Saturday, November 30, 2019

Listening to Macca #11: Memory Almost Full, Electric Arguments, Etc.

I'm coming towards the end of this journey through Sir Paul McCartney's oeuvre, and this month I had the strong feeling that Macca himself had come to an end of sorts as well. This poses a problem, at least insofar as my unfortunate tendency to attempt to impose some meaningful biographic narrative upon McCartney's musical journey goes--because, obviously, Paul's life and word didn't come to an end with the stuff I listened to this month. The albums and recordings that I thoroughly familiarized myself with this November were made between 2006 and 2012--that is, McCartney's mid- to very late-60s, which I've always kind of thought of as retirement age. There is a lot that I've listened to--and, really, come to love--over the past month that seemed to me entirely fitting as a retirement statement from Paul, as providing closure. Still, no such closure yet. Whether the work Paul has produced in his 70s will make rethink my impression remains to be seen. I kind of hope so--I don't want to wish on this man I've come to appreciate enormously the opinion (for whatever that matters!) that he's spent the last 7 or 8 years making music and going on tours that are nothing but exercises in nostalgia. Still, for the moment, I heard in McCartney this month something of a grand finale. We'll see if I change my mind.

First, the stuff which complicates and qualifies my impressions. Just before he turned 70, McCartney released Kisses from the Bottom, a collection of music hall and classic jazz standards. It's a vanity project, and as far as that goes, it's...fine. Sir Paul has always loved this old sentimental stuff (what Lennon called Paul's "granny shit"), and if he wants to make like a crooner, he's more than free to do so. But frankly, the only interest I think any genuine fan of this music could have in this recording is if they were also genuine fans of Macca, and thus really find some enjoyment in hearing him make his way through "It's Only a Paper Moon," etc. Paul has an awesome pop and rock voice, capable of both folk whimsy and bluesy growls, but here he just sounds thin, without the kind of texture these slow songs demand. The two original tracks were composed with a better sense of what his voice is capable, and they can stand on their own two legs, but the best that can be said for any of the rest is that they aren't unpleasant to listen to. The same goes for Ecce Cor Meum and Ocean's Kingdom, classical recordings which came out in 2006 and 2011, respectively. The former is a return to the oratorio form that he made use of 15 years earlier, and while this one is better, it's still more admirable (it's probably the closest that McCartney has ever come to really exploring his own deepest spiritual beliefs) than enjoyable. The latter is similarly a return, this one to the quiet tone poem approach of Standing Stone, and it, like that one, makes for a pleasantly meditative listening experience.

But now, his actual forte--the bass guitars and pianos and rhythms of pop music. The more I listened to Memory Almost Full and Electric Arguments (the latter being his third Fireman album with Youth but the first time, really, that his collaboration with that producer generated not just ambient remixes but strong, distinct pieces of music, and hence this is the first time I'm treating a Fireman production as a real Paul McCartney album) the more I was put in mind of Sting's 57th & 9th. Sting, after years of work on his Broadway play and orchestral recordings of his earlier compositions, decided he wanted to make a rock and roll album again. He was 65 years old. Similarly, after years during which the best of his often uneven pop work was--I think, anyway--usually on the mellow and folky side, I feel as though McCartney, also age 65 (or thereabouts), wanted to go out strong; he wanted to rock. So he went back to recover songs left unfinished before Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, wrote some new ones, worked with Youth on doing some remixes, and the result was these two albums, which came out in 2007 and 2008. Neither are as great as his best solo work--but together, I think they rival Flowers in the Dirt, Tug of War, or even Band on the Run.

On Memory Almost Full, for a change, the weaker songs are the quieter ones: "You Tell Me" sounds like a belabored prog rock ballad, and "Gratitude" is just soggy."See Your Sunshine" is a middling effort, as is "Nod Your Head." But I have a hard time criticizing anything else. "Dance Tonight" is solid, upbeat folk-pop, "Only Mama Knows" has a furious, infectious beat, "Mr Bellamy" is a clever pastiche of pop and rock styles that starts slow but grows on you, and "Ever Present Past" has the kind of bright sound which Youth led McCartney often to (on the album I discuss below). The closing medley songs includes one that should have been cut ("Feet in the Clouds"), but it ends with "House of Wax," which is a kind of brilliant reworking of Chaos's "Riding to Vanity Fair," taking the moody echoes of that mysterious love song and turning it into an equally mysterious, but also angrily crashing denunciation of (and/or search for) the cult of authenticity. It's not Dylan, but that's what it's reaching for. And I don't know how anyone could criticize "The End of the End," a gorgeous ditty both Beatlesesque but also mature and rueful. I give this album a B, his best and most complete set of recordings he's produced since Off the Ground. (I should also mention that, immediately after the release of this album, McCartney did a small, exclusive show at an Amoeba Music store in Los Angeles, and the result--originally released as an EP tiled Amoeba's Secret, later as a promotional album titled Live in Los Angeles, and then finally as a complete recording titled Amoeba Gig--is, in my opinion, the best live McCartney show since Tripping the Live Fantastic.)

I'm tempted to rank Electric Arguments even higher than Memory Almost Full, though I can't really justify that. I haven't bothered to grade any earlier Fireman releases before--I found the first a pretty great collection of rave beats, the second a disappointing bunch of yoga music. But neither were really pop records, the way this one was. It starts less than impressively; "Nothing Too Much Out of Sight" is rehashed Led Zeppelin, and "Two Magpies" is a weak faux-Delta Blues number. But beginning with the third track, "Sing the Changes," and running all the way through the ninth track, ""Lifelong Passion," Electric Arguments provides song after song with the big, shimmering, experimental energy of the best of 90s-era U2. "Light From Your Lighthouse" has McCartney sounding like a Keith Richards vocal track left off Some Girls and rediscovered and re-produced for the 2000s, and "Sun Is Shining" sounds like McCartney redoing the previous album's "See Your Sunshine," only doing it right this time. Really, it's a tremendous run of tunes. The album peters out with a return to slow, uninspired, ambient beats in its final cuts, which is a bummer--imagine if Paul had been guided by some strong producer (perhaps Youth himself!) to drop the weaker songs from both albums and release them as a double-album. What a terrific send-off that would have been. Ah well.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Taking Our Time with Century II

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

The argument over what to do with Century II has quite arguably been a subtext to just about every major debate which has been conducted in our city in 2019. With the rapid construction of the new baseball stadium and the redesign of McLean Boulevard on the west side of the river, the need to think about the east side, and in particular the fate of Wichita’s single most notable landmark (sorry Keeper, but you know it’s true), has been unavoidable; you can see the evidence for it everywhere.

Last spring, The Century II Citizens Advisory Committee, chaired by Mary Beth Jarvis, finished their work, concluding that a new performing arts center to replace Century II was a necessity. By the summer, historical preservationists and other activists were organized to protect Century II, asking hard and necessary questions about retrofitting alternatives, financing schemes, and influence of local development interests. At a mayoral debate in the fall, a disagreement between Mayor Jeff Longwell and Mayor-Elect Brandon Whipple over the loss of the downtown coffee house and community center Mead’s Corner was seen as staking out different approaches to historic buildings like Century II. And now, as the year comes to an end, the design group Populous–which was paid $700,000 to come up with plans for the whole Hyatt-Bob Brown Convention Center-Century II bloc–have revealed five possible scenarios for reconstructing the entire downtown riverfront; three of which gets rid of the building entirely, with one preserving it intact and another designing it as an open-air shell. After all these months the argument, as 2020 draws closer, finally seems to be coming to a head.

I don’t envy those whose responsibility it will be to juggle the financial, architectural, environmental, and economic aspects of this decision (though I’m gratified to see Whipple at least making it clear that this decision will have to be framed in such a way that voters will be able to exercise some real responsibility over it, as wasn’t the case with the fate of Lawrence-Dumont Stadium). I would only suggest, on the basis of two meetings about Century II I’ve attended in the last couple of weeks, that the generational aspect of the decision not be ignored either.

