more power to unelected “experts” forming a virtual fourth branch of government, the bureaucracy. Trump’s alleged constitutional offense, from the standpoint of progressive or “living” constitutionalism, consists precisely in overriding the authority of expert bodies or the prevailing “inter-agency consensus.” Lee is a frank partisan of the original Constitution and a critique of its progressive reinterpretation. True solicitude for the constitution thus dictates, he concludes, not righteous indignation at the president’s use of executive power, but the defense of his Article II powers against the increasing arrogance of the fourth branch.

I would really like to understand better some of the assumptions Ralph is making here--assumptions which operate, I should note, without ever mentioning any details of the allegations about President Trump made in the articles of impeachment, thus obliging readers of Ralph's column to assume that the truth or falsehood of those allegations is irrelevant. Leaving entirely aside larger historical and theoretical debates over constitutional interpretation and the definition of "progressivism" being used here, the crucial leap I see here is the idea that the "experts" who expressed the "inter-agency consensus" against Trump's bribing or threatening or pushing of President Zelensky (presumably this is a reference to the testimony of Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Lt. Col. Alexander Vidman, and multiple others), actually constitute a unified body that seeks to operate as a "fourth branch of government," outside of the will of the executive or legislative branches That these individuals and others were actually operating within the reach of the executive branch--hence Trump's ability to fire them--complicates this assumption somewhat, especially in light of the centrality which Ralph grants to partisanship as a necessity of proper statesmanship.

While it is true that conservative stereotype of the progressive interpretation of the U.S. Constitution has involved the progressive empowerment of various agencies, boards, and other institutions within the executive branch, I have never heard it said that President Woodrow Wilson or other progressive bogeymen of the conservative imagination were empowering such agencies in order to limit presidential discretion by way of "expert consensus." On the contrary, the conservative knock against them has long been that these agencies and experts centralized power in the office of the presidency. So in what way, exactly, can executive appointees hypothetically undermining the actions of a president via expressing their critical judgment against him in impeachment testimony be understood as following through on a progressive agenda to centralize power?

I think I can imagine one way, but only one. If Ralph is a complete adherent to the theory of presidential power laid out by Attorney General William Barr, then presidential power must be understood as something that belongs not to the executive branch, but to a single person, wholly and entirely. The executive branch, under this (I think frankly ahistorical, and others agree) interpretation, then the people around the president must be understood as his partisan tools, nothing more or less. Thus, any Republican appointee of President Trump who dissents from or really is just in any way critical of Trump's actions has failed to follow their partisan role within the constitutional structure of the executive branch, and must be understood as acting independently, in alignment with those progressive forces, hiding behind their civil service protections, acting as an unelected, undemocratic force.

If this is correct, then Ralph is arguing--or at least as best as I can construct the argument--that if ours is to be a responsible constitutional democracy, it must firmly resist any kind of intra-party dissent within the executive branch, because absolute partisan unity is central to the executive (that is, the President of the United States) governing--including, I suppose, making phone calls--the way he or she chooses to, and giving the presidency wide freedom in what they choose to do holds off or at least hampers the development of an elite body of undemocratic, unelected others.  Hence, Lee is acting a statesman in voting in support of the president, and Romney, invoking an "impartial" ideal to justify his vote against the president which fails to reckon with the necessity of an executive being free from push-back from his own partisan tools, is not. Have I got this right, Ralph?

I think there are huge historical and theoretical problems with this, and I say that as someone who is entirely willing to dump on Madison, praise parliamentarianism, and join in rolling my eyes at obviously partisan individuals and organizations cloaking what they do in civic republican language. But that's not what Ralph has done here; I think he's made a different kind argument, one that I would really like to understand better, because not only does it not seem to fit the "original constitutionalism" Ralph has so long praised, but it doesn't even seem to entirely fit the conservative complaint against progressivism which so many adherents of "original constitutionalism" have long put forward. Yes, I know; Occam's Razor suggests that Ralph doesn't actually believe any of this; that's it's all motivated reasoning, same as my response, and that his column and my response here is all just so many pointless words tossed around. But noentheless I'd love to be humored, at least a little bit. Ideally I'd love to hear from Ralph himself, but if anyone would like to explain to me what I've misunderstood about his claims, I can't think of a better way to honor Presidents' Day than to argue about it all.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Religious Liberty and Joseph Smith in Park's Kingdom of Nauvoo

