Monday, May 06, 2019

Bringing Wendell Berry (and Business) to Sterling

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

A week ago I was able to organize a small group of friends to attend a fine, relatively intimate event at Sterling College, a small Christian liberal arts college in Kansas (much like my own). The event, titled "Virtues of Place: Wendell Berry and Rural Kansas" was really two events, but I just want to talk about the first, a panel discussion with Front Porch Republic's website guru Jeff Bilbro and his friend and colleague Jack Baker--who have together written a fine book on education and Berry's thought--along with Aubrey Streit Krug, the Director of Ecosphere Studies at The Land Institute in Salina, KS. Many ideas came up in that discussion; let me focus on one of them.

The panel was a guided discussion about what it means to pursue "placeness"--that is, to develop a truly sustainable attachment to and affection for the social, economic, and culture characteristics of where one lives, works, and builds one's family or community--in small rural towns, where the extractive farming economy of the past half-century has led to consolidation and de-population in equal measure. While the panelists had thoughtful things to say about the sorts of narratives we need to share to prioritize the value of finding worth in one's own situation, rather than always seeking another, they never could entirely extract themselves from the economic. After all, it is one thing to hold to Wendell Berry's call to be a "sticker," to learn to inhabit and love one's own place, as he laid it out in his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, when one's place is sufficiently connected or culturally rich  or filled with employment opportunities, so as be able to withstand the effects which distant corporate or governmental centralization might have on one's livelihood. But what about Sterling? A population of a little over 2000, a median income below both the American and the Kansas average, a poor farming town, with the only non-agricultural employer of any size (besides Sterling College itself) being Jacam Chemical, a chemical manufacturer which started in Sterling in 1982 but relocated its headquarters to the comparative metropolis of Wichita (metro area population: 645,000), more than an hour away, decades ago? What can Berry's ideas teach to such a community about sustainability?

Jeff was pretty frank in his comments, when pushed to the point. As important as reframing our understanding of place may be--especially for young people and college students!--it is admittedly simply difficult to think about the virtues of place in Sterling, or thousands of other small rural communities spread across the country, when the very real financial constraints which the people who want to live in such places confront on a daily basis are not being addressed. (The fact that the heartfelt efforts of numerous rural Republicans and Democrats across the state to once again attempt to get the Republican leadership in Topeka to allow a vote of Medicaid expansion, which medical workers and a hospital administrators in Kansas are nearly unanimous in praying for as the best option for keeping health care available in isolated, rural communities like Sterling, went down once more to defeat the same week as this symposium, probably should have received some comment, but it didn't.) Jeff emphasized that he didn't think at all that material variables were the only or even the most important ones when it comes to being able to build attachments to a place--but they probably are, at the very least, necessary ones.

In thinking about that necessary work, I couldn't help but think about a former student of mine who came up to Sterling with us: Nick Pohlenz, a man who has studied theology and philosophy and how to brew beer, and now makes his living running a sawmill. I had him come to speak to one of my classes once about his experiences, and on the drive from Wichita to Sterling, he talked about what his own work--specifically, strengthening his small mill's ability to productively reach into those regional niches where the sort of wood they can most profitably cut and process (black walnut in particular) is available in batches which they can buy, transport, and handle--can provide to a small town like Sterling. Black walnut, and regional trees like Osage orange trees and the like, are primarily found in river bottoms or other low-lying areas--areas which many farmers, seeking to level their land so as to take advantage of the economies of scale which industrial agriculture presumes, will often plow under, burn out, or just cut and leave in massive brush piles. Major milling operations, looking to sell lumber to China or other distant locales, will be quick to spot large stands of such timber, and major farming operations will similarly be quick to calculate into their offers to buy up neighboring farms such possible profits. But what about small or mid-sized farms, particularly those owned by families or individuals that would really rather hold on to their parents' or grandparents' or great-grandparents' farm, even if they have to work other jobs in the area (or commute all the way to nearest city of any size) to supplement their income sufficient to pay the bills? To paraphrase, as close as I can remember, Nick's comment as we drove into Sterling:

"Over the past couple of years, this has become a crucial win-win for us: to come into these small rural farming [or, I would add, post-farming] communities, and get to the local landowners, and offer to buy and clear out a small stand of timber on their property. If we're just talking about a typical isolated patch in a bottom area, we'd only be looking at a few thousand dollars. A big farming operation wouldn't bother listening to us; to them, $3000 is an insurance payment on their combine. They'll just plow it under. But how often do you think some of these local landowners have seen a couple of thousand dollars? Not often enough! They'll take it, and we'll take the wood, which will be more than enough to us to mill or woodwork enough product to satisfy our local clientele for some time. Bringing our business to these small towns is essential to our whole operation."

To think both practically as well as politically about what Nick's experience with Elderslie Woodworks suggests, I think we can see several factors at work. America's small farming towns and the food producers that try to keep them functioning, to ever escape total domination (and thus, probably, eventually, total automation), need small-scale enterprises that can productively bring wealth into their places. The businesses must be small-scaled for a very practical reason: those businesses which are scaled to take advantage of the global flows of capital which exist today simply won't be able to profitably approach locaql operators who prefer to resist large-scale transformations--like, say, refusing to simply sell or consolidate their whole 40 acre or 400 acre plot. (Interestingly, one critical voice at the panel discussion was a local farmer who proudly defended her ability to be able to run a successful 4000-acre soybean operation, without, to her mind, any of the "placelessness" which the panel was addressing. It's fair to hear her challenges, of course--but it's also worth asking her, and thousands of other farmers who have accepted the gospel of "get big or get out" for decades, why she felt it so important to insist that we have "progressed" beyond the supposedly dangerous dream of a financially viable farm operating on a mere 50-acre plot.)

There is also a political reality here as well--defending mid-sized regional cities, ones large enough to develop enough specialized wealth so as to make local artisan work actually profitable, but also not so large as to crowd out the ability of small businesses to fit within their operating expenses outreach to and work within the small communities that exist within the regional cities orbit. True, certain sorts of small businesses have been able to maintain ties with small rural towns and the resources they offer even in the midst of huge urban agglomerations--but not many, and even fewer that actually make use of what those small rural towns can offer from out of their natural resources. And that, of course, takes us back to the whole theme of the symposium. For as the second event of the day, an evening presentation by Jeff and Jack about their argument for rethinking the university along the lines of "place-ness," made very clear: however specialized or abstract any of our work or our thinking may become, there is simply no superior alternative for building up the virtue of affection for a way and a place of life than involving oneself in the ground one walks upon: farming it, planting gardens in it, recognizing its needs and enjoying its health.

It is an interesting reality that in a market economy that has moved beyond mere subsistence, it may well be that continuing to make possible the rural small town depends upon those small towns being in a relationship with a wealth generating urban center. But then, perhaps it has always been that way? Perhaps the idea that the rural farmland wasn't a relational (and thus somewhat restricting) necessity to local urban space, but rather was purely a natural (and thus extractable) resource that any urban place--the bigger the better!--anywhere in the world could make use was just an aberrant thought, one which global capitalism and cheap oil made us believe? Well, however one construes it, keeping in mind that rebuilding a sense of place will probably also mean rebuilding a sense of mutual obligation between different types of places is an important lesson, I think. I am grateful for Sterling College and my friends for helping me to see it this week.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Arguing About Abortion (but Actually Mostly Other Things) in Kansas

[I was asked to provide some commentary on the recent abortion decision by the Kansas Supreme Court which received so much national attention. My column appeared in the Wichita Eagle on Saturday (read it here, complete with an incorrect file photo of the current Kansas Supreme Court justices), which surprised me, as I expected it to run today. Anyway, as usual, I actually have more to say, so here we go, one day late:]

A little over a week ago, the Kansas Supreme Court handed down its decision in Hodes & Nauser v. Schmidt, the case which obliged them to rule on whether or not Kansas’s state constitution included the right for a woman to have an abortion. It includes three different opinions–one by a five-person majority, one concurrence by Justice Dan Biles, and one dissent by Justice Caleb Stegall–spread over 199 pages, all of which I read last weekend, because I'm that kind of nerd. Judging by my scribbled notes all over those pages, I would say the opinions are filled with careful, challenging, and sometimes frustrating legal argument. Whatever else you may think of the results, I can assure you that the decision here was anything but simple.

