Monday, November 29, 2021

Getting Get Back

I spent a good chunk of Thanksgiving weekend watching Peter Jackson's superb and somewhat overwhelming Get Back, along with--according to my students anyway--most of the white dads in America. Maybe so. I'm a Beatles fan, but not a Beatles fanatic, so I'm not going to pretend that I found every moment of it's nearly 8 hours of running time transcendent; there's an awful lot of pointless noodling around the studio and interminable bickering over the mics in its three episodes. Still, the transcendent moments were there, as we watch these awesomely talented people deal with time's passage and frustrating miscommunications and other people and a general lack of direction, and still nonetheless generate brilliance, sometimes through serendipity and sometimes through plain head-banging hard work. Here's a few reflections:

The Women: I think it was Rob Sheffield in his wonderful Dreaming the Beatles (which I reviewed here) who observed--as I'm sure thousands of other Beatles fans have, but I think it was he who called it to my attention--that John Lennon and Paul McCartney shared, among many other things, a genuinely remarkable and unusual connection to their chosen life partners, Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman. What other pop and rock performers of remotely their caliber, and especially male performers of their misogynistic 1960s era (and while neither Paul nor John were apparently the sexist monsters many other rock titans were, between Paul's relationship with Jane Asher and John's relationship with May Pang, neither did either man have any feminist cred to be proud of) might have ever considered forming bands with and recording albums with their wives? Yet they both went on to do just that, multiple times. The almost childlike devotion these two men in their 20s had to these women they'd fallen in love with--or at least the devotion visible on camera in January 1969--was profound, and it's constantly present in Get Back, between John and Yoko in particular. We see her sitting beside John for hours, day after day, knitting or providing a shoulder for him to lean on (or fall asleep upon) as the sessions go on and on, with her watching everyone, sometimes curiously, sometimes disapprovingly. Then in the third episode, the touchy-feely-kissy giddiness of John and Yoko, when they learn her divorce is final, is somewhere between delightful and downright embarrassing. Paul, for his part, becomes much less of half-desperate, half-annoyed songwriting machine and more of a joking, laughing music-maker when Linda, with her daughter Heather, shows up. I wish the mics which the filmmakers had hidden everywhere had managed to pick up Yoko and Linda's conversations, which you see continuing on and off throughout the whole series; their discussions are animated, and sometimes appear either intense or hilarious: what jokes or criticisms or hopes or fears about their partners and children and careers were they sharing? There are other women who intrude upon the Beatles sanctum--we see Pattie Boyd and Maureen Cox, and of course the omnipresent "Apple scruffs," the condescending name for the female groupies who were forever crowding around the studio, mostly hoping for a glimpse of Paul--but these two, on my viewing at least, are the background characters whom much of the action nonetheless revolves around, whether anyone realizes it or not.

The Quiet One: If there is any overall story to Get Back, it is clearly the story of George Harrison, who comes into the studio on day one with the outline of a couple of songs--"I Me Mine" and the future classic "All Things Must Pass"--to share, and who gets essentially no support for them from any of his bandmates. In the beginning he is vocal with his opinions and animated in expressing them, but over the first episode you see him get beat down again and again as the John and Paul show--which mainly consists of Paul insisting that they need a schedule, since John half the time withdraws into Yoko's perpetual silence--and their songs dominate the proceedings. You can't help but root for the man, and I say this as someone who has become less of a George fan over the years; his songwriting chops were strong, his guitar playing superb, and his overall musicianship simply brilliant, and yet for all that, the tendency by some (I having at one time been one of them) to present his contributions to the miracle that was the Beatles as greater than those of the Lennon-McCartney juggernaut is simply silly. But perhaps the fact that he was a mere demigod playing lead guitar for a couple of Olympians only makes it more poignant. Ringo Starr was--and still is--an excellent and instinctive drummer, but he knew the pecking order, and was at peace with it (at one point during Get Back you see him just standing, smiling in delight, as Paul plays the piano; "I could stand and listen to him play for an hour" he confesses to the camera). George was looking for more, and was determined to find it, whether outside the band (which he quits at the end of the first episode, only the rejoin by the second) or inside it. Batting away the talk of extravagant productions in Tripoli or unseemly charity shows in hospitals, he focuses on changing the band; at different times, he encourages his bandmates to invite Eric Clapton to join them, or even Bob Dylan. When the keyboardist Billy Preston, who was just visiting the studio, is dragooned into the recording session, George is his greatest champion, insisting that he's providing exactly what they need, trading riffs with Preston as they hammer Paul's composition "Get Back"--which Paul had knocked around ad nauseam over the previous two weeks--into its gorgeous, final shape. And George is doing that constantly, always looking to jump in and add something--perhaps for self-interested reasons, but perhaps not? His walking over to Ringo as he was happily plunking out a silly ditty he'd come up with about an "Octopus Garden," and proceeding to try out chords to build up Ringo's tune into a song, is pure George: quietly serving the music, by insisting upon his contribution to it.

