Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Mid-Sized Meditations #12: Regional Cities and the Curse of "Glocality"

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

One of the essential themes in my continuing study of and reflection upon the character and dilemmas of mid-sized cities is their "regional" character, and the temptation which exists for such cities to pretend that they--or to aspire to convince themselves and others that they are about to become--players in the global economy. I don't mean to say that towns and cities which don't make the list of "global cities" have been completely untouched by globalization; on the contrary, especially (but not solely) because of the internet, a dependence upon global supply chains and a cosmopolitan awareness of global economic, political, and humanitarian concerns has shaped the lives of people all across the country, no matter whether their lived environments are rural or urban. But it is, I think, undeniable that the capital and information flows which characterized our globalized environment have created real hierarchies among the metropolitan centers of the world, and the lure of that hierarchy is strong.

No one can pretend to be completely immune to that lure. At a recent commencement address at Ell-Saline High School in the tiny Kansas town of Brookville, Josh Svaty, a farmer and former state representative, made it the centerpiece of his comments. Success, he said, so often is equated with studying business or finance at a prestigious Ivy League university, and then getting corporate job in a major city: New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, or Kansas City. A city the size of Wichita "might do," he added--but only maybe, one must assume. Real success, Svaty commented, is assumed to be found somewhere else, somewhere bigger and faster and richer, someplace that promises us that particular freedom which allows us "to get boxed into little groups that don’t really want to interact"--or aren't even assumed to want to interact--with one another.

And why wouldn't one assume that? Besides all the problems of perception and politics which small and mid-sized cities have to struggle with in our interconnected capitalist and cosmopolitan world, there is the fact that the possibilities of a more steady-state approach to urban life, one which attempts to articulate the means that cities that are not fully absorbed into either 1) the great metropolitan agglomerations of the world or 2) the supply chains with sustain them receive comparatively little attention. I recently read a little book that presented itself as an thorough exploration of "small cities"--Jon Norman's Small Cities USA. It wasn't a bad book, but aside from some of the admittedly interesting data is crunched about relative levels of socio-economic inequality and racial mixing in small and mid-sized cities (particularly those which lack a strong "creative" component--p. 90), it ultimately had no real argument to make about what is particular, in either a positive or negative sense, of the effort to strengthen and find value in regional communities of something other than a truly metropolitan scale. On the contrary, Norman repeatedly made use of exactly such a scale, measuring regional cities as successful or not primarily in terms of their "glocality"--that is, the degree to which "they look like global cities in terms of economic diversity and activities but operate on a much more local level, be it regional or national" (p. 9).

In other words, the same metrics of success which Svaty called out in his commencement address were left essentially unexamined by Norman: rather, he simply stipulates that successful cities are growing cities, growing cities are those which imitate that which characterizes or that which is provided by the global cities at the top of the urban hierarchy, so therefore a study of urban areas which is limited in size needs to center itself upon those cities which have been able to globalize themselves on a local level. Should we contemplate the possibility that the experiences of such regional urban communities might give us a different way of talking about localism and globalism? Nah. Let's just look at everything Colorado Springs, CO, and Salem, OR have done right, and everything Wichita Falls, TX, and Duluth, MN, have done wrong.

This is no surprise to any of us who live in any of the latter category of cities, because it's hard to go a month without hearing of some new city commission or local service organization which is sending a group of people to study how Salt Lake City, UT, or Ann Arbor, MI, have done so well. We are constantly already doing the kind of comparisons which Norman built his book around (which makes it odd that in the end he concludes that "it is likely better to spend energy on dealing with local issues than on attempts to make a small place into something similar to a larger place that is viewed as more successful"--p. 139; perhaps Norman's next book could make that its thesis, because it certainly wasn't the implied message of this book). It's a consequence of living in a place larger than rural or micropolitan areas like Brookville, and reflects tendencies known to statisticians and social scientists the world over: once one enters into or achieves an environment which is suggestive of certain extensive possibilities, such possibilities become expected--and their absence becomes a source of embarrassment or derision. ("How can Wichita possibly be considered a serious city? We don't even have a Spaghetti Factory.") What I call mittelpolitan places are, as Norman corrected notes, not-insignificant population draws within their particular regions; the greater the mass of a place, the greater the likelihood it will become a regional subsidiary anchor for the service-oriented economy of the United States--education, banking, medical care, insurance, real estate, etc.--thus going through in miniature the same declines in manufacturing and relative increases in the "cosmopolitan" trappings of the global cities of the world (pp. 103, 112, 131). But such observations only entrench exactly the patterns of agglomeration which leave small and mid-sized cities ever more unable to compete, whether in terms economic development or retaining population: the kids who grow up in such places will only receive, again and again, the same implied message: the real action, the real opportunities, the real tests of success are to found in bigger places (and if they aren't to be found there, they'll be found in places bigger yet). No, if you're open to the possibility that the towns and cities of America which obviously benefit from--as well as struggle with, as we all do--the consequences of globalization might nonetheless have something to contribute as themselves, and not as places which, because of the historical accident which placed them in Montana or Kansas or Arkansas or Maine, can only ever aspire to imitate the global cities of the world, you need to think in different terms.

James Fallows, one of country's great (if not especially imaginative) journalists and essayists, sometimes seems to want to reach for such terms, but he can't quite find them either, perhaps because the presumptions of bigness are just too deep in his work history and outlook. For the past three years Fallows and his wife Deborah have been flying across the United States, visiting cities, looking into the hundreds of different ways, in his view, "a process of revival and reinvention" in underway. What they've written about is often inspiring; their observations about regional concentrations of talent, blue-collar resistance, city libraries, racial and civic assimilation, local arts movements, and more all give hope to those wanting to extricate our thinking about city life away from the global bias. Yet Fallows can't help (like David Brooks, with whom he shares more than a few similarities) but mourn hasn't yet responded to the transformations of globalization in a holistic, top-down way; he wishes President Bush had used the terrorist attacks of 9/11 the way Eisenhower used the "ten-terrifying 'Sputnik shock' of the late 1950s" to give us a moral equivalent of war moment, and push for "real national improvement." Fallows's "Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed" are entertaining, worth pondering, and probably often correct, but the fact that "big plans" and "research universities" are part of his perspective just goes to show that he, too, assumes that the best regional cities are those which can right-size the bigness associated with success, rather, perhaps, than those which can rethink success entirely.

