Saturday, May 16, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "I Like to Live the Love"

I saw B.B. King once, at Snowbird Resort in Utah, in 1992 I think. He was the concluding act of a big blues tour, and the penultimate performer was Buddy Guy, who utterly tore the place to pieces, walking among the audience with his electric guitar, wailing away like nobody’s business. Compared to him, King, who came on with his own big band, seemed staid and unexciting. I didn’t stay through his whole set—-and really, I probably should have. Who knows what musical memories I missed being able to make that night? Ah well, time wears us all down, eventually. R.I.P., Mr. King.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Hanging Out with, and Learning from, Some Thoroughly Material Benedictines

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

A few weeks ago I was able to, once again, do something that I enjoy doing immensely--take a group of students out on a local food tour, so they can learn firsthand about more sustainable approaches to building well-fed, healthy communities. Our hosts were the Elder family, and from them--or at least a portion of them: mother Becky, father Philip, son George, and daughter Alexis, to be specific--we were taught about the seasonal economics of blackberries, about some of the latest technological innovations in organic vegetable gardening, about the necessity of horses, about the political importance of small farms, and much more. Through it all, though, as we inquired about different types of lettuce, did some comparison tasting of goat's milk, and helped rescue a 4-month-old colt who'd gotten herself trapped under a fence, I kept thinking about something entirely different: Rod Dreher's "Benedict Option."

Amongst certain localist and conservative bloggers, Rod's arguments about the importance (sometimes he presents it as the necessity) of those who hold to traditional understandings of the Christian message to find ways to organize themselves separate from the usual--and what was at least for a long time nominally Christian--forms of civic and commercial and church life in America have sparked a great deal of debate in recent months. What would be involved in such separation, and what's the reason for it, and how will we know it when (or if) we ever see it? Rod, to his credit, hasn't presented himself as possessing any comprehensive answers to those questions--but it is pretty clear that his ideas are tending in a direction that Ken Myers described in an old lecture (which Rod extensively quoted from) as "moral and metaphysical." Or, to put in a slightly lengthier format, Rod seems to be coming around to seeing the argument for communities to root themselves in traditions and practices that keep them at least somewhat separate from the secular, commercial world as eschewing any kind of aspiration to a material permanence. As he wrote in response to Bruce Frohnen, who thoughtfully challenged Rod for relying, in his view, too much a kind of agrarian sentimentality, "I realize now that the best we can hope for in the world of America 2015 is to settle among people who love us, and whom we can love, and where we can worship God and do good work." Which is a beautiful vision, to be sure! But I wonder if in putting it that way, the argument for separateness is being undermined, however slightly.

Rod has visited the Elder's homestead--dubbed "Elderslie"--with me before. When he was here last year, Becky (who has been greatly impressed with Rod's work on behalf of explaining the importance of being rooted in one's place) showed off what she and her family have managed to build over the decades--farming properties, an independent school, a small milling business, a shared congregation, a sustainable network of local commercial producers of fruit, flowers, and more--and exclaimed "This is the Benedict Option!" I've no doubt he would still agree. But Elderslie is not centrally a congregational endeavor; their church life is a big part of what they have built, but the Elders and those who work with them and teach with them see themselves as attached to a much larger classical intellectual tradition, one that is clearly Christian but which is also just as clearly aimed at responding to matters of physical and environmental health, economic and educational independence, and fulfilling, socially contributing work. It is, in short, an act of resistance to that individualism which has, I would agree, warped our economic and environmental and social existence. To describe that kind of separateness as something which is motivated primarily by a congregational desire (to worship among like-minded folk, and preserve the attachments which make such worship meaningful!) would be reductive, I think.

Alan Jacobs refers to the Benedict Option as putting its priority on Christian "culture-making" and enabling those concerned about the values of the Christian tradition to be "fully the Christian account of things." Again, for people like myself who care about tradition, that's a vital and inspiring point. But is thinking hard about how to build and preserve the roots of--and the socio-economic and legal space for--a culture mostly a (as Rod sometimes seems to suggest) liturgical phenomenon? Perhaps you could argue that Elderslie and other family and community operations like it really are "liturgical" in some sense, because their direct engagement in the practices that keep them going really do result in a kind of discipline and ritual to their lives. If so, then I suspect that the Benedict Option which has struck me as a needful way of helping to shape how we think about community in the 21st century will only grow more convincing in my mind. But if not--if Rod's Benedict Option really is, essentially, about protecting the "church of Jesus Christ," as Alan put it--then I think, at least right now, that it's allowing current arguments about religious liberty to narrow its focus too much (though Rod is, clearly, still thinking about this stuff, writing recently that "the Benedict Option is far more a response to pervasive consumerism, individualism, and atomism than anything to do with gay rights," which I think puts things right).