Yet last Friday, my own west Wichita representative in the Kansas House, Dan Hawkins (hi Dan!), denounced the Court’s ruling in highly simplistic terms, calling it an act of “dictators” bent on “dehumanization” in a Wichita Eagle column. His argument was impassioned, and not, I think, entirely wrong--but fairly tendentious all the same. Since Kansas Supreme Court justices never comment on their own opinions, I figured I may as well attempt an explanatory retort.

But first, inveterate academic that I am, I can't help but include an unfortunately-lengthy caveat on the whole matter of the judiciary's role in American democracy--which, by the way, is actually pretty central to the dissent's whole argument--just in case anyone is confused about where I'm coming from. I long have been, and I remain, despite much rethinking and fine-tuning of my opinions over the years, still basically suspicious of judicial review (as many blog posts of mine over years have made clear). I recognize that counter-majoritarian tools are indispensable in a democratic system which takes the idea of basic rights even minimally seriously; the question is, if the governing system one is part of also takes genuine participatory (and thus invariably majoritarian) democracy even minimally seriously--which generally I think it should--what those counter-majoritarian tools should consist of. I am unpersuaded that the civic costs of judicial review, as it has come to be exercised, are always worth its benefits. That is not to say that, absent a complete reworking of the bases upon which engaging in democratic activity under out constitutional system, we should simply get rid of it; my point is simply to reiterate its (I think irreparably) problematic character, not to deny its inextricable connection to the only kind of political functioning currently available in the United States. One should always keep in mind that judicial review didn't have to be institutionalized in the overwrought, often desperate way it has been; the U.S. Constitution, on my reading, certainly doesn't warrant it, and American history provides numerous instances where one could imagine the relationship between the courts and the legislator-electing public developing along different lines. Consider, for example, Abraham Lincoln's response to the precedents supposedly laid down by the Supreme Court's infamous decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford:

Judicial decisions are of greater or lesser authority as precedents, according to their circumstances. That this should be so, accords both with common sense, and the customary understanding of the legal profession. If this important decision had been made by the unanimous concurrence of the judges, and without any apparent partisan bias, and in accordance with legal public expectation, and with the steady practice of the departments throughout our history, and had been in no part based on assumed historical facts which are not really true; or, if wanting in some of these, it had been before the court more than once, and had there been affirmed and re-affirmed through a course of years, it then might be, perhaps would be, factious, nay, even revolutionary, to not acquiesce in it as a precedent. But when, as it is true we find it wanting in all these claims to the public confidence, it is not resistance, it is not factious, it is not even disrespectful, to treat it as not having yet quite established a settled doctrine for the country.

I have no idea how any of the above could have been institutionalized (requiring controversial cases, or those that split 5-4 or otherwise along recognized party lines, to be re-argued before a different set of justices, perhaps? but that would necessitate much more frequent turn-over in the federal judicial system, perhaps through imposing term limits on Supreme Court and lower court judges?). But just because I can't think of how to make it work, doesn't mean there isn't any possible way to institutionalize it. But in any case, that's where I stand--and hence, as I'll explain, I have a certain among of sympathy for the dissent. But also, please note: this case was not, strictly speaking, a full act of judicial review. Rather, this was a case of the Kansas Supreme Court being obliged to provide an answer to a question which would then be relevant to any judicial determination of the constitutionality of a law. And that, at last, leads me back to the decision itself, and Hawkins's reaction to it.

The first paragraph of the 5-justice majority's opinion defines the goal of their argument: "Section 1 of the Kansas Constitution's Bill of rights provides: 'All men are possessed of equal and inalienable natural rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' We are now asked: Is this declaration of rights more than an idealized aspiration? And, if so, do those substantive rights include a woman's right to make decisions about her body, including the decision whether to continue her pregnancy? We answer these questions, 'Yes'" (pg. 7).

The Kansas Supreme Court's decision is obviously a win for those who defend abortion rights, and a loss for those who oppose the extension of those rights (with both groups constituting roughly half of Kansas's population). But does that mean the decision by the majority has opened the door for “unrestricted late-term abortion up to the point of birth” in Kansas as Hawkins wrote? No, it does not--or at least, it only means it in the same sense that my having the freedom to grade my own students' exams opens the door to my deciding to arbitrarily flunk everyone who is less that 5 ft. in height. The simple fact is that any hypothetical changes to abortion laws in Kansas are a question for the future, and are by no means predicted by this decision. This is because the focus of this case wasn’t abortion policy at all, but rather the constitutional terms under which abortion policies are to be made--and as such, provides no ready-made path for anyone who wants to make specific policy changes.

The original argument behind the whole question brought before the Kansas Supreme Court was over what level of justification the state of Kansas must provide in passing a law which bans a particular type of otherwise legal abortion procedure (in this case, the undeniably gruesome but generally safe and reliable procedure normally used in those rare cases where late-term abortions are medically necessary because the baby is severely deformed or otherwise threatening the health of the mother). Having made their decision, the majority's decision sends the case back to district court, to be argued in light to their constitutional interpretation. They note that the lower court has “a heavy task ahead of it” (pg. 86), in that it will have to consider this Kansas law in the face of scientific advances in fetal viability on the one hand, and the clear right of women to control their bodies on the other.

So what about that right to bodily integrity or autonomy (the majority uses both without much clarity or distinction)? Hawkins is obviously correct in noting that the Kansas Constitution includes “no language of the sort.” Here is where things get interesting to nerds like myself to love to study such things. Abortion rights were established by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly a half-century ago in Roe v. Wade on the basis of the right to “privacy” which it interpreted out of other guarantees in the Bill of Rights--the (in)famous idea that privacy-related rights like that of free association, protecting one's property, insisting on remaining silent, etc., formed a "penumbra" that included within it a general right to privacy. Whatever your opinion about that bit of constitutional interpretation, it must be remembered that the Court modified it in the decisions which followed. Over the decades, various debates over privacy in regards to abortion has led that Court to develop a test which allows state legislatures to pass laws which restrict abortion rights in the name of protecting fetal life, so long as doing so does not pose an “undue burden” on a woman’s freedom of choice. That test, developed primarily by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, remains the binding precedent for abortion policy today.

The majority on the Kansas Supreme Court acknowledges this line of reasoning, allows that the Kansas Constitution incorporates this currently reigning interpretation of privacy rights–and then dismisses it, actually writing that, while they hold this interpretation to be valid, they "need not recognize" it (pg.15). Instead, they argue that the Kansas state constitution provides something even stronger: an inalienable natural guarantee of complete bodily autonomy.

This is a rather audacious thing for a state court to claim, in particular because it introduces a host of questions that the Court provides no guidance for. For example, is “bodily integrity” to be understood as solely referring to the right of women to control their own pregnancies? Or might it also imply that any Kansas law or government office or place of public accommodation which puts restrictions on what people choose to do with their bodies–like, that I must clothe my body with a shirt and shoes if I want to be served, or that a child’s body must be vaccinated before she attends elementary school–should be presumed to be unconstitutional? The majority does gesture towards the sticky problem of mandatory vaccinations, but suggests that the principle of never causing "harm to the individual"--pg. 40--will provide clear guidance, a claim I strongly doubt.

In confess that here I am very sympathetic to the concurrence opinion by Justice Dan Biles, wherein he agrees with the majority that state abortion laws must take into consideration the rights of women, but then argues that elevating rights regarding something as fraught as abortion to such a high level, ignoring the definitions and qualifications which the U.S. Supreme Court has introduced in its decisions about privacy concerns, creates more legal problems than it solves. Biles is particularly good in pointing out that the majority seemed intent on resurrecting Roe-era "strict scrutiny" standards for evaluating abortion policies, but then provided no coherent guidelines for understanding how the right to bodily integrity should be applied to any particular case. After detailing what he considered (I think rightly) an unnecessary bridge too far beyond Casey's privacy-based undue burden standard, he comments "The trial court is going to have to make sense of this nuance, and I wish it luck, because I can't tell the difference" (pg. 96).

Finally there is the dissent. Hawkins condemns the majority for never addressing the elephant in the room: "the rights of the child" and “the loss of life that occurs when an abortion takes place.” But of course, the dissent didn’t address it either–because, again, that wasn’t what was legally at issue. I know Justice Caleb Stegall, and consider him a friend; I know he’s a committed Christian conservative on these matters, and some of his stray comments about the procedure which the state law banned make clear. But in crafting his tour de force dissent of this decision, he remained firmly focused on the case before him.