The Duo: In the end though, it all comes back to the two friends who bonded over Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, and all the liberation which early American rock and roll provided to a couple of teen-agers from Liverpool in the mid-1950s. Paul admits (though only privately to John) that he'd ignored George, and is sorry about it, and he regularly tosses Ringo compliments as he does his solid drummer-for-the-Beatles job. But ultimately, it is John that Paul is most clearly focused on trying to get engaged and inspired. And rightly so, because when John does occasionally emerge from Yoko's shadow or his own weariness and get fired up by the music, the man is brilliant, wickedly funny, and a fierce guitar player. As Alan Jacobs observed, when John emerges from his shell, it's like a musical flood: suddenly he and Paul are back in their bedrooms, trading riffs, singing snatches of show tunes and dance hall music, the sort of songs which Paul's family delighted in and loved to sing (and curiously enough, the same sort of songs which, at a different time, John--who was always changeable and rarely dependable--once dismissed as "Paul's granny shit"). The album which ultimately emerged from the Get Back sessions, Let it Be, is characteristically filled with top-flight pop music, but none of those songs, I think, captured what the Beatles were, and by January 1969 could still sometimes manage to become, than "One After 909," a blusey number that John and Paul had written a decade or more before, back when railroad cars and America and stardom were all delightful fantasies of the future for them. Seeing them cut loose with this number during the rooftop concert at the end of Get Back, rocking back and forth on their feet, their heads bopping and hair flying, and I, at least, couldn't help but think to myself: oh yeah, that--that energy, that rhythm, that joy--is what Beatlemania was really all about. It probably couldn't have lasted in that form for long anyway, and Macca himself has carried one version of another of it forward for more than a half-century beyond the tortured efforts to hold it together revealed in this wonderful documentary. But I appreciate the deep dive this series provided, into both the technical work and the revealed motivations which attended two titanic figures in the history of popular music. If nothing else, Jackson has made Lennon's final lines--"I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition"--less of a snark, and more of a meaningful coda, than I'd ever heard them to before.

Wednesday, November 03, 2021

Test Results (the Annoyingly Regular Crow-Eating Post)

So, nearly everything I suggested was likely yesterday was proven wrong by late last night. So the Political Science 101 model failed the test, right?