Rod has insisted, in response to Frohnen, that he's not an agrarian--and of course, that's true. But Frohnen has a point, I think--whether or not Rod's thinking about the Benedict Option currently points him this directly, I suspect (and I have written before) that it is very difficult to get to the kind lasting, sustainable separateness which he thinks (and I at least partly agree) is needed if those traditions supportive Christian virtues are to be fully lived and inculcated into one's children without at least some kind of anti-capitalist, agrarian mentality. Becky Elder took the time to preach to my students for a short time about Andrew Lytle, one of the Southern Agrarians, and his important essay "The Small Farm Secures the State"--one of the essential 20th-century Jeffersonian declarations against an economy based on distant specialization, monopolistic centralization, and all things big. If we don't, in our innumerable and diverse ways, seek to enable our families and communities and co-ops to become more capable of feeding themselves, then a pattern of dependency inevitably follows. Honestly, just how far could any church group go in building for itself a genuinely separate cultural track if the individuals who make up that group ultimately, fundamentally, have no real independence in their livelihood, in making the money to put food in their own and their children's mouths? Will liturgy suffice if your boss changes your shift to Sunday, religious liberty be damned? Will a strong pastor be enough to provide an education which reflects Christian priorities when all the families in the congregation are too busy to volunteer to help out in classes, because food costs and health care costs and mortgages require every family send both spouse out into the work force full-time?

I don't throw these out as gotcha questions, suggesting that there is something essential and obvious being overlooked here. On the contrary, smart conservatives and localists and radicals have looked exhaustively into these questions, struggling to find ways to respond to them as part of their pursuit of, or defense of, an at least partially Christian culture. The answers have ran the gamut, touching on all manner of technological, economic, ecclesiastical, and political constructs. Mediating institutions of various scales all potentially play a role in allowing this aim to be achieved, as are any number of different sorts of progressive compromises. (For the Elders, it's striking how sophisticated they've become in judging the ability of various markets to support their agricultural or material products so as to give them the resources they need, recognizing that there are some things that can be done very well organically--and profitably--here in south-central Kansas, and quickly seeking out alternative approaches, even international or high-end technological ones, when that isn't the case.) To the extent the Benedict Option is yet another engagement with these questions, perhaps one more particular to a time when traditional Christian cultural assumptions are fading away, it's a necessary addition to the communitarian and localist toolkit. But to rush past all this vital, practical, material work, and cast the Benedict Option as an imperative act of moral or metaphysical sanctuary in the face of the collapse of Christianity itself...that, I think, just misses the trees for the forest, if you know what I mean. (I should note that it's possible I can speak this way, wanting to push the particular and local mechanics rather than clutching at the biggest themes, because I simply don't see the "collapse of Christianity" happening at all, not one bit. Yes, strong protections of religious liberty and certain tax and legal privileges enjoyed by Christian institutions have been, I think, of tremendous civic benefit in American history, and deserve to be fought for--but it's not like their loss in a more secular America would equal some kind of Christian Armageddon, unless one happens to believe, as I presume the Francophile Rod does not, that France with its laïcité is a formally oppressive and persecuting anti-Christian society. As in many things, I agree with Damon Linker here.)

If it's not obvious, I need to say explicitly: this is a disagreement over how one formulates priorities, not about the end goal. So I'll continue to read Rod, because he's one of the best and most important public voices dealing with these matters. Who knows what he--or I--will decide as time and arguments continue? Perhaps he'll come to recognize what I see as the foremost need to explore specific and sustainable material and economic arrangements as part of following lead of St. Benedict, or perhaps I'll come to agree with him that, ultimately, building up liturgical defenses of various metaphysical truths is only separateness that really, fundamentally matters. Or maybe we'll both change our minds somewhat. It's not as though any of the long lines of discussion and social organization which have kept alive humane concerns with community and culture-building in the midst of modern, secular liberalism--and here we can think of the Catholic Worker movement, Amish congregations, classically-oriented independent schools, and many more--have ever come to an end, saying that they've worked out the One True Way to attend to permanent things. And of course, in the midst of all this intellectual debate, folks like the Elders keep on experimenting and working, building their own Benedictine path. I'm grateful that they're around so that I can learn from them, and share with those I teach their ideas....and, last but not least, enjoy the delicious material bounties that they produce as well.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Top Ten Reasons I Have to Say, as of Next Wednesday: Thanks, Dave.

