Friday, July 17, 2020

Glimmers of a Different Wichita

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

Two weeks ago, the Wichita City Council, by a 4-3 vote--a result which surprised more than a few Wichitans--implemented a mask requirement in the city of Wichita, in the wake of the Sedgwick County Commission's refusal to fully support the mask mandate which Governor Kelly had called for all the state of Kansas to embrace. (To be fair, the commission later decided to support a similar order from Dr. Garold Minns, the county's health officer.) Then earlier this week the Wichita Historical Preservation Board, by a 5-2 vote--a result which, once again, surprised more than a few Wichitans--nominated Century II for state and national historic status, thus supporting the effort to get the iconic building listed by the Kansas State Historic Preservation Office and the National Register of Historic Places. If that happens, it would likely present very serious obstacles to any plan--such as that proposed by the Populous outfit hired by the Riverfront Legacy folks--which involved the destruction of Century II, which is why multiple interested groups sent representatives to the Preservation Board to make their case (in vain, as it turned out).

I found myself wondering yesterday: is there anything these two votes have in common?

The obvious first response--and, in all likelihood, mostly the correct one--would be: "no." Why would there be? One was a vote taken by elected representatives to the city council, the other by appointed members to an advisory board. One was a vote that had immediate, material consequences about life in our city, the other has only the force of a recommendation (though a significant one, all the same). One was a vote that reflected angry divides which have played out across the often-frustrating distribution of state, county, and city authority when it comes to matters of public health; the other reflected not so much ideological or political differences as generational ones, informed by an argument that has been studied and debated at length here in Wichita for years. In short, these were votes taken by different bodies, for different reasons, addressing categorically different types of issues. What possible overlap could their be?

For that matter, it's not hard to imagine a set of relatively clear demographic and, consequentially, partisan differences in the groupings of people who might be deeply invested in the results of either of these votes in fairly predictable ways. Don't we all know that it's all those very-online liberals and Democrats who support wearing masks as a way to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and the anti-government Republicans who don't? And aren't those Democrats all younger and more urban and more racially diverse than those older, more suburban and rural, and more white Republicans? And so isn't it reasonable to assume that all the opposition to the plans to tear down a beloved but certainly-no-longer-cutting-edge building, and instead invest in some wholesale redevelopment of our downtown, would be coming from those grumpy Republicans who also don't wear masks?

I'm using a lot of stereotypes and assumptions in the above paragraph; the number of real-world exceptions to them in both cases would likely be pretty significant. Still, for all the limits in that particular act of imagination, I'm confident that almost every Wichitan who is even remotely politically informed would recognize the basic contours of what I'm talking about. The city council voting for masks? A progressive win! The Historical Preservation Board voting to protect Century II? A victory for tradition! Clearly, these votes are completely separate from each other.

Except, that is, for that fact that they do both partake of a particular perspective. It's hard to name just what that perspective is, but you can see it if you look at these votes, and those invested in them, closely. There are Wichitans out there--maybe not large in number, but not hidden either--who were both strong proponents of the mask mandate, and strong proponents of the decision made by the Historical Preservation Board. It's worth thinking about that small, curious overlap.

Consider, for example, that both of these close decisions faced, directly or indirectly, a certain type of business opposition. Some of the largest and best-funded business development organizations in Wichita lined up to protest the designation of Century II as historically significant, tying the future economic health of the city to a new and expanded convention center, a new and redesigned riverfront, with all sorts of new construction (some already finished, some projected far into the future) in the place of Century II connecting it together. And while a few of the large business interests which contribute to those groups had also spoken out in support of the mask mandate, the broader conversation about masks (both nationally and locally, as was demonstrated as recently as the Sedgwick County Commission's meeting two weeks ago) tended to focus on the sacrosanct right of business owners to open up, send their employees back to work, and allowing them to make whatever decisions they thought best for themselves and their customers. So in this sense, both the mask vote and the Century II vote reflect a prioritization of health and civic interests over those of business profit. So...a populist or civic republican sensibility, perhaps?

Or consider, as another example, that both of these unexpected votes were rooted in local, Wichita-based (small-d) democratic action. In the case of the city's mask mandate, the pressure on Mayor Whipple, who called for the emergency vote, arose directly from the realization that county-level decision-makers were acting on the basis of interests and information that did not reflect what was happening in the cities of Kansas, in the urban hospitals and government offices which provide essential services to the population of the whole state. Suzanne Perez and The Wichita Eagle, to their great credit, kept local data in front of its readers, and gave regular voice to the local doctors and medical authorities who could speak forcefully as to what was happening throughout the city.

In the case of the Century II vote, the grass-roots efforts of Save Century II, led by Celeste Racette, have been tremendously effective, collecting thousands of signatures from Wichitans with a great variety of concerns (economic, fiscal, political, cultural, as well as historical) about the proposed layout for Wichita's downtown, and pulling them together into a movement which has been flexible enough in its arguments--expressing no opposition to the widely accepted need for new performing arts venue somewhere in the downtown, and insisting on no specific limitations about what might be someday accomplished under Century II's dome--as to attract far more supporters than the critics first supposed. So in that sense, both the mask vote and the Century II vote reflect a somewhat radical, bottom-up challenge to larger government bodies and economic expectations. So...a localist, municipalist movement, one might say?

You can't read too much into these speculations, obviously. The very distinct contexts of these votes, and the very distinct political processes they emerged as part of, to say nothing of the brute demographic distinctions characterizing the likely supporters of either side in both efforts, make it all but impossible to hypothesize some kind unity between them. But maybe not entirely impossible. Student of political ideas that I am, I can't help but be intrigued in the glimmer the last two weeks, and these two votes, have provided me of a different Wichita, a more community-oriented and less conventionally business-oriented one. I have no reason to believe that those glimmers will turn into anything more broadly, much less politically, actionable anytime soon--but for someone of my preferences (both pro-mask and pro-Century II, if you haven't guessed), they were nice to see.

Star Trek, The Animated Series: The Final Binge

Season 4, Sort Of
Yes, I had to be a completist when it came to binging Star Trek, The Original series, so I went through all twenty-two episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series as well (though I went through this one rather quickly on my own, while I had access to the series). My memories from the early 1970s isn't great, but it's possible that it was actually this show, and not reruns of TOS, that were my first true exposure to the World of Trek. I've given them the same grading scale as I did the rest of TOS, occasionally making allowances for the fact that, after all, we're dealing with horribly animated 25-minute cartoons. Still, mostly I take them seriously, and I think I'm justified in that; there is often genuinely good writing in these episodes, including some stuff that has become central to the canon.

Beyond the Farthest Star: A-
Wild, weird sci-fi with an evil, unknown alien (with the message from the other long-dead aliens it killed!); within the limits of the cartoon--and yes, the limits are atrocious--this is exactly the sort of far-out story that should always kick off a Star Trek series. And it leaves us with an ambiguous message, with the alien suffering from loneliness. Was that purposeful?

Yesteryear: A
Another winner--important to the Star Trek canon, and the death of the sehlat is sad in a way that was perfectly appropriate to a Saturday morning cartoon. And I am officially declaring Spock saving himself as where Rowling got the idea for the climax of Prisoner of Azkaban.

One of Our Planets is Missing: B+
Another excellent sci-fi adventure, nicely plotted, with great action with McCoy and Scotty and some real pathos and sacrifice. But the Vulcan mental trick in the end is pretty sappy.

The Lorelei Signal: B
Utterly dumb plot--they had a basic idea, then came up with the most direct way to accomplish it--but Scotty's singing is hilarious, and isn't it great to see Uhura take command?

More Tribbles, More Troubles: B-
A weak story filled with repetitive plot points (what, Sherman's planet still needs food?), as well as actually childish jokes, but it's still fun.

The Survivor: B-
A story that's been done many times (including in The Man Trap), and Anne Nored is stupidly helpless, but the basic outline of this sort of tale is strong, and this version of it works, with some sophisticated interplay with the Romulans.

The Infinite Vulcan: C
A choppy, somewhat rushed sci-fi story, with a pat ending. And what's with that "scrutable" comment to Sulu at the end? The snarky work of Walter Koenig, no doubt.

The Magicks of Megas-Tu: C+
Okay, that was really weird. They're at the center of the galaxy? The Enterprise certainly gets around. Lucifer? Holy cow, it's Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods! Still, it's fun to see Kirk use magic.

Once Upon a Planet: C-
In a story like this, the crappy animation and art design of the program really hurts; it would have been fun if this very basic story had had some real artistic craziness to it.

Mudd's Passion: C
I dislike this the least of all of Mudd's appearances, but the cheap sexism--and in this case the abuse of Nurse Chapel--is hard to take, despite the silliness. Points for some glimmers of Kirk/Spock slash and scenes with McCoy on the make.

The Terratin Incident: A-
Glorious, wacky sci-fi, with everyone acting in smart, problem-solving ways. Dopey ending, though.