One of the meetings I’m speaking of was a small, exclusive gathering–only six people were present–at private home, which I was fortunate enough to be invited to. Bill Warren was there, getting ready to thrown down the gauntlet he announced on Sunday in support of preserving Century II. The four others (besides myself) included a couple of the most well-known and influential people in the city. Everyone there was white, and the average age skewed...well, let’s just say “older.” The focus was strictly on contemplating ways to impress upon the Wichita population the architectural significance of Century II, the possibilities for its future use, and the great costs involved in simply wishing it away.

The other meeting I have in mind was held at Roxy’s Downtown, organized by W (the new name of Young Professionals of Wichita). It was open to public, and pulled in about a 100 people, including a number of young local leaders (city councilman Brandon Johnson and county commissioner Michael O’Donnell both were there). The crowd was young–it was a mostly late-20s to mid-30s group, with only a sprinkling of Gen-X-and-above types like me–and about as racially diverse a turnout as I’ve ever seen at a civic meeting here in Wichita. The focus was on reviewing, ranking, and commenting upon the plans which Populous has presented...a process which, even before it formally began, showed every sign of reflecting a deep anti-Century II sentiment. (When one older gentleman stood up to defend Century II and suggest that internal renovations might still be possible, he prefaced his comments by saying “Please don’t throw bricks.”)

So, two very different meetings, reflecting two very different slices of Wichita’s demographics. At the W meeting I ran into a former student of mine, a young African-American woman heavily engaged in fund-raising efforts for the restoration of the Dunbar Theatre. It was great catching up with her, and she wasn’t not shy–as the conversation about Populous’s different options developed, with everyone making comments about all sorts of different possibilities and opportunities–at making her perspective known. “I’m a Wichitan, I’m not going anywhere, and so I’m thinking about what I can enjoy for the next 50 years. How many years do all those folks calling Century II some kind of monument that should be preserved have left? Maybe 20?”

She wasn’t alone in feeling that way; the votes on the various proposals, and the comments posted in real-time from peoples’ phones (it was a very interactive meeting), made it clear that getting rid of Century II–whether to create a open green space to extend from a proposed new performing arts center all the way down to the river edge (Scenario 1), or to allow for an expansion and reconstruction of the convention center (Scenario 2)–was something almost everyone agreed on. Scenario 3A, the only one which keeps Century II intact, was the lowest ranked of all five by a long measure. (Scenario 3B, which suggests knocking out Century II’s walls but opening up and preserving the space under the dome didn’t get much love either, which I thought was too bad, though maybe that’s just because I grew up in a city that similarly retro-fitted a huge old pavilion from the 1970s into an open-air space that served as our downtown centerpiece for decades.)

That the answer to the question of Century II needs to respect the views and hopes of those who will be living with and making use of it decades into the future seems obvious. But at the same time, it would be wrong to assume that the accomplished people at the first meeting were a bunch of instinctive “no’s”; rather, they were experienced people asking additional–and, in some ways, even harder–questions. Like: Have we considered building a new performing arts center solely for stage performances, thus making it more cost effective to concentrate solely on acoustic improvements in Century II for Wichita Symphony and the like? Or: Have we asked whether it really is the case that large amounts of convention business passes Wichita solely because Bob Brown lacks windows, as opposed to the (I think much more likely) fact that flight connections through ICT remain poor? Complicated and unromantic as they may seem, such questions have to be asked.

And, to be fair, they are being asked; indeed, if you listened closely at Roxy’s, you heard and saw, along with the desire to grandly remake Wichita’s riverfront, other, less expansive and more careful concerns. My former student expressed a couple of them to me. Regarding all the talk about mix-used developments to “activate” and generated revenue-generating commerce along the river: “All these shops they want to build as part of the riverfront–will they make sure that a low-income person like me will be able to shop there?” And regarding all the talk of the Arkansas River an accessible part of the plan: “What kind of river clean-up will come along with it? You can’t make a ‘Riverfront Legacy’ if the river’s natural legacy isn’t a priority.” Good questions, both of these–and that just scratches the surface.

So while there probably is a significant generational divide in how Wichitans think about Century II, it’s not a total divide by any means. Which is all the more reason to make sure we take enough time to make certain that everyone in both of these cohorts, and everyone in between, can hear all the questions be asked, without having the pressure of some promised quick land deal driving the conversation. Yes, decisions will have to be made, at city council and county commission meetings and in the voting booth; we can’t put it off much longer, and that means some will be unhappy with the results. But we can reach that result in a respectful, inclusive way, and that starts with listening. The best, most lasting parts of any city’s built environment are those that come slowly, organically, through the actions of citizens both young and old. Century II was built to be that, and the new Century II, whatever it’s called, should be too.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Listening to Macca #10: Driving Rain, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, and More

I'm at the point chronologically where Sir Paul turns 60 years old, and I'm finding that I really kind of like the man. I've never disliked him, of course--for one, I don't know him at all, obviously, so how I could I say I dislike him? And two, I wouldn't spend this much time listening to his music if I didn't admire his talent and see what he can manage to creation, and it's hard to square that with dislike or contempt. But this month I read my third biography of McCartney this year, Fab by Howard Sounes, and while it many ways it was more critical and snarky towards McCartney than either of the two earlier books, it is also the first one to catch me up in a spirit of real appreciation for the man. Heading into his seventh decade on Earth, and here is his, still touring, still keeping the spirit of the Beatles alive, still trying new sounds, still mining his brilliant melodic skills, still fighting against his own arrogance and desperate crowd-pleasing nature to try to create pop worth listening to. Really, he's a hell of man. For the first time this year, I found myself feeling real, genuine regret that, when I had the chance, I wasn't willing to pay whatever it would take and get up however early in the morning I needed to in order to score tickets. Oh well. At least I'll always have the albums.

Those albums, the production of his apparently inexhaustible desire to create and perform, remain a mixed bag. He wrote and helped arrange another classical album, Working Classical, this one actually a fairly disciplined set of chamber pieces and tone poems. It was all right--the classical treatment of his own pop compositions were pleasantly Muzaky, but I think his previous effort, Standing Stone, was better. Also, working with various electronica collaborators and not part of The Fireman, McCartney mined old Beatles tapes and various found clips to create Liverpool Sound Collage. It's an interesting art project, I suppose, but listening to it once was more than enough for me.

What about Driving Rain, his first full album of original pop and rock since Linda McCartney had passed away three years earlier? There is an intentionally rough quality to the project, as though Macca was challenging himself to be a younger man again. In my view, sometimes that works--"Lonely Road," "She's Given Up Talking," "About You," "Driving Rain," and "Spinning On An Axis," all have solid, inviting grooves--but sometimes it doesn't--"From a Lover to a Friend" is just soggy and mournful, "I Do" is insubstantial, "Your Way" goes nowhere, and "Rinse the Raindrops" is a pointless jam. "Your Loving Flame" is an adequate ballad, and a couple of songs--"Tiny Bubbles" and "Riding Into Jaipur" are really quite fine. I have to confess, though, that the whole album is unfortunately weighed down even further (at least in my mind, though I suspect I'm not alone) by two tracks: "Heather," which contains probably the best single melody on the whole album, is a paean to Heather Mills, and that only makes me think about that sad, quickly-ended rebound marriage of his; and "Freedom," which is just a stupid, hand-clapping bit of borrowed American patriotism that he wrote in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It's musically unimpressive and lyrically embarrassing, and best forgotten. Let's give the album a C-, and leave it at that.