Next week, David Letterman will host his final show. And so, of course, there are numerous tributes to be found all over the internet. Do I have one? Well, I'm a 46-year-old white American male who was raised in (despite milking the cows and hauling the hay bales) essentially middle- and upper-middle class suburban surroundings. So, really, how could I not have one? So here it is, in appropriately Dave Lettermanish fashion:

1) The attached image here says it all: my David Letterman, as with so many others of my age, was the cynical--but usually not surly--and mocking--but usually not mean-spirited--Letterman of the 1980s. I've told the story before, how Late Night with David Letterman was my close of the day, my dose of perspective, my way to learning, night after night, how to take up the news and catastrophes and confusions of the day and see them in a skewed, ridiculous, and in that way a somewhat more truthful light. Dave was never political, not really, but his goofball, borderline-but-never-entirely bitter, always-winking, smart-ass sensibility was probably as important to my whole sense of the forces and structures which shape our social world(s) as any philosophy or theory I've ever read. Others made jokes about the news; Dave showed the joke that was in the news. And that mattered.

2) Was Dave an ironist? I'm not sure. I suppose, if smirking sarcastically and cracking wise about the affairs of the day passes for a poor definition of "irony," then I guess the label fits. But I see huge differences between the liberal or progressive court jesters of the past decade or two--the Jon Stewarts, the Stephen Colberts, the Bill Mahers, the John Olivers--and Dave, because Dave (as this magazine cover from 1990 brilliantly, snarkily conveyed) never even pretended to be engaged in critique: there was no authentic sincerity about his program at all, no structural seriousness, and thus no reason to see his nightly goofing on the televised world around us as in any way attempting to poach the sort of earnestness which a different, more critical kind of irony might involve (which has been one of the running debates about Jon Stewart for years, of course).

3) Of course, for all of the above reasons, those very, very rare occasions when Dave got actually serious were (despite the manifest artificiality of a freaking television show) moving and believable in a way that few things I've ever seen through the television screen could be. The most obvious example here is what I called "the greatest video text of 9/11"--but there have been other examples as well.

4) Speaking of the fact that Dave was hosting a "freaking television show," let's not forget that, long before internet virality became the measure of a late night comedian's success, Dave and his crew expertly mocked the whole gestalt of television. Let's put a tv show "in convenient book form!" (And, I can testify, an astonishingly cheap and shoddily produced book form at that; whole pages started to fall out only days after I bought my copy.) But that, of course, only scratches the surface. Let's do the show from an airplane! Let's rotate the camera! The possibilities were endless--and during Dave's nutty, borderline-UHF, 80s-phase, that's pretty much what the results turned out to be.

5) As best as I could tell from my read-the-New-York-Times-at-the-library-and-watch-Peter-Jennings-on-the-news-and-the-McLaughlin-Group-on-Fridays environment growing up in Spokane, Washington, most of those who entertained us and spoke to us with authority through the major media organs of the 1980s aspired to non-specificity, a kind of cosmopolitan condescension. Dave, on the other hand, or at least as he appeared to me in the mid- to late-1980s, was definitely, resolutely a creature of New York City, taking the camera to Grand Central Station and Central Park and seeming very much a part of a distant, mysterious, cool world, one that I was sure, at that age, that I wanted to be a part of. (One of the Top Ten lists from back then, involving cheap entertainment in New York City, included the suggestion "Throw rocks at Chrysler building and wait for old man Chrysler to come out and chase you away"--which was so farcically nuts that it has stayed with me and still sometimes cracks me up decades later.) So, given all this, why wouldn't the Avengers want to visit with David Letterman? I mean, they're all New Yorkers, right? (Though I think this issue was probably my introduction to Dave, since I think I didn't start actually watching the show until 1984 or so.)

6) I forgot to mention: I didn't just read the New York Times at the library and watch all those news and commentary shows--I also never missed 60 Minutes. Which meant the fact that those reporters could get in on Dave's jokes was just geeky delight to me.

7) Let's not forget, though: he was actually very good at the primary job talk show hosts have: setting up his celebrity guests so they can tell their funny stories to maximum effect. ("YOU'RE BENDIN' THE SHAFTS!! STOP BENDIN' THE SHAFTS!!")

8) He was also endless grateful to those who made his career possible, and the heroes of comedy who had come before him. His honoring of Johnny Carson bordered on hagiography at times...but it was deserved.