Thus he spent little time discussing abortion itself, and instead produced a historical and theoretical argument which presents rights as something citizens already possess, and thus may legislatively extend or limit them as they democratically prefer, rather than as something that reflect, to quote Stegall, “sea-of-fundamental-values” (such as an abortion-supporting right to bodily autonomy) which the courts must protect against invasive majorities (pg. 116). On this point, Hawkins’s column, like Stegall’s dissent, connects with an old and honorable argument--an argument that, as a matter of political theory, is as old as the notions of natural rights and democracy themselves, and as a matter of American political history, goes back to the debates over the Constitution by the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, and has continued in one fashion or another ever since. As someone who teaches these ideas regularly, I’m fascinated the dissent’s contribution to this debate. Personally, I find much of his theory highly persuasive--how could anyone like myself, who is basically suspicious of judicial review, not sympathize with his point? But I find myself questioning much of his history.

Not necessarily the detailed history he gives of the origins of the Kansas Constitution, and the descriptions of it by those who were contributed to its writing. Stegall sees this history as supporting the use of a "commonwealth lens" to assess government powers, thus suggesting that the rights included in the document's beginning were not individualistic natural rights but rather reflected "right of republican self-rule" (pgs. 133, 169). The majority obviously disagrees with him, though they seem to me much too quick to turn early Kansans into a bunch of modern Lockeans, judging every governmental problem they faced through contractarian, property-and-rights-based assumptions (hence the Court's ability to connect liberty with bodily self-ownership relatively quickly). But I'm no expert on Kansas judicial history, so I can't weigh in too much on that argument. I can, however, articulate my problems with Stegall's attempt to put what appears to my mind to necessarily issue in a strong strong states' rights (or at least Jeffersonian) argument into the language of Abraham Lincoln, presenting him as one who believed that rights were best understood as what results when "the people relinquished...a defined and limited measure of their pre-political sovereignty while retaining the rest" (pg. 148).

Of course, Lincoln was far closer to older, more republican understandings of democratic government than our much more complex, much more urbanized, much more diverse, and much more competitive and economically divided country presently allows, Moreover, he obviously (as I noted above) was no friend to the arbitrary judicial discovery of--or, as happened to be the case, withdrawal of--basic rights. The man obviously adored the legacy of Jefferson and took seriously his ideas. Still, I think the majority is obviously correct when they insist, in response to Stegall, that "Lincoln...would not be quite so dismissive...on the existence of equal 'natural rights,'" going on from there to quote Lincoln's famous conviction that the rights mentioned in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence (which are the same ones mentioned in the Kansas Constitution), and its promise of equality, were all meant to be aspirational and "of future use"--and thus not something necessarily subject to the give and take of community self-definition (pgs. 34-35). Lincoln gave us the Gettysburg Address, after all--a speech which reduced all the local democratic articulations of the general welfare and everything else tied up with the historical experience of republican self-government to a single "proposition." Consequently, I find Stegall's history more a distraction than an aide to his theoretical argument.

But at this point, the overall reality of the arguments happening in Hodes & Nauser v. Schmidt should be clear. They are mostly not, in fact, arguments about abortion. Rather, they are arguments about different philosophies of natural rights, about republican political theory, about constitutional interpretation and judicial precedents--about, in short, basic fundamentals regarding governing power. All of those things, given the particular structure of this case, will have significant impacts on abortion policies--but we don't know what those impacts will be, because all the Court has determined is how, in the state of Kansas, what one has to include when one argues about abortion, not how those arguments have to go.

The law is hard, and for better or worse (I think mostly for worse, but there's not much I can do about that), has become the place where we send our hardest disputes. That doesn’t mean we’re obliged to respect the decisions of any particular court, or the way it decides them; I certainly don’t. But rather than reducing the complexity of what courts do to simplistic political arguments, let’s at least credit them for taking seriously the particular questions before them. Then afterwards, once we've all done the reading and the thinking regarding what our judicial umpires have to say, we can let the political chips fall where they may.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Listening to Macca #4: Wings at the Speed of Sound, London Town, and Back to the Egg

This month was spent wrapping up McCartney's final experience leading a regular, formal band. To be honest, most shed no tears over this. By the time Wings was officially dead--and for simplicity sake, I'm just going to declare that when Macca was busted for marijuana possession and jailed for 10 days the day the band arrived in Japan for their tour there in early 1980, resulting in the tour's cancellation, was the day that everyone in the band just kind of gave up (though McCartney himself had been privately recording a solo album for months prior)--it was broadly accepted, including by Macca himself, that the band had been something of a failure. But I admit that the unimpressive end which Wings came to, having listened to these three albums again and again this month, kind of saddens me. Wings was hampered with bad luck from the beginning, to be sure, but they produced some tremendous pop music on occasion, and it's not impossible to imagine a different, and much more rewarding, future for the band, if you listen close.

After seeming to waste his immediate post-Beatles years just farting around in the studio, the years 1973-1976 were--or least could have been considered, in retrospect, if some things had turned out differently--a time of assembling a genuine musical team and pulling said team together. There could have been a story of Wings which "really" began with the second line-up of the band, with the Paul-Linda-Denny Laine trio having figured out how to work together--and together producing Macca's best album of the 1970s, Band on the Run--and then with the addition of Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English coming together to provide an entirely respectable, and often very good, follow-up with Venus and Mars. In comparison to those two albums, Wings at the Speed of Sound is often considered a little weak--but I think I dissent from that. If history had unfolded differently, it might have been looked back on as a "sophomore slump" for the new line-up, nothing worse that that. I mean, give it a fair shake. There's plenty of Paul's annoyingly half-done ditties included on the album--"Let 'Em In," "She's My Baby," and of course, "Silly Love Songs"--but "Beware My Love" is a legitimate (if not first-class) rock and roll scorcher, "Must Do Something About It" (with Joe English taking lead vocals) is a surprisingly smart little pop number, and "Warm and Beautiful" is a solid ballad. McCulloch's "Wino Junko" is a great, dreamy 70s rocker, and Laine's "Time to Hide" is pretty fabulous as well. Really, the only song that is out-and-out embarrassing is "Cook of the House," and that's forgivable. (Paul has to give Linda something to do, right?) So even if Venus and Mars is the better album overall, I'd give Speed of Sound the same grade nonetheless--a solid B. Seriously, this is good, if not great, 70s-style pop-rock. If Wings had been able to hold things together and continue working like they did on 1976's Wings over America (which is a terrific concert album), no one, I think, would look back and say that Speed of Sound was a band just treading water before sinking. On the contrary, it shows a real band determined to make good music, and that could have been Macca's future.

It wasn't to be, though. Instead, English decided he missed his home in America and left the band, and McCulloch died of a drug overdose (which, apparently, was sad but kind of expected by those who knew him). As of 1977, Wings was down to a trio again--and this time, whatever combination of luck, sweat, inspiration, and talent enabled those three to make Band on the Run completely left them. London Town isn't horrible, but it's definitely a middling-to-poor album, a C- production at best. I truly adore the moody, quietly intense hopefulness that Paul's electric piano puts into "With a Little Luck"; it's one of my favorite songs of all the 1970s. But other than that, little stands out. "Girlfriend" is a somewhat memorable ballad, "I'm Carrying" has a sweet melody, "Backwards Traveler" sounds like a good Badfinger tune, "Cuff Link" has some cool but entirely undeveloped proto-New Wave synth work, and if you want to add "Mull of Kintyre" to this album (it was actually recorded and released separately), that's a charming song that can tip the ledger in a positive direction further. But mostly, London Town is thoroughly unimpressive, I think--three talented people (well, two and a half) waiting for inspiration to strike, and it hardly ever does.