Chaos and Creation in the Backyard is a better album; not tremendously so, but definitely a step up. (This is, incidentally, also the first solo McCartney album, chronologically speaking, that I can remember really being curious about and listening intently to, back in 2005.) Working almost entirely without a band, and for the first time in 20 years with someone else in the studio playing the producer role, it is, at the very least, a shorter album: listening to Macca makes it clear that he really has no qualms about putting not-quite-finished stuff on his albums, but this time around it's pretty clear that some songs were left on the master tapes, and that's a good thing. "Fine Line" kicks it off with some great, ELO-style pop orchestration, and through the album there are several other nearly (if not quite) first rate tunes: "How Kind of You" is a sleek, ruminative ballad, "English Tea" is a hoot (it had been too long since McCartney had given us one of his "granny" songs!), "Too Much Rain" is life-affirming pop without feeling saccharine, and "Riding to Vanity Fair" is just this side of terrific: an ambitious tune, with moody echoes and reticent, careful lyrics, it stands far above everything else on the album. There's a lot of love out there for "Jenny Wren" and "Friends to Go," but I think they're just okay. And despite having an outside producer overseeing him, Macca's tendency to leave a song with an unfinished feeling: "A Certain Softness," "Follow Me," and "Promise to You Girl" fall into this category, and I would argue "Anyway" does too, which is too bad: it's really beautiful, with McCartney turning the chord progression from Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" into an expansive, luxurious, piano-based love song, but one without a proper resolution, I think. Still, overall, the whole album is a worthy effort. Another respectable B- album from Sir Paul, says I.

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Localist Theory of Charles Marohn's Wonderfully Practical Strong Towns

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

This past weekend, I took a group of students up to the annual Prairie Festival at The Land Institute in Salina, KS. I do this every year, as part of my effort to introduce the students to some genuinely radical thinking regarding environmental sustainability, local food systems, and the cultural shifts necessary to make them happen. Afterwards, as I talked to one of my students about Wes Jackson's animated and quite funny discourse, I tried to communicate to him Jackson's insistence upon the "virtues of ignorance"--probably with little success. The moment the conversation was over, I wished I'd thought to make use of Charles Marohn's wonderful book Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. Particularly this line:

Once we accept that our cities are complex systems, we are forced to come to grips with the reality that we can never fully understand them. More to the point, what we often think of as simple and obvious solutions to the problems we face are simple and obvious only because of our limited understanding. The more we truly know, the less clear things become (p. 120).

Jackson was talking about the damage which reductive, industrial solutions to the problems of food production has done to our farms and natural ecosystems, whereas Marohn's great crusade--one that has involved building a whole movement--is to get America's urban dwellers, and in particular those responsible for shaping the spaces wherein they dwell, to recover the "spooky wisdom" of older urban ecosystems, ones which grew organically and adaptatively, rather than bankrupting themselves in pursuit of "simple and obvious solutions." Both, ultimately, are discussing the same modern predicament. We are people who too often assume that--as Marohn describes at length at the end of the first chapter of his book--if there is a crime problem, we should just hire more police; if there is a traffic problem, we should just build more lanes of road; if the Walmart is stagnating, we should subsidize building another even larger one somewhere else; etc. (pp 13-14). That is, we are frequently bothered by complexity, by the time which incrementally adapting to emergent patterns requires, and by the local, circumstantial knowledge which such adaptations require; our preference, instead, is to build everything, or solve everything, "to a finished state" (p. 19), without much concern to the costs which mount in the absence of the complex stability which once attended the problem at hand.

Of course, one shouldn't deny that those "finished states" have often included among them transformations in food production (the Green Revolution!) and personal convenience (the suburban split-level with a backyard!) which have brought enormous positives into human life. But in pursuing those states, we invariably turn the complexity of tending to the land, or strengthening our communities, into something merely "complicated," begging for ever more technical responses which become ever more disconnected from the lives of all of us who depend upon those communities and upon that land if we are survive and thrive.

All this may make Strong Towns seem like a work of cultural criticism or philosophy, but it isn't--at least not directly. In fact, Strong Towns is one of those rare books (Wendell Berry's classic The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture is another) whose argument itself exemplifies what it advocates for: it builds towards a challenge to the whole way we conceive of its chosen focus by beginning with the most local and particular relevant matters possible. For Berry, like it is with Jackson, the focus is the collapse of traditional farming, and the key relevant matter at hand is the actual lives of farmers. For Marohn, with a focus on the collapsing financial health of America's cities, the most immediately relevant matters are the actual roads, pipes, buildings, and infrastructure that surround all of us who live in cities, and how much it costs to maintain them. Marohn, who worked as a civil engineers for decades, has an expert, intimate knowledge of these materials and processes, in the same way Jackson and Berry know about soil. So from that starting point, Marohn's book--easily the best practice treatise on localism that I have read in a long time--lays out the history and math that he sees as supporting his thesis: that America's cities are addicted to growth, and addicted to taking on debt to finance that growth, resulting in endless Ponzi Schemes to keep cities fiscally alive on paper even as basic maintenance collapses and, too often as a result, the sense of civic connection and confidence which functioning cities help provide collapses as well. The result is a bracing, powerful book which ought to get every reader to sign up a Strong Towns member, if nothing else.

Marohn is neither a historian nor a sociologist, nor as skilled a writer as Berry; his short, smart interventions into the thorny issues of private and public investment, cumulative cash flows, value per acre, and more, are both insightful and persuasive, but they leave some connections unclear, sometimes requiring the reader to supply the narrative thrust. Still, none of his declarations--"Our cities must now intentionally sacrifice growth in order to have stability" (p. 105); "There is no reason for any North American city to build another foot of roadway, or put in another length of pipe, to serve any new property anywhere" (p. 130); "Growth is an old economy objective. For local governments seeking to create successful human habitat, the centrally orienting objective needs to shift to wealth creation" (p. 176)--exist in a vacuum; all are well supported and have an intuitive sense to them. Every one of us, after all, have, no matter what size or type of city we live in, seen local governments hand out tax-breaks, desperately seek state and federal loans, float irresponsible bonds, impose ever-more creative financing schemes, all in the name of building another strip-mall, another restaurant, another office park, with the hope (sometimes fulfilled, but usually not) of landing jobs and generating sufficient additional tax revenue so as to make a few token payments and then start the process all over again. And every one of knows how this addiction is both a product of, as well as a contributor to, the individualism, consumerism, and materialism which rarely produces anything like the traditions, institutions, and beautiful edifices that our best cities--which are, almost without exception, cities whose wealth-creating inner core had grown through a long process of adaptation, and had achieved a stability sufficient to withstand the temptations of rapid, debt-driven growth--are known for.

Michael Hendrix, in his review of Strong Towns, said it described a "conservative vision for community," and he's not wrong to use that label. But we need to be clear on what kind of "conserving" Marohn is recommending. It is one that would follow a very different path than the market-friendly American conservatism of the past three generations. This may not be immediately obviously, especially since Marohn frequently expresses affection of market mechanisms, and accepts market realities in the way in which he tabulates costs and consequences. Yet he also, on my reading anyway, refuses to allow the supposed invisible hand of the marketplace to exercise any kind of formal driving role in his proposals. Instead, he acknowledges that all markets operate in realms of prior determined parameters, amidst a set of values and incentives which reflect affirmative decisions--and it is such decisions that he calls upon America's city dwellers to make. It's not for nothing, I think, that his final chapter ends with a call for us to "work together in an intentional way" (p. 218). What form should those intentions take? Well, clearly sometimes they should take the form of limits upon our lifestyle and socio-economic choices. As he observes (with, I think, just a tiny hint of contempt), many Americans appear to--or at least are said to--"prefer [living] in a single-family homes on a large lot....[and not] within traditional neighborhoods in close proximity to other people"; they "want big box stores, strip malls, and fast food, not corner stores and mom-and-pop restaurants." He responds to this brusquely: "I can respect that some people prefer development styles that are financially ruinous to my city...[but] my local government should not feel any obligation to provide those options"  (pp. 144-145).