9) And as for making horrible (or at least unrehearsed and lame) material presented on bad nights pretty ridiculously hilarious nonetheless, the man was shameless master.

10) And...I can't think of anything else. Which means, I suppose, that the whole Top Ten format was a silly idea, don't you think? But Dave and his writers, of course, already knew that:

Top 10 Reasons to Discontinue the Top 10 Lists

10. Snide remarks overheard on elevator
9. Pressure from the big money boys
8. Movie deal not materializing
7. Provides grist for Soviet propaganda mill
6. Affiliates near mutiny
5. Pits brother against brother
4. Looks shabby next to "Soup of the Day"
3. Moving plea from Council of Bishops
2. Complaints of drowsiness
1. Angry letter from Lou Rawls

So thanks, Dave. I haven't regularly watched you in years, but you had me from the mid-80s until the early 90s, and that was more than enough.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Broken Soil, Broken Hearts

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

This week, I prepared our small garden space, as I do every year, for the tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, and more than we'll plant in the coming days. It starts with layering on top of the ground wheelbarrows full of freshly composted soil (filled this year, thankfully, with earthworms and grubs), then working it into the dirt, breaking apart the soil and mixing it in with a rototiller. It's a violent process, but with the heavy clay content of our native dirt, it almost always needs to be done.

I always feel a sense of satisfaction and peace when I can look back upon this labor after it's done, even though it's a small and not particularly impressive bit of work. Still, in its little way, it makes me think about the necessary disruptions in any productive life. Sometimes the good that is natural to a thing is best revealed by attending upon its own rhythms and time--but other times, it has to be drawn out, with work. And sometimes, of course, that work is thrust upon us, without our choosing.

I thought about my rototilling in church today. All our regular meetings were cancelled, so we could instead attend a special stake meeting to hear from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland (a leader whom faithful Mormons consider to be one of God's chosen apostles), who ended up--in the midst of mission conferences and other responsibilities--here in Wichita, KS, this Sunday. Holland asked several people to bear their testimony of Christ before him, and then he spoke for a half-hour, picking up on what he felt was an unspoken theme in the others' comments. Launching into a litany of the thousand ways in which we can all feel burdened and broken up by life--haunted by the deaths of loved ones, handicapped by disease, struggling with finances, in despair over the challenges our children face, and so much more--Elder Holland plaintively insisted, again and again: "God loves broken things."

Speaking both theologically and agriculturally, Holland riffed on the great Baptist preacher Vance Havner, and talked about how brokenness was both tragic and essential to our mortal life. How can God not love broken things?, he asked. So much of His creation is broken. It is only from broken clouds that we are able to receive rain for our soil. It is only from broken soil that grain may be grown. It is only from broken grain that bread may be milled. And that bread, once broken, becomes the essential symbol through which we may partake of the Savior's own brokenness upon the cross, reminding ourselves of the broken heart and contrite spirit which we are commanded to seek. That heart, and that spirit, was exemplified by Jesus's own brokenness--what Holland called the Savior's own "contrition," the sorrow He felt, the hurt that God Himself feels, at the inevitable and terrible and fundamental pain and disappointment and disruption of this fallen world.

Opening his scriptures, Holland turned to an old and beloved story, one that fits in well with stories of fallen natures and elemental struggles:

And the same day, when the even was come, he saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side.

And when they had sent away the multitude, they took him even as he was in the ship. And there were also with him other little ships.

And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.

And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish?

And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?

And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?
(Mark 4: 35-41)

Storms are frightening, for certain, as are traffic accidents, sudden deaths, tragic realizations, disappointing news, economic downturns, unintended catastrophes, unlooked-for diagnoses, and so many other daily instances of brokenness. It would be easy to fall into a simplistic providentialism here, and wait on the healing which God promises to us all--and Elder Holland didn't entirely escape that tendency. But more important was his insistence, as I understood him, that it is not experiencing doubt or anguish or pain which shows a failure to do that work which our own brokenness and the brokenness which we confront in all our friends and families and congregations calls us to perform. It is fear, above all else, that we must seek the faith to overcome. Yes, there is an ultimate healing which awaits those who endure...but more important, I think, is the fact that there is that peace of mind, that solace of feeling--"the peace of God, which passeth all understanding"--which attends those who trust that there is an empathetic, loving God, weeping for and with us through and in the midst of all our storms.