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Benjamin Park's Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier is going to be released in two weeks. You should buy it and read it. It's a first-rate work of Mormon history--the best book about this era I've read since Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling--and if it doesn't quite become the work of intellectual history that I think Park sensed writing the story of Joseph Smith and the Council of Fifty could become, it's not for lack of trying. Park takes up the many radical threads--political, economic, racial, and sexual--which were part of Smith's final, and greatest, effort to establish his vision of a distinct community, and weaves them together into a compelling, fascinating tale. And now that Park has provided an interpretation of Smith's kingdom-building which no previous historian was capable of--with the minutes of the secretive Council of Fifty only finally being made public in 2016--early Mormonism will likely soon find itself occupying a new and even more important conceptual place in the never-ending academic arguments about American democracy, religion, liberalism, and pluralism. Nerds like me who delight in such arguments will keep coming back to Park's work as a foundational treatment, and we'll be rewarded for doing so by Park's delightful read.

Those with more familiarity with the history of Mormon polygamy or economics might well have some bones to pick with Park's work. For myself, I just want to elucidate one particular thread. Central to Park's overall argument about Smith and the Council is what seems to me to be, in effect, a critique of Bushman. Bushman--who explicitly noted in his 2005 book that he's been denied access to the Council of Fifty minutes--developed an interpretation of the Nauvoo years of Smith's life as one of hurried, almost stereotypically American-style busyness. While Smith's concerns--building the temple, acting as a civic leader, receiving revelations, suing and being sued by his enemies, managing (and hiding) his polygamous marriages, plotting a run for President of the United States, etc.--were hardly those of a typical mid-19th-century American resident of the frontier, there was a similarity there all the same. Bushman's Smith, in the 1840s at least, no longer spoke of “an immediate end to the wicked world,” or of Zion as "refuge"; instead, more often than not he presented himself as a true "son of America," looking to build (or, if necessary, flee to) a power base from which his community, rather than enjoying a communal reprieve from the complications and inequalities of the world, could build something great (Rough Stone Rolling, pp. 415, 513). Bushman gave us, on my reading anyway, a Smith who had become, after Ohio and after Missouri, an American entrepreneur, engaged in political and economic and theological and sexual speculations until the very end.

Park does not dispute that the Smith of Nauvoo, IL, was looking to make something (and himself) great, not does he deny his speculative character. Park's access to the Council of Fifty minutes, however, allows him to bring in new details about the various political positions and arguments made by Smith and other Mormon insiders in the crucial year of 1844. Park presents a persuasive case that Smith's kingdom vision was, broadly speaking, far more illiberal and apocalyptic than Bushman's account implies. Not that Smith routinely trafficked in predictions about the end times, as so many other 19th-century frontier Christian leaders did; he was in fact quite notable in generally refusing to talk that way. But his conviction was that the existing American--and thus modern democratic--order was something that needed to be scrapped, and that the Mormon faithful needed to prepare themselves to step into the role of modeling for others--or even directly leading others into--what God next had in mind. As Park summarizes his argument in the book's prologue:

Mormons [in Nauvoo] rejected many laws that they saw as oppressive or unfair. Most fundamentally, they rejected the separation of church and state.....The beleaguered "saints," as they styled themselves, had concluded that democratic rule led to the oppression of marginalized people and voices....Rejecting democratic freedom, the Mormons felt the need to establish a new political order....Faced with the disarray brought by the voice of man, Mormons hearkened to the stability promised by the voice of God. This promised included priestly administration, coordinated voting, and patriarchy....They sought a Moses who could lead modern-day Israel out of its wilderness; the saints desired nothing less than to transform the world  (Kingdom of Nauvoo, pp.9-10).