The Time Trap: C+
Weirdly undramatic episode. Why does Kirk keep agreeing that Elysia is a "perfect society"--is there any society even there except wrecked ships stranded in space? They work together, they get out, the Klingons betray them, etc.

The Ambergris Element: C
Cool, space shuttles can go underwater! But the story was dull. Reminded me of Wink of an Eye--aliens can't help themselves, so need to bring help to the conditions they are stuck in.

The Slaver Weapon: A
Really great, because of the world-building involved, the sense of history it gives to the Star Trek universe, and all the cool stuff Sulu, Uhura, and Spock got to do. The story is pulpy--touch the ancient spooky weapon and be doomed!--but the image of that weapon is one of the oldest things I remember. I suspect I was drawing pictures of it when I was only 4 or 5-years-old.

The Eye of the Beholder: B
Cute episode, mostly because the aliens are adorable; much better than most of the other "meet the advanced race so far beyond the Enterprise crew that they don't know what to do with them" stories.

The Jihad: C+
Hey look, it's a Dungeons & Dragons quest! With a thief, a ranger, and a warrior! But unfortunately, a mostly kind of boring and predictable one. Nice to see someone hitting on Kirk when he wasn't interested for a change.

The Pirates of Orion: C
The stock shot of Kirk calling for McCoy in sickbay while McCoy was standing right beside him was annoying. Oh well. The motivations of the pirates made little sense. Why wouldn't they make a deal?

Bem: A-
Solid, straight-up, far-out sci-fi. Bem's alien-ness is obviously cartoonish, but well done, and if you're going to have a story about super-powered aliens watching over primitive races, this is the way to do it.

The Practical Joker: B-
Perfectly adequate joke episode, with a nice preview of the Holodeck. How did Kirk figure out how to get rid of the computer virus? Ah, who knows.

Albatross: C
Nice to have McCoy at the center of a story, but it was kind of a by-the-numbers trial story. Fun trick with the original hunt for evidence, though.

How Sharper Thank a Serpent's Tooth: B
Man, there's a lot of the Chariot's of the Gods in these animated episodes. But this version of dealing with an ancient god from outer space was better than TOS's Who Mourns for Adonis.

The Counter-Clock Incident: C+
Another indication that the teleportation device could make someone immortal. Oh well, as a morality tale wrapped up in sci-fi strangeness, it's fine.

And that's the end of 2020's journey through The Original Series (including the "lost" Animated fourth season) everyone. It was fun--some good reminders of the profound weaknesses of so much of the original story-telling and visual production when this franchise began, but more importantly, reminders of the great charm and power that science-fiction television can provide (even for, if my family's viewing reactions proved anything, TikTok-reading 14-year-old girls today).

Converting all my grades to GPA scores, they come out as follows: Season 2: 2.75; Season 4 (TAS): 2.68; Season 1: 2.55; Season 3: 2.03. I don't think I expected those results, but in looking back over it all, it's clear that it took TOS a while to find it's groove, with Season 1 weighed down with several very middling episodes at the beginning. That was the season that gave us the greatest episode of them all, "City on the Edge of Forever," but the number of classics in Season 2 ("Doomsday Machine," "Amok Time," "Bread and Circuses") justifiably puts it up there. And Season 4 was a real delight to rediscover. Still, overall the level of quality was never great: Star Trek was, in its original iteration (both live-action and animated), really never better than B-/C+ television. But perhaps that can be said for all episodic television programming made in America between 1966 and 1974, especially from our perspective today? Whatever the facts of the matter, Star Trek: The Original Series connected with me and millions upon millions of others, and still does today, apparently. That's all that needs to be said.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Star Trek, The Orginal Series, Season 3: The Third Binge

Season 3
And, after Seasons 1 and 2, on to the third season we go! This one deserves its reputation, unfortunately--not that it was atrocious, but rather just characterized by 1) stories whose central conceits were weak or, too often, just plain offensive and stupid, or 2) stories with real dramatic or science-fiction potential that weren't realized, because of the budget cuts the show was dealing with, or because people just weren't able to or didn't care enough to give those scripts another run-through. I see only one real gem in this season, plus a handful of defensible episodes, and then a lot of dross. Oh well. As always, no summaries here; just a grade and a few sentences explanation

Spock's Brain: D-
Famously considered the worst episode of the whole Original Series, I'm not going to defend it. A dumb plot, with some casually atrocious sexism built into it without even the perverse value of being articulated as such. Add to that wooden acting, and an insultingly stupid ending. Blech.

The Enterprise Incident: B
Not a great episode, but a solid one. Spock playing the seducor doesn't work terribly well, and the Enterprise's escape from Romulan vessels was way too easy, but there's a lot of nice details in this espionage story.

The Paradise Syndrome: D
The bone-headed racism built into the story is carried off with such cringy earnestness that you want to give it a pass, but you can't. Meanwhile, the story is just so dumb. Why is bad weather a harbinger of giant meteorites? And when did Spock's mind-meld suddenly become an all-purpose magic power, complete with spooky theme music?

And the Children Shall Lead: C-
It's Children of the Corn in space! Or else it could have been. Hackneyed dialogue, wooden performances (though not from the kids!), and some stupid plot points undermine what is basically a supernatural horror story.

Is There No Truth in Beauty: C
Well acted, but the typical sexism of the Original Series is manifest in some particularly personal and cruel ways here, telling a story about resentment and love and ugliness that could have been fascinating, but hurts itself with its own abrasiveness. And man, the budget cuts really showed.

Spectre of the Gun: A
One of my favorites from the whole series. An example of making a silk purse from a sow's ear: the cheap sets and hammy dialogue are effectively stylized through the actors' performances and the lighting and music, turning a tired plot about proving to a powerful alien race that humans aren't all about violence into a weirdly effective story of pacifism and the power of belief.

Day of the Dove: B-
This one just needed a re-write; it's a better execution of the usual "super-powerful alien manipulates the crew into a fighting" trope,  with some nice story touches (Chekov's possession is good, and Kang is pretty great), but with the usual Season 3 ham-fisted dialogue weighs it down.

For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky: C
Classic television science-fiction ideas (intergenerational space travelers who don't know they're on a spaceship! matriarchal leadership with weirdly primitive technology! out of control computer!) mixed with what should have been a poignant love story; better than Paradise Syndrome, but it needed two hours to do its job.

The Tholian Web: B-
The episode had the making of a solid hard sci-fi/technobabble bit of Trek; the conflict between Spock and McCoy is unbelievable, given all that we've seen earlier, and the final escape from the Tholians is almost an afterthought, but there's some good stuff in here.

Plato's Stepchildren: C-
In many ways a deeply embarrassing episode, revealing once again of weak writing (Platonians? Why not Medusians again?). But there's potential for real, creepy, Purple Man-style horror here, though they probably had no intention of going in that direction, even if they could have.

Wink of an Eye: C-
A half of an episode at best. Super-fast aliens you can't see! They need to mate with others so they don't die out! They speed up Kirk, Spock figures it out, they get Kirk free, and then...the end. If they'd made it more light-hearted, maybe a sex comedy, that would have been something.

The Empath: D
This was a slog. You can imagine, especially early on, the story-boarders going for some classic, almost radio-style, melodramatic sci-fi, but there's just not enough story there, and the ending is terrible.

Elaan of Troyius: B-
You wonder if this is a version of Taming of the Shrew where Elaan is playing Kirk but then has an actual change of heart, which would make this series of sexist tropes pretty decent viewing. But you can't tell. Anyway, the battle with the Klingons is kind of clever, Elaan's costumes are fabulous, and the acting is mostly above par.

Whom Gods Destroy: C
A silly inmates-take-over-the-asylum episode, with some outrageous hamminess, but also some nicely understated world-building moments, which are unfortunately sometimes jarring, in that they're not part of anything that we've ever seen before.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield: C
An incredibly clunky and blunt allegory, frustratingly so, because the potential to turn this story into a grand tragedy was there. The rescue mission was a distraction, and the abilites of Bele (but not Lokai?) make no sense. Still, some solid, heavy stuff in here (an enslaved--and recently "freed"--population fighting on planets far away? might one of those planets be named "Vietnam"? hmm....).

The Mark of Gideon: C-
A ridiculously contrived episode. A potentially interesting idea, complete with a surprisingly moralistic, even religious, defense of their stupid strategy by Hodin (with Kirk as a potential, secular foil), but surrounded with dull, pointless scenes that do nothing to develop it.

That Which Survives: B
Spock's dialogue is annoyingly self-parodying throughout the episode, but other than that, this is a genuine hard sci-fi episode, with both mystery and drama. The power of the Kaladan machine is ridiculously immense, but in some ways that's okay (there are plenty of super-powered beings in this galaxy, apparently). And did Scotty survive basically what killed Spock in Star Trek II?