Yes and no. Clearly, it shows how your basic ground-level politicking--the face-time and the hand-shaking, the knocking of doors and the hanging of literature on door handles--can overcome real disparities in paid advertising, when it comes to low-turnout elections where name recognition is paramount. Both Maggie Ballard--the winner over incumbent Cindy Claycomb in District 6--and Mike Hoheisel--the likely winner over incumbent Jared Cerullo in District 3--outperformed those incumbents in the even lower-turnout primary elections in August, so the evidence of their ground-level game was manifest. I simply assumed--as the model does--that when it came to the general election, absent major new voter activization (which the model, and I, mostly associate with media expenditures, since the one-on-one, doorstop activization of irregular voters is, while obviously effective, also very time consuming and very difficult to scale up), those primary accomplishments would be unlikely to indicate success against the advantages of incumbency. That was wrong, and clearly the people around Ballard and Hoheisel (and Mayor Brandon Whipple, who strongly backed both) knew better than what I took Political Science 101 to be teaching. The Hoheisel win, which isn't certain and will be razor-thin regardless, in a very unengaged district and in the face of an incumbent who was essentially still a newcomer to Wichita city politics, was always going to be more likely, and I said so yesterday. But Ballard's triumph, especially once the major motivator of Claycomb's uneven record on a non-discrimination ordinance was resolved in favor of a vote which many in the fairly progressive District 6 wanted, and especially in the face of Claycomb's major media purchases, really was unexpected--as unexpected, according to Political Science 101, as Mayor Whipple's victory in 2019, in fact. So hey, bad for the model, and bad for us to relied too much upon it.

As for the school board elections, there I will not the fault the model, but rather my own application of it. In retrospect, it's pretty clear that, despite my assumption about the levels of name recognition for all four incumbents (based mainly upon advertising paid for by outside Democratic groups which lumped them all together), in fact only one of the incumbents, Julie Hendrick, had sufficient levels of acknowledgment for herself as candidate to withstand the concerted efforts by the GOP to sweep the incumbents out. I knew one of the incumbents, Mia Turner, quite likely would not have been able to build such supportive local associations since her appointment to the seat, but I failed to note Rosales's contentious record in office (and how much the entrance of Holly Terrill, a progressive friend of the winning city council Democrats, into the race would essentially keep that contention information in voters minds, thus lessening and splitting his support), and I simply didn't take seriously enough the efforts of local Republicans to target Ben Blankley specifically. In the end I was quite surprised, but I'm not sure someone who kept a closer eye on the histories and trajectories of each of these candidates would have applied the model as poorly as I did.

In short, yes, the Political Science 101 model can and, in this case, did fail (partly). But I'm also a bad political scientist. Thank goodness I can use my training as a political theorist as an excuse.

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

A Local Test

Let us assume that the local elections in Wichita today represent a test of basic Political Science 101. Probably a bad assumption, and one that would therefore lead me to make some bad predictions, but then my record for accurate electoral predictions is mostly abysmal anyway.

So today there three seats on the Wichita City Council and four seats on the Wichita School Board up for grabs. All seven seats are currently occupied by incumbents running for re-election. While there have been positive signs for turn-out, both nation-wide and locally, over the past three elections (2018, 2019, and 2020--very positive for that last one), I don't see any evidence which convinces me that this off-year, non-mayoral, municipal election will see anything better than an extreme small voter turn-out. That means the advantages of incumbency, primarily name recognition, will be paramount. Thus Political Science 101 says that, all things being equal, all seven incumbents will be re-elected.

What are the variables which might challenge that conclusion? When it comes to the school board races in the state of Kansas, as Sharon Iorio has observed, we have seen national PACs, supported by the state and county Republican parties, providing organizational and financial assistance to slates of nominally (but not actually) non-partisan candidates, mostly campaigning on the mostly fictitious threat of critical race theory being taught in the public schools. Has that political and monetary support made a difference--that is, has it activated enough less-engaged Republican voters to boost turn-out in favor of those challenging the incumbents? Especially given that at least one Democratic-leaning PAC in Kansas became alarmed and jumped into the advertising game in support of the incumbents fairly late in the cycle? 