Cities have been, likely for their entire history, places of freedom, experimention, and choice--Stadtluft macht frei! and all that. Completely aside from the practical problems of making this transition (and, to be clear, such practical considerations are exactly what takes up the bulk of the book!), an urbanism which can be "stable without growth" (p. 103) would have to be city which theorizes values of freedom, experimentation, and choice quite differently than they have been over the centuries of liberal modernity. What that theory would ultimately consist of is something which many of us are searching for, with no clear solutions yet. In his own, enormously valuable way, Marohn's whole Strong Towns project contributes to this search. In Strong Towns itself, you see echoes of it, though occasionally only in an unexplored and undeveloped way. For example, Marohn's language tiptoes right up to criticizing the wealth and opportunity which industrialization brought into our lives, implying with perhaps a touch of romanticism that our urban communities may have been better places when they were poorer (pp. 60, 126-127). Similarly, the ambivalence which arguably attends Marohn's language when he discusses white flight and women entering the work force might raise concerns among those fearful that re-introducing limits to our urban imagination will likely result in a return to old, discriminatory patterns (pp. 93, 96, 111). But we shouldn't read, I think, too much into these explorations--they are, after all, as the whole approach of the book makes clear, intellectual adaptations of a sense: incremental efforts to understand more about the complexity of urban life, and figure out ways to respond to the way we have both fiscally overbuilt and culturally underinvested in it.

And that is really the main virtue of Marohn's work: he is a man willing to explore. Any small, tactical action to restrict growth, build wealth, improve mass transit, halt needless construction, preserve still functional places, shrink streets, allow incremental denisfication, reduce regulatory burdens, promote walkability, and enable people to engage in commerce and build communities and connections in the midst of the suburban grids which plaque too many of our cities is, so far as he is concerned, is something that he'll likely want to see tried. And that means he'll listen to and weigh arguments without insisting on pigeon-holing them in one category of answers or another. For example, he's clearly not a fan of cities' budgets being dependent upon the national government, but he also allows that some of what the national government does for cities is essential, and doesn't pretend that the national government needs to act just like a city government must (pp. 79-80, 85-86, 88-89). In short, what I think Marohn models, above all, is a democratic urbanism, one that turns to hard data, yes, but even more so turns to city dwellers themselves, as Berry and Jackson turned to farmers, to discover (or recover) the incremental insights that, bit by bit, makes towns strong. Does he have a democratic theory to make sense of all the ways in which cities, and the concentration of interests they represent, potentially complicate local governance? Not really. But he has shown us, through this book and in his whole campaign, just how imperative, and how practical, asking those questions, and incrementally experimenting with answers, really is.

At the end of chapter 5 of Strong Towns, "Growth or Stability"--which is, in more ways than one, the real center of the book's whole argument--Marohn makes a deeply important and culturally rich (whether he realizes it or not) set of observations. He writes (and forgive my interruptions, but it's a rich passage that deserves further elaboration):

Cities are a collection of us; they are they way we take collective action in our communities. [Here "cities" are presented as inherently democratic and civic creations, not market ones; the act of organizing spaces for commerce, art, personal expression, political action, etc., is a form of collective agency, distinct from other historical forms.] Over the past century we've gradually given up this responsibility, deferring the direction of our places to the priorities of others. [Note what is implied by "others"--they are not a single, collective force, but individualized others, others separated from what those in the city collectively attend to.] If the people [invoking "the people," that essential civic construct] are to lead again, if we are to create a prosperous future for ourselves and our neighbors, local government must reassert leadership (pp. 105-106).

This is civic republicanism, participatory democracy, populist self-governance, and fiscal humility all rolled into one; it is a great expression of fundamental localist truths. Marohn may not see himself as a social theorist or historical critic, and his book isn't without its perplexing points. But he's produced here a great, vital work of localist theory, and needs to be honored for such.

Listening to Macca #9: Flaming Pie, Etc.

This month is the Paul McCartney of the mid- to late-1990s, Macca moving through his fifth decade, Sir Paul reuniting (sort of) with George Harrison and Ringo Starr to produce the monumental Beatles Anthology project, and, tragically, losing his wife Linda to cancer after nearly 30 years of marriage. It was a period that saw him diving into his past, and perhaps even turning a little reflective at times--which is rare for a man who has continually insisted over the decades that he has to rely upon his fans to remind him of details of his own history. Unlike what I saw in the undeniable accomplishments of his late 40s-early 50s, with a couple of wonderful, rejuvenating pop albums and a couple of fabulous world tours, I don't quite have a narrative for McCartney at this point in his life. It would be easy to present him as shifting to a lower gear and turning inward...but that really doesn't describe his life at this moment too well.

After all, he remained ridiculously busy. Besides the Anthology project, he released another classical composition, Standing Stone, a work of instrumental and choir music which followed a broad, poetic story, rather than the more specific and somewhat autobiographical one which characterized his Liverpool Oratorio. Stone is, in my opinion, a much better work. The same cannot be said about his second Fireman excursion into ambient and dance music, Rushes, after the fun and intense Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest; my wife described Rushes, while I was listening to it for the first time, as "mediocre yoga music," and after giving it another try, I had to agree with her. He also, as he did with "The Russian Album," felt inspired to get together with friends and cut an album of classic rock and roll tunes, with a few of original compositions thrown in. Run Devil Run is every bit as good as his previous album of covers, and his original 1950s-style rockers--"Run Devil Run," "Try Not to Cry," and "What It Is"--are all solid, especially the first one. The fact is that McCartney can be a pretty brilliant arranger when he puts his mind to it; his vaguely Zydeco take on Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" is particularly great.

But for all that activity, there are signs of a slower and reflective pace to Flaming Pie, an album he released when he was 55 years old, and which included songs written at various times over the previous decade, several of which he wrote for his own children or as gifts to grieving friends. It opens with "The Song We Were Singing," which is a Donovanesque folk-pop number with a genuine sing-along quality to it; if I were to learn that various church groups or theater troupes tended to break out the tune around the campfire on retreats, I wouldn't be remotely surprised. This sensibility partly haunts the album; "Somedays," "Little Willow," "Great Day," and the gorgeous number "Calico Skies" all have a lovely, folky acoustic feel. "The World Tonight" is a perfunctory and adequate pop song, as is "Young Boy," "Souvenir," and "Used to Be Bad" (there is, honestly, a contractual-obligation feel to some of this), but a couple of the pop-rock compositions on the album really click: "If You Wanna" has a great, solid drive, "Heaven on a Sunday" is wonderful, by turns both funky and groovy (and with a terrific guitar solo by Paul's son James McCartney), and "Flaming Pie" is appropriately Beatlesesque. "Beautiful Night"--which should have been the final song on the album--is simple but charming (and the video is a delight), the only time McCartney and Starr have shared songwriting credit. So, overall a mixed bag, but definitely tending positive; I would have liked it to have been more thoroughly a product of quiet introspection, but I'll give it a B- nonetheless.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

A Socialist on the Porch

[Cross-posted to DSA's Religious Socialism blog]

There wasn't a prayer at the beginning of the Front Porch Republic's recent conference in honor of Wendell Berry in Louisville, which is a fact that probably at least a few of my fellow leftists--among those that are actually familiar with FPR anyway, that is--might be surprised by. I should have asked the urban agriculture advocate from Indianapolis sporting the Pete Buttigieg button, or the Dorothy Day-quoting malcontent who gave a blistering anti-war presentation, if they'd expected otherwise, but I didn't get the chance. No regrets, though; overall, it was an inspiring--though definitely not sectarian--day.

With the affirmation of "Place--Limits--Liberty" having accompanied the website (and now publishing house and printed journal) from its beginning 10 years ago, the various localist, distributist, traditionalist, and agrarian sentiments which have been expressed in association with the "Porcher" label are often reduced in some observers' minds to "Christian conservatism," and left at that. This reduction is not wholly inaccurate (as any perusal of the website archives will make clear, explicitly Christian and conservative voices have frequently occupied the Porch), but it is unfair. It is unfair, I think, because it fails to reckon with the pluralism which should be part of any project of socialist transformation--and specifically, the plain fact that so much of what these particular localists, agrarians, and other assorted Christian oddballs call for is, if not socialist, than at least pretty damn close. I have no delusions that the sort of approach to democratizing the economy and shifting us away from private capital and towards social goods which one can find (if you look for it) at FPR is going to have much appeal to many at the meetings of my local Democratic Socialist of America chapter; the assumption that such democratization and socialization will and should always liberate people from their places, rather than empower within them, has pretty deep roots. Still, as Wendell Berry always reminds us, look and see.