And sadly, Back to the Egg is more of the same. I know the album has its defenders, and it's true that "Rockestra Theme" became a hit, though I have no idea how--it's a perfectly pleasant but entirely unexceptional jam, crowded with unnecessary guest stars. That kind of C- adequacy pretty much defines the album, in my judgment. "Arrow Through Me" is the closest to an exception; it's a nicely creative bit of funk. Maybe if Macca had taken the time to really develop an R&B feel for the band with his new recruits (Laurence Juber on guitar and Steve Holley on drums--both of whose subsequent careers, interestingly enough, involve a lot of freestyle jazz and swing, so it's not like that approach would have been impossible back in the studio), some real inspiration would have hit. But by the same token, maybe McCartney just wasn't willing to work that hard. Even when he really threw himself into a song--like "Old Siam, Sir," "To You," or "So Glad to See You Here"--his band just sounds kind of perfunctory to me, like McCartney kept lazily calling for "energy!" and they just played louder, not really feeling whatever their boss thought they ought to be feeling. Obviously, Sir Paul needed to clear his head and get a reboot--and the perhaps sadly unavoidable demise of Wings provided it.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Listening to Macca #3: Band on the Run and Venus and Mars

I obviously haven't finished my song-by-song march through everything McCartney did with Wings, but I will be very surprised if these two albums don't turn out to be the best work ever done by that band--or, more specifically, done by the trio of Sir Paul, Linda, and Denny Laine, whomever else may or may not have joined them in the studio. Band on the Run is the best-selling and most critically acclaimed post-Beatles album that McCartney ever played on or wrote a song for, with or without anyone else, and I judge those accolades very much deserved. And Venus and Mars has some great songs on it as well--and, more importantly, with the (brief) addition of the fantastic guitarist Jimmy McCulloch to complement Laine's lead and McCartney's bass, and Joe English on drums as well, you had the makings of a genuine, functioning, mutually interactive and developing band. Too bad it didn't last.

Ban on the Run was released in December 1973, barely six months after the still comparatively aimless Red Rose Speedway, and man, what a difference a half a year can make. The Paul-Linda-Denny trio ended up with nine tight songs, three of which--"Jet," "Let Me Roll With It," and "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five"--are, I think, rock and roll songs of the first order, making use of driving horns, crunching bass lines, synthesized organ tones, and boogie-woogie piano. The title song is, of course, a fun pop medley, one that actually holds together in a way that the half-done stitching jobs Sir Paul had given a pass to on his previous albums usually did not. "Bluebird" and "No Words" may not be your cup of tea, but they're both fine examples of how Macca can sometimes turn his fondness for sappy love songs in subtle or surprising directions. "Mamunia," which you expect to be a lazy folk-pop tune, turns out to be a sweet, hummable, clever number. Even "Mrs. Vanderbilt" and "Picasso's Last Words (Drink To Me)," both of which have McCartney's stereotypical thrown-together feel to them, nonetheless sustain some real musical integrity, and remain entertaining to the end. So really, this whole album is excellent, very much worth listening to all the way through again and again. I give it an A.

Venus and Mars was recorded a year and a half later, mostly in New Orleans. It has a couple of duds: "You Gave Me The Answer" is just McCartney letting his old music hall side out again, and it's hard to know what "Spirits of Ancient Egypt" (a Laine composition) is supposed to be. But many of cuts on the album are supported by tight horns and funky grooves that takes Macca's lyrics in new directions--"Letting Go," "Call Me Back Again," even the pretentious "Rock Show" (which is paired with the almost unbearably twee "Venus and Mars") are all fine, driving rock and roll songs, worthy of a listen or three. "Listen to What the Man Said" was the album's huge pop hit, but "Magneto and Titanium Man" is just as good, maybe better (I think it's terrifically witty, but maybe that's just because I catch all the comic book references). My favorite cut on the whole album, however, is the one which wasn't a McCartney composition: "Medicine Jar," written and sung by Jimmy McCulloch, is a swampy, bluesy, barn-burner; I adore it, and I can't believe no one tried to release it as a single. So give this album a solid B. If McCartney hadn't done what he so often did in the 1970s, and release his best songs--in this case, the blistering and wicked smart "Junior's Farm"--as singles rather than sticking them on the album made from the sessions where they were recorded, it would probably be higher, maybe even at Band on the Run's level.

Friday, March 29, 2019

What Urban Liberals Might Learn From Rural Rebels

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Loka Ashwood, a rural sociologist at Auburn University, visited The Land Institute in Salina, KS, last September, and gave a presentation on her then just-published book, For-Profit Democracy: Why the Government Is Losing the Trust of Rural America. The book is wonderful, if sometimes a little frustrating--I'd love everyone to read it, but especially the liberal editors of Washington Monthly, the liberal contributors to Boston Review, and all the progressive liberals surrounding Elizabeth Warren's presidential campaign. Why them, in particular? Well, that takes some explaining.

I pick on the Monthly and the Review in particular because they both recently published extensive packages of articles addressing--in thoughtful and (mostly) non-condescending ways--the fate of liberal politics and left causes in general in rural parts of America, and insisting that a new engagement by those on the left with rural America is a necessity. Paul Glastris, the editor of the Monthly, announced the issue's focus by calling upon its mostly wonky, mostly DC-living readership to "check your coastal urban privilege," and the articles which followed thoughtfully examined how agricultural consolidation is more a problem for rural communities today than tariffs, and how airline deregulation and the weakening of antitrust laws have created huge difficulties for small and mid-size cities in rural parts of the country trying to hold onto the resources upon which rural, regional economies depend. Elizabeth Catte, editing a special issue titled "Left Elsewhere" for the Review, invoked the left-wing, populist history of miners unions and other 19th-century and early 20th-century fights in Appalachia, noted the parallels between those movements and the West Virginia teachers strike, and insisted that liberal reformers today need to rediscover a "continuity" with rural activists from the past. And as for Warren, just on Wednesday her campaign dropped a long list of policy proposals she is promising to pursue if elected president, any one of which--supporting farmers in their pleas for much needed right-to-repair laws, shifting anti-trust policy to focus as least much on the Monsanto-manipulated agricultural producer as on the cheap-food-price-paying consumer--would be valuable additions in the fight to preserve rural economies and keep agricultural communities intact.

Talk is cheap, of course. Still, these and many other responses--some hopeful, some less so--from the liberal/progressive/socialist/left side of the political aisle in American life would seem to suggest, if nothing else, that in the wake of consistent major losses in the middle of the country over the past couple of decades, at least some smart Democratic activists, think-tankers, and politicians want to be more serious about incorporating the social and economic concerns of rural America into their thinking. More power to them!

But, also, they should read Ashwood's book. Because her analysis of the way the federal, state, and county governments of Burke County, Georgia, plus the massive and entwined corporations of Southern Company and Alabama Power, and the nuclear Vogtle Electric Generating Plant which they all together managed to build on land that, at one time, was owned by and provided both cultural and natural support to the people who lived upon it, teaches sobering lessons to those who hope that policies alone, absent a deeper restructuring of how we think about rural communities, will suffice.

It should emphasize that I have no doubt that Ashwood herself would be sympathetic to all of those above mentioned policies, and probably many more. Her contempt for the crony capitalism and the regulatory state which uses eminent domain to serve the interests of for-profit bodies which perpetuate such capitalist concentrations of power is made exceptionally clear throughout the book and her other writings, so clear that I'm certain she would consider any program, no matter how minimal, which might even just slightly limit the ability of corporations (and the governments which enable them) to control whether or not farmers can fix their own equipment, or make use of their seeds, or hunt on what was, sometimes for generations, their own land, absolutely worth pursuing. Years of research in rural communities have convinced her--and she makes a convincing case--that the greatest enemy of rural America is what she calls "for-profit democracy." It's a term which she defines multiple times, often somewhat differently (readers of her book should be forewarned that she repeatedly introduces concepts, even if quite similar to a previously introduced one, with a "this is what I'm calling" declaration--it's a slightly distracting habit, but not a terrible one). It describes a phenomenon which should be familiar to anyone with a rural background, in which public utilities--which are nearly always for-profit corporations--work through the power of governments to capture resources (land, waterways, roads, and more) so as to expand their productive footprint (and, thus, their "public service," though of course also their profit margins). It's a phenomenon which ties together concerns over majoritarianism (urban areas with large populations rarely think about the rural consequences of voting in support of constructing electrical grids, power lines, water treatment plants, or waste repositories, and therefore for the invasive industrial expansions necessary to do so), monopolization (economies of scale, when dealing with the demand for equal access to comprehensive goods, invariably benefits those large economic actors which can provide said goods, and thus empowers their demands for special privileges from the state), and limited liability (the creation of corporate forms which can offload costs creates a corrupt condition of mutual dependency, as well as mutual enrichment, between government and private actors). To try to capture the complexity of her idea, consider this explanation:

[F]or-profit democracy is enacted through the collective legal form of the corporation. In no universe would corporations exist without a legal system committed to economic development. Corporations enjoy liability protections not afforded to humans that go by their own name. When the Smith family can't pay their mortgage, they lose their house. But if a nuclear power plant defaults on a loan payment or experiences a core meltdown, layers of subsidiary corporations, limited liability, and special legislation protect shareholders from paying their debts. Further, private utilities have an absolute monopoly because the state (in addition to making them legally possible) allows them to buy up one another while also demanding that citizens fund them....