For Wendell Berry, thinking about locality must escape from bigness, from the lure of globalization, however much it may actually be that even the smallest towns and rural environments are themselves, on some level, globalized. The reason that such an escape is imperative is that thinking big cannot ever not be an exercise in abstract thinking--abstraction in the sense of "simplifications too extreme and oppressive to merit the name of thought." As he put it years ago at greater length:

Global thinking can only be statistical. Its shallowness is exposed by the least intention to do something. Unless one is willing to be destructive on a very large scale, one cannot do something except locally, in a small place. Global thinking can only do to the globe what a space satellite does to it: reduce it, make a bauble of it. Look at one of those photographs of half the earth taken from outer space, and see if you recognize your neighborhood. If you want to see where you are, you will have to get out of your space vehicle, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground....Abstraction is the enemy wherever it is found. The abstractions of sustainability can ruin the world just as surely as the abstractions of industrial economics. Local life may be as much endangered by "saving the planet" as by "conquering the world." Such a project calls for abstract purposes and central powers that cannot know, and so will destroy, the integrity of local nature and local community.

A powerful sentiment--the sort of thing which led Alan Jacobs to observe that "the old slogan 'Think globally, act locally' gets it precisely backwards, I believe: it is only by thinking and acting locally that we can make the right kind of difference globally." But what does that tell us about cities, practically speaking? In our globalized and outsourced economies, most urban areas been transformed by the outsourcing logic of late capitalism, making the service-based work available within them increasing abstract by definition (writing code for programmers to execute in factories elsewhere, designing ads to attract consumers to buy products manufactured elsewhere, etc.) and thus in term leading the cities themselves to think in terms of expanding and maximizing their inherent ability to generate spaces of anonymity and abstraction: to see themselves as places of privatization and cosmopolitan experimentation. There is a huge part of human culture which longs for that particular kind of freedom and opportunity, so perhaps cities that reach a middling size and tip the perceptional scale in the direction of agglomeration ought to simply throw in the towel, and rush after whatever "glocalism" they can find?

It is easy for people to treat agrarian thinkers like Berry as resolutely anti-urban--and that accusation is true, if one assumes that all urbanism must partake of globalism. But Berry has another vision of cities in mind, a more sustainable one: a "city in balance with its countryside: a city, that is, that would live off the net ecological income of its supporting region, paying as it goes all its ecological and human debts." Such a city would have to have a robust local culture, one robust enough to generate sufficient local affection to support a movement away from globally mediated and thus abstracted sources of the requirements of life (food, most obviously, but also other essential resources), a move which could not be made without accepting genuine costs. For people who want to articulate an actual positive value for cities that are stuck between rural life and the global agglomerations of the world, though, those costs--which, of course, couldn't ever emerge comprehensively, all at once, but might instead be embraced democratically, bit by bit--might be worth paying. At the very least, teaching ourselves to think about such costs and benefits--costs and benefits which are, I think, particularly well realized by trying to think about what the situation of mid-sized, regional, not-yet-entirely-globalized cities presents us with today--would spare us from mucking about in some ersatz "glocal" category...which, really, shouldn't even be a word in the first place, should it?

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Happy 75th, Bob



2016, you've done enough damage; keep your hands off Bob Dylan, the unofficial poet laureate of postwar America, for a little while longer, okay?

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Saturday Night Live Music: "Rainbow's Cadillac"

Melissa saw these guys just this past Tuesday. They didn't perform this song (probably my favorite Bruce Hornsby composition), but that didn't matter to me: they gave us two hours of joyous, raucous music, on guitars and piano and accordion and mandolin and violin and dulcimer and vest frottoir (I had to look up what that was called), and all of it was fun. As Bobby McFerrin commented long ago, the first responsibility of a musician is to "play"--and these guys certainly knew how to make serious music without an ounce of distracting seriousness. A tremendous show.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

All Right, so Maybe Terry Gilliam is Actually My Favorite Python. (Or Maybe Not.)

I suppose this is becoming a bit of a series. When I read the first volume of Michael Palin's diaries, I ended up thinking for a while why I liked the man's work so much, and what it meant. When I read John Cleese's autobiography, I did the same. And now comes Gilliamesque, an impressionistic, coffee-table type collection of ruminations, photos, artwork and other errata that more or less gives Terry Gilliam, the most visually adventurous and unpredictable of the Pythons, a chance to tell the story of his life. And it's a story which I happened to find sometimes unsettling, because I could see so much of myself in it, leading me to wonder if I wouldn't have more in common with Gilliam than all of the other members of Monty Python.

Maybe that's silly. (And heaven forbid that any discussion of the Pythons be silly.) Still, Palin's and Cleese's stories made me think about their contribution to Monty Python's comedy, and what that contribution meant for how we understand British comedy, or England in the 1970s, or the postwar world of popular entertainment, or all three. But Gilliam's story instead kept making me think about my own early life. He grew up in a rural environment, surrounded by animals, exploring and fishing and hunting (and eating the food he and his family and neighbors caught or killed or raised and slaughtered). He grew up in a church-going family, with the church as the center of his social life, and read the Bible well enough that he still remembers all the stories. He got into trouble with his parents for partaking of elements of pop culture which they disapproved of. He was an ambitious Boy Scout, but had conflicts with his Scout leaders. He went to a religious university, where his closest friends were snarky but definitely non-radical malcontents. Again and again, while I didn't have many experiences at all similar to his (we were in Washington State, not Minnesota and California; we were pretty stable financially, not poor like his family; we were committed Mormons, not the denominationally easy-going Protestants the Gilliams were; etc.), I kept stumbling across retrospective reflections from Gilliam that read exactly like statements which I could imagine, with only a little fine tuning, coming out of my mouth. What he says about animal husbandry ("I've always wondered how city kids learn these things....I think anyone who eats meat (as I do) should spend a few hours in a [slaughterhouse] at some point in their lives, just to understand the process you're a part of"--pp. 6-7), or scripture ("I do think the generations who've grown up without learning the Bible...have really missed out. Stories like David and Bathsheba are the building blocks of our culture, but who knows Bathsheba now? Who even knows David?"--p. 11), or college ("What I ended up leaving with was something much more valuable: the ability to question some--if not all--of the assumptions I'd grown up with, and to carry on questioning them if I didn't like the look of the answers I was getting"--p. 40) strike me as personal truth. Discovering that one of the Pythons actually appears to have constructed his self-understanding along lines and through experiences that actually resonate so much with me personally was a strange surprise.