Recently, a young person has come into our family from a background that is commonly referred to--fairly or not--as "broken." She needed a home, we provided one, and now we all find ourselves engaged, without have known what exactly any of us were choosing, in a good deal of sometimes painful and difficult and disruptive work. Perhaps something good and nourishing will grow from this breaking up of our family soil; perhaps we'll find our selves refreshed by the rain which the broken clouds are bringing into our home. Or maybe we'll all just end up muddy and wet. Either way, I took inspiration from Elder Holland's words: to not be fearful, and go about the work we cannot avoid doing, and look for the grace of peace along the way. It is a grace that will be there, in the tilled soil, and in the clearing which follows after every storm. I'm grateful to have been able to learn such things for myself, as I've broken up clods of dirt by hand...but, like everyone else, I need every reminder I can get.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "Africa"

Is there nothing which the magic of an ex-Beatle can't do? Apparently not. Check out how Ringo Star and His All-Star Band shape what was probably the single-most mockable pop song of the whole 1980s into a sometimes jazzy, sometimes crunching, overall very cool rocker (and with Richard Page of Mr. Mister on bass just for fun!).

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "In the House of Stone and Light"

Something a little different this Saturday: no live video, just an audio recording. But this is such a fine recording of such a wonderful, haunting pop tune from the 1990s--one that's only available because Brian Weatherman, who is backing up Martin Page on this song Page wrote, recently found an old copy of the recording--that I have to make an exception. Enjoy.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The Most Important Element of Tonight's Win for Marijuana Sentencing Reform

Tonight, a ballot issue here in Wichita, KS, to reduce the penalty for a first-time arrest for the possession of a small amount of marijuana won. Did it win big? Nope, but it did win decisively: 54% to 46% of the total votes cast. And that, frankly, may be the best possible result which we who supported this ballot issue could have hoped for.

Why do I think those result are better for the overall effort to challenge drug-war overreach than a blow-out win? Because this is just the first step. Now, here in Wichita, we will wait to see what our new mayor and the new city council will do as Kansas's Attorney General, Derek Schmidt, decides whether or not to make good on his threat to sue the city to force our government to ignore the results of the election, since it would involve Wichita police treating as an easily disposed-of criminal infraction the possession of a controlled substance which the state lists as a Class A misdemeanor, with heavy fines and a criminal record attached. If an injunction is laid upon the city, our government almost certainly won't fight it, and that will be that.

Except it won't be, because state legislators will be watching. They wouldn't be if the sentencing reform ballot issue had lost. And it's quite possible they also wouldn't be if it had won big--say, a 70%-30% blow-out. In such a case, it would have been very easy for the opponents of the measure to say to folks up in Topeka, "They won solely because they registered for this one issue a bunch of marginal, disaffected folk who can't possibly be counted on to vote normally." But they can't say that in this case, because the turnout in this election--with about 37,000 votes cast out of about 200,000 registered voters, or about 18% of the total--is unfortunately pretty standard for springtime city-wide elections. And moreover, if you look at the votes cast for the sentencing reform ballot and the only other city-wide contest--for mayor--the numbers are almost identical. Clearly, those who worked so hard to bring this reform issue to the voters did not manage a win by somehow flooding the ballot booths with thousands of disengaged, marginal, first-time voters. (If they had, voting totals would have been different, because they wouldn't have voted for mayoral candidates at the same rate, or else if they did the number of write-in ballots--which amounted to only 5% of all votes--for outright supporters of the sentencing reform issue like Jennifer Winn would have been much higher.) No, this ballot issue won a small but clear victory because thousands of standard Wichita voters were persuaded it was the right thing to do. And those are exactly the voters whom at least a few of those state legislators in Topeka will want to have on their side to stay in office.

So tonight, I'm feeling pretty good. My bet is that sentencing reform won't be allowed to happen in Wichita--but the people who will be frustrated by the state's actions in that regard are going to include thousands of ordinary voters in this mostly white, mostly conservative city, and that is the sort of thing that may really lead members of certain committees to wake up to not just a valuable reform in criminal justice, but an electorally beneficial one as well. This is how you build movements, folks. Door-knocking, signature-gathering, and vote after vote after vote.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Blessed Easter, Blessed Spring, Blessed Day

It's morning. Which means, as always, by God's grace, it's time to begin again.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Mid-Sized Meditations #7: Why Cities Ought to, Sometimes, Challenge Their States

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

On next Tuesday’s ballot here in Wichita, KS, voters will be able to, whether they realize it or not, directly contribute to an ongoing struggle over the meaning and operations of democratic government in the United States. Specifically, they may speak as a city against their state. What follows from that may be interesting, to say the least.