If corporate expansion over public purposes and private profit stopped there, profit-seeking corporations might not be such a substantial affront to the moral economy of democracy. Perhaps the legal creation of what I see as "for-profit democracy"...could stay in a sphere of corporate trade and not over-power the right to own property for other reasons. Perhaps limited liability could apply only when corporations squared up against other corporations, without dispossessing humans, who still bore liability for their own actions. But corporate owners have not stopped there. On top of awarding them public and profit rights, the judiciary recognizes corporations as people....Economic development and making money are so confused with the ultimate ends of society that fictitious legal creations are treated as everyday people....Deft lawyers cleverly press the extension of human rights to the corporate form through narrow legal jurisprudence, making profit's rule ever more pervasive in ever more corners of democratic and everyday life. Meanwhile, the scales of justice that favor corporations bring democracy ever closer to the breaking point--a breaking point for the moral economy familiar to Sydney, Sara, Dave, Dean, Beau, and Patty [all of whom are various individuals that Ashwood profiles at length, all residents of Burke County who have found so many options for the traditional use of the resources and land once available to them circumscribed by the actions of power companies and the county government that are tempted to do as many others--just take the money and leave], who find themselves unable to compromise on their most deeply held principles for the sake of a profit-seeking legal apparatus (pp. 25, 71, 73).

There are many more arguments which Ashwood develops from her years-long, sometimes difficult engagement with and study of both the facts on the ground and the people who live upon it, there in Burke County. (In a nice moment, Ashwood relates how some doors were opened to her that might have remained closed as the word spread through this rural area that her husband was Irish, making her more sympathetic; apparently, stories of the sufferings of the Irish are still known among the distant descendants of the Scots-Irish in the Georgia backwoods still today.) Not all these arguments--about positive and negative freedom, about Thomas Hobbes, about the nature of private property itself--are equally well-informed. But the way she charts how the contracting of resources worsened racial divides, how the rhetoric of both Christian preaching and gun ownership was locally shaped by corporate-driven instability, and more was all superb. True, what she is studying may not be all that different from what happens in urban environments, when business interests get government support (and sometimes even subsidies!) to buy up and "improve" properties that were, in however limited a fashion, "commons" that contributed to urban life. But the fact that her context for examining the way these tensions play out is a rural one matters.

The problem, to put it simply, is rural conservatism. The people she spoke to--the white ones, anyway--nearly always voted Republican (when they bothered to vote, that is). How seriously, you might wonder, are we to take the observations and conclusions of someone who spent years tramping around the forests of eastern Georgia, and develops from that study a condemnation of corporate power and the rule of capital, a condemnation that, at least insofar as electoral results go, is apparently shared by essentially none of the white people she spoke to? Isn't it more likely that her fine-grained sociological study of the people of Burke County only reflects class and race-specific patterns of belief which we're all already familiar with, patterns that the well-intentioned proposals from Washington Monthly or Boston Review or Senator Warren fit into nicely? I would argue no: instead, Ashwood has revealed something important and not-often noticed. But unfortunately, you have to go beyond her fine book to see what that is.

Last year, Ashwood published--along with her book--a fascinating, somewhat rambling piece of sociological theory, one which attempts to categorize the type of anarchism that she had experienced so much of during her years in Georgia. It's difficult to reduce the multiple prongs of her argument in that essay to a single thesis, but this one might work: according to Ashwood, many rural people hold to an ideal of statelessness, of entirely independent self-governance. As this is an ideal with no practical vehicle of ideological expression in American politics today, it is instead often articulated in association with various parties, movements, and positions that, while not truly anarchic, nonetheless capture elements of the stateless ideal through rhetorically attacking the state--an "anti-state" position that comes in both "retract" (libertarian) and "reform" (progressive) versions. In her view, reformers "temporarily advocate a pro-statist view as a just means to a stateless end," while retractors "seek to reduce the power of the state without attention to intermediate issues of justice." Here is how she breaks it down:





Assuming we accept this typology (and I'm not sure I do, at least not entirely; I would like to have a long conversation with her as to why she assumes that radicalism is invariably tied to state power) what does it tell us about rural conservatism? Mainly, in Ashwood's view, that what many of the people she interviewed--people who struggled with the reality that tremendous (though definitely not equally shared) economic and technological benefits to their communities came entwined with alienating, land-grabbing, disempowering public-private partnerships--felt was an anarchic desire, one which came out sounding like conservatism, because there was no other available political language which came close to attaching to it. Their actions and reactions, in her view, clearly exhibited a conviction of and in something which their political context gave them no partisan formulation of.

On my reading, the real heart of For-Profit Democracy comes in her long chapter on "The Rural Rebel," which in her presentation is embodied by one William Gresham. William is a character, admired but not always appreciated by the other rural folk that Ashwood got to know, a former worker at the Savannah River Site--a 300-square mile "nuclear reservation" run by the Department of Energy which decades ago was a primary site for refining nuclear material, which stands directly across the Savannah river from the Vogtle nuclear plant--and now a general handyman and something of local legend, spoken of with admiration and sometimes disbelief. It takes a long time for Ashwood to gain his trust, but in time she spends many days with him as he runs errands, assists neighbors, fixes equipment, relates local history, and--eventually--takes her boating on the Savannah, crossing into areas which government signs declare off-limits, and to his hunting lodge, where he goes after squirrels and wild turkeys on property where being caught would mean time in jail. His knowledge of place in the Wendell Berry sense, particularly Sugar Creek, a tributary of the Savannah, is immense, and his awareness of the ecological devastation--in terms of erosion, water radiation, and more--of the land that he loves is highly detailed. He is contemptuous of local farmers who make use of the Conservation Reserve Program to supplement their incomes, and holds as an article of faith that everyone who takes a government job is physically lazy. Drawing on the work of Eric Hobsbawm, Ashwood describes what Gresham represented as thus:

William took issue with the power given to authorities, who then turned their authority into power over the people, rather than power for. He said that he didn't care about voting. That served to reinforce the state that had sucked so many of his neighbors dry. What does William stand against? For-profit politics. He stands against conjoined corporate and state corruption that violates his ideal of hard, honest work, embedded in everyday, manual, resource-intensive labor....

In the modern world, William finds the defenseless to be not only human, but also those voiceless life-forms in need of defense. The woods, open fields, lakes and streams, and inhabitants--quail, snakes, waters, trees--conjoin with disenfranchised humans to constitute what William sees as the defenseless rural poor....The term "environmentalist," signifying someone explicitly engaged in green politics as part of formal governance, doesn't fit. William clarified to me that he "ain't no tree hugger." The rural rebel defends what I sense to be "environmental honor," a poignant protection of what is seen as a defenseless community of ecology....

The bending of William's back in his self-chosen toil serves as as essential piece of his resistance against corporate and government control. He is not part of a roaming group of outlaws. Nor is he a member of a mob. He is in fact rare, and has the admiration of a following the stubbornly stands against the money interests that he sees destroying his homeland....Part of being a rebel can be staying at home--that in itself is an act of defiance against the state, which demands urban migration (pp. 126, 132, 134-135). 