The language there of "leading modern-day Israel" and "hearkening to the stability of the voice of God" could easily put you in mind--or, at least, it put me in mind--of Marvin S. Hill's 30-year-old treatise, Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism. Though dated (and rather dry) in many ways, Hill's great theme--that Smith was an anti-pluralist almost from the beginning, dreaming of a "theocratic empire" as early as the 1830s, all as part of his longing to put an end to the squabbling voices and petty violence that constantly attended the early church--has resonance with Park's. Except, however, that Hill associated Smith's discontent with a "Calvinistic-like skepticism" of the ability of people to govern themselves; to Hill, Smith's treatment of dissenters, his presidential campaign, his endless (and almost always unwise) financial investments, could all be related to his desire to see power concentrated, opposition sidelined, and the threat of faction ended--to, in short, "dissolve all distinctions between sacred and secular and make them one" (Quest for Refuge, pp. xvi, 93, 97, 138, 148). For all the insight which Hill's research provided, I think Park's analysis provides a somewhat different and more intellectually rich take. Park's description of a key meeting of the Council of Fifty captures much of what is new and theoretically interesting here:

Though he was appointed "Prophet, Priest & King" at the morning meeting on April 11, that afternoon he delivered a discourse more traditionally republican in nature and centered on religious liberty. His new council would rule the world under the auspices of God's priesthood, but Smith insisted that they should always include non-Mormons within their ranks, as the Kingdom was separate from the church. Smith even initiated three non-Mormons into the council. He declared his intent to allow any citizen to think and worship as they please, as long as they worked within the boundaries of divine law. That citizenship in the kingdom required allegiance to Smith's prophethood did not seem to throw off that balance, at least in his view. To him, it was the only way to preserve order and reserve the religious liberties to the saints that he felt they had been deprived of. Smith became so animated during his discourse that he swung around a twenty-four inch ruler and broke it in two. In response, Brigham Young said, "as the rule was broken in the hands of our chairman so might every tyrannical government be broken before us." The world was theirs for the taking (Kingdom of Nauvoo, p. 204).

Park's description of this discourse, and of others subsequent to it, helps us see Smith's vision for the early Mormons as occupying a nuanced space between Hill and Bushman (though more cynically, one might say that a historical interpretation which places Smith in such a position is just an attempt to make consistent what were, on the basis of the evidence, arguably incoherent perspectives). Rather than Smith accepting the necessity of making himself into a player on the American scene, or Smith imperially insisting that all differences of opinion are threats to the truth, Park's Smith might be seen as suggesting a kind of rationalization of republican and religious principles. His rejection of liberalism and democracy in the Council of Fifty's records was not premised upon a denial of individual and collective rights and differences, but rather an attempt to discipline them to an overarching and divine necessity. Put another way, Smith could be seen here as proposing that people in their communities (their publics, in republican terminology) enjoy specifically situated freedoms under God's rule, but only insofar as such has been worked out within the particulars of His kingdom on earth--which meant, of course, by the mouth of Joseph Smith.

An interesting parallel might be the protected--though clearly distinct--dhimmi communities of Christians and Jews that existed under Islamic caliphate rule. Pluralism in belief, according to this way of reading Smith's formulation, would be both expected and tolerated, but also necessarily accepting that such diverse interests themselves would play no role in government whatsoever. Smith saw in such factionalism only the threat of popular majorities--and the travails the Mormons had faced in Missouri, including both violent mobs and what can only be called state terrorism, clearly taught them to fear that. Hence the need for an indisputable source of authority--what Smith called, referring to himself, the "proper source" (p. 206)--to put an end to divisions which, from Smith's point of view, simply gave license to those who use their local power to suppress others, either directly or through capturing weak law-making institutions. (It's notable that Smith proposed in his presidential platform that the size of Congress be reduced by half--p. 188.) But nonetheless, that indisputable authority would also be committed, as a matter of faith, to republican principles that respected the self-government of distinct (perhaps even, if Smith's late statements are to be taken as a guide to how his ideas were developing, sovereign--see p. 218) communities.