The Lights of Zetar: C-
Not aggressively bad, but a poorly executed, poorly acted episode, with a weirdly powerful alien presence which is easily defeated by a pressure chamber (why didn't it attack everyone and then go back inside Romaine? It's not like they couldn't hear what the crew was planning...).

Requiem for Methuselah: D+
An episode set up to be a big, meaningful tragedy (two lonely men...), but poorly acted and stupidly--even insultingly (has everyone just forgotten about the pandemic on the Enterprise?)--put together.

The Way to Eden: C+
I purposefully make myself enjoy this episode more than it deserves or I really feel, because I want to salute its acknowledgment of "the primitive" and its complaints about technology. And the music actually isn't bad. But too much of the plot is just boiled over stuff they've done before (how easy is it to take over the Enterprise, anyway?).

The Cloud Minders: C+
Very poorly paced, and the zenite gas element of the story partly undermines probably the only socio-economically critical story in the whole of TOS. But I give them credit for at least directly addressing matters of class.

The Savage Curtain: C-
Lots of nice details (the Enterprise crew's interactions with Lincoln, the portrayal of Surak, an abrupt ending that could be understood as weirdly ambiguous) can't save an uninteresting and unoriginal plot (they just did this in Spectre of the Gun weeks earlier!).

All Our Yesterdays: B-
A solid episode that starts with a massive lump of stupid (why didn't they just tell Atoz they were visiting aliens with a getaway starship in orbit?), and tries to set up a terrible tragedy with Zarabeth, but doesn't do the work necessary for it. Great and fun acting from Nimoy and Kelley, though.

Turnabout Intruder: D+
A masively offensive premise that is surprising well-acted (Shatner's hamminess is used to great effect), and even pretty well plotted, with so many fascinating missed opportunities along the way (why not a male-male romance between "Kirk" and Coleman?). A sad end to the season.

On to Season 4!

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Our Own Vines and Our Own Fig Trees: a Post-Independence Day, Post-Hamilton-Watching Sermon

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Like plenty of other Americans (and, given likely demographics, probably in particular like plenty of readers of this blog), my family and I watched the musical Hamilton over the July 4th weekend. Our second-oldest daughter, who was home to join us yesterday, had actually seen the show in 2016 on Broadway; for the rest of us, as familiar as we were with the music, watching the show was a new experience--and it was a lovely one, a wonderfully funny and dramatic, visually and aurally compelling, and historically challenging (in more ways than one), piece of filmed theater. It was three hours very well spent.

Most of all for me, I enjoyed spending time in the virtual company of Chris Jackson's stylized portrayal of George Washington. All the musical's theatrical depictions are hyper-stylized, of course (it's fundamentally a work of fan fiction, after all), but there was, in my view, an astonishingly deep and consistent core to what Lin-Manuel Miranda put into the figure of Washington, brought to beautiful life by Jackson's presence and baritone voice. That core connects with something mythic, something, frankly, scriptural. Appropriately so, since Washington's central song in the musical, "One Last Time," in which Washington instructs by example the unfortunately mostly unteachable Alexander Hamilton the decency and wisdom of knowing when to walk away from power and the contests over power it always involves, is the only line in the whole libretto which quotes the Bible--Micah 4:3-4, specifically. It reads (from the NRSV):

He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.

This is a messianic passage, and generally speaking, folks in contemporary democratic (or at least democracy-aspiring) states don't like associating politics, and especially not specific political figures, with messiahs. And yet we do, constantly, all the time. After watching the music, my only comment on social media was to quote the devastatingly dark and funny (and, I think, fundamentally true) line given to the hilariously arch King George III, in the song "I Know Him," immediately following Jackson's rendition of the above song, when he learns that Washington was retiring from the presidency and John Adams had been elected to take his place: "Oceans rise / Empires fall / Next to Washington, they all look small." In response to which, a commenter linked to this command performance of the song:



Many of the mostly self-identifying liberal readers of this blog will likely find themselves touched by this moment, especially in light of the Trump years which have followed it. Yet at the same time, many of those same readers--to say nothing of those few of my fellow leftists out there--are likely to find themselves, as I see it anyway, in a bit of a contradiction. Isn't this kind of sympathetic idealization, which is really a kind of idolization, basically kind of wrong? Don't we want to avoid getting all romantic about those who stand before us in leadership positions? Aren't we obliged to respond to any kind of hero-worship, however wistfully expressed, with thorough-going critique, if not outright rejection? Shouldn't we be, as one of my By Common Consent co-bloggers recently suggested, iconoclasts, tearing down images which presume to situate some felt ideal in the body of some invariably flawed (and, unfortunately often in our history of public statuary, affirmatively racist and criminal) person?

If you don't see or feel this contradiction, more power to you; it may only manifest itself to people like myself who flirt with dangerous philosophical ideas. And I'm not being ironically self-deprecating when I call them "dangerous"--there is a lot of history which proves the danger of reading passages like Micah's above and believing, as I do, that's it's not just poetically describing a hopeful vision of peaceful rest, but is also communicating the holiness, the sacramentality, of being in a place of peaceableness and rest. Start thinking that way, and soon you're thinking: "where can I find such a place?" Or, "how can I make such a place?" And then, eventually, worryingly, "who can make such a place for me?" Could have President Obama? Despite his self-association with the old activist phrase "we are the ones we've been waiting for," he hardly governed in a manner which rigorously avoided any attempt to embody certain ideas for and on behalf of the American people. Nor has President Trump, for that matter. I mean, he did promise to "Make American Great Again," right?

The perversity of linking the actions of President Trump--who has basically never made any serious effort to pretend that his administration reflects or represents or embodies any kind of general civic ideal--with this idealization simply shows up the problem, I think. The very fact that so many will criticize Trump for being unpresidential underscores that most of us think, most of us want, presidents of the United States to be presidential, even if our critical sensibilities tell us otherwise. (The same goes, though obviously to much different and often much lesser degrees, for pretty much all leaders of all communities, I suspect.) Some part of us wants them to embody something! And while many might articulate it differently, I suspect that that wished-for embodiment might best be described as a identification with a longed-for place, or way of being in a place--in the case of the president of the United States, an "Americanism," if you will. A sense that, in other words, this person is making for us, showing us, the way it is supposed to be here. Here, under our own vines, under our own fig trees: it should be like this. Which means, I think, that while the substantive content is radically dissimilar, the phenomenology of putting on a MAGA hat may not be all that different from watching Hamilton and mourning that moment of classiness back in 2016. Especially when we think about it in connection with, and through a stylized and powerfully sung representation of, Washington at the moment of his Farewell Address, with such a thoroughly problematic yet aspirational phrase as "I want to warn against partisan fighting"! (It shouldn't have surprised me to learn from my daughter that there was a gospel remix of this song with Obama speaking lines from the address.)

I write all this not to critique this, but to sermonize on behalf of it. I like, and more importantly actually believe in, this part of politics (which means, this part of living in society with other people, no matter what the organization of that society may be). I like and believe in this admittedly dangerous sentiment; it has always--at least for as long as I can remember thinking about any of these matters--appealed to and made intuitive sense to me. I think it is not only a very human thing, but also, at least always potentially, a very good thing. I was up early this morning with a headache; it was still dark out, and the lines of "One Last Time," and particularly Jackson's gorgeous and plaintive singing of them, kept ringing through my head. And I found myself reflecting upon all the ways in which I've felt myself spiritually pulled towards feeling some real truth in, and thus wanting to defend, this conceptualization of our life as embodied, historical, dialogic, relational beings over the decades. Traditions, holidays, civil religion, public expressions of faith, presidential rituals, civic associations--they've all been part of this decades-old argument I've been having with myself (and others) over what it means to intentionally (and thus more often than not romantically) make, and then consequently to be in and belong to, a place. These vines, these fig trees, and being able to find in them, or having them revealed to us or invoked for us as, a peaceable place that is our own. My thinking about those places have changed over the years. I was much more willing to think nationally about places in the past, whereas now I think much more about local places, and the peace of the home and the neighborhood they can bring. That's a holy thing, I believe.