There is clearly at least a touch of hero-worship in Ashwood's description of Gresham, but something powerfully authentic as well. Elements of social welfare can be found in his language, and traditional Christian morality as well, but no fondness, at least in Ashwood's telling, for either profit or progress, both of which, in Gresham's telling, invariably involve one in the machinations of both Big Business and Big Government. Gresham is hardly a role model for the more egalitarian and pluralistic world which sets the terms by which our economic and legal structures operate; Gresham's life operates in accordance with rules that are very particular to his gender (Greshman's friends are astonished that he brought a woman on one of his secret trips up the Savannah, and the aggressive flirtation Ashwood put up with while getting to know him bordered on the abusive) and his race (Ashwood's interviews make it clear that poor African-Americans that live near Gresham would never trespass property while hunting the way he does casually, or at least would never admit to doing so to an outsider like herself--the threat of law enforcement was real to them in the way it wasn't for Gresham). But for all that, is there anything "conservative," in the rural anarchic sense which Ashwood observed, that all the progressives, liberals, socialists, and others who are concerned about crony capitalism, alienation, monopolization, state oppression, and all the rest, can learn from? Well, maybe.

I have an acquaintance here in Wichita, KS, named Zack. (This is him posing next to Carrie Nation in downtown Wichita. He's the one on the left.) He's a good guy, a marathon-runner and a supporter of public radio. We go the rounds every once in a while, because his attitude towards politics is almost perfectly calibrated to make someone like myself, who teaches it for a living, kind of furious. But nonetheless I appreciate the way he, and other radicals (though by Ashwood's typology they're better described as "rebels") I have known, have pushed me to understand the many ways in which working through the institutional forms of society to achieve more moral, or more just, or more fair outcomes, cannot help but tie those outcomes to the power of the social institutions themselves. And democracy--at least representative democracy, the voting for candidates and the deliverance of sovereign authority on the basis of the results of those votes--provides no protection against this. Nor, arguably, is protest, at least not of the petition-gathering variety. In rethinking anarchism in the rural context which Ashwood provides, I see the possibility that the rhetoric of majoritarian democracy can co-opt protest, making it into something aligned with the goal of obtaining control over the state, as opposed to the goal of assuring spaces for collective action. And if the state is itself co-opted by (or at least entwined with) corporate entities hunting for profit--whether that be through contracting out to corporations the running of a nuclear power plant, or through making deals with developers to remake a city park in line with their physical preferences--then the whole logic of protest (to say nothing of voting) is changed, since it cannot present itself as doing anything other that replacing the management of the relationships with capital within the state. Perhaps some kind of socialist revolution could do the trick--but given that the historical record suggests pretty clearly the harms of that approach, what does that leave us with? Maybe just...individual acts of rebellion. As Ashwood concludes:

Taking the for-profit democratic state at face value prompts an understanding of rebels as something other than apolitical, pre-political, misguided malcontents. If the state is seem as complicit in the creation and persistence of the coal industry, the nuclear industry, or any other corporate industry that could not exist without the government, rebellion becomes less an unfortunate barrier to successful political action. It rather takes on its own legitimate basis of political reason by working entirely outside a state that sanctions exploitation (p. 125).

In the end, I'm not certain I take the "for-profit state" entirely at face value. I'm not certain that I agree that  private-public partnerships, absent a wholesale reconstruction of how markets function, are necessarily always disempowering and exploitive, especially if the public goods being secured (as, in theory, is the case with public utilities) are truly comprehensive. And therefore, relatedly, I'm not convinced that there's something wrong with Democrats who, in thinking about rural communities, focus on judicial decisions, state-enforced laws, and more. But even there isn't anything wrong, there well may be something missing. What's missing, perhaps, is a clearer understanding of the "why" any policies such of those would be valuable, assuming they can pull of their reforming work. It's not, at least insofar as Ashwood's work suggests, because farmers will be grateful for the security the state is providing. It's because, maybe, just maybe, it will help them be less in need of such outside security, and more able to live their arguably "rebellious" lives in their places. Which is exactly why all of them haven't decided to accept discipline, get with the program, and move to the city yet, right?

Friday, March 22, 2019

American Conservatism, and the Socialist Specter Which Haunts It Still

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Back in February, Rod Dreher shared with his readers an idea for a new book: to introduce conservative Christians in America to "the warnings that people who grew up under socialism are sounding now to Americans about where our country is going....[this] is not primarily about economics, but rather about how the overall mentality of our culture, especially in our leading institutions, is preparing the way for socialism." This, predictably, led to a lot of argument in his comments section. What exactly, some of us asked Rod (and each other), was the "socialism" that existed under the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which he was presumably referring to, and how is that related to what he sees happening in the Democratic party and corporate America and large educational institutions today--especially given that his concern, as he said, wasn't with economics? In subsequent posts Rod brought up multiple different possible interpretations of what "social conservatism" or "social justice" mean, and how they are or are not compatible with "socialism"--with none of it, on my reading, being especially coherent. Ultimately he recognized that using the word "socialism," when what he really wanted to get at was what conservative religious believers needed to know when confronted with an ideologically secular conformity--a conformity that many who experienced the tyranny of various communist parties in Russia and eastern Europe have analyzed thoughtfully and well--"obscures more than it illuminates." Rod didn't cite Alan Jacobs when he came to this conclusion, but he should have--because Alan, I think, had it right: Rod wasn't concerned about socialism; he was concerned about the individualistic, ideological premises of liberal capitalism itself being even further entrenched in our society. As Alan put it:

What [traditional Christians] are battling against isn't a form of socialism, cultural or otherwise. I would argue rather that it’s the ultimate extension of the free market--a kind of metaphysical capitalism. The gospel of the present moment is, as I have frequently commented, “I am my own.” I am a commodity owned solely by myself; I may do with this property whatever I want and call it whatever I want; any suggestion that my rights over myself are limited in any way I regard as an intolerable tyranny. That some kind of redistribution of access/prestige/attention and even economic resources might be needed to bring this gospel to those who have not previously been able to enjoy its benefits should not obscure for us what the core proclamation really is.

The fact that Rod saw the things he fears about ideological conformity as tied up with "socialism" is, unfortunately, a common mistake in America. Socialism is the bogeyman that conservatives of all stripes find easy to associate with all that distorts or corrupts those thinks they, in theory at least, hold most dear--namely, civil society, and the goods which social interactions in and through one's community, church, and family make possible. Given the rise of actually electable, self-identifying, democratic socialist politicians to national prominence in the Democratic party, it becomes doubly easy for Republican-voters of all stripes (including many conservatives, however defined) to simply associate "socialism" which whatever cultural concerns they have with the Democratic party's platform, or the statements they hear from various Democrats or presumably Democratic-sympathizing interest groups and movements. Sometimes those associations are accurate--but usually they are not. It would be unfortunate if some of the genuinely interesting struggles taking place among conservative writers today, whether it be Daniel McCarthy's "new conservative agenda" or Rod's own call to eschew any revival of "zombie Reaganism," continued to fail to take socialism--meaning, very fundamentally, putting social equality and collective empowerment before individual interests and private property--seriously. To do so is to leave the right side of the rhetorical battlefield empty, and thus available for our idiot president to fill.

Timothy Carney's mostly excellent new book, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse is a good example here. Carney is a talented writer, and he is clearly trying to set a higher bar for himself than the sort of conservative hackery was he was content with in his earlier books. This book has a real thesis, and in exploring that thesis--the question of the "localized erosion of civil society in our country," which he forthrightly admits in the acknowledgments isn't at all new, but rather hews closely to the ground which important sociologists and thinkers like Robert Putnam, William Julius Wilson, and many others have already plowed (p. 301)--Carney brings out many solid and thoughtful arguments. Starting with the data which shows it wasn't necessarily the most economically distressed white voters who decisively supported Donald Trump in 2016, but rather was the white voters who lived in the towns and cities where the social dysfunction which regularly attends the lives of the economically distressed (pp. 58, 62), Carney wants to explore why some places in America, and not simply certain groups of people, suffer. By comparing data sets specific to particular places, supplemented with some on the ground reporting, Carney smartly connects the collapse of certain sorts of economic opportunities--"low-skilled but reliable jobs....[which were] one of the many training grounds for life"--with the emergence of large numbers of people (mostly white men) who, failing to make America's supposed meritocracy work for them, find themselves flailing:

For college-educated men, high-skilled jobs still exist in today's economy, and those jobs often demand and cultivate the same virtues. For the man who was or would have been a factory worker, though, there aren't the salaried jobs of the elites or the reliable factory jobs of the past. There is instead irregular and even unreliable work--contractor jobs, occasional gigs. These are the sorts of jobs that don't reward or cultivate reliability or commitment, in a large part because they don't offer reliability of commitment in return. they reflect more an on-again, off-again relationship of convenience...and perhaps the cultivate other habits: detachment, the default stance of constantly looking for a better deal, and survival instinct that elevates self-preservation over loyalty (p. 82-83).