Unfortunately, there's little in Gilliamesque which implies much connection between Terry Gilliam's life and worldview and his Python work (which wasn't at all the case with either Palin or Cleese; the men who came through in those diaries and in that autobiography clearly are very much present in the Python writers and performers they otherwise were). Is that because Gilliam, looking back at work that he did more than 45 years ago, doesn't think it was all that significant? It's hard to avoid that conclusion, which I think is a missed opportunity. When he talks about his method as "taking images out of their original contexts" and "I'd find [images of] people in serious situations--soldiers in wartime, politicians on the campaign trail--and liberate them by putting them in a dress or making them do something ridiculous" (p. 126), he's expressing his blunt, farcical, burlesque attitude toward the world around him. Basically, Gilliam comes across as a man who is thoroughly aware that there really are--or at least that many people really believe there are, or at the very least really think there ought to be--great and good things out there in the world and universe (his references to fine architecture throughout the book are near-reverential), and he has no interest in undermining those great and good things...he just wants to poke them in the eye and slip a whoopee cushion under their butts. Understanding this about the man opens up something about his relationship to the rest of the Pythons which he never explores, I think: if everyone else was, on one level or another, either railing against or making their reluctant peace with or passive-aggressively undercutting the internally-collapsing-but-still-operative social world of Ye Olde England, Gilliam, the foreigner, just unapologetically loved it, because it gave him so much that he could happily blow raspberries at.

And he really does love England, or at least the England he fell in love with. From his very first visit to the UK, Gilliam describes himself as experiencing an "enhanced sense of security and well-being" (p. 89), and he finds himself feeling a genuine sadness that the bustling yet cloistered and somewhat rundown life that he got to know when he first arrived--"from the late sixties even into the seventies, London still functioned like an ancient city...things where still being made there, there was a proper mixed economy" (p. 120)--was remade by Thatcher and global capitalism into (in his view) an ersatz copy of the always-closing-the-deal New York City he briefly thought he liked, but actually hated and feared. One might suspect that the steady work he found with Python, and the career doors it opened for him, were more valued by Gilliam because of the crash-course in High Absurd Englishness it offered him, and not for anything actually doing the animation for, or eventually performing in, episodes of Flying Circus actually taught him.

So what is important to him? And what really does connect, artistically and otherwise, with the story of his life? His movies, of course. But unfortunately, from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen on Gilliam sees to have operated outside his own muse, occasionally poking at it with a stick, curiously, at least as much as he's actually inhabited it. (Gilliam essentially admits as much at one point, at the end of his account of making 12 Monkeys: "When I look back at the Brazil me, he was still going strong--unstoppably even, at least in his own mind--whereas that's not so much the case from the nineties onward. Where did that guy go? You could say it was Munchausen's syndrome that did it for him...except that it wasn't the syndrome, it was real"--p. 241). Gilliam's ability to harness his own bric-a-brac-filled sense of ridiculousness to something that generates a real, meaningful cinematic story hasn't disappeared entirely: much of it was on display in 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and there was even a surprise return to some of it in The Zero Theorem--which Gilliam curiously refers to as a "period film" (p. 281), which makes me want to see that not-great-but-better-than-I-thought-it-would-be movie again. Still, everyone--including Gilliam himself--recognizes that 1985's Brazil was the only time he truly pulled all his talents together into a single, powerful package. His long reconstruction of the angers (Margaret Thatcher's seemingly sadomasochistic control over Parliament), regrets (why hadn't he done the missionary thing and gone to Africa to serve humankind?), fears (Ronald Reagan is actually President of the United States?!), pre-occupations (all the beautiful architectural remnants of Britain's industrial and imperial past, being abandoned or turned into luxury flats), loves (his father, while working construction, got a long nail stuck in his eye and he just drove himself home?), and curiosities (so how do pneumatic tubes work anyway?), which led him to construct such a visually splendid, intellectually challenging, satirically hilarious, and ultimately disturbing cinematic story was, for me, the absolute highlight of the book (pp. 199-205). His snarky comments about Robert De Niro are pretty great too.

So Gilliam--not the film director he might have been, but a talented and fascinating man. Probably not my favorite member of Monty Python, the comedy troupe, but quite possibly the one I'd most like to meet. Now, Eric Idle and Terry Jones, hurry up and write your books, so I can complete this series, okay?

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Why I Strongly Support Bike Paths (Which I Basically Never Use)

The past week or two have been good ones for bicycling in Wichita. Thanks to the efforts of many people over many months, several long-developed and much-improved bike paths, trails, lanes, and shared boulevards have officially opened of late: Redbud, Prairie Sunset, Chisholm Creek Park, and here on the west side of the city, Woodchuck. (That's me at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, in the green shorts second from the left; being a member of Wichita's Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Board has its privileges, I guess.)