It is also, unfortunately, always potentially an exclusionary thing as well. Our vines--go away, they're not yours, they don't belong to you! That's a dangerous sentiment, or at least as a Christian and a man of the left I can't help but feel that way. The holiest--and thus, if you'd prefer I use the secular terms I consider to be equivalent, the most empowering and equalizing and democratic--approach to this messianic passage of scripture, the truth within it that calls to us, I think, no matter what the scale of the communities we live within or the character of the leadership which exists within them, is this one:



When Miranda put into Washington's mouth the lyric expressing a retiring president's wish to be "at home in this nation we’ve made," think, I would suggest, not of nation-states, but of the original meaning of "nation": natio, or as we might say today, a "peoplehood." It is both reasonable and even moral, I think, to long for, to look for the embodiment and instantiation of (and, yes, to memorialize through song and statuary, with the understanding that statues can come down and, just as Hamilton did, songs can be resung), one's people and place, one's vine and fig tree, one's home. But that longing has to co-exist with the imperative to enable all of God's children to have their people and place, their vine and fig tree, their home. Maybe their and our homes will turn out to be--will constructed to be, will be sung by someone like Christopher Jackson so as to be revealed to be--one and the same. As the hippies used to say, maybe all us critters have a place in God's choir--or in the Hamilton ensemble, for that matter. I won't presume to think that I could take Washington's place under his vine and fig tree. But maybe he can make space for me, and vice versa, all the same.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Left (not Liberal) Conservatism (or Communitarianism, if you Prefer): A Restatement

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Recently, Tablet Magazine published a lengthy essay by Eric Kaufmann, heralding the revival of "left-conservative" thinking, which the author defined as "a conservative view on cultural questions like national identity and immigration with left-wing positions on economic issues like public services." Leaving aside for the moment whether this "intellectual force" is, in fact, emerging (and how we would know it if it was), the genealogy and analysis of this constellations of opinions provided by Kaufmann is interesting. Most politically informed Americans would, I suspect, look at the above definition and think "oh yes, that's what those legendary 'conservative Democrats' are said to believe; I'm sure there must be a couple of them still around here somewhere." But Kaufmann is trying to distringuish something rather different than that, I think, something similar to what long-time observers of American conservatism might remember from the "Red Tory" boomlet of a decade ago. I don't believe he's successful in making his claim, because--to give away the end of the essay--I think his conception of liberal nationhood gets in the way of his explanation of what left conservatism is or could be in the first place. Still, it provides some intellectual history worth surveying, at the least.

Kaufmann builds his argument primarily around the intellectual journey of two important mid-century Jewish thinkers, Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer, both of whom came of age--like many other intellectuals in their cohort--during an era and in an environment of leftist radicalism, and went on to be influential academics whose Cold War, anti-communist sensibilities were deeply disturbed (though, I think, in importantly different ways) by the unrest of the 1960s. Kaufmann quotes Glazer as saying: "When I came to Berkeley in 1963, I still thought of myself as a man of the left, and for the first few months of the free speech issue, I was on the side of the free speech people....The key issue that labelled me a conservative, labelled a number of us as conservative, were the student unrest issues post-1964." What changed? Years of student challenges to, in Glazer's view, "free speech, free research and free teaching." As Kaufmann sums it up, the problem for Glazer, and many of his fellow former radicals, was that their preferred "social democratic approach was married to political liberalism," and that meant "standing up for bourgeois liberal democracy." Which is, of course, an obvious course for philosophical liberals to take! But if the ideas Kaufmann traces in this article are rooted in liberalism, in what sense is the "conservatism" they might invoke actually "left."

Ideological terminology and labeling never has been and never will be consistent, so it's a fool's errand to ever claim to definitive identify that one set of beliefs are, or only ever could be, "liberal" as opposed to "left" (to say nothing of "conservative"). Still, attempts to do so are instructive, because if nothing else they can provide landmarks for intellectual wanderers. Most "left" intellectual landmarks that have been articulated ever since the French Revolution--which is when this particular phrasing first arose--have involved have involved one of form or another of liberation from cultural, economic, and social forms and traditions which impose hierarchies and distinctions. In other words, the one thing that can probably almost always be said with confidence about the "left" is that it is egalitarian. Aren't liberals egalitarians too? Obviously much contemporary liberalism, as opposed to classical liberalism, has certainly turned its long-standing valorization of the God-created individual as a rights-bearing being in the direction of thorough-going egalitarianism. But the fact that libertarian thinkers, making use of the same philosophical convictions about natural rights and individual dignity as liberals, can coherently advance decidedly non-egalitarian claims, suggests that leftist egalitarianism must have different roots.

Norman Mailer's self-description as a "left conservative" can be instructive here. When Mailer called himself a left conservative in his strange and magnificent The Armies of the Night, he said that he aimed to "think in the style of Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke." one possible way of articulating this vision (which Mailer himself admitted was an oxymoron which he had to redefine every day) is to say that modernity is different from what came before it (whether you want to date that to French Revolution or the Declaration of Independence or any other landmark). The traditions and communities which Burke defended simply cannot exercise the authority they once did in a world in which individual subjectivity has conditioned our very understanding of the self. Technology, social fluidity, democracy: all genies let out of the bottle. Which all, of course, rings as conservative in the fullest sense. As I once argued in an attempt to make sense of left conservatism more than 15 years ago, conservatives value tradition and community in part because they are the only things that cannot (at least cannot easily) be turned into abstractions which in turn can be taxed away from you or turned against you; to the extent that the modern world sees profits, procreation, wars, borders, religions, holidays, families, markets, marriages, and more as institutions and events best understood, conducted, and transformed in light of some abstract principle--whether that be individual rights or personal conscience or democratic harmony or economic progress--then one could argue that the modern world has gone wrong, gotten away from the instinctual truths and embedded necessities of human existence.

There are possible reactionary responses to this, whether a jihad-like revolt against modernity or a St. Benedict-like retreat from it. But neither of those were Mailer's response. As the above-linked essay explains, Mailer "hoped to subvert most traditions that governed American life," no doubt in part because so many of those traditions were products of "corporate power and its influence on American culture." So his response, instead, was to imagine a Marxist response, carried out on behalf of Burkean communities and traditions. Marxism was and is, obviously, deeply implicated in grand theories of historical determinism and revolution, which Mailer himself condemned ("I become uneasy when I find people drawing up solutions, which is, of course, the great vice of the left, to solve difficult problems, because I think they cut out too many of the nuances"). But you can still make use of Marx's central--and, yes, illiberal--insights regarding alienation, commodification, imperialism, and so forth, without all the historical materialist baggage. Why attempt to do so? Because (and I've suggested before) Marx recognized the anthropological truth of the Burkean (though for him it was really more Hegelian, and therefore Rousseauian) insight into the human connection between personal subjectivity and communal, historical, material reality. Repairing the human consciousness does not mean an eternal project of subjective liberation, world without end, which can never do more, I think, than aim to make the burdens of modernity privately manageable (with that emphasis on the private perhaps explaining the tendency many liberal thinkers have for assuming that the liberation of identities will go hand-in-hand with socio-economic equality). Instead, the true leftist must address the issues of power and production which make the transformations of modernity into alienating, divisive, and dependency-inducing burdens in the first place--and that means taking seriously the communal and traditional spaces where those transformations take place.

(An aside: did I just put Rousseau and Burke into the same sentence? Yes. But the only reason that sounds strange, I think, is that the deep Burkean tradition has evolved into a position which basically accepts the collapse of the modern project: with the end of the authority of tradition comes the impossibility of community, a banal emotivist future, and the likely decline (or violent overthrow) of the West. In short, to borrow a point from Michael Walzer, such Burkeans are the sort of communitarians who think that we are at the point, or nearly at the point, where our communal nature is irredeemably broken up. The problem with this argument, however, is that--given that the human race, even in the decadent liberal West is, well, still here--it implies that community and tradition must not have been part of our "deep structure" after all. Whereas the Rousseauian perspective says, fine, okay, our original nature has been lost, we're in chains. The liberal response is to deny the chains, or insist they aren't relevant to individual life anyway; the conservative response, especially in its more religious iterations, is to say something like, yes, the chains are real, it's a catastrophe, but in a sense the chains have been there since the fall of Adam, so let's just make the best of it until the eschaton. Rousseau's response preserves true conservative seriousness, but rejects the identification of specific social and economic and cultural problems with original sin. Instead, it respects the need for embeddedness and connection by suggesting that we remake our chains. Why can we do that? Because within and through modernity the deep structure abides; we're just having difficulties actualizing it, because we've been so intent in fighting internecine battles within liberalism that we've ignored all the other ways in which we could be responding to the world.)

Kaufmann never mentions Mailer in his piece, which is unfortunate, because the way Mailer expressed his attachment to what he considered a proper conservative sensibility--one which, among other things, made him very sensitive to the need to fight centralizing abstractions and systems, and insist upon the value of realizing equality in terms of empowerment--would have been a helpful correction to Kaufmann's own articulation of the "left conservatism." Kaufmann's historical arguments about the capture of the "adversary culture" by America's corporate class over the past half-century, and how the alignment of those increasingly-elite (and therefore no longer entirely "adversary") conceptions with technological and educational shifts in America's economy over the past 30 years, thus contributing to a deepening of class divides along urban and rural lines--all of those are, I think, both true and worthy of serious thought. But Kaufmann's notion of that which the left conservatives he is imagining want to conserve is rarely actually a matter of local communities or traditions. Rather, the focus is on national stability, particularly ethnic national stability. That high levels of immigration can be a serious challenge for local norms is a truism that no serious person should deny. But to build a model of the conservative sensibility around the nation state, connecting Robert Putnam's important work on social capital to "collective tradition, memory, and nationhood," and posing the proper conservative goal as "a nation-state with a common culture," is to, frankly, ignore the best that conservatism has to offer: a respect for (though not, of course, an unthinking obeisance to) local spaces, and the communal and traditional patterns which emerge there.