Leftist that I am, it is hard for me to understand how someone can notice the common denominator present in these places--the collapse of community, leaving in its wake far fewer examples of responsible citizenship and decent families and self-denying individuals; as Carney puts it explicitly, "the factory closing in Monessen destroyed Monessen as a community....[wiping] out the institutions of civil society"(p. 86)--and not come to the logical conclusion that the bulk of the problem is with what Jacobs rightly called "metaphysical capitalism": the acceptance of the supposedly overriding imperative to let individuals and corporations specialize and sort and relocate and maximize and to all the other things which homo economicus does so well. Carney poignantly describes how this cult of meritocracy and profit hollows out the human relationships that used to attend many once-stable communities (pp. 40-41), how it breaks apart those institutions--the church congregation, the local diner--which provided the places and contexts where mutual support and the goods of civil society could be experienced (pp. 102-103), how it deprives work of dignity and turns us all into interchangeable cogs in the Gig Economy (pp. 182-183). Yet when he visited Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, or activists working on the Sanders campaign in 2016, and saw the degree to which their actions in opposition to all of the above involved "building a mini-society" or "participating in community" or "making grass-roots connections"--in other words, when he himself acknowledged that the egalitarian aims of their work involved the strengthening of civil bonds, exactly the sort of thing that all good conservatives presumably cared about--he still couldn't help but basically discount them. "As progressives and socialists...[they] believed the solution to this real problem was centralizing power" (pp. 209-213). Is that really all that conservatives can see?

There are a couple of points in the book where Carney digs deep, and comes up with something perceptive about his own understanding of the world; maybe that understanding connects with why the socialism right in front of his face--at one point his own analysis leads him to praise the union-run unemployment insurance system of countries like Sweden and Denmark, and says the U.S. ought to do the same, putting labor unions in charge of distributing roughly $100 billion in welfare dollars every year! (p. 286)--can't be accepted in its own terms. In talking about Arlie Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the America Right, he quotes her statement that "the right can't understand the deep pride liberals take in their creatively designed, hard-won public sphere as a powerful integrative force in American life." He responds:

Hochschild...and others on the left perhaps can't understand that the folks of Trinity Baptist, Salt Lake City, and Oostburg see the church schools and the church slide as part of the public sphere and an integrative force. There's no admission charged on Sundays. The slides and coffee shops and concerts and sports teams at these churches tend to be open to all comers, and not merely believers. Even those who are exclusive when it comes to worship (see the Mormon temples) are inclusive when it comes to other events. The "gentiles" I met around Salt Lake City spoke fondly of bringing their kids to the monthly potlucks the local Latter-day Saints church would throw. The recovery aid programs that Hochschild described and that most churches have are open to all needy people. Homeless atheists or Catholics aren't turned away from Trinity Baptist. A mind-set that won't count these institutions as "public" is a mind-set that diminishes community and civil society (pp. 153-154).

Now as it happens, as a Mormon who lived in Utah for five years, I and friends of mine could relate numerous situations which would suggest that Carney's cheery portrait of Salt Lake City is hardly the whole story. No doubt similar stories could be told about any exclusive community attempting to balance its desire to maintain its identity while simultaneously being a good, civil society-contributing neighbor. This is one way in which Carney's writing and analysis, fine as it is, fails to grapple with the real difficulties of community-maintenance in the way which, say, Alan Ehrenhalt's The Lost City did--or, for that matter, Rod Dreher's own The Benedict Option. In both these works, as different as they are, the authors understand that the binding power which church institutions can contribute to civil society is unavoidably also an exclusionary one: that some doctrine, or standard, or authority, is going to have to be acknowledged, in one way or another, however "public" the church coffee shops or baseball leagues or recovery programs may appear to be.

Now, to the extent that such pluralism--that is, the various bodies, some of them being more open than others, all contributing in their own distinct ways to a healthy civil society--is experienced as a problem, it is arguably one which just takes us back to "metaphysical capitalism" again: the idea that "any suggestion that my rights over myself are limited in any way I regard as an intolerable tyranny." Of course, the liberal foundation of rights in this country, whatever its abuses, can't be cavalierly dismissed. But it is equally important to recognize where that doctrine leads, and to recognize that socialist principles can, and do, provide an alternative to it. Socialism (or democratic egalitarianism if you must) ought to be fruitfully pluralistic--and it usually is, as anyone who has spent any time in societies that embraced egalitarian principles, and made use of socialist policies to adhere to those principles, can probably tell you. But it is admittedly true that many types of socialism--particularly, but not only, the state socialist and communist parties which dominated much of the world for much of the 20th century--were unfriendly, to say the least, to any component of that pluralism which excluded, as of course churches often do, despite (or perhaps one could say "in connection with") their manifest role in providing for the development and the strengthening of social goods.

This isn't an argument that such civil bodies, once socially empowered, would or should never be changed by being more thoroughly economically integrated with the rest of society. Of course such bodies, churches included, can't do what they do alone; even Carney recognizes that without an economic foundation which protects good work--that is, without strong limits on the marketplace--communities will fail, and families and individuals will follow, with churches and other particularist, voluntary organizations usually being mostly powerless to slow that decline. (As John Médaille wonderfully put it, while conservatives insist that politics in downstream from culture, culture itself is "downstream from breakfast.") But perhaps if those who hope for the overthrow (or at least the significant modification) of capitalism wouldn't so often fail to understand the place of what could be, and historically often was, one of their key allies in preserving anti-capitalist, genuinely social and familial and egalitarian values in a community, conservatives--or at least those conservatives who are able to break away from the always-trust-the-market-first mentality of Cold War fusion conservatism--might realize that what they're looking for is something we socialists (or some of us, anyway) have been talking about all along.

Back in January, Erik Olin Wright, a brilliant and profoundly original socialist thinker, writer, and organizer passed away. His book Envisioning Real Utopias had an enormous impact upon me; when I first read it, I found myself explaining and re-explaining its ideas to myself and everyone I met for months. The most important thing it--and so many other of Wright's writings--did, I think, was explain how the Marxist shadow over socialist, anarchist, egalitarian, and all other utopian thinking has too often blinded thinkers on the left from recognizing something pretty obvious: that what we are looking to do is empower civil society, to make the mutual support communities provide stronger, to make our social and economic worlds more democratic. Hence we leftists need to be guided, first and foremost, by a "socialist compass," and we need to recognize everything that falls within that compass, including what he called "interstitial" entities and strategies--or in other words, what a non-sociologist might call the dozens, hundreds, thousands of initiatives and organizations (neighborhood co-ops, women's shelters, intentional communities, environmental groups, and many more) which provide spaces wherein civil society, and not capital, rules. He acknowledged that the more doctrinaire Marxist thinkers would see these as a distraction from the longed-for revolution, but insisted that their emancipatory potential is real (Envisioning Real Utopias, pp. 322-327). And as for those civil associations which strengthen community and provide shelter from the hyper-individualism of liberal capitalism through particularist, sometimes exclusionary, even religious means? Should they be crushed by the secularizing Red Guards of some new socialist movement? Well...no. As Wright explained:

A vibrant civil society is precisely one with a multitude of heterogeneous associations, networks, and communities, built around different goals, with different kinds of members based on different sorts of solidarities....It is tempting to deal with this...by somehow defining civil society as only consisting of benign associations that are consistent with socialist ideals of democratic egalitarianism....I think this is an undesirable response....There is no guarantee that a society within which real power rooted in civil society predominates would be one that always upholds democratic egalitarian ideals. This, however, is not some unique problem for socialism; it is a characteristic of democratic institutions in general. As conservatives often point out, inherent in democracy is the potential for the tyranny of the majority, and yet in practice liberal democracies have been fairly successful at creating institutions that protect both individual rights and the interests of minorities. A socialist democracy rooted in social empowerment through associations in civil society would face similar challenges...My assumption here is not that a socialism of social empowerment will inevitably successfully meet this challenge, but that moving along the pathways of social empowerment will provide a more favorable terrain on which to struggle for these ideals than does either capitalism or statism (pp. 145-148).