It's great to see so much of this slow-yet-steady development coming to fruition, and it's even better knowing the multiple other bicycling projects--re-purposing an old railroad bridge to get through the I-235/US-54 interchange, which otherwise blocks almost all north-south bicycle and pedestrian traffic on the west side of the city, is the big one, but there are many others--are slowly moving forward as well. We're not fooling ourselves, of course; Wichita--like so many other Midwestern, Southern, and Great Plains cities--is profoundly automobile-centric, with fewer than .3% of Wichita residents using their bikes in their work commutes regularly. Attempting to find political support and funding and public spaces which can provide actual, practical logistical possibilities for such bicycle-friendly developments in light of those constraints is a humbling prospect. And so we just think in terms of whatever small, patchwork improvements in local practises are realistic (for example, the target goal which the Bike-Ped Advisory Board has made for our encouragement of bike commuting over the coming years is still less than 1%). In the meantime, we do our best. The turnout for these recent ribbon-cuttings has been impressive, and it's great to see large number of colorfully decked-out, serious cyclists heading out on these paths, calling attention to every step the city takes forward.

I should note that I always have a pretty good view of those packs of cyclists as they head down these paths--because I'm basically never on any of them myself.

Why not? Part of the reason--the main part, really--is, again, simply logistical. The bare-bones network of bike trails, lanes, and boulevards that Wichita has been able to slowly knit together over the years doesn't provide me with anything like a direct route to where I usually need to go--whether to work or running errands around the part of the city where we live. But another part of the reason is simply a function of how I understand myself as a cyclist. While I still idly dream of someday getting my physical act together--as so many of my friends have--and actually doing some real riding (a century ride, perhaps, or even Bike Across Kansas), the fact is I own no bicycling gear (save my helmet, which itself is an old one that I've duct-taped together), and have never toured. I'm an urban commuter cyclist, and always have been--which means I always ride on the road.

Is that dangerous? Well, sure, but so is driving. That's a facetious answer, I know, but I don't know any better one to give. Yes, I've had a few close calls with an unthinking or angry or aggressive motorist over the years (more than a few, to tell the truth), and there are plenty of times and situations where I choose to get off the main road and onto a side street or sidewalk. But by and large, I simply expect everyone to recognize that bicycles can legally share the road with cars, and by and large they do. (Though my Idaho stop still regularly pisses some drivers off.) True, by taking to the public streets rather than adjusting my route to take advantage of the bike paths I and so many others have pushed for over the years, I suppose I'm making it one person easier for cynics and cranks to complain that they never see anyone making use of these paths, so how can the city council possibly justify putting a single additional financial drop in the (otherwise resoundingly empty) city's bicycle bucket? But by being out on the streets, I see my presence as contributing to a different kind of impression.

In an important 1990 book, Justice and the Politics of Difference, the political theorist Iris Marion Young discussed urbanism in a chapter titled "City Life and Difference." There is much in that chapter which I would take issue with (among other things, her dismissal of the ideal which some communitarians, localists, and socialists hold to of "decentralized, economically self-sufficient, face-to-face communities" as an attempt to avoid the hard realities of politics is too easy), but overall it's a vital exploration of how much "difference" broadly conceived is essential to the how we understand both the functionings of and the age-old appeals of urban life. That difference has a variety of characteristics, Young argued: it isn't necessarily exclusionary, it involve variable shared spaces, it has an erotic appeal, and it--and this is most important, I think--occurs in public view, thus inviting commentary and exchange. In a paper I heard presented last fall, a few scholars made use of Young's arguments as part of a consideration of whether encouraging bicycling also, on some level, encouraged democracy. I think they were on to something--but allow me to add my own urban bike commuter spin on Young's observations.

If you live in a place which, for any number of mutually re-enforcing reasons, has a culture shaped at least in part by concerns with health, the environmental, and sustainability, then the presence of MAMILs ("Middle-Aged Men In Lycra") all over parks and bikeways, getting their exercise and traveling wherever they need to go, is to be expected. But absent that culture, when you're building whatever sort of bike-friendly resources you can a little at a time, such individuals greatly stand out--and to the extent that they pour themselves into maximizing the use of distinct bike paths and trails, they still stand out, but perhaps also stand out as something distant and separate. But the cyclist who is dressed pretty much just like you, whose bike is right beside your car at the intersection: that's a difference which is not separate, but is readily and immediately present. The "publicity" of such cycling arguably invites a sort of democratic reflection and richness which may not be available in other ways. That's not to say that there isn't good reason to harness the democratic support of a dedicated cycling elite to push forward changes in public spaces that add to the overall ambience of life in the city. (A city without any bike paths whatsoever is far less likely to recognize the benefits which encouraging cycling can bring than one with bike paths whose use is greatly limited--which is  basically true of pretty much every public amenity imaginable.) It's just that, as I make practical decisions about my regular biking routines, I've had more than enough experiences to convince me that, in a small way, getting out on Central or Maple Avenue is shaping Wichita's democratic culture a little as well.

Of course, the most recent experience I had with that shaping--just a couple of weeks ago--was someone shouting curses from their car window at me. But surely, that at least means someone was paying attention to their lived environment rather than their phone, right? As us lost-cause supporters know full well, you have to think about short-term goals and long-term change simultaneous, and in the long run, someone who gets annoyed that he has to deal with some guy on a bicycle cutting him off as we negotiate road construction together is a guy who at least is conscious that bicycling is choice some people make. In a city like Wichita, that's honestly half the battle right there.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Invisible Church, Immanent Community

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

In the liturgical calendar of the Christian tradition, today is Whitsunday, the Day of Pentecost, a day to commemorate a marvelous, mostly invisible miracle. As the story goes, the resurrected Lord had left His disciples 10 days earlier; as Ronan Head put it in a fine post just a week and a half ago, "Jesus was, in some profound way, with God and not, in bodily form at least, any longer on the earth." But the disciples continued to meet has they had been commanded, and on Shavuot, as thousands of Jews from parts both far and near gathered at Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, the miracle occurred. As the King James Version puts it (Acts 2:2-4):

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.

And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.