Kaufmann concludes with the prediction (or hope?) that soon governing power in Western democracies will be held by--or at least will be regularly and seriously contested for by--"national conservatives endors[ing] left-wing policies such as protectionism, infrastructure spending, and support for welfare programs like Social Security, alongside conservative ideas such as immigration restriction and nationalism." But we know what that is, and it isn't necessarily leftism; rather, it is the redistributive liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society, of America's manufacturing unions in their heyday, of finance capitalism given freedom to expand alongside the American state, so long as appropriate levels of taxation keep schools and programs all fully funded. From an egalitarian perspective, there's much to applaud there! That's part of the reason why, from the 1930s to the 1970s, so many radical democratic and socialist thinkers, with intellectual roots extending back to the populist challenges of the early 20th century, found at least some degree of unifying comfort with the Democratic party. But once American capitalism went fully global, the bankruptcy of that egalitarian bargain was, slowly but surely, revealed, and those on the left (including those with whatever degree of conservative sympathies) found themselves having to either embrace or disentangle themselves from the neoliberalism that eventually become dominant. Kaufmann captures some of this, but the orientation of his argument around the likes of Bell and Glazer, two comfortably ensconced academics, members of an ethnically marginalized but nonetheless (at least within university circles) fully vouchsafed members of the American intellectual elite, perhaps inevitably makes him begin with and return to a leftist (but actually liberal) construction that can only conserve a nationalist conception which the aforementioned New Deal world created as a byproduct. Besides Mailer, he would have done better to seriously consider the historian Christopher Lasch.

Lasch--who, to my knowledge, never used the phrase "left conservative," though the political theorist Ronald Beiner used "left-wing conservatism" to describe Lasch's thought--does make a brief appearance in Kaufmann's argument, serving as part of, in his term, the "Protestant Populist-Progressive" complement to the "anti-communist socialism" which, in the thinking of New York intellectuals like Bell and Glazer, he sees the roots of left conservatism. Unfortunately, his use of Lasch's ideas--which shouldn't be at all unfamiliar to students of American conservative thought, though unfortunately still often is--doesn't serve the man's overall philosophy well. He writes that Lasch "castigated America’s elites for their post-national detachment from popular national identity," but that assumes the Lasch made any kind of argument for a genuine "popular national identity" in the first place, which many readers of the man (myself included) would firmly dispute. It's not that Lasch denied that modern individual subjects can and often do build an identity through, and develop cultural attachments in connection with, a community as large as a nation state; he knew that he had himself (as he wrote in 1954, he recognized that he was "a part of America, whatever that means, except that the one thing it means is that wherever I go I cannot not be a part of it"). But the populism which Lasch called for--a populism that was, itself, distinctly left-conservative, at least if we hold to the idea that one can put together both an insistence upon the equal empowerment, in social and economic terms, of all communities, and an equal respect for the local norms and traditions which democratic majorities within those communities wish to live in accordance with--was never nationalist, never statist, and certainly never ethnic. It was, if anything, both cognizant of (even, in a way that many conservatives never are, respectful of) the moral opportunities which which modern subjectivity and the liberation of the individual self had made possible, while insistent upon the need to never valorize such liberal possibilities as foundational. Eric Miller thoughtfully captured Lasch's mature thought this way:

Populism, [Lasch] wrote, "stands for things most American still believe in and are willing to defend," however submerged those beliefs might be beneath the glitter and gigantism of the market and the state....Against those who had argued that "populism" was merely an ideological haven for racially intolerant, ignorant provincials, Lasch began to recover and define a kind of populist cosmopolitanism....

[T]his required that he first deconstruct the self-image of those who fancied themselves the true cosmopolitans....Whereas democracy's health required a rooted loyalty to particular places, the new elites [of America] were "international rather than regional"....Such upper-class cosmopolitanism was of course the true provincialism, a species more dangerous than the variety the despised lower-middle class might possess. 

Against this faux cosmopolitanism Lasch proposed a vision of citizenship rooted in loyalty to place and kin yet also informed, enriched, and instructed, in a dialectical manner, by the fruits of high culture. "Those who welcome cultural fragmentation in the name of pluralism," [Lasch] wrote...."have lost the sense of 'twoness,' as W.E.B. Du Bois called it, that formerly shaped writers attempting to navigate between the subcultures in which they had been raised and the world culture they had acquired through education"....The liberationist project of the elites, premised on the need to free "the imprisoned self," [Lasch] noted...yield[ed] simply a "detached, formless, free-floating self--a self without prejudices, without a point of view of its own that is put at risk by others....Without a home culture, as it used to be called--a background of firmly held standards and beliefs--people will encounter the 'other' merely as consumers of impressions and sensations, as cultural shoppers in pursuit of the latest novelties. It is important for people to measure their own values against others and to run the risk of changing their minds; but exposure the others will do them very little good if they have no minds to risk." [Miller, Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch (Eerdmans, 2010), pp. 371-373]

While it might seem to take away from the policy focus of Kaufmann's original argument, Lasch's taking of his populist synthesis of a conservative or communitarian concern for place, tradition, and culture, on the one hand, and the leftist concern for equality and empowerment, on the other, in the direction of the arts is, I think, a much truer way of expressing the potential of this ideological construct than by simply endorsing strong welfare provisions and strong immigration restrictions at the same time. The latter is simply a grab-bag of policy positions that can be construed as representing the interests of some particular demographic quadrant of society, however historically important such a constellation of priorities may have appeared to Cold War American intellectuals at the time. The former, by contrast, can, when pushed, be revealed to incorporate a deep engagement with political and social theory, far more than loose talk about the consequences of the rise of immigration and the decline of unions. As a host of critcs, philosophers, and scholars argued in a symposium on left conservatism over 20 years ago, long before anyone at Front Porch Republic rediscovered the term, left conservatism is a way of articularting, while still recognizing the full, degrading and dependency-creating effects of the racial, sexual, and class hierarchies of our late capitalist moment, some sometimes discomforting and no easily reputed arguments (none of which the participants in the above symposium were particularly sympathetic to, even as they recognized the challenge they posed). First, that materiality matters, which presents real limits up, or at least complications within, any project which equates equality and empowerment with the liberation of the subject. And second that attacking foundations, whatever the (often quite real and necessary) strategic value of doing so, can never on its own create a politics that truly matters to social life.

There is arguably a parallel to all this, if only Kaufmann could have seen it, in the fate of the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. In a recent column titled "The Second Defeat of Bernie Sanders," Ross Douthat made the argument that the wave of protests which have arisen in the five weeks since George Floyd's murder, whatever their justice, represent a departure from the democratic socialist vision of Sanders, and its replacement by a leftism that fits right into the ideological movement that Bell, as Kaufmann presents it, sketched out over 40 years ago. Left agitators, according to this prediction, inevitably lose their interest in democratizing the economy so as to empower and equalize conditions for the working class, and focus instead on non-economic hierarchies whose destruction will be more acceptable to cosmopolitan educated members of the capitalist class. The result is a liberalism which consumes the leftist emphasis upon, as Sanders constantly repeated, the deprivations of the billionaire class, thus losing any connection to the poor for the sake of maintaining influence over the educated. As Douthat claimed:

Throughout his career, Sanders has stood for the proposition that left-wing politics lost its way after the 1970s by letting what should be its central purpose--the class struggle, the rectification of economic inequality, the war against the “millionaires and billionaires”--be obscured by cultural battles and displaced by a pro-business, pro-Wall Street economic program....

Now, under these strange coronavirus conditions, we’re watching a different sort of insurgency challenge liberalism, one founded on an intersectional vision of left-wing politics that never came naturally to Sanders. Rather than Medicare for All and taxing plutocrats, the rallying cry is racial justice and defunding the police. Instead of finding its nemeses in corporate suites, the intersectional revolution finds them on antique pedestals and atop the cultural establishment....

[T]his revolution has been more unifying than Sanders’s version--uniting the Democratic establishment that once closed ranks against him, earning support from just about every major corporate and cultural institution, sending anti-racism titles skyrocketing up the best-seller list, even bringing Mitt Romney into the streets as a marcher and inducing Donald Trump to make grudging noises about police reform....All this, from one perspective, vindicates critics who said Sanders’s vision of revolution was too class-bound and race-blind all along....