This gathering--the largest which FPR has ever organized, and one of their best--had Berry's life and work as its centerpiece. The 85-year-old novelist, essayist, poet, farmer, life-long Democrat, supporter of same-sex marriage, self-described "mad farmer," and all-around contrarian was interviewed by his daughter Mary and spoke with the audience at length. He is no socialist in any formal sense, that's for certain. But he is a man who, from his pastoral place in rural Kentucky, has articulated one of the greatest and most persuasive critiques of capitalism, and its ruinous environmental effects, in all American history. A list of his essays, protests, and public denouncements of mountaintop removal mining, of the Vietnam War, of the complicated racism of his own beloved South, of industrial agriculture, and of so much is enormously long. In a recent, lengthy review in The Nation, Jedidiah Britton-Purdy recognizes the idiosyncrasies of, and his deep disagreements with, some parts of Berry's defense of rural culture and the household economy. But the overall thrust of his writings--that, in Britton-Purdy's assessment, "Berry has been straightforwardly and unyieldingly anti-capitalist" throughout his whole career--is difficult to deny. Berry himself didn't speak to directly about such things at the recent conference, but when a man strongly defends economic planning, limits on profits, co-ops and other forms of collective action, and concludes that without such, "farmers are successfully farming themselves into failure," it's hard to go away thinking you've heard just another American conservative at peace with the marketplace.

Berry's challenge to the comfort which so many (supposedly community-loving) Christian conservatives have with present-day capitalism was not alone at the conference. Prominently involved in organizing the event was Plough Quarterly, a journal published by Bruderhof, an international body of devout Christians who have built intentional communities--many of which are deeply committed to environmental sustainable and agrarian practices--all around the world.The latest issue of the journal--revolving around the theme of "Beyond Capitalism"--was prominently displayed at the conference, and copies were available to all those who attended. In that issue one found not only a fierce condemnation of Christians who don't perceive the incompatibility of conservative politics with their own faith--as author David Bently Hart concludes in his essay, "Whatever else capitalism may be, it is first and foremost a system for producing as much private wealth as possible by squandering as much as possible of humanity’s common inheritance of the goods of creation"--but a thoughtful consideration of the communism of John Ruskin, an interview about communal businesses which take Marx's dictum "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" as their basic operating principle, and much more. More Commonweal than Christianity Today (and honestly, it is unlikely even Commonweal would ever go that far), this is, to say the least, not the sort of journal, and not the sort of arguments, one would expect to be commonly shared at a nominally conservative and Christian association.

Which, of course, is exactly the point: Front Porch Republic, like many other similarly contrarian localist associations, isn't any kind of formal friend to Christian conservatism, at least insofar as such a position is assumed to be part of the capitalism-friendly Religious Right in America. (Certainly that is the case for Wendell Berry, no matter how often conservatives try to claim him solely for themselves.) True, because of their talk of tradition, rural life, and community, it is easy for many (not all, but many) leftists to think that there is no place in these kinds of discourses for the diversity, participatory democracy, and economic egalitarianism which animates the socialist argument. As someone who has been part of FPR since the beginning, I won't pretend that your typical leftist might not find themselves somewhat at odds with what sort of material FPR often produces, and what sort of people FPR often attracts. Still, all I can say is: dig deeper.

There is, in the pluralism of America--and of any other free (or at least mostly free) country for that matter--resources for socialist thinking and action all around us, sometimes even--in fact, perhaps especially--in religious bodies, groups, and projects that seem conservative on the outside. Some of these exhibit what I've called "left conservatism" before, but whether or not such bodies or projects bring the different aspects of their belief system together into such an ideological whole, the simple truth, I think, is that anyone who takes community and tradition seriously will be, if they are at all honest, open to critiques of that free market which most thoroughly empties out and destroys local ways of life. And moreover, sometimes that openness results in perspectives that we on the left can benefit from. So, again, take the time to look and see what's there.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Some Notes on the First Mayoral Debate

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

The story of Tuesday night's debate is one of offense and defense. For better or worse, Mayor Jeff Longwell--at least at this early point in the race, and at least on the basis on this remarkably well-attended debate (Roxy's was absolutely packed)--is running entirely on defending his record of the last four years With the exception of one very slight snark about how the city's budgets always balance, unlike the state's (where his challenger Brandon Whipple has served in the Kansas House since 2013), the mayor never attacked Whipple at all. Whereas Whipple went on the attack frequently. Not always effectively; there were some points where he could have forced out into the open some important differences between the candidates, but chose not to, and there were other points where he picked fights over pretty unimportant, even silly stuff. But he was absolutely the one with the energy (so much so that at one point, while swinging his arm to make a point, he knocked over his water class, getting it all over himself and the podium). Mayor Longwell was calm--occasionally sounding a little weary at what probably seemed to him like having to explain the same point over and over again, but still, very much the confident incumbent. He's the one in the mayor's office, defending his place. Whereas Whipple has to make the case for change.

In this hour-long debate, the best expressions of that case came through two fairly solid attacks, both of which came in the first half-hour. The first had to do with development policies--not, unfortunately, the crucial reality that Wichita is an overbuilt city that needs to wean itself away from fiscally unsustainable construction projects, but instead the traditional (and costly) urban questions of enterprise zones, tax abatements, infrastructure improvements, and the like. Here Mayor Longwell was quick to point to new business and residential developments along Greenwich out east, along Maize out west, and along 21st in the north. Which, of course, presented a perfect opening for Whipple, whose legislative district lies in south Wichita, and who has made the lack of investment in the city's poorer southern half a key point in his campaign. (Whipple must of uttered some variation of the phrase "I want to serve all of Wichita, not just its richer neighborhoods" at least a half-dozen times.) After Whipple hammered him about south Wichita residential streets that still lack sidewalks, Longwell tried to defend himself by mentioning how he and the rest of the city council had come up with the plan that saved south Wichita's Starlite Drive-In theater. Whipple came right back at him, reminding him of the city's original plan to close the southeast Linwood library branch. Obviously this, like everything else that comes up in debates like these, is more complicated than minute-long statements and rebuttals can reflect. Still, this was a punch that landed.

The second successful attack Whipple made had to do with what Longwell, as well as everyone else paying attention to the race, knows is the mayor's weak spot--his administration's, shall we say, “failure to communicate” the land deals which accompanied his successful negotiations to get a AAA baseball team to come to Wichita. Longwell admitted the need to be more open in sharing information (at which point chuckles broke out all around the audience), but he insisted that it was a great deal for the city, one which will include a sizable increase in payments for use in the new stadium (which, of course, is itself theoretically going to be paid for the unfortunately typical arrangement of state bonds floated in the expectation of repayment via special taxing districts set up in expectation of property and sales tax receipts following, you got it, more development). Whipple blasted back that the ends don't justify secretive means, and pointed to the news just yesterday about how a deal to give away part of Wichita's downtown Naftzger Park to developers was set to slide though on the city council's consent agenda, without review or debate. Longwell frustratedly insisted that such was the fault of City Manager Robert Layton, and not him or the city council, but Whipple's point about transparency stands.

Can an incumbent mayor (and one who, despite the non-partisan character of the mayoral race, enjoys an automatic if unspoken partisan advantage?) be unseated by a bunch of moderately class-based complaints (Whipple's comments about "rich neighborhoods" is about as far as he seems willing to go; a socialist firebrand he definitely isn't) about development patterns and by a few well-expressed concerns about secretiveness and sweetheart land deals? My first guess is: "probably not," if only because there are a lot of voters along Greenwich and Maize and 21st who like Mayor Longwell, or at least probably don't particularly feel that they have been poorly served by his time in office. When you hear the mayor and Whipple basically say the same thing about funding the police department (give them more money!), exploring options for Century II (engage the citizenry!), retaining a high-skill work force (emphasize manufacturing and support WSU's Innovation Campus!), and a host of other issues, then the basis for the case Whipple needs to make only gets smaller.