I've written about Whitsunday before, and why this particular holy day means a good deal to me. It is, in its most fundamental form, a promise: that the Holy Ghost--the ruach Elohim, the Spirit of God, the still small voice, call it what you will--will fill and surround and sustain us all, with such gifts of faith and action as will enable us to both know of God's hand in our lives, and serve as His hands in blessing the lives of others. Not all spiritual gifts are invisible, of course--in the story from Acts, there tongues of fire which descended upon the disciples, and then they went forth and spoke in a dozen different languages to all of those in the city. But most of the time, for most of us, what gifts we may have are unseen. We may hear them, we may feel them, we may know they are there, but they come (and go) invisible to the human eye. (As Jesus was, after His ascension, of course.)

Craig Harline, a professor of European history and a Mormon like me, recently wrote a long, kind of strange, but I think beautiful reflection on Pentecost, placing that marvelous event in the context of a later revelation and development in Christian history: Peter's vision of eating unclean beasts, and Paul's realization that following through on the implications of that vision would mean (as Craig put it in a delightfully stream-of-consciousness way) "sitting down and figuring out how you could tweak your ways a little here and even make a wholesale change there and okay even rethink even certain apparently non-negotiable unmissable ways in order to help accommodate people you’d thought were strangers, because you were sure that your mutual hope and love in Jesus rose above all that, or better yet underlay it, like some big pillow, softening everything." In other words, once blessed by the breath of God, you want everyone to similarly feel that wind, that touch, that grace, that gift, and you may well feel inspired to reconsider some of the most fundamental givens (or things you thought were givens) in your life, just so they, too, however strange or alien or disobedient they may appear to be, might hear that whispering. Such reconsiderations aren't invisible, necessarily, but neither are they usually formal pronouncements; as Craig observes, they "happen mostly in the doing rather than the preaching." To accept such fruits of the Spirit, things which emerge organically, unannounced, usually unseen until already accomplished, is a hard thing. In fact, Jesus let everyone know how hard--yet also how obvious--it would be, long before Pentecost, or His Ascension, or almost anything else in His ministry. While Craig looked forward in the story, I look back to John 3: 1-8, near the beginning of His mortal story.

There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:

The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.

Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.


In the Revised English Bible, those final, key verses read slightly differently: "You ought not to be astonished when I say, 'You must all be born again.' The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born from the Spirit." 

You do not know where it comes from or where it is going. There are many hard and profound teachings from the New Testament that have echoed in my head over the decades, but this is one of the hardest. God's will--His breath, His gifts, His comforting and confirming and sustaining grace--comes and goes as, presumably, He wills it. Nicodemus wanted to understand Jesus's power and authority in terms of tangible, trackable, see-able things; the Lord's talk of being "born again" struck this learned (though, lest we forget, ultimately Jesus-believing!) man as nonsensical--because, after all, no one actually can be born again. Well, no, obviously not: not physically, literally, visibly, anyway. But through the Spirit? In a way that cannot be seen, that cannot be predicted, than can only be felt and heard through the fruits it makes manifest in the lives of those so touched afterwards? That's the basis of the radicalness of the whole Christian message, a radicalness which Pentecost, and Peter's vision, and Paul's vision too, and hundreds of millions of other moments of grace and giftedness and inclusion and reconsideration besides, all underline. The invisible work of the Spirit, made visible, made immanent, through the actions of those who, unseeing and often even unknowing, received and were thus reborn through His breath.

Such radical freedom does not mean "anything goes"--it can't, because Jesus clearly intended to bring His disciples together, and such togetherness is going to require some particularity, some notion of what is true or good: this community, not that one. So the winds which have historically tossed the faithful to and fro are not the same as the Holy Spirit. Being able to tell apart these two very different winds is one reason Paul talks about the need for apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. But note that Paul does not say in Ephesians that these individuals exist to identify the work of the Holy Spirit for the rest of us; rather, they are called so as to enable the members of the community to be equipped to minister to one another--and it is not difficult to suppose that it is in and through such mutual ministering, such edifying and perfecting (such "doing" as Craig put it), where we work out exactly what radical (or mundane, or both) thing God's invisible breath is gifting us to be able to conceive.

To speak of things invisible points in the direction of Protestant mysticism, of course (though not only that; the "mystici corporis Christi" is orthodox Catholicism), and I would assume a majority of believing Mormons would say that part of the whole point of having "apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth" is to keep such mystical ideas away from our religion. Through our peculiar doctrine of the Light of Christ, most Mormons would be, I think, accepting of the idea that God's will probably really is manifest everywhere, doing all sorts of things outside the purview of the visible church. But can the communion of Saints be guided by such invisible operations? I would suspect that the common Mormon answer is "no." But Craig is right to point to the story of Peter's vision, and Paul's operationalization of it, as a model which all of us, in our own ways, in our own lives and families and congregations, are nonetheless always involved in. As he put it in a response to a comment on his post, asking how the "serious accommodating of serious differences" might undermine the togetherness which Jesus called His disciples to: "Does binding have to come through following basically the same practices and rituals and even detailed beliefs? Or does binding happen through something that transcends those, ethereal as it sounds?"

Put me down on the side of mysticism and ethereality, though I'm not sure speaking of such in terms of that which "transcends" is particularly helpful. In the 17th and 18th centuries, there were a large number of Protestant thinkers (beginning in Germany, but soon spreading through all of western Christianity) who thought seriously about what it would mean to make devotion to Jesus--as experienced invisibly through one's own personal associations and actions--the center of one's faith life, as opposed centering it upon a confession of a detailed theological belief, as made visible through the creedal church. Their conclusion, which came through both study and practice, was that such devotion would be anything but a source of separation; rather, it gave rise to intense feelings of Christian solidarity and intimacy. Through these informal, often invisible associations, through the ecclesiolae in ecclesia ("little churches within the church")--or as the philosopher J.G. Herder later put it, through attending to that shared religious language which constitutes one's volk, the peoplehood one has by sharing a history and a place and a way of speaking and hearing and doing, as opposed to sharing some distinct denominational confession--community is realized, strengthened, made visible. A binding community, then, perhaps can be found immanently, through all the invisible associations which the reception of God's gifts enable us to create through sharing and speaking and ministering with and to one another, in the most ordinary and non-transcendent of ways.