[But the] anti-racist reckoning unfolding in colleges, media organizations, corporations and public statuary, may seem more unifying than the Sanders revolution precisely because it isn’t as threatening to power. The fact that corporations are “outdistancing” even politicians...in paying fealty to anti-racism is perhaps the tell. It’s not that corporate America is suddenly deeply committed to racial equality; even for woke capital, the capitalism comes first. Rather, it’s that anti-racism as a cultural curriculum, a rhetoric of re-education, is relatively easy to fold into the mechanisms of managerialism, under the tutelage of the human resources department. The idea that you need to retrain your employees so that they can work together without microaggressing isn’t Marxism, cultural or otherwise; it’s just a novel form of Fordism, with white-fragility gurus in place of efficiency experts....

Yes, serious critics of structural racism have an agenda for economic as well as cultural reform. But that agenda isn’t what’s being advanced: Chuck Schumer will take a knee in kente cloth, but he isn’t likely to pass a major reparations bill, and the white liberals buying up the works of Ibram X. Kendi probably aren’t going to abandon private schools or bus their kids to minority neighborhoods. And in five years, it’s more likely that 2020’s legacy will be a cadre of permanently empowered commissars getting people fired for unwise Twitter likes rather than any dramatic interracial wealth redistribution.

I am a cynical conservative, so you can dismiss this as the usual reactionary allergy to the fresh air of revolution. But it’s also what an old-guard leftism, of the sort that Bernie Sanders attempted to revive, would predict of a revolutionary movement that has so much of the establishment on board.


Douthat is honest enough to acknowledge a major hole in his argument: specifically, that "the demand for police reform at the heart of the current protests doesn’t fit this caricature." Which is surely how Sanders would defend himself from this accusation, if he felt inclined to articulate his vision of society in these terms: it is the poor (which includes a proportionally greater number of historically deprived and discriminated against persons) that have suffered so often from police forces which cannot help but be organized more around the interests and priorities of the wealthy; hence, a democratic socialist vision, or really any left vision for that matter, would have to include a challenge to the most visibly coercive of all our racial and class hierarchies.

Yet even with the column's central weakness, Douthat has a point, a point that any properly reflective leftist would have recognize. If the focus of leftism is not simply liberal redistribution, welfare payments, and the recognition of private subjectivities, but rather the public democratization of the social and economic order as a whole, then any movement that is so readily interwoven into the therapeutic managerialism of the corporate and knowledge class, such that Lasch so effectively identified and condemned, has to give believers in real economic democracy pause. And that would include left conservatives. Not so much--as one making use of Kaufmann's articulation of the term might think--because this kind of intersectionality challenges deeply felt ethnic, racial, or sexual hierarchies and thereby troubles our national community. That isn't, I think, a left conservative concern that is worthy of the name. Rather, a Laschian left conservative would recognize that any kind of reform movement, much less a revolutionary one, which allows itself to get centered around emotional or psychological abstractions, as opposed to the material realities of actual social and economic inequalities, whether in education or publishing or policing or anything else, is likely to captured by the forces of capital, and channeled into disputes that, whatever their legitimate need for resolution, will once again fail to connect with the communities where people live, the material lives they live there, and the traditions they build through those lives.

It is those actually existing habits of life which make life worth living. A democratization that does nothing to address the chains and dependencies which restrict and warp the full organic development of those lives, and the attachments they are constructed out of, is only at best a liberal equalization, delivering goods to individuals without much acknowledgement of the communal and local structures they are part of. To the extent that the goods are desperately needed, even a liberal distribution of them is very much worth it, and if the mix progressive economics and conservative politics that Kaufmann sees flowing from the insights of men like Glazer and Bell can effectively, democratically, deliver them, then more power to them. But such deliveries will do little, theoretically anyway, about the place-destroying global unfolding of capitalism; perhaps some small resistance will be made to it, but the neoliberal argument for managed expansion will remain dominant nonetheless. A philosophically consistent left conservatism, such that could be built out of the writings of Marx and Lasch, and perhaps the irascibleness of folks like Mailer and Sanders too, would, I suspect, better serve the human need for both community and equality all around.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Coronavirus in Kansas: The First 100 Days

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

This past Saturday was more than just the summer solstice, the longest day of the year and the official start of summer (astronomically speaking, if not calendrically). It also marked the 100th day since the coronavirus pandemic formally began in Kansas, with Governor Kelly having issued her state of emergency order, in response to the first covid-19 death in the state, on March 12th. Wichita and Sedgwick County began to follow suit the same day, and just as USD 259 students were beginning their spring break, our long Covd Spring started.

Now, our Covid Spring has become a Covid Summer. What’s different, what’s the same, and what, if anything, has been learned? I have some thoughts about how the panic, uncertainty, and defensiveness which the pandemic brought out in too many of us unfortunately undermined the priority which our elected leaders ought to have given to the need for responsible deliberation during this season on increasing distrust. Maybe that couldn’t have been avoided, especially given that this is an election year. Still, have we done any better locally, as a city or a collection of neighborhoods?

It's easy to think: no, we haven't. Social media is rampant with fights, accusations, and counter-accusations over who is or isn't wearing a mask, or following social distancing guidelines, or spreading conspiratorial nonsense rather than taking seriously the best recommendations out there. The Sedgwick County Commission has waded into these fights, largely dividing itself along party lines, getting called out by Governor Kelly, Mayor Brandon Whipple,  and local observers for their lack of seriousness, and often treating their long-suffering health official, Dr. Garold Minns, as a bit of a punching bag. While various restricts are still formally being "advised," they aren't really in place in any substantive sense any longer--not unless residents themselves put them there.

Which some do! There are many businesses across the city that do a very good job making it clear to their employees--by both policy and example--that health precautions must be followed. There are some that even take the harder (but probably even more necessary step) of keeping their places of business, where people gather, as contagion-free as possible, requiring shoppers and buyers to wear a mask if they intend to come inside. (Watermark Books & Cafe, the city's premier general independent bookstore and a long-time neighborhood gather spot in East Wichita, is exemplary in this regard.) Most, unfortunately, aren't going that far. Thus does the information about where precautionary practices are widely embraced, thus creating new local norms, and where they aren't, get passed through word of mouth and Facebook and Twitter. (Super-concerned about staying virus free while needing to do some shopping for home and yard repairs? Stick with Menard's and Lowe's; watch out for Home Depot and Ace Hardware. Or conversely, filling oppressed by the mask and the judgment who feel it entails, all while needing to support your local farmers market? The downtown market, rather than the Kansas Grown market at the Sedgwick County Extension Center, is probably the better bet.)

But the way we've collectively and probably insufficiently responded to health warnings and contagion restrictions is really only one small part of our covid-19 story, and maybe not even the most revealing. As so many of us have struggled, some with greater success than others, to deal with social, financial, and familial changes as businesses and schools and churches were closed or shifted online, what can we see?

I don't know, obviously: I'm just one person. But for whatever it's worth, I can say the following (and I know, from conversations with others, that I'm not the only one who can say it):

--While walking our dog morning and night, as my family has done for years, we have consistently run into more individuals and groups--sometimes families with children, sometimes couples, sometimes solo walkers--taking their animals out than I can ever remember seeing before, in all the six springs and summers we've had our pet.

--While biking to work and around the city, as I have ever since we moved here in 2006, I've seen more cyclists, in more parts of the city (bumping into people I know from across Wichita on bike paths out west where I live no longer surprises me), biking together or singly, than I can ever remember before.

--As a longtime gardener, I've always kept an eye and ear out for other local gardeners, looking and listening for what I can learn from them. This year, I've seen and learned out more new gardens going in, and more local people seeking (and offering!) information about those gardens, than I have in any previous growing season.

--And beyond all of that, I've lost count of the number of informal gatherings, of chairs set up on driveways and in cul-de-sacs, that I've seen become regular and predictable around our neighborhood, with people hanging out and talking and drinking from cans kept in a cooler, during the warm (and now usually hot) evenings of May and June, every weekend or sometimes even every night.

There are easy, even cynical, explanations for much for much of this, of course. The bars were closed, so of course people would go knock back beers on their suburban sidewalks! The pandemic began with shortages in the stores, shortages that many fear (with good reason) will return, so of course everyone who had ever told themselves that they ought to plant a garden finally was impelled to do so! And of course everyone, stuck at home and with the YMCAs closed, was desperate to get outside, to get into shape, etc. We're just responding to our environment, that's all--meaning that, as Wichita returns to a normal summer, or finds a new kind of summer normal, that all the changes I and others have observed, whatever their reality (as opposed to their merely anecdotal nature) will slip away. And of course, maybe I'm just fooling myself in thinking that what I'm seeing is at all representative of Wichita in the first place.

Maybe all that is the case. But I hope--and I would expect many others similarly hope--that the reverse is true. Maybe this spring really may have taught us some things; maybe it really did introduce, however subtly, some real concerns about sustainability and simplicity into the lives of many. Maybe what we've seen, when we turn away from the too-often frustrating slowness and suspicion and paranoia of too many of those with the responsibility of making decisions for us all in city hall and the state legislature, can be held on to as a hopeful sign. Yes, the months to come, as the economic costs of the coronavirus in Kansas grind us down ever further, are not going to be easy. But maybe this summer will also be a time when we can double-down on our personal and neighborhood accomplishments, and let those hopes lead us through the next 100 days, and beyond. It's a possibility, anyway.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Wichita and the Road Ahead

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

In the midst of violent protests, police violence, and a pandemic, I'm thinking about a road.