For example, it's frustrating that Whipple, whose party membership alone suggests that he supports much stronger action to combat climate change than Longwell, nonetheless chose to pass that issue by when Longwell was asked about it, essentially following the mayor's lead in emphasizing various small-bore actions to assist in shifting to more renewable energy sources. And it's somewhat silly that the debate's discussion about mass transit, with The Wichita Eagle running this very week a long, detailed series on the challenges and problems our bus service faces, was derailed first into a back-and-forth about bike lanes, scooters, and the Q-Line, and then ended with sniping about whether or not the invitation Mayor Longwell's received, as Wichita mayor, to serve on a state transportation advisory committee constitutes him being "appointed" by Governor Laura Kelly. Basically, I would tell the Whipple camp: if these attacks aren't going to produce the sort of information to help voters assess Longwell's defense of his record, then don't make them. If Whipple’s only complaint with the mayor's approach to dealing with Wichita's potential water crisis is that plan the city has in place hasn't been reviewed by state experts, perhaps he should reconsider its political importance. If his defense of the idea that Wichita ought to clearly identify itself as an LGBTQ-friendly city is that important to his argument for retaining young workers, then perhaps it shouldn't be something he tags on at the end of a promise to spend more money on training and entrepreneurship support, and instead make it front and center.

In sum, I think the debate showed a incumbent with real weaknesses, but nonetheless enough confidence in his own record to--for the moment anyway--play nothing but defense, and a challenger who has some real openings to make headway with voters, but whose offense needs to be sharpened if it is to be entirely persuasive. We'll see what the next two months bring.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Climate Change, Dirty Hands, and the Grace (and Hope) of Limits

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Paul Schrader, the famed screenwriter and director, does not make subtle films. His latest movie, First Reformed--the story of a depressed, emotionally exhausted, and ultimately suicidal minister (played by Ethan Hawke), a man haunted his failed marriage, his dead son, his collapsing health, and an overbearing sense of guilt--is very much in line with the rest of Schrader's work. Artists, in his view, should want to "cleave a crevice in the viewer’s skull that they have to somehow close"; in this regard (if not in all others), First Reformed succeeds.

The tool which Schrader uses to open up the viewer's skull in First Reformed is essentially the same one which finally drives Hawke's Reverend Toller, a former military chaplain whose son died in Iraq, over the edge: the question of whether God can (or will) forgive His creation for the immensity of the environmental harm it has done to itself, and the worry, or perhaps fear, over what struggling with that question honestly will mean for ourselves. For someone already as psychologically unbalanced as Reverend Toller--as the complacent but basically decent-hearted mega-church pastor who watches over Toller at one point comments, Toller, unlike Jesus, spends all his time in the Garden of Gethsemane--it meant a descent into jihadist madness. One would hope that would not be case for most of us. But struggle with it we must, however much that cranial opening in our perspectives pains us.

This is not, incidentally, merely a question for those who believe in a loving God who orchestrated our creation. Those who continue to insist that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's desperate warnings about the need to contain global warming to 1.5°C is just Soros-backed nonsense, or that the overwhelming scientific consensus on the terrible threat of anthropogenic climate change is merely an example of paranoid groupthink, or that we're on the cusp of a providential cornucopia of food production once the tundra in Siberia finally all melts, can, of course, continue to believe whatever foolish thing they want (and can save themselves the effort of reading the rest of this essay). But increasingly, the crushing reality of increasing ocean temperatures, extreme weather events, drought-driven refugee crises, and species collapse is forcing most of us to wonder how to navigate this human-made enormity, whether religious believers or not. Just this week, Noah Millman commented in The Week that "the most inconvenient truth of all" about climate change is the realization that we have "no mode of living that allows us simply to exist within an environment in a natural fashion, no spiritual road back to a prelapsarian state," and Jonathan Frazen commented in The New Yorker  that we must "accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope." Their counsel that we must find new ways to orient ourselves and our posterity towards what lays ahead of us, despite the immense difficulties which will almost certainly attend that future, is refreshingly honest. The near-simultaneous appearance of their essays, along with my watching of First Reformed, made a perfect complement to Noah J. Toly's The Gardeners' Dirty Hands: Environmental Politics and Christian Ethics, an unexpectedly deep work of political and theological reflection that I had just finished. Almost providential coincidence of influences, one might say.

I call Toly's book "unexpectedly deep" because, in working my way through it, I did not at first suspect that stakes that Toly was aiming for. His work in environmental politics is important, but not, I thought, the stuff out of which grand theological insights are made. I confess that "ethics" as a discipline does not, for the most part, impress me; it too often, in my observation, gets taught and deployed in the context of already established secular and capitalist practises, and thus usually targets individual practitioners, not the structures of the practice itself. So while I enjoyed his reflections on Malthusianism, his unpacking of the "IPAT" ("Environmental Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology") formulation, and his invocations of Herman Daly and other environmental thinkers who have developed much needed steady-state or slow-growth economic models, I didn't find the book's argument remotely radical enough to be truly engaging. (For whatever it's worth, I teach Daly and similar thinkers as well, but at the present moment it is, frankly, "degrowth," rather than slow-growth, that we really need.)

But beginning with chapter 3, which starts with a brilliant consideration of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in conjunction of the disasters experienced by the village of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez's famed On Hundred Years of Solitude, Toly moves in the direction of the describing what he calls the "magical realism of climate change." His point is that, unlike every other environmental concern we might face--urban brownfields, polluted rivers, deforestation, etc.--climate disruption is a phenomenon whose structural causes are fundamentally interpolated with the structures of human choices; as he pithily puts it, "climate change originates with the tragic or, more specifically, with attempts to overcome it" (p. 61). As modernity--and, most relevantly, the hydrocarbon-focused "paleotechnic energy regime" of the industrial and post-industrial world--constructed and repeatedly reconstructed itself around the transcending of various ecological and sociological limits, it exposed new limits to the world that would not have been known otherwise. Following a thoughtful review of the relevant science, Toly observes: "What this means is that climate change embodies the tragic dimension of environmental challenges not only because it requires us to navigate tradeoffs and instabilities now, but because the social systems that have fueled the problem were originally generated by impulses to address limitations" (p. 63). Or as he puts it at length at the end of the chapter:

Among other things, climate change is slowly undoing our ability to ignore or deny the tragic structure of the human condition. Perhaps more than any other issue, climate change has exposed the tragic foundations of environmental challenges, the ineluctable guilt that attends acting on those challenges, and the temptations to denial, paralysis, nihilism, and moral skepticism that attend those challenges. Reckoning honestly with climate change, and with the challenge of climate governance, shatters the illusion of a tragedy-free existence, highlighting what we might describe as the enduring tragic climate of environmental politics. (p. 79)

To speak as a Christian, I agree fully with Toly's insistence that recovery of the sense of tragic, or in other words of limits, is essential to any appreciation of those goods which come to us as grace, as abundance. Without a consciousness of what we cannot do, or of what our doing cannot avoid necessarily implicating us also in so doing, then there can be no consciousness of that good which is beyond our doing. This confronts us with problems of agency and sin, of course. Early in the book, Toly commented that "'the tragic' in this sense is neither sinful nor the result of sin"--and I took issue with that. If sin is understood as the absence of, or the state of acting against, God's good will, then how could something experienced as tragedy not be tied up with sin? But later Toly's arguments led me to reconsider the meaning of his words--that is, perhaps we should understand the environmental tragedy of the entwining of human innovation and destruction, and the tragedy of the tradeoffs it forces upon us, as reflections of a "benign alienation." That alienation--for those who accept the Fall, anyway--is both what introduced the possibility of and what contributes to the continuation of sinful acts, of course, most particularly against the natural creation which the Genesis story tells us we were given some stewardship over. But it also--and here Toly draws upon the work of Albino Barrera--"draws us into to Christian discipleship," making "our allocative choices, or our choices among competing goods when we cannot possibly secure all of them...an opportunity to be like God in choice and creativity....Apprehending the tragic reminds us of the enduring goodness of a finite creation and reveals the goodness of our limitations, as well as the goodness of the plurality of potentially legitimate but still not self-justifying ways to respond to the tragic" (pp. 88-89).