Mormons like myself actually already know this, though perhaps we don't fully know that we know it. Once a month in our church meetings, we have what is called "testimony meeting." In it, we invite one another to publicly stand up and speak and share and inspire, as God's unseen breath may happen to move us. There are--of this I have no doubt--more than a few problems with how we go about that testifying. But whatever the failures or complications of the particular rhetorical practices of American Mormons, the plain fact that we do it so regularly, and so devotedly, is, I think, itself an immanentization of God's binding love for us all. We listen, sometimes attentively and sometimes not, but simply by listening we show respect for one another, learn about each other, and gain an appreciation of what God is doing with each of us and, thus also, with all of us altogether. Through this, we learn to love one another, and learn to see how God is planting His love for us all in all our hearts. Remember that, according to the story, before Peter taught Jesus Christ and Him crucified to the people of Jerusalem, they were amazed and marveled and were brought together--Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Cretans, Arabians, and Jews--because they heard. God's breath, His unseen, unbidden, undirected, unknowable, yet nonetheless binding breath, did that.

Now, the pragmatist will ask: did it last, and did it resolve all of the concerns all those different individuals had? The scriptural record makes it clear it did not. And neither could any of us say that that one testimony or sermon which really spoke to us one Sunday remade us entirely. But perhaps that just means God wants us to keep at it, keep ministering, keep reconsidering, keep including, keep sharing. If we keep at it, then who knows just which foreigners and strangers and pilgrims God may be able, through us, to see feel His wind, and be born again? After all, it's not as though His gifts, both visible and invisible, will ever run out.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Saturday Night Live Music: "Never Surrender"

Today was my tenth graduation day as a professor here at Friends University--and it also happened to be a day on which I formally bade farewell to the largest single group of graduating seniors that I've ever taught and advised through all their degrees before. Some were driven, ambitious students, who burned through their four years on fire with goals and a grand purposes; others were students that had been derailed along the way, and struggled back, making use of second chances and pursuing back-up plans, just trying to get done, and finally move on to the next stage of their lives. Like the great majority of teachers, no matter how many times I've seen examples of both these types of students, and every type in between, the day in which they all receive their diplomas is a wonderful, hopeful, gratitude-filled experience. It brings out the whole cheesy--but in a way, fundamentally true!--sense of determination and celebration that is part and parcel growing up and growing older (and, we hope, stronger and better and wiser) in our modern age. So anyway, graduating class of 2016: this is for you.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The Passing of a Senator

bennettSenator Bob Bennett, a three-term Republican senator from Utah, passed away Wednesday evening. I never met him, and never particularly cared for his political views. But my wish to bow my head, offer condolences to his family, and wish his soul godspeed at this time isn't simply a consequence of the vague imperative we all so often feel to speak well of the departed. The plain fact of the matter is that Bob Bennett in so many ways very clearly embodied the classic ideal of a "senator" (the original meaning of which being, quite simply, "wise old man"), and that is a thing worth high praise.

Bennett had already had a long career in business and government when the opportunity came for him to run for an open U.S. Senate seat and return to Washington D.C., where he'd already spent much of his life, in 1992. (Full disclosure: I volunteered for Wayne Owens, his Democratic opponent, during that campaign.) His election to the Senate, at a time when most others would be thinking about retirement, fit him perfectly. With his quietly authoritative demeanor (being 6' 6" and thin didn't hurt), his folksy yet precise speaking voice, his carefully formulated public pronouncements and statements, his political reserve even while in debate and argument, and most of all the immense respect he always expressed for the institution of the Senate--a place that, believe it or not kids, some people used to actually non-ironically describe as the "World's Greatest Deliberative Body"--his election to the Senate (and his re-election in 1998 and 2004) seemed to be exactly what a man like Bob Bennett was destined for. I'm a political junkie, and like most political junkies, it's hard for me not to categorize professional politicians as particular types. Bennett's type was Old-School Senator, in every way: he believed in the institution, and that belief shaped his own career through it. As he himself summarized so well here:



It is, perhaps, depressingly appropriate that Senator Bennett, who lost his seat to a lesser man powered by what I called at the time a "context-free, tantrum-prone, angry confidence in individualism," should pass away on a day when the leadership of his own party accepted a contemptuous, petulant, ignorant blowhard as their presidential candidate. It's a sad day, a feeling that ought to be experienced by everyone who believes self-government ought to be ennobling, rather than degrading. So let us, instead, remember a man who embodied the former, and whose example calls us to do the same.

After this it was noised abroad that Mr. Valiant-for-truth was taken with a summons by the same post as the other, and had this for a token that the summons was true, "That his pitcher was broken at the fountain." When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it. Then said he, I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I have got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who will now be my rewarder. When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which as he went, he said, "Death, where is thy sting?" And as he went down deeper, he said, "Grave, where is thy victory?" So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress, Part II, Ch. XIII



Senator Bob Bennett, 1933-2016, Requiescat in pace.

Three Reasons I Just Gave More Money in Support of Sanders (and So Should You)

So, I'm still contributing to the Sanders campaign. Why? Because I think his win yesterday in Indiana is the breakthrough, that all of sudden the math is going to change and the delegates and the votes are going to pave his way to the Democratic nomination? Of course not. Sanders has said all along--and is still saying--that what he's been attempting is an uphill battle, and even his closest advisers are talking about how his monumental effort is likely to come to an end. But people who look at party politics solely in terms of the electoral results they make possible, and not at what kind of ideological infrastructure they can help build along the way, are missing the point. Yes, in our electoral system, influence comes from winning votes, and so Sanders has rightly talked all along about actually winning the nomination--which means he's talked about actually beating Clinton, and he's going to continue to do so. And that makes Clinton supporters, whose eyes are entirely (only?) on the prize, nervous. Now that Trump is essentially being crowned as the Republican nominee, they say, it's time to unify against him. Well, sure! Every liberal or progressive or socialist, every leftist of any stripe, is going to do whatever is needed to defeat Trump in November, and for most that will include voting for the Democratic ticket (as Sanders has said he will do multiple times). But is the best way to do that to stop supporting Sanders's crusade now? I say no, for a few reasons:

1) Because, as silly or as irresponsible or even dangerous as it surely sounds to many pragmatists, Sanders's talk about "revolution" is both necessary and real. Mobilizing people outside of party structures with the aim of shifting the effective coalitions within those structures: that's a way of conceiving of the operation of democratic governance in the American polity as old as Jefferson and as current as Black Lives Matter (or the Tea Party, for that matter). Is attempting to generate that kind of profound political change, that kind of real evolution in how voters involve themselves in the never-ending struggle with the political and socio-economic structures of American society, most effectively done by running a former hippie senator from Vermont in a presidential nomination race? Almost certainly not. But still, you never know how, when, or from whence revolutions will come; you just back whatever reasonable vehicles exist to make the electoral field open up for them to happen. And then, if and when they stop being workable, you find or create other vehicles, and work on them. For now, for those of us in the trenches, Sanders still is that vehicle.

2) Because the political effect of campaigns is at least as much a result of the messages which their success carry forward, and being confronted with the message that Sanders has found himself embodying--the lower middle-class message about jobs, college, and health care--has benefited the Democratic party. True, his populist argument for greater economic democracy, his ability to present the party establishment with a block of voters who recognize how their livelihoods have been negatively effected by globalization and trade deals that provide little protection against global capital, and by the spread of an outsourcing economy which makes health care and job security much less dependable, would have been even stronger if he'd been able to pull off more wins (Ohio and Pennsylvania, I'm looking at you). But he's likely to win West Virginia and Montana, contest strongly in California, and come into Philadelphia ready to hold Clinton's feet to the fire, particularly in matters of trade. The pressure, both internal and external, on her to flip once again on the Trans-Pacific Partnership or similar deals will be great, since her personal vision of the global marketplace is fundamentally all about financial growth rather than community protection, and especially since Trump is going to make bashing Clinton on trade a centerpiece of his campaign anyway, and she'll naturally want to distance herself from that. But a rare opportunity is present here in 2016, to actually generate real political change in America's commitment to a Davos-and-Wall-Street-friendly style of globalization, to articulate a message about capitalism that hasn't been heard in Washington DC (outside of the offices of a few senators and representatives here and there) since the rise of the DLC--or indeed, if you buy into the larger conceptual possibilities of someone who calls himself a socialist so successfully capturing votes and campaigning for the nomination of a major political party, it's a message that hasn't been heard in decades, and maybe not for a century. By keeping the real electoral challenge of Sanders to Clinton's presumed march to the White House strong for as long as possible, that political message is similarly strengthened.

3) Because, honestly, there's still too many possibilities out there, and let's just leave it at that. Keeping Sanders viable means that, if the Clinton machine blows up (as it has done before), there will another movement, ready and able, to take its place. (And really, all you Sanders nay-sayers, isn't that a realistic way of looking at things?)

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

What I've Learned, and David Brooks (Perhaps) Still Hasn't

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Among all the major right-wing voices of America's mainstream journalistic establishment, David Brooks is perhaps the most difficult to pin down. Ross Douthat is a millennial Christian conservative--smart, pop culture-friendly, lacking in the hang-ups of the Jerry Falwells and Ralph Reeds of decades past, but often lacking in their constancy as well. George F. Will was once a genuinely provocative and insight commentator, but his aristocratic Tory rigor has long since crumbled into Republican party hackery, with only the occasional glimmer of his old wit. But Brooks? The man is often sloppy with his facts, clumsy in the way he injects broad and simplistic sociological or historical reflections into narrow and detailed policy arguments, and condescending in a cloyingly liberal way (which in some ways is worse than Will's noblesse oblige, which at least used to have some real elitist dignity to it). For all that, though, he's a serious man, who can't help but look at the passing scene and connect what he sees to serious concerns--and the connections he makes are usually worth reading.

Brooks has made it absolutely clear that he considers the now-all-but-inevitably election of Donald Trump as the Republican party's presidential candidate to be catastrophic--for the party, but also for the country as a whole. (For the record, Douthat and Will have been contemptuous of Trump as well.) But in a column last Friday, Brooks did something a little unusual for him: he apologized, sort of.

This election--not only the Trump phenomenon but the rise of Bernie Sanders, also--has reminded us how much pain there is in this country. According to a Pew Research poll, 75 percent of Trump voters say that life has gotten worse for people like them over the last half century. This declinism intertwines with other horrible social statistics. The suicide rate has surged to a 30-year high--a sure sign of rampant social isolation. A record number of Americans believe the American dream is out of reach. And for millennials, social trust is at historic lows.

Trump’s success grew out of that pain, but he is not the right response to it. The job for the rest of us is to figure out the right response. That means first it’s necessary to go out into the pain. I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata--in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own. It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable. But this column is going to try to do that over the next months and years. We all have some responsibility to do one activity that leaps across the chasms of segmentation that afflict this country.

We’ll probably need to tell a new national story....I don’t know what the new national story will be, but maybe it will be less individualistic and more redemptive. Maybe it will be a story about communities that heal those who suffer from addiction, broken homes, trauma, prison and loss, a story of those who triumph over the isolation, social instability and dislocation so common today....


We need to rebuild the sense that we’re all in this together. The author R. R. Reno has argued that what we’re really facing these days is a “crisis of solidarity.” Many people, as the writers David and Amber Lapp note, feel pervasively betrayed: by for-profit job-training outfits that left them awash in debt, by spouses and stepparents, by people who collect federal benefits but don’t work. They’ve stopped even expecting loyalty from their employers. The big flashing lights say: NO TRUST. That leads to an everyone-out-for-himself mentality and Trump’s politics of suspicion. We’ll need a communitarianism.