I can easily imagine many conservatives--and socialists too--seeing the forgoing as a lot of murky meanderings, neither promising of real social empowerment nor conserving genuine community stability. My guess is that Carney wouldn't touch it, despite it, on my reading, allowing for exactly the kind of economic support and community respect that his own analysis seems to point directly towards. For my part, I find it beautiful; it reads as a perhaps unintended, but nonetheless carefully thought out and genuinely expressed, olive leaf to everyone who wants civil bonds to flourish, equal respect to increase, and communities to be stabilized--in other words, to promote economic and cultural goods that most people need to lead fulfilling lives. Here's the truth, conservatives: socialists (at least those who haven't unintentionally absorbed a metaphysics which is more capitalist and individualistic than anything else) want those things too. So as the threat of Trump leads some American conservatives to rethink what they believe and where they're going on, here's hoping that they'll realize that the socialism (or the "left conservatism") which keeps on haunting their own arguments is more a helpful ghost, than a specter to flee.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Some Thoughts about Wichita and Baseball

For those who care, some thoughts about the controversy over the proposed baseball stadium (with its attached riverfront development package) here in Wichita. I can't make it to the special city council meeting being held on Tuesday evening to discuss the stadium and related matters, but perhaps some of these thoughts may be of interest to those who are able to attend. For whatever its worth...

1) I really want to see the new baseball stadium built at the corner of Maple and McLean Boulevard.
    1a) Of course, one of the primary reasons I really want to see the new baseball stadium built there is that Lawrence-Dumont Stadium is gone, and we presently have a big empty space at the corner of Maple and McLean, where a baseball stadium had previously stood for over 80 years.
    1b) And yes, like no doubt many others, I do find it very hard to believe that Mayor Jeff Longwell and other major city players, being anything but stupid, didn't count on the facts on the ground--despite Vice Mayor Jeff Blubaugh protest that it wasn't the case that "this is something that [we] just rushed through"--to help propel their plan for the new stadium forward. Build it (or rather, knock it down) and they will come, indeed.

2) I don't have any particular complaints with how the city plans on paying for the new baseball stadium.
    2a) Note that I said "particular complaints," not "fundamental complaints." Fundamentally speaking, it is, in my judgment, rather bizarre to run a major city construction project by way of (as the excellent reporting of Chance Swain in The Wichita Eagle has laid out for us):
        --the state issuing STAR and the city issuing general obligation bonds...
        --whose purchase by banks, investors, or other financial bodies is based on the expectation of repayment...
        --such repayment being dependent upon increased sales and property tax receipts...
        --those increased receipts being in theory encouraged by the imposition of Tax Increment Financing and Community Improvement Districts (known as TIFs and CIDs) in the as-yet undetermined area around the future stadium, which legally enable the collection of higher sales and property taxes by the city...
        --those higher tax rates themselves being dependent upon new property development and commercial traffic within those districts associated with the construction project in question...
        --meaning that subsidies need to be provided to encourage developers to put up the money for building those venues which will generate the aforementioned traffic...
        --all of which--how convenient!--turns out to be very appealing to a certain AAA baseball team owner that was looking to get more involved in real estate and commercial development, and wouldn't come to Wichita without such a promise.
    2b) Having laid out all that, note that there are very good reasons--economic, legal, and political reasons--why American cities (particularly slow-(or-no-)growth mid-sized American cities like Wichita) find this kind of debt-driven, development-dependent, subsidy-focused, "growth machine" financing pretty much unavoidable. Exploring alternative responses to those fundamental economic, legal, and political conditions is, I think, necessary, and consequently something of an obsession of mine. But unlike some critics, I don't think that, simply because one might reject the legitimacy of any or all of the above particulars, the appropriate response needs to be a fundamental rejection of all development. I don't think austerity-mindedness is any kind of solution here; the consequences for the financing of all the other multifaceted programs and processes at work in a complex city, programs and processes which many individuals, families, and businesses are dependent upon, would be too great. And, it must be emphasized, it is to the credit of city leaders that they have very carefully worked out revenue-sharing and other agreements with the team (assuming it does, in fact, come) to provide some guaranteed coverage for the costs.
    2c) So in other words, my attitude is: yes, criticize the overall process, imagine ways to move our city--and America's urban economies generally--towards something more sustainable and less bizarre, but in the meantime, work within the system as best you can.

3) All that said, leaving aside a deep-dive into the systematic particulars of the financing place for the new baseball stadium doesn't mean there aren't larger questions worth asking about the whole arrangement. Let me suggest a few here:
    3a) In a lengthy and exceptionally well-research article in the Eagle, Carrie Rengers quotes multiple sources making clear something that academics who study these issues have known for years: that the indirect public financing of the construction of expensive athletic venues is almost never justified in terms of subsequent economic development. Given the long and not-always-successful history of baseball in Wichita, I would be interested to know in detail not just why Mayor Longwell and others thinks their plan is financially solid, but more importantly, what convinced him that attracting a AAA baseball was project to take this risk upon, as opposed to something else.
    3b) Moreover, it is worth noting that of the three examples that Mayor Longwell has pointed to in support of his vision of providing an economic and cultural shot in the arm to the city through building what was necessary to bring a AAA team here, only one of them, according to Rengers's reporting, reflected a similarly convoluted set of financial incentives and land swaps--and that was Charlotte, NC, a city with a half-million more residents in its urban core and a million more people in its overall metropolitan area. So not, perhaps, an entirely good analogy to Wichita's situation. Of the other two examples Rengers reported on in detail, one, Durham, NC, did involve some significant city investment, but was actually mostly the result of multiple corporate owners committing their own capital, which obviously isn't the case here. The other example, Oklahoma City, involved the something impressively straightforward: the city directly payed for the stadium with specific, voter-approved tax increases. Which leads me to asking...
    3c) Councilman Bryan Frye, in a Facebook post, defended the importance of this project by pointing out that the "west bank of the Arkansas River between Douglas and Maple has languished for decades with little to no development interest, revenue creation, and/or investment in public amenities." Leaving aside exactly why it is a problem to have a one-third mile stretch of grass along the Arkansas River opposite the Hyatt hotel and Waterwalk Place fail in its (required? obligatory?) "revenue creation," I would ask why he followed up this defense by asserting that this project "had to be done without adding [to the] citywide taxpayer burden." Why? Besides the fact that, since property-tax-dependent general obligation bonds will almost certainly be involved, that isn't entirely true, was it really a complete given that the city couldn't have simply paid for a new stadium, as a public amenity, outright? Maybe--especially given how the last sales tax proposal turned out here in Wichita--it's reasonable to assume this; maybe the political culture of Wichita is just more negative and suspicious than OKC's, and so simply financing the stadium directly (the way Intrust Bank Arena was) wasn't an option.
    3d) But if that's the case, why not say so? Might it be that saying so--that if Mayor Longwell and others had, back in 2016, put it to the people of Wichita that attracting a AAA baseball to the city was worth paying for, up front--would have resulted rather in the discovery of a consensus in favor of simply maintaining the level of baseball we currently had, thus suggesting that city leaders and major players focus on developing political support for funding other priorities (like, oh, Century II?) Given that those other needs haven't gone away, it's a possible trade-off at least worth contemplating.

4) One last thought, related to "the level of baseball we currently had" which I just mentioned. It may well be the case that the confidence Mayor Longwell and others have in AAA baseball will be justified. (After all, Wichita, however slowly changing and growing it may be, is obviously a different place than it was in 1984, when the Wichita Aeros, the last AAA team to play here, departed for Buffalo, NY.) But until and unless we see those results, there remains the fact that the baseball which has had a long history of strong support here is the National Baseball Congress. The city has apparently already reneged on a promise to the owners of NBC to give them office space at the new stadium, and now the likelihood is that the NBC World Series--you know, that delightfully wacky and fun two-week series of baseball all through the day and night every August--will be forced out as well. If there is any way that existing baseball fans in Wichita--not the new ones that the city is counting on creating, but the ones that already existed last year and continue to exist this year as well--can push to shape this (as even city leaders admit) less-than-transparent process into something more reflective of public wishes, it would be in making certain that the World Series, which has had a home in Wichita since 1935, continues to be guaranteed a place.

Okay, I can't think of anything else. Enjoy the meeting, everyone and anyone who can make it. I hope that the result will involve both a showing of respect and some mutual learning by and for everyone involved, and the creation of greater confidence in bringing this project to a positive end.