It's not hard to see this address and others pointing in the direction of William Richards later recommendations to the Council of Fifty after Smith's death. Since democracy, Richards argued, only works among groups of "men of congenial religions," it's right for the Mormons to separate themselves; to continue to tolerate the "promiscuous intermixture of heterogeneous bodies" is "distant both from pure religion and sound philosophy" (p. 250). Following these fragmentary thoughts to their conclusion, it is reasonable to read Smith's kingdom vision as one which asserted that to do otherwise than the above--that is, to centralize all communities together, or to allow for the violence of factional pluralism--would, either way, be tyranny.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as, at best, a clever bit of utopian rationalization. Still, genuine concerns held by the Mormon faithful--concerns about ineffective governments and hostile neighbors--lay behind these ideas, and unpacking their implications is worth doing. Interesting, both Park and Hill turn to Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America as part of their unpacking. Specifically, both find Tocqueville's warning about the tyranny of the majority to have direct relevance to the story they tell; Hill quotes from that section of Tocqueville at the very end of his book (Quest for Refuge, p. 181), whereas Park sets it up at the very beginning (Kingdom of Nauvoo, p. 10). It's a connection worth making--certainly Smith's mature (however undeveloped) political thought absolutely deserves to be put into conversation with Tocqueville's canonical work on what it means to exercise power democratically in a diverse society. As a final point, though, it would be interesting to imagine Smith's response, in the midst of the heady imagining going on in the Council of Fifty, to the observation about intellectual uniformity which Tocqueville included as part of his warning. In this passage, speaking as an aristocratic foreigner taking in the very America which Smith and his followers struggled with and against, he strongly implied that the threat which he agreed factionalist majorities presented in American life was directly connected to the very American rationalist impatience with confusion, or really with anyone who disagrees with you--an impatience which Park's Smith shows on more than one occasion:

I do not know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America. There is no religious and political theory that cannot be preached freely in the constitutional states of Europe and that does not penetrate the others; for there is no country in Europe so subject to one single authority that he who wants to speak the truth does not find support capable of assuring him against the consequences of his independence. If he has the misfortune to live under an absolute government, he often has the people for him; if he inhabits a free country, he can take shelter behind royal authority if need be. The aristocratic fraction of society sustains him in democratic regions, and the democratic fraction in others. But in the heart of a democracy organized as that of the United States, one encounters only a single power, a single elements of force and success, and nothing outside it (Democracy in America, vol. 1, part 2, chp. 7, p. 244).

In the end, Park's great work of history has given us the tools we need to start fitting Joseph Smith in with other American 19th-century radicals, and thus bring Mormon thought into dialogue with arguments over the history of, the limits of, and the importance of, liberal rights in a pluralist democracy, and whether or not a single divine law--even if "congenial" throughout a particular community!--can be part of the answer. Perhaps what I see in Park's interpretation as Smith's somewhat rationalized system of religious and communal political protections will be judged over time to be best forgotten (as, obviously, the church itself has; whatever lurking theocratic sensibilities exist in the church today likely owe far more historically to Smith's electoral machinations in Illinois--see pp. 154-160--than to his sermons before the Council of Fifty). But you can't forget something without knowing it in the first place. Park's book opens our eyes up to the goings-on in Nauvoo close to two centuries ago, for which we readers and Mormon history nerds owe him much thanks; what we do with it now is up to us.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Power, Friendship, and a Better Set of Democratic "Rules"

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

In the wake of the chaotic mess that was this year's Iowa caucuses, the politically inclined out there might not be in the mood for more fake news. Still, seeing clearly through the lies told about--and often, it seems, to ourselves--democratic politics can be a helpful thing. Hence my appreciation for Eitan Hersh's delightfully contrarian--and yet also genuinely encouraging--new book, Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change. Yes, I was turned off by that too-long subtitle too. I picked up and read a copy is because a former student of mine strongly urged me to, and I'm grateful for that too. What I thought would be another overly earnest political how-to book turned out to be packed with surprising, well-supported insights and recommendations, of the sort which anyone who believes in the value of defending one's values in America's broken-but-not-yet-abandoned democratic arena (and that should be all of us) ought to consider.

So what about that fake news? Well, first of all, studies show that lots of people lie about their political engagement: in one study, the number was as high as "50 percent of confirmed nonvoters say[ing on a survey] that they had voted in a recent election" (p. 46). A depressing fact, that. (Also worth noting is that controlled studies show the reverse isn't true: people who actually vote essentially never falsely claim to have not done so.) On the other hand, it seems that lots of people lie about their expressed political hatreds too, so that's a silver lining. While outrageous stories exist, the key point is exactly that word--such stories are magnified and echoed throughout the social media ecosystem for the purposes of performative outrage. According to Hersh's data, outside of a few rare actions and the subsequent overreactions to them by online audiences, the evidence for the high levels of contempt supposedly characterizing American politics is scant, about as deep as the "play hate" of sports fans, who will "report believing false claims" and "whin[ing] about their kids marrying [supporters of] their rivals" to about the same degree that committed Republican or Democratic activists report the same. In short, while some do experience "tension at family reunions," there is good reason to believe that, behind the surveys, most actually don't. In fact, it seems probable that the rancor presented as "poisoning" our political atmosphere actually just mostly consists millions of people who think its fun to "shout from the bleachers that the other side sucks" (pp. 33-34).