The specific issue is a ballot proposal which would order the city of Wichita to reduce the penalty attached to the first-time possession of a small amount of marijuana (currently a class A misdemeanor, resulting in a criminal record and a fine of up to $2500 and a year in jail) to an easily-paid infraction (a $50 fine with no permanent record). I've contributed in a few small ways to the effort to get this proposal on the ballot, and now that it's on, I hope everyone in my city votes “yes.”

Many won't, of course. There are multiple voice urging Wichitans to vote “no” instead for a multitude of reasons. The most persuasive--or so it seems to me as I speak to people I know--are those which are most reflective of the interests of the law enforcement and media establishment:  they oppose the ballot proposal not because they disagree that criminal penalties for marijuana possession are too great, or that the social costs of the drug war are experienced most severely upon those poor and more diverse segments of the urban population which most need fuller integration into the mainstream of city life, but because they simply believe its passage could force upon the city an unnecessarily complicated legal and constitutional problem. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has stated he would sue the city to prevent the ordinance from going into effect, and that’s a potentially expensive threat to deal with.

But I say: vote for the ordinance anyway. Why? Because forcing problems upon our elected leaders is one of the tried and true methods of moving policy conversations forward under our legal and constitutional system. Yes, as I've written before, a local change in marijuana laws might introduce a complicated inconsistency into the body politic. But that inconsistency would only reflect what democratic self-government often, I think, ought to mean.

I don't dispute that consistency in government is an important value; the old Hamiltonian argument about how executive "effectiveness" is really the only test for government (assuming it protects basic liberal freedoms) which matters has a certain persuasiveness to it. And in light of that argument, the issue appears rather cut-and-dried. Our state government here in Kansas--like all the other 49 state governments--claims authority over basic matters of law and order. That claim is supported by a fairly well-attested reading of the U.S. Constitution, which by implication clearly suggests that cities, as entities without any sovereign authority, are only allowed to wield that power which the states delegate to them. Until and unless the state allows the cities the power to make democratically-determined decisions about drug enforcement policy, they have no basis to claim it.

The problem with this conclusion, however, is that sovereign or governing “power” is far more than what is laid out in legal documents. It is also what practically operates in the context of actual case-by-case interpretation and rule-making; it is what we give our consent to through recognizing a law as legitimate. And "consent" itself is a tricky concept, involving such cultural and communitarian matters as identity and affection. If we believe in popular sovereignty, then presumably that power ought to be understood as resting in, or adhering to--and thus as being that which may be delegated from--those places where we, the people, actually reside.

Of course, that is easier said than formalized. For our residences are themselves nestled into other, larger, communities and associations of identity and allegiance, state and regional and national (and, for some, perhaps even global). Moreover, modern technology and economies have reduced--or, if you prefer, empowered--our many of our places of residency and labor so as to make over into nodes along vast networks, whether of roads or power lines or flows of financial data or corporate-issued information. And so perhaps there are good reasons, in a world of such fluidity, for a country like ours, with its established history both national and state governments, to reserve the legal, consensual exercise of democratic power to those governmentalities which have been specifically and constitutionally marked out. After all, don't forget that questions of scale, and the feasibility of commanding sufficient financial and material resources so as to even address any one of the many issues which complicate our borders come into play as well. Still, I would insist that all these concerns do not mitigate the earlier, Jeffersonian point: that if self-government ought to be place-centered, than there must be at least some times, and some cases, where we citizens should insist that, practically speaking, sovereign power really does belong to those localities where most people most immediately live. True, this could open the door to subdivisions ad infinitum. But speaking realistically, towns and cities, out of all such overlapping bodies in the United States, have a genuine historical integrity, as well as a recognized place in our popular imagination. As such, it seems eminently reasonable to support cities in their occasional "complication" of the smooth operations of other sovereignties, when those citizens who live there democratically wish it.