It is admittedly a little rich to see a man who made his name exploring (many would say exacerbating) ambient class and cultural divisions in American society, and connecting those divisions with a story of the American polity which ultimately--in a shoulder-shrugging sort of way--embraced the idea that people (middle-class and better ones, that is) could and should find a degree of virtue and happiness by just making their own bourgeois worlds for themselves, talking now, in the face of the possible total collapse of his preferred political party, of a "new national story." But I should give him some credit. Brooks has spent the past few years thinking and writing about character and society. His civic-republican and communitarian side has always been clear, but too often his invocations of community seemed somewhat boutique and nostalgic, something that liberal individualists needed to remember and be inspired by and perhaps sometimes feel vaguely guilty about abandoning, but never as a way to explore or critique liberal individualism or American-style late-capitalism itself. To see him write here about ripping himself out of his professional demographic is hopeful, to say the least.

But perhaps not much more than that: hopeful. Because towards the end he writes:

[A]t the community level we need to listen to those already helping. James Fallows had a story in The Atlantic recently noting that while we’re dysfunctional at the national level you see local renaissances dotted across the country. Fallows went around asking, “Who makes this town go?” and found local patriots creating radical schools, arts festivals, public-private partnerships that give, say, high school dropouts computer skills. That solidarity can be rekindled nationally. Over the course of American history, national projects like the railroad legislation, the W.P.A. and the NASA project have bound this diverse nation. Of course, such projects can happen again — maybe through a national service program, or something else.

Fallows years-long investigation into America's cities (which is much more complete than the short summary article Brooks's references) does indeed make the case--a case I completely agree with, by the way--that the best kinds of innovation, conservation, and conversation are taking locally, not nationally. But even for Fallows, the lesson of his observations don't challenge his commitment to the centralizing myth of American life, that everything outside of the overarching collective consciousness of America's destiny or way of life must be preparatory or supplementary, not constitutive. So perhaps it's not surprising that Brooks, in recognizing that he needs to get out into the diverse local communities of our country and consider the reasons behind political responses which he doesn't understand, still ends with an expected nationalization of the resources he hopes to discover.

I used to be right there with him--or, rather, I used to be where he was, attempting to wrap my thinking about civil society and community and culture around nationality. I don't dismiss entirely those arguments I used to get into, more than a decade ago; I still reject the bottom-line libertarian identification of the state, even when it arguably serves as democratic expression of a national body, as a majoritarian, coercive instrument, and never an empowering one. There really is a sense, I think, in which anyone who takes the political (not to mention the Christian) value of egalitarianism seriously, as I do, needs to engage in at least a little abstraction, and be able to broadly see people as citizens, not just neighbors and not-neighbors. But Brooks was all of that idea at one time: conceiving as citizens (and the taxes they pay, and the service they do) as being ever enlisted into various nationally, culturally, and morally-shaping projects. There is evidence that he's learned to connect--or at least to respect those who connect--his conception of community to something more local (he's even at times sounded almost like a Porcher!). But as the above column shows, Brooks hangs on to his ideas pretty tightly.

What killed off that idea for me? Well, as I just admitted, it hasn't died entirely--but I am far, far less willing today to write about the imperative of community, tradition, conservation, and sustainability, in terms which presume that it is the American state, or the nation as a whole, that serves as the proper venue by which said imperatives must be realized. Reading James C. Scott (and others) on anarchism, particularly in connection to what the "anarchist squint" can tell us about city life, has been a huge part of my change in thinking here. Reading (and sometimes being chastened by) some smart libertarian thinkers has influenced me also. And so has been my own reconsideration of communitarianism, and my internalization of the fact that the best, most lasting ideas which came out of that philosophical and ideological movement tended to point towards actual lived communities, not culturally or ideologically "imagined" ideal ones. (Maybe Brooks needs to go back and re-read his Tocqueville in light of the last 20 years.)

But most of all has simply been involving myself in the struggles of my own city of Wichita. By really getting involved in politics and activism and reform movements in a particular place--which, I suppose, might be included in Brooks's wish to break out of his usual professional demographic--one's eyes can't help but be opened, I think, to the reality of the teaching, serving, innovating, organizing, building, and preserving which happens amongst people who actually share physical space, who actually interact together over food or projects or plans, who adapt to actually changing circumstances, and not solely to arguments on the internet. That's the sort of energy which America's communities are harnessing. To leap from there, as Brooks clumsily does, to solving America's political and structural breakdown on the highest levels (and what can be higher than the race for the presidency?) is to misunderstand the shared enthusiasm and felt needs and experienced familiarity which generated the energy in the first place.

No, I think Brooks needs to learn that the answer to America's multiple dysfunctions will almost certainly have to involve many diverse answers, answers which operate locally in response to larger conditions that, however wonderful it might be to address them holistically, almost certainly cannot be in our present condition, because the structures of discourse, information, and consensus, both politically and technologically, have changed--they're faster, more expensive, more divided, and less friendly to compromise than they were only a generation ago. (Brooks is right about the decline of civic trust.) Should those structures be challenged, set back to what they used to be, at least as much as possible? In many ways, I would agree there is nothing more important. But such broad efforts--overturning Citizens United, rebuilding the grass-roots infrastructure of political parties, prying the distancing meritocracy away from our schools, revivifying participatory democracy, generating smaller supply chains for most goods, getting people off their damn iPhones and into town meetings--may well depend upon local efforts at connection and experimentation, on creating locally enriching cultures through our churches and neighborhood associations and places of work, ones which are not simply reflections of (and thus often magnifications of) media-conveyed or generated agendas which can undermine collective efforts by situating us all demographically before they can even get underway. In a place-bound community, the possibility exists for genuinely shared interests which transcend abstract groupings of individuals of a certain class or ethnicity or race, and allow, instead, for actually effectual ones. That, far more than some new national service program, is likely to do the kind of healing Brooks is wishing for.

Of course, for those who don't see American individualism as at all a problem, but rather something to be celebrated and magnified, any talk of community, whether national or local or anywhere between, always implies a fascistic moralism or coercive planning or both, and so for them even the humbled, localized version of Brooks's argument I'm talking about is just a cover for tyranny. They're wrong, I think, but that doesn't mean we don't incorporate them into the conversation. After all, they live in our places (or we live in their places) too.