Trusting in God's grace in the midst of--indeed, actually though the medium of--our own alienation is a hard theological claim. Unfortunately, it was not the tendency of most American Christians in the 20th century to do political theology with the hardness of finitude, plurality, and tragedy in mind; Billy Graham, rather than Dietrich Bonhoeffer (on whom Toly relies extensively) was our collective preference. Too many of us were captivated by the idols of efficiency, utility, and inevitability, seeing God's will as, if not aligned with, than at least entirely orthogonal to industrial expansion. Of course technological progress and energy consumption must be unlimited; it's impossible to imagine things otherwise, right? The human creature demands it! This is what Wendell Berry trenchantly called "an economic and technological determinism, as heartless as it is ignorant." Toly invites us to realize how things can be otherwise. Not without painful tradeoffs, losses, and sacrifices, of course--but also not without hope for what he calls a "responsible Anthropocene."

What will it look like? Toly doesn't know. He gestures towards what geographer Doreen Massey calls "a politics of place beyond place," which he reads, in light of the finite and alienated fact of our existence, a fact that obliges us to dig into particular places and tend to those possibilities of fecundity graced to us (a possibility which he ties to Biblical cities of refuge), "a politics of place" that also "sees its identity as constituted partly by relations with, impacts upon, and obligations to others beyond its borders." As he concludes his book, "the gardener's hands are dirtied by their bearing the costs for others...because facing the tragic responsibility means giving up, undermining, or destroying one or more goods [one might think here of our ever-responsive energy grids, our industrial food systems, our fossil fuel-dependent addictions to global travel, our too-casual involvements with exploitative supply chains around the globe, and more]...that others may benefit" (pp. 116-117).

One need not rely upon Christian theology to recognize the wisdom of this kind of chastened, resolute, localized hope. Jonathan Frazen, in the aforementioned essay, doesn't advocate abandoning involvement with repairing or strengthening larger political and economic systems entirely--but he does center his own mostly (but perhaps not entirely) non-religious hopes on "smaller, more local battles....a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble," so that he  might "take heart in...small successes." For him, it's a community-supported agricultural operation that gives the urban homeless a chance to farm. Just more upper-class liberal do-gooding, some might sniff--but no one who takes both localism and the projections made by environmental science seriously, I think, can sniff at his final comments: "when the systems of industrial agriculture and global trade break down and homeless people outnumber people with homes....traditional local farming and strong communities will no longer just be liberal buzzwords. Kindness to neighbors and respect for the land--nurturing healthy soil, wisely managing water, caring for pollinators--will be essential in a crisis and in whatever society survives it." Toly, I suspect, would fully agree.

The fictional Reverend Toller, when brought into confrontation with the limits of his ability to respond to the horror and confusion that climate disruption is bringing into all of our lives, thought God was calling him to violently embrace the blackness around him. Toly's work helps us, believers and non-believers alike, to articulate a more hopeful response. It is not a recipe for something that our own contradictions ought to warn us away from deluding us into hoping for, but rather a recommendation for a hope which can co-exist with tragedy, a hope for endurance and grace as we do the hard, difficult work which this planet we have changed calls us to. Not a bad challenge, that.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Listening to Macca #8: Flowers in the Dirt, Off the Ground, and Much, Much More

This month, I had to admit to myself that one of the things I'm doing with this series is spinning a narrative about Paul McCartney's work and career, one that is somewhat self-interested. In my last two entries, looking at Macca's musical efforts after his great come-back-from-Wings album Tug of War, I was talking about an immensely talented musician who, through his 40s, seemed like he just couldn't fully engage with his own talents. Perhaps not coincidentally, my own 40s were filled with a sense that, for all sorts of financial and family reasons, I just couldn't move forward in regards to any of matters I really wanted to. Now, I'm looking at an immensely busy five years in Sir Paul's life, from 1988 to 1993, during which he turned 50...and it just so happens I also turned late last year. The work McCartney produced during this short span is remarkable in its breadth, ambition, and even its relative musical success....which, again, is at least vaguely similar to the renewed sense of excitement and accomplishment I'm feeling as my sixth decade begins. No, I'm not turning the mulleted McCartney of the late 1980s/early 1990s into my spirit animal. But I'd be lying if I didn't recognize that my reactions to his music this month reflect something personal as well. So take that for what you will.

Anyway, let's check off the accomplishments. In 1988 McCartney and a bunch of friends cut a quick, polished record of classic rock and roll tunes, to be released solely in the Soviet Union. CHOBA B CCCP (or "The Russian Album" as it's almost universally called) is a rocking collection of tunes made famous by Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Leadbelly, Eddie Cochran, and more. It's all quite wonderful! (Paul's fundamental pop sympathies can't be denied though; the stand-out of the album, in my opinion, is his delightfully catchy take on "Don't Get Around Much Anymore.") In 1991 McCartney recorded a blockbuster of an Unplugged album, singing a fair number of Beatles tunes but also a lot of old blues and R&B numbers. It's also pretty wonderful! He's not a born bluesman by any means, but his renditions of "Hi-Heel Sneakers" and "San Francisco Bay Blues" are terrific. Also, in 1989 he launched his first international tour in 13 years, diving deep into the Beatles catalog before adoring crowds for the first time, and producing an awesome live concert album, Tripping the Live Fantastic in 1990. And then he did the same thing again only four years later, once again drawing from the tour another equally fabulous live concert album, Paul is Live. (Poke around the McCartney fan sites and histories, and you'll find plenty of people who talk about how the band Paul assembled during this period, who played on all the aforementioned albums as well as the studio albums described below, was perhaps is best ever, with two great guitarists--Robbie McIntosh of The Pretenders and Hamish Stuart of Average White Band--complementing his bass in the same way Lennon and Harrison had done years before.)

I'm not done. During these years McCartney also secretly released, as "The Fireman," Strawberries Ocean Ships Forest, a techno-dance collaboration with the English record produced Youth. It's cool! I was never much for rave music, but I can recognize good beats when I hear them, and this record has plenty. And then, still not done, he also released, to great fanfare, his first work of classical music, Liverpool Oratorio. I have to say, for the first time in this entry, this is something by Macca which I don't really care for. (Neither did pretty much anyone else, it appears.) I listen to classical music regularly, but don't consider myself familiar enough with orchestral forms to really, so take my opinion for a grain of salt. Still, if simplistic lyrics goosed up to an operatic level is likely to stick in your craw ("The Devil is evil / With a D. / And God is good / Without an O.") avoid this one.

That's six albums of music in a little over five years, and I still have to talk about his new studio work during this period, the music which all those tours were supporting. I'm happy to say, it's good--solid, engaging, and often really great pop music all around.

1989's Flowers in the Dirt came first, and it's the better of these two albums, though only narrowly. McCartney reached out to Elvis Costello as a songwriting partner for this album, genuinely and bravely trying to challenge and mix-up the ruts he'd followed into, and it paid off. While I don't think any of the songs McCartney and Costello are co-listed as authoring count as the album's best, I feel like I can hear the influence of Costello's sardonic, jangly, literary sensibility through the whole record. The best of their official collaborations is the lead single, the unexpectedly smart pop confection (with a ridiculously fun video), "My Brave Face"; "You Want Her Too" and "That Day is Done" never really coalesce into great songs, but the choir that comes in "Don't Be Careless Love" catches you by surprise. Elsewhere the album includes the drippy "Distractions" and the terribly overproduced (but still charming, I think) wanna-be gospel number "Motor of Love"--and that's it for weak points, I think. "Rough Ride" is fine light-funk pop, "We Got Married" is an impressively dark, rough, and passionate love letter (perfectly appropriate for a man celebrating his 20th wedding anniversary the year the album came out), "Put It There" is a short, lovely ditty (and thankfully polished into it's own thing, rather than being left unfinished and lumped into a medley, as was so often the case with Macca's folky and homely moments), and "This One," "How Many People," and "Où Est Le Soleil" all have their rocking moments. But the album's stand-out is "Figure of Eight," a driving number whose lyrics don't really scan at all but which McCartney, adopting a raspy holler, simply yells into near-perfection. The extended version included on Tripping the Live Fantastic is even better than the studio cut; it becomes a pulsing, bluesy, ferocious love song, absolutely the best surprise discovery I've had in this journey through Macca's work since I stumbled upon "Get on the Right Thing" way back in February. Overall, this is a strong B+ album, certainly up there near Band on the Run and Tug of War, and one that most any other artist might consider their masterpiece.