(On a long but highly relevant side note: a recent study of state-level allegiance in the United States makes the argument that, in contrast to the rhetoric of centralizers of both market and state varieties, large numbers of Americans still look to the distinct cultures and economic and geographic situations of their states as a source of identity, and thus consequently invest significant expectation in their state governments and constitutions as tools for the expression of that identity. Could the same be said for cities? Only in the case of the very largest and most notorious cities, the author thinks, not entirely consistently; after all, in making his defense of states he includes those with small populations--South Dakota or Wyoming or Delaware--while excluding many metropolitan areas which as such plausible sources of sovereign attachment whose populations dwarfs those states. He specifically names Wichita as a city where a distinctive political culture very likely could never emerge, and he may be right--but then again, the combined statistical metropolitan area of even a mid-sized city like Wichita is greater than that of the whole of Vermont, which of course, as a state, makes his list as a valid player in the dispersal of authority and attachment sweepstakes. He also suggests that cities can't work because they are rarely conceived by those who live there as "imaginary communities" (obviously invoking Benedict Anderson's classic work on the construction of national sovereignty here) in the terms which reflect their actually existing governing institutions. I would suggest that such a claim would require more study in how the residents of cities think about themselves--and in the meantime, would note that such an argument probably takes Connecticut or New Jersey out of his picture, since the folks who live there almost certain don't primarily understand themselves in relation to Hartford or Trenton, but rather to sprawling, unbordered the New York megalopolis. Ultimately, I think the only argument of his thoughtful analysis of state allegiance which can be consistently said to not apply to any cities of at least some significant size as well is institutional: city governments today, unlike the case of American cities in the 19th century, simply lack effective power. For the author of this study, who investigates the extent of state attachment mostly out of an interest in strengthening federalist and states' rights claims under out system, this conclusion simply supports directing our attention to those units of government which already have a formal constitutional place. But for those of us who are interested in enriching places of democratic self-government more than figuring out how to better balance a structure which doesn't especially prioritize that in the first place, the complaint about the lack of effective city power only brings us back to the original argument--isn't really so implausible that cities ought to, sometimes, strive to get it back?)

What I've said so far may sound either like abstract philosophy or demographic hair-splitting, but it's neither; it is, rather, the governmental reality which drives any federal arrangement of authority. Power-sharing, and the shifting grounds of expressions of that power, with the specifics always being argued about, and pushed back and forth one way or another, over commerce authority or health care or immigration or same-sex marriage or any number of issues--that's life under a system which seeks to balance the many and various ways in which people organize themselves for purposes of collective self-government. That life is filled with legal and constitutional complications, to be sure. Yet are those complications themselves sufficiently frustrating to make power-sharing seem to be not worth it?

If not, then by the same logic, even if it lacks explicit constitutional warrant, such a tolerance of confusing borders and contested jurisdictions ought to applies to the arguments between cities and states. And--to get practical from here on out--this is already happening. Most notorious in recent news cycles has been the successful effort different citizens groups to gain support from portions of the business community and push through minimum wage hikes in their cities--but beyond cities acting on their own to raise the minimum wage there has been actions taken on fracking, abortion rights, restrictions on pornography, labor rules, and much more. States, noticing this reality, are fighting back, both predictably and appropriately so. Either way, the democratic and constitutional conversation goes on.

And it there is any topic about which such a city-involving conversation is needed, it has to be disputes over the low-end of the drug war, such as the issue of the criminal possession of marijuana. Larger arguments about the addictive power of the drug and what it's use by members of a community might represent are valid. But beneath that, down near the ground, there is the fact that the likely serious criminal deterrent of harsh penalties arising from first-time possession is minor, while the social costs--to foolish first-time users, to young and irresponsible low-income able-bodied workers, to families struggling to hold themselves together, to neighborhoods and communities which desperately deserve active political representation--as well as the fiscal costs--building jails, setting quotas on already busy police departments, etc., all of which lands primarily upon cities--is great. In recent years other cities have struggled against their states over this issue, with diverse results. Denver, CO, Grand Rapids, MI, even Lawrence, KS, all took local action to change their approach to marijuana penalties; some of those actions ultimately contributed to eventual state-wide changes, while others have been subject to multiple court challenges, and yet others have sometimes just been left alone. Does that betray a frightening inconsistency in executive effectiveness, such as to render the public debate and activism which led to it as worthless? Not if we recognize that democratic dispute is simply a feature, not a bug, in our system (it's not like the fact that the most recent steps in scaling back drug war were taken by states themselves hasn't stopped continuing arguments!).

In a state like Kansas, where our governor and legislature have shown relatively little respect of late for the particular interests of cities when it comes to handgun policy, education funding, and more, I think any opportunity to show Topeka that the people of Kansas’s largest city (even if it is only mid-sized!) can, in fact, think carefully about matters of drug enforcement, and come to reasonable conclusions about what it should consist of, ought to be supported. It’s not just good policy, if enacted--it would be, whether ultimately enacted or not, the sort of thing that active citizens who care about where they live, and about what kind of democratic action which the people who live in those particular places ought to have available to them, should do.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