It is not a new criticism, of course, to point out that large numbers of Americans treat political debate as a sporting match, or better, as a hobby, with all the episodic intensity and general casualness that implies. The argument which Hersh develops in the book, however, takes the criticism of hobbyism in revealing and important directions. As he has laid out in a couple of recent essays in support of his book's thesis (backed up by a good deal of solid survey and social science research), the shouting-from-the-bleachers metaphor is not a general one. Rather, it mostly describes a population which is mostly more white, more college-educated, more male, more self-identifyingly "liberal," and more white-collar-employed than the American mean. Moreover, it describes actions that become more pronounced when a win is assumed, or when the candidate is personally exciting, or when the issue is "postmaterialist"--that is, more focused on narrow issues that lend themselves to moral identification, rather than broader socio-economic issues. Hence it is that we often--not always, but fairly often--see voter turn-out declining in tightly competitive races (p. 47), greater online enthusiasm for protecting dolphins and funding NPR than for anti-poverty programs (p. 62), more Democratic donors concentrating their money on high-profile fights than on nuts-and-bolts state-level legislative contests (p. 80), and protest actions that are more cathartic than strategic (p. 115).  In short, Hersh concludes (speaking very much to college-educated male white liberals with jobs in an idea industry--in his case, a tenured professorship at Tufts University--like himself):

So there it is. What news do political junkies demand? Outrage and gossip. Why? Because it's alluring. What news do we avoid? Local news. Why? It's boring. What do we think of our partisan opponents? We hate them. Do we really hate them? No, but politics is more fun if we root for a team and spew anger at the other side....When do we vote? When there's a spectacle. When do we click? When politics can be a frivolous distraction. When do we donate? When there's a cocktail party or a viral video. What are we doing? We're taking actions not to empower our political values, but to satisfy our passion for the sport of politics (p. 82).

That paragraph might lead one to believe that Hersh's argument is very much in the localist and Luddite spirit of Neil Postman or Robert Putnam, two scholars who, in very different but related ways, made clear some of the corrupting effects which technology and professionalization have had on civic life. That belief wouldn't be wrong; there are plenty of arguments in this book--as well as plenty of sharp observations--which can be filed alongside every social critique of Facebook (p. 125) or of the enlightened "spiritual but not religious" posture (p. 102) you can imagine. But it wouldn't be entirely fair either. Hersh is no scold; he recognizes that our present-day information ecosystem makes possible a healthy engagement with ideas, and he's unwilling to dismiss the potential validity of "slacktivism" (the idea that social media-enabled token actions actually contribute to voter enthusiasm and civic participation--see pp. 137-141). The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that the many persuasive claims Hersh makes are really best understood as a form of class critique. Let me unpack that interpretation.

I'm not saying that Hersh reduces all his data to a simple Marxist analytic; on the contrary, his book touches upon the historical developments (say, the rise of the primary system for choosing nominees--see pp. 49-50, 177-178), technological developments (the effect of instantaneous communication on making political connections--pp. 143-144), and structural developments (the changes in campaign finance and branding--pp. 131-132) which have contributed to the phenomenon he's describing. (If anything, especially when it comes to the way the primary process has been warped by campaign finance rules, he leaves the reader wanting more.)  But above these important variables there is, again and again, one truth that comes forward: those who are living more or less comfortable lives, lives that have, at least in their basic outlines, the support of America's majority establishment, tend to treat politics as a game--as entertainment. Which means they don't as much worry as much about actually canvassing neighborhoods or actually having conversations with those they disagree with; they're not as concerned about alienating potential voters or dividing their own potential movements--because they don't fundamentally need the power which democratic success can deliver, whereas others do. Just to highlight a few of Hersh's observations:

In gender studies of politics, the average man has been found to know more facts about politics than the average woman...[But in] actual political behaviors, as opposed to just survey responses gauging interest and knowledge, the gender gap often goes in the other direction. For a number of years now, women have been consistently more likely to vote than men. The progressive activist groups that have emerged since 2016 are overwhelmingly populated by and led by women (p. 97).