1993's Off the Ground kicks off with the title song, which is a nice, shiny pop number, but not likely to be long remembered. Much better are the leftover McCartney/Costello collaborations "Mistress and the Maid," a bright tune with a spooky musical and lyrical undercurrent of danger and anger, and "The Lovers That Never Were," where the anger and frustration is banged out explicitly. The McCartneys animal rights-manifesto "Looking for Changes" is a worthy rave-up, while the emotionally--if not thematically--related "C'mon People" similarly serves as an engaging ballad. It's the little songs that are the best, though: "Hope of Deliverance" is a fun, upbeat bit of worldbeat music; the ostensibly square paean to domesticity "Peace in the Neighborhood" could have been a Motown classic; "Golden Earth Girl" is haunting; and "Winedark Open Sea" is plain beautiful. "I Owe it All to You" and "Get Out of My Way" are predictable and forgettable numbers, but "Biker Like an Icon" is a shock: as harsh and sharp and cool a musical story of misbegotten love as anything ever recorded by The Police (and with a video that looks like it was shot for a classic REM tune). This is solid B album, and a great way to bring this too-long entry to an end.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Why the Partisanship of Wichita's Mayoral Race is a Good Thing

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

Four years ago, as Jeff Longwell ran against Sam Williams in the 2015 mayoral race, I mourned that the primary had been such a non-partisan affair. I definitely don't have any reason to feel that way this time around. The party differences between Mayor Longwell (who kicked off his campaign while surrounded by all sorts of Republican notables) and Brandon Whipple (who has served as a Democrat representing south Wichita in the Kansas House of Representatives since 2013) are pretty obvious, and seems likely to shape the race all the way up to election day. Which is, to my mind, a good thing.

Others disagree with me, obviously. For some, their disagreement is rooted in their nominal (though, as I argue below, rarely actual) opposition to political parties themselves, and their wish to have electoral contests completely untouched by such. For others, the problem was what they perceived as the partisan, "Topeka" style of the mayoral primary--in other words, their problem isn't with the parties themselves, but rather what they see (or think they see) parties in Kansas and the United States doing and saying. I think both of these perspectives are wrong, and that the partisan character of the mayoral race to come will benefit Wichita's political health. Let me see if I can explain why--though with my apologies for turning this into a discussion less about Wichita, and more about democratic elections in general.

To be clear, Longwell isn't running officially as a Republican, nor Whipple as a Democrat--their party affiliations will not appear on the ballot. Municipal elections in Kansas remain officially nonpartisan, as is the case in most cities across America, with a few notable exceptions (New York City, Indianapolis, Houston, Louisville, Philadelphia, and more). But the fact that they are known as a Republican and a Democrat, and are clearly intending to make use of Republican and Democratic networks to raise money, share their messages, and connect with voters, accomplishes the same thing. Which is the first and greatest advantages of being partisan: it enables voters make distinctions and connections in regards to electoral contests which are more informed, which in turn encourages the candidates themselves to share their electoral messages in more detail and more sharply. Simply put, candidates who run completely non-partisan campaigns for completely non-partisan elections tend to provide voters with less and less detailed information, because the incentive to drive home differences doesn't exist, whereas the incentive to offer moderate, centrist, technocratic bromides looms large. The result is an election like, well, the one we had four years ago--where two entirely competent white male business-friendly conservatives from the west-side of Wichita had to generate reasons for voters to choose between them, rather than building upon the actually existing range of opinions that exist across this city.

But wait, one might fairly interrupt--what's wrong with candidates who make use of "moderate, centrist, technocratic bromides," anyway? Doesn't that translate as "expertise"? And isn't expertise what we want when it comes to city government, not an agenda to push the city in one ideological direction or another? Don't lots of people see themselves as centrist, and in an era of intense national political polarization, surely many people see political moderation as something must to be desired, right? So why not hope for our city elections to operate along those lines?

There are least two reasons why I would issue a qualified--or even an emphatic--"no" in response to these challenges. Mostly, my reasons have to do with how we think about--or how I think we should think about--representative democracy.

First of all, the idea that there really is a large number of voters who genuinely find themselves somewhere between "conservatism" and "liberalism" as they have been constructed throughout modern American history, who honestly are independent and undecided between and therefore swing back and forth between the Republican and Democratic parties, and are equally dissatisfied with them both, is simply false. While it is true that Americans don't show nearly the trust in or support for political parties they once did, that doesn't stop them from consisting returning to demographically predictable voting patterns. Every honest student of politics must admit this--the data which shows that partisan polarization has grown even as more and more people eschew formal party allegiance is pretty obvious. And the small portion of the population who really do vote in ways that break from partisan patterns are rarely "moderate," in the sense of wishing to support solely whatever pragmatic, expert perspectives seem to work. Rather, the evidence is that they are mostly statistical creations, a fictional average capturing a mess of contradictory extremes.

All this means that most of the people who say they dislike partisanship are probably actually not complaining about the fact that there are parties where conservatives and liberals, or gun owners and gay-rights supporters, may find their interests most thoroughly reflected and thus choose to congregate around and support. Rather, they are probably actually complaining about, whether they realize it or not, is what they see as the effects of the patterns of partisanship in America today. I think that's a reasonable conclusion--because, of course, parties, for all their flaws, are collections free and concerned citizens, who form groups to raise money and promote that which they sincerely believe to be true. As frustrating as the process may often be, it's American pluralism at its most fundamental, and who can really be opposed to that?

Please note: that is not a defense of the specific parties we have. After more than 150 years of dominance, our reigning two parties--and under single-member, winner-take-all elections, there will always be two reigning parties; that's just logic--have promoted campaign finance, candidate selection, and ballot access rules which result in an often rigged electoral game. Both parties have gone through massive evolutions over the years, reforming their practices and changing directions--sometimes dramatically--as voters and donors have demanded it. But still, I don't deny they are, overall, creaky and often corruption-laden bodies which have happily embraced today's media-driven emphasis on negativity and the resulting contempt for compromise. It would be great to see a reset.

I think the last thing which could bring about such a reset, however, is that relatively tiny group of (nearly always relatively well-off) voters who find that their opinions put them on the fringes of their respective parties, thus leading them to think it best to separate themselves from the dirty business of influencing or building coalitions of voters entirely. I am personally doubtful that a slow-growth, mid-sized, regional city like Wichita has a readily available set of "conservative" or "liberal" (much less "libertarian" or "socialist") solutions which Longwell or Whipple could pick and choose between as they seek election. But, assuming one still believes power should only be wielded by those elected to wield it, what is the alternative? The long, perhaps noble, but usually victory-less history of folks like Greg Orman, someone who understands all the above very well, yet apparently continued to maintain until the end that a message of neutral expertise and practical deal-making would motivate voters outside of that whole tawdry, pluralistic process? The evidence, to be kind, suggests otherwise.

None of this touches on the actual political realities on the current race: namely, the fact that a lot of people who are inclined to vote against Longwell are worried that Whipple's membership in the Democratic party is a death knell for his candidacy. It's a fair concern. But the politics of partisanship, of liberal or conservative candidates dealing with conservative or liberal voters (which, incidentally, Whipple has written a whole dissertation on), is a different issue entirely from the democratic, pluralistic value of partisanship. That, I think, is pretty clear--which is why I expect that the debates which surround this mayoral race will be much more valuable to voters than what we saw last time around.