I'm Getting Older Too

I saw Fleetwood Mac on their "On With The Show" tour here in Wichita last night. What a fantastic show it was! It was obvious that both the band and the sold-out crowd were all sharing in the same general feeling: that this was, rather than a concert, a generational event, a triumph of artistry and fun over time and all the vicissitudes of the human condition. That may sound pretentious...but then, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood all, at different points during the night, delivered exactly that kind of light-hearted (yet obviously plainly earnest) pretension, turning autobiographical and philosophical and sometimes downright New Agey as they celebrated each other and magisterially presented one song after another. And none of those songs, I should note, lacked the full burning musical talent of the mature Fleetwood Mac behind them. Christie McVie (at 71 years old!), at the keyboards, had a glorious voice that still carried. Mick Fleetwood played and grooved and cackled behind his drum set like a deranged--bu immensely talented--Santa Claus. John McVie never said a word, and it was only rarely that his crunching blues sound took command, but his bass lines were always there. Stevie Nicks, without an ounce of apparent irony, did her Earth-Mother-Celtic-Goddness thing, her fringe spinning as he danced and swayed and sang like she did nearly 40 years ago. And Lindsey Buckingham? An absolute revelation to me. I knew he was a fine guitarist--but not that fine. His fret-work was astonishingly fast and strong, and his sound was clean and sharp, and he did it all as he leaped and kicked and yelped around the stage like Mick Jagger in his prime. Sometimes he got downright psychedelic--which perhaps was appropriate: whatever their English blues roots, this really still is a 1970s San Francisco hippie rock and roll band. Someone needs to tell Grace Slick and all the other former members of Jefferson Airplane who went slumming into Starship in the 1980s: this is the way it gets done.

I could help but think as we looked at these Social-Security-receiving (the youngest of the core group is Buckingham, at 65) musicians, consummate professionals all: how much pop and rock has changed in my lifetime. The fact that so very many of the best, most famous and influential bands from the 1970s and 1980s (which, as I have noted, was when my radio-smitten musical tastes were mostly formed) haven't changed is sort of the point. I can remember, as I first became acquainted with pop music as an adolescent, listening to these titanic (or so their appeared to me) gods of pop and rock--one of whom was, of course, Fleetwood Mac--realizing the shadow that they all played in: the real giants, the real pioneers, were out there, sometimes still stalking the earth, and being reminded to them--much less seeing them--was an occasion of amazement, awe, and often outright, even irreverent, disbelief.

Nowadays, of course, more than 30 years after people joked about 40-year-old rock stars, it seems like every person who is remotely serious about pop music and their dog has seen at least one these dinosaurs live, because they're everywhere. The Rolling Stones, at it for more than 50 years, are going back on tour. But forget about those pioneers; look at second and third generations of rock and pop bands, of whatever genre, and the longevity of the most successful of them. U2 will be 40 years old next year: still active, still recording, still touring. Metallica, 35 years old next year: the same. Pearl Jam, 25 years old: the same. All of this is by now, you might think, normal. Watching Fleetwood Mac, I heard and saw great performances, but I also couldn't help but be impressed by the huge, complicated business it was (our seats were high enough and nearer enough for us to be able to see behind the backdrop and the stage risers) to put on one of these shows. It was like a massive--but well-oiled and efficient--moving art installation project. There's a routine to it; these artists and the hundreds they employ with the millions of dollars these tours generate understand how to make it happen. And watching these experienced musicians move smoothly around the stage, it was undeniable that they buy into it. They're performers, and this is the way they deliver their performance. Why not keep doing it as long as mind and body allow; why walk away from your vocation, when the money and fans are still there? It gets to the point where you really wonder if Led Zeppelin or The Police or R.E.M. were perhaps just strange anomalies: successful bands that broke up and actually stayed broken up (for the most part, anyway).

As my friend Michael Austin always reminds me, it's all about us: we're the ones in our 40s and 50s, now in possession of some genuine buying power, who are willing to pay significant amounts of cash to see these talented folk whose tunes were so important to us 20 or 30 or more years ago. My friends and I swapped stories about who we'd drop serious coin to see. All of the ones named were bands and artists from decades ago. And, almost without exception (my friend who voted for Queen is obviously a bit out of running, unless a replacement for Freddie Mercury miraculously appears), it's all still possible. Capitalism may be responsible for any number of things that I dislike, but how can I fault a market system which smooths the way for folks with real talent to continue to deliver, even to me here in Wichita, Kansas, well performed music decades after I ever could have normally had any reasonable chance to see them live? Well done, you big beautiful impersonal technology-driven age-defying economic machine; well done indeed.

(Though honestly, Lindsey, would it have killed you to play "Trouble"? C'mon, man!)