It's not much of a road; just a short stretch of University St., directly west of Friends University, where I've taught since 2006. Over those 14 years, I have biked back and forth on that 1/10th of a mile stretch, which dead-ends 50 ft. short of Meridian Ave., probably over 7000 times. It's the final leg of my normal commute route; I bike from my home in west Wichita eastbound on Maple St., cutting south to University at West St. As this segment of University doesn't intersect Meridian, I just ride on the railroad crossing to pop back onto University when the road dead-ends, at which point it's a straight shot to campus. My westbound return follows the same route, which I've ridden so often I can navigate this part of University with my eyes closed. Except I can't right now, because the road is all torn up. (And yes, I have still biked regularly into the campus over the past two months, letting myself into my office while the whole campus stood almost entirely empty; the camera on my office computer is a lot better for recording lectures and conducting online classes than mine at home.)

Of course, the construction isn't any kind of real problem; I can just bike around the bulldozers and dump trucks, and besides the rear entrance to the parking lot for Friends's Garvey Art Center is right there if I can't get through the construction. There are a couple of single-family homes along the street, so it was presumably greater hassle for them--but since everything else which borders both sides of the road belongs to my university, it's mostly folks like me who use it. And while I have no right to or responsibility for the road in any kind of formal sense, I nonetheless found myself somewhat curious about it all. Maybe a little bothered, even.

Why bothered? Well, partly because in the midst of the present pandemic, every penny counts. The job losses which followed in the wake of the life-preserving shutdowns that COVID-19 made necessary have resulted in record unemployment claims, and that means both major declines in tax revenue and major strains on the budgets of the cities of Kansas. Wichita is looking at an $11 million dollar deficit in the coming fiscal year, and as Chase Billingham of Wichita State has noted, while a little of the CARES millions which the federal government has designated as aid for state and local governments has been made available to some targeted programs in the city (like transit), Wichita's general fund itself hasn't received a dime. That may change, and the economy may bounce back more quickly than most economists are predicting. Still, with the advice offered by Charles Marohn's Strong Towns very much on my mind, especially when it comes to what cities like Wichita can do to strengthen the neighborhoods which are crucial to getting us through this time of transition, I kept looking at that construction as I biked past it and wondered: did this road really need to be repaired? Was this the best use of the city's money at this time? Who asked for or decided upon this repair job, and how much does it cost, anyway?

So I started shooting out e-mails. It quickly became clear that this was a construction job that came from the city, not from any stakeholders along the road. (Both the university president and our director of maintenance first found out about the construction when they received a notification from Kansas Paving, a company contracted by the city, that work on the street was about to start.) With some help from Paul Gunzelman, the Assistant City Engineer for the city of Wichita, I was eventually put in contact with Aaron Henning, a maintenance engineer with the city's Public Works & Utilities department. They were able to supply me with city documents and answer all my questions--well, all except the one I consider to be most important, but that one isn't actually an engineering question: it's a political one.

I have nothing but compliments for Paul and Aaron; for every annoying query I put to them about the meaning of acronyms like "OP3" ("Outsourced Pavement Preservation Program"--it's been years, apparently, since the bulk of the routine maintenance of Wichita's more than 5100 miles of road has been handled by the city's own workers) or "PCI" ("Pavement Condition Index," a numerical rating determined in part by staff members who, over the course of 18 months, physically visit every single segment of the aforementioned 5100 miles of road), they had a thorough answer. Insofar as this little stretch of University beside Friends which I know so well goes, the story goes like this:

The PW&U Department has developed a computerized method of ranking various inputs regarding roads (called "DST," for Decision Support Tool), including not just the observed condition of the street, but its primary material (concrete or asphalt?), and whether repairs on the road would fall under the label "preservation" (acting to prevent further deterioration) or "mitigation" (acting to limit the extent of already progressing deterioration). It turns out that this little concrete stretch of University had a PCI of 35, the second lowest ranked concrete street segment in the whole city. And so when 2019's budget was set (in which the OP3 was given $9.5 million, $3 million from the city's General Fund, $6.5 million out of the mostly debt-financed Capital Improvement Plan, with a little over $1 million specifically earmarked for repairing concrete roads), it got prioritized within the funds allocated to District 4, in which Friends University and this street is found. Hence, come late spring of 2020 (and no, I didn't bother asking about the delay; I know how things can pile up), a contract was drawn up for about 55% of the segment's total paved area to be patched and replaced, at a cost of about $45,000, and off Kansas Paving went to do its job. All clear?

Well, sure. Again, I make no criticism of Aaron or Paul or any other city engineers or any of the PW&U staff, and I foresee no reason to criticize the professionalism or efficiency of Kansas Paving. A large number of people, all responding to one another, all passing information and decisions and money along, all getting a road in better shape. This is the way cities should work, right?

But here is where I say--maybe not? Especially, maybe not right now? I go back to my original point: this was a stretch of road I knew very, very well. Was it in great shape? Not at all. Was it in terrible shape? Again, not at all. (Just look at the Google Map photo of it above.) It was a perfectly serviceable 1/10th-mile-long access road use by 1) a couple of private homeowners, 2) those Friends staff, faculty, or students who found a need to drive the 530 feet to the back entrance of the Garvey Art Center, and 3) me, biking east and west on the road, morning and afternoon, year after year after year. As Aaron assured me, no one put in any kind of request to fix this road; it was the DST that determined its time had come, and once calculations were made about what kind of mitigation vs. preservation could be done, costs were tabulated and people were put to work. At the total estimated cost of, roughly speaking, an entire yearly salary of the average probation officer, carpet installer, librarian, title examiner, payroll clerk, or--hey!--civil engineering technician here in the state of Kansas.

Wait, it doesn't work that way!--that's what everyone who read the previous paragraph will say, and they'd be right; it's not like there is any easy way to all of a sudden stop some existing flow of money and divert it to someone or something else. But this is the important, political question I mentioned before: why? Especially during a pandemic, when our city--like cities all across the country--is facing an immediate, and potentially long-enduring, fiscal crisis, why is there no mechanism for people to look at the flows of money which course through our, or any, city's systems, and reconsider? Don't forget that money spent on roads is money that invariably sets up additional maintenance costs, costs that only increase as time goes by. That's not a criticism of those people like Aaron or Paul who have spent their whole professional careers trying to balance so many conflicting demands, and discover the most sustainable way to stretch the dollars they have. If anything, it's a suggestion that maybe they've haven't been supported in going far enough in their thinking about what really needs to be preserved, versus what can stand for just a little mitigation, versus what could really, honestly, just maybe, if only for right now, be allowed to be left alone.

I look around Wichita, and I see--just while walking our dog around our west Wichita neighborhood--more people gardening, more people fixing up their homes, more people setting out chairs and hanging out with one another in their driveways or on the sidewalks, just talking, than I can recall from any previous year. Obviously the fact that restaurants, bars, and other restaurants were closed, and many people were working from home, has been a primary cause of much of that--but perhaps not the only cause? The economic costs of the pandemic have been terrible, and are likely only to continue--and in response, people have been trying to find other, different ways of getting things done. One thing that many of them (that many of us) will need to continue exploring these new, perhaps more sustainable alternatives to work and food and shelter and entertainment is--as the Strong Towns Toolkit points out--cash, both local and immediate. Cities need to hang on to what the fiscal reserves they have, and think carefully and creatively about new ways to spend it.

Am I saying that the half-dozen or so workers I've seen out on University over the past couple of weeks couldn't use the money? Of course not! I'm completely open to the idea that generating road work for Kansas Paving is an entirely defensible act of Keynesian spending, of priming the pump. But then again, if you really want to see the money the city has going directly to the city's neighborhoods and residents, then why not just cancel all the orders for sand and 2x4s and concrete which the University repair job requires, and just deliver whatever portion of that $45,000 would have been dedicated to wages directly to the workers (and maybe with a little extra thrown in), and then keeping the rest on hand? It's not like there aren't problems aplenty which challenge Wichita's ability to move in a more sustainable way through this crisis.

For example, I think about local farmers and food producers I know--in Valley Center, Haysville, Andover--who have struggled to be part of a more sustainable food system here in Wichita; like perhaps a third of all small food operations across the country right now, the Covid Depression is threatening to wipe many of them out. Years ago, when drought threatened south-central Kansas, Wichita's government found the money to establish a rebate program (which still exists today!) incentivizing how people were spending money on sprinkling their lawns and washing their clothes. Surely some cutbacks on little-used roads could provide the city with the accounting flexibility to do something similar with one of our greatest assets: the fact that, unlike many comparable mid-sized cities, it's really quite easy here to grow food?