While non-white Americans, particularly those in the middle and upper classes, can engage in political hobbyism as much as anyone else, research on racial politics suggests some important differences....[W]hen I asked about how people use their time on politics, whites said they spend more time on politics than nonwhites, but that's only because they spend more time consuming news online. Blacks and Latinos dedicated a significantly larger portion of their political time to actual volunteerism than whites reported.... Among respondents who were not college educated...blacks and other minorities were three times more likely to engage in political volunteerism (pp. 185-186).

In communities with real needs, where stakes are high, where fears are palpable, politics and service are not different things....The meshing of politics and service happens in minority communities and immigrant communities...because group members feel mutual obligation to serve those needs. They feel a linked fate....[P]olitical mobilization happens not through the lethargic political parties, which generally no longer see their role as serving those in need, but in local community organizations, which help families facing legal issues, health issues, and work issues. These organizations know that part of the way they help is through political empowerment (p. 193). 

Fleshing out these observations are numerous hopeful and edifying stories that Hersh shares of people genuinely connecting with others, and building local democracy--and thus local power--through doing so. He tells his readers about 98-year-old Naakh Vysoky, who from his handicap-accessible apartment in Brighton, MA, has, over the decades, helped hundreds of Russian and Ukranian immigrants obtain citizenship, find apartments, secure jobs--and not coincidentally, got them to deliver their votes to elect a state representative who made sure the sidewalks from Naakh's apartment complex down to the subway line were shoveled every winter. He talks about Angela Aldous, a nurse, MS survivor, and veteran of the doomed Scott Walker recall effort in Wisconsin, who in her new home of Westmoreland county, PA, has built a service organization which provides transportation to doctors' appointments, finds housing for evictees--and not coincidentally, delivers votes that get congresspeople elected. Perhaps most importantly, he discusses Dave Fleischer, a pioneer of probably the only approach to political canvassing whose effectiveness has actually been subject to scientific tests, whose whole approach to civic engagement is premised on those classic neighborly virtues of  respect, reciprocation, and trust. It is built upon the idea of giving and receiving stories; it requires patience and understanding; it is socially awkward; and it requires, more than anything else, mixing ones political convictions with a sense of pluralism and humility. It's not a nationally scalable method by any means. But as a way of approaching the problem of political power locally? The evidence in support of it is not easily denied.

Early last year, I read a wonderful book by an old friend of mine, Michael Austin, in which he argued, on the level of history and psychology and philosophy, that there can be no future for America's democratic experiment without "civic friendship"; to reduce America's political debates to Alinsky-esque struggles over power is to deny the genuinely moral accomplishments which have attended 230 years of American self-government. As a call to a political ethos, I thought it was brilliant; as a diagnosis which unavoidably confronts ideological and structural realities in American today, though, I found it lacking. Hersh's Politics is for Power, with its detailed consideration of structural obstacles and ideological differences, is a marvelous complement to Austin's book. It tells us--or at least one set of us, a demographic set that really needs to hear it--that the civic work of actual face-to-face, small-scale engagement is the key to power, and friendship too.

With that mixture, one might imagine Hersh is setting out to reject Saul Alinsky and his famous argument for politically strategic confrontation in Rules for Radicals entirely. Instead, he never even mentions the man. Is that because he disagrees with Alinsky's ideas? I don't think so, at least not entirely (actually, I strongly suspect that Hersh would agree with Alinsky's condemnation of "consensus politics"--which he distinguished from the real work of compromise--as an ideal embraced solely by the comfortable or those who make a fetish of "reconciliation," usually both). Instead, I think it's simply because this is a different America, one transformed socially and technologically from that of Alinsky's a half-century ago. In a sense, our real elite "consensus" today is a lot of play argument, heaps of sound and fury which keep people comfortably separated in their pools of upper-middle-class online spite, while real harms are being perpetuated in the livelihoods of those--the poor, the refugees, the religious minorities, and more--who don't have the time or ability to endlessly respond to President Trump's ignorant provocations on Twitter. For those tired of the fake news and play hate, who are convinced by Austin and their own better natures that accomplishing something better is actually still possible within the American system, Hersh provides a new, detailed, 21st-century appropriate set of adaptable "rules" for us all, radicals or otherwise. (Peter Levine, a colleague of Hersh's and a scholar of civic life, gives a great example of locally adapting them here.) I'm grateful for these rules, and I think anyone who can pull themselves away from owning the libs on their phone long enough to read it will be too.