Well, eventually this little stretch of University will be done, and I won't see during my commute the sort of work which set my mind going on this long tangent. There are, absolutely, many more important topics to argue about right now than this one. But perhaps this small issue could be, should be, a way to get at a much larger one--namely, how to politically move our city to reconsider, or maybe just take further, the ways in which it seeks to prioritize and make more durable the decisions it makes and the money it spends. There will be, I am certain, perhaps 10 or so people that will be really happy with this fixed-up road. I may even be one of them! But I can think of other ways, more genuinely and democratically empowering ways, that the city leaders could spend money that might make even more people happy, in the long run. Here's hoping they can start seeing them (and that we will know how to help them do so!).

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Invaluable Inefficiency of Neighborhoods

[This is a shortened version of my recent Mittelpolitanism post, up on the Strong Towns website.]

The death of suburbia has been predicted many times, and yet suburban development endures. Will the current pandemic finally make the difference? Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn suggested it might a month ago, for two reasons.

First, in the wake of the economic wreckage of COVID-19, governments may just be too broke to handle the fiscal liabilities and infrastructure costs of suburbia—and when those costs are more immediately felt by residents, they'll leave. He pointed out that “the North American development pattern is built with an assumption of permanent affluence”—something that the economic consequences of the current pandemic may finally disabuse many people of.

Second, even if the suburban experiment doesn’t economically collapse, he suggested it may do so because the closures and restrictions necessary to keep people alive have made suburban limitations manifest as never before. "Those of us living in cities can hear the birds instead of car horns,” Chuck wrote. “The air seems cleaner. The city, more human." So we may see a critical mass of people pushing against cities sacrificing their urban neighborhoods for the sake of enabling suburban commuter ease.

Both of these speculations could be countered, of course. In the first case, will the economic devastation of COVID-19 really be sufficiently devastating, and does anyone actually want it to be? Even setting aside the unfortunately enduring appeal of having one's own (heavily subsidized and mortgaged) castle on a cul-de-sac, the suburbs are central to school district competition, socio-economic sorting, and what David Imbroscio has called the logic of "liberal expansionism," the linkage of suburban development with the push for ever-greater regional investment in a city, whether corporate or governmental. With all that in place, isn’t it likely that the means to keep suburban costs steady will somehow be found, absent a truly total economic collapse? (Note the Republican support in Congress for a second round of pandemic-related stimulus, this one focused, predictably, on infrastructure projects which historically have primarily served suburban commuters.)

As for the second case, will the mere experience of a healthier urban environment with fewer cars really lead people to decide against them? That's a change much longed for by anyone who worries about either the environmental health or the cultural strength of where they live—but when you place it against the delight of record low gasoline prices, and rates of infection which make urban density quite reasonably seem as something to fear, I'm not sure how much I would count on it.

During a Eutopia Workshop discussion organized by the good folks at Solidarity Hall, Chuck suggested that, whatever our speculations of a post-suburban future, the pandemic is going to force nearly every American city or town into one of two camps. Cities that take what he labeled "option 1" would be those who dare not contemplate real economic collapse, and thus will instead insist that residents be provided with every economic opportunity for continuing suburban and auto-centric ways of life, no matter what. As for "option 2," that would be the cities which do what is necessary to adapt to the reality of suburban costs in the face of the economic recession we are almost certainly facing—including doing the work to build up those civic strengths which will enable their residents to follow through on what the restrictions we have been operating under have hopefully allowed most of us to recognize.

What might those civic strengths be? In a word, they’re neighborhoods.

Note that “neighborhoods” are not necessarily “communities.” Community feeling and friendships can obviously exist among neighbors, but they don’t have to: what really matters to a neighborhood is proximity. Neighbors, because they live nearby each other, end up creating public spaces that can be mutually shared, and forming (both with and sometimes against one another) routines around and in the midst of those public spaces which bring richness to ordinary patterns of life. As Nancy Rosenblum wrote in her superb book, Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America, neighbors exemplify “weak ties.” Neighbors regard each other as "decent folk" (or at least aspire to, and commiserate with other decent folk in the neighborhood about those bad neighbors who choose to not so aspire). They show reciprocity, speak out when necessary, but also abide by the rule "live and let live." Hence, the neighborhood is a place conceived in light of at least a degree of pluralism, mobility, and anonymity, with proximity being the essential bond: 

To moral philosophers committed to more demanding expressions of mutual respect or principled toleration, live and let live falls short. To disparage it is a mistake, however...."Weak ties" based on infrequent interactions are...[themselves a] critical resource....[O]rganizations where neighbors develop the capacity for collective action are key...a close cousin to the...rudimentary cooperation in countering people who flaunt reasonable expectations for "for what anyone would do, here" (pp. 113, 139-140).

Understanding the central role in distinguishing between different cities, and especially between different city approaches to dealing with the pandemic crisis, is crucial. In a small community of friends, of people committed to a shared (but more often than not also quite exclusive) faith or ethos or way of life, encouraging people in recognizing that which Chuck pointed out, and supporting one another economically in making the adaptations he suspects may be mostly unavoidable, would presumably go much more smoothly than it likely will in the pluralistic cities which 80% of Americans live in. The Strong Towns aim, as I understand it, is to nudge the urban environments we have to greater sustainability, and thus greater local empowerment, within which a whole host of particular communities can play their organic role. To the extent that we can build up the "weak ties" of our neighborhoods, build up their shared spaces and the trust they inculcate, build up the opportunities they provide for people to see the costs and opportunities of collective life directly, the more likely option 2 will become.

A central part of that building involves the "social infrastructure" that Elias Crim, the director of Solidarity Hall, wrote in his response to Chuck's presentation. He discussed the "traditional economy of cooperation," which has parallels in various distributist, socialist, and communalist institutional forms—none of which are particularly efficient, at least not from a market perspective. They allow for overlapping and conflicting responsibilities, tradition-bound forms of interaction and service, complicated collective decision-making practices, pricing mechanisms and welfare policies that reflect localized information, and more—all of which will make for economic forms which are more resilient when disasters occur, but in the meantime do not maximize efficient results.

What does this have to do with neighborhoods? In a sense, everything—because in many ways, the weak ties of neighborhood associational life and routines are the very definition of "inefficient." Marc Dunkelman, in his book The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community, makes this his central thesis: that the routine, repetitive, inefficient, and overlapping encounters and social constructs which emerge from ordinary proximity with other people form a desperately important “middle ring” of casual trust and mutual support. Quoting Jane Jacobs’s line about neighborhoods being "valuably inefficient," he draws upon the work of Sean Safford to consider two different Rust Best cities—Youngstown, Ohio, and Allentown, Pennsylvania. In the latter, “neighbors attended a variety of different colleges and worked in different mills. They were congregants at different churches and regulars at different bars.....[This] random intersection of individuals from different pockets of society spurred big new ideas—even when they appeared to waste resources. Regions focused too exclusively on efficiency may have been able to produce more with less, but...[faced] an insufficient capacity to adapt to new circumstances" (pp. 171-172, 176).

If the current pandemic demands anything, it is certainly the "capacity to adapt to new circumstances." So as economic suffering and new realizations open up the possibility for a truly post-suburban future, however minimally, with such possibilities confronting all sorts of contrary pressures along the way, a focus on "weak," neighborly ties is crucial, as whatever transition may be in the offing may well depend upon those distinctive civic resources. What should such a focus look like? Much like some of the principles which Strong Towns has laid out in their Local Leader's Toolkit. In particular, for the enriching proximity of neighborhoods to function, the people living there:

*Need to have some basic food and housing security, especially at this time of economic insecurity and pandemic fear; they’re start hoarding, or pillaging, or simply leave otherwise.

*Need open spaces and alternatives for getting around; without them, the assumption that all their interactions should be conducted over a distance via the automobile will seem, whatever else their experiences with stay-at-home orders might be telling them.

*Don’t need invasive regulations interfering with their commercial and residential adaptations; the “live and let live” aspect of effective neighboring is never more important than when families shelter relatives, students, or co-workers during a time of lockdown, or start new businesses from their garages to replace lost income.

*Need, most of all, the cash to address those immediate local needs—the potholes in the street, the lack of bike racks at the grocery store, the vouchers for the bus ride to the farmers market or cross-town hub—which will reward the “decent folk” of a neighborhood for the work they’re doing in their places.

Not every town or city is an Allentown; every place has its unique social architecture. But wherever we live--which means, at present, wherever we are sheltering in place, wondering what comes next, and, quite possibly, relying upon our church and work communities, our family and friends, and our neighbors to get through the day--there are neighborhoods which need our help. Those overlapping, inefficient, weak ties between all of us, living next door or down the block from one another, are important for getting our places to make the beneficial shifts away from suburbia which this terrible pandemic makes possible. We should all find a good place nearby us to start.