In the absence of polling, it's impossible to give a strict Political Science 101 prediction. But going solely off visible advertising, social media presence, and traditional media coverage, my bet is that, with one exception, it wasn't enough. That one exception would be Mia Turner, who doesn't enjoy the full benefits of incumbency; she was appointed to her position last March to fill the vacancy left after Mike Roadee resigned (partly due to his frustration with USD 259's support of a non-discrimination policy focused on LGBTQ students). Without the name recognition which comes from having won an election, as well as being based in District 5, a fairly conservative part of Wichita with a small non-Caucasian population (Turner is African-American), all means that she may not have the intense local networks which can informally activate voters. Is she likely to benefit from the aforementioned Democratic advertising? Of course. But will it be enough? Another impossible question. I would bet, though, that if any of the incumbent school board members running for re-election lose out to their challengers (Turner's is Kathy Bond), it might be her.

How about the Wichita City Council races? In the case of District 1's Brandon Johnson, given his strong name recognition, his ten-to-one fundraising advantage over his opponent, and the intense networks he has built throughout northeast Wichita since his years as a community activist, I'd say that there is a greater likelihood of Johnson being incinerated by a space laser today than him losing. In the case of District 6's Cindy Claycomb, her challenger, Maggie Ballard, has a genuinely meaningful (at least in the sense of being capable of actually activating voters and changing votes) electoral argument against her, especially in the progressive--and highly motivated--Riverside neighborhood in her district. But with Claycomb's eventual support of the city-wide non-discrimination ordinance (thus undermining one part of the argument against her), with her tremendous fundraising and advertising advantage (see here), and with her long-time connections to established moderates and liberals throughout her district, Political Science 101 says that, however impressive Ballard's door-knocking ground-game may be, Claycomb will still emerge on top.

Will District 3's Jared Cerullo fare any different? Like Mia Turner in the school board races, Cerullo wasn't elected to his position; he was appointed to fill the vacancy left by James Clendenin when he resigned in disgrace, and that appointment came after a long, divisive, party-line process. For that reason, and also due to the fact that Cerullo found himself attacked by both Republicans and Democrats in his district for different reasons during the contentious debate over the non-discrimination ordinance, it's possible that Cerullo has lost potential votes of support from out of his district, and the ensuing party networks and social infrastructure those voters might have brought along with them. Enough to give his challenger, Mike Hoheisel, a shot of ousting the incumbent? Especially given the fact that District 3 has by far the lowest regular voter turnout of any district, meaning that the winner of this race may well do so by dozens of votes, Political Science 101 says that if anyone were to bet on any of the city council challengers, Hoheisel would be the one.

Results will start coming in at 7pm; guess I'll log on to see how wrong I am then. [Crow-eating addendum here.]

Sunday, October 24, 2021

My Tale of Two (Actually One and One-Half) Dunes

Why only two (or one and one-half, since Villeneuve's Dune is explicitly presented as the first to two parts)? Shouldn't I include Frank Herbert's original book in the comparison? Others might choose to do that, but I don't. Not because I haven't read it; I did...37 years ago or so. While I've never forgotten the basics of the story and have attended to its evolution through other novels over the years, I've never returned to the original book itself in all the decades since. (Oh, and what about the Sci Fi Channel mini-series? Sorry, never saw it.)

Unlike millions of other nerds, Herbert's Dune and its attendant mythology, despite its sweep and majesty and fascinating detail, never became a Bible for me, never was something that took up permanent residency in my imagination, never inspired me to return to it against and again, as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the original series of "Star Trek," or more recently the Harry Potter books all did. While I would never deny the book's significance or power, it's secondary to me: despite having digested a lot of classic sci-fi in my early years (Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke--you know, the Trinity), it's possible I might never had read Herbert if it wasn't for lining dutifully up in the winter of 1984 and catching David Lynch's beautiful, phantasmagorical mess of a movie. I approached the books with Lynch's movie as my point of reference, and the same thing happened last night, as I sat with friends taking in Denis Villeneuve's wonderful adaptation on an IMAX screen. So my tale most fundamentally isn't really about the book, much less Herbert's larger mythos; it is rather a tale two films, one which is nearly 40 years old, and one that is only halfway done. Seems somewhat unfair to slap them together, but what else is blogging for?

So, to get the main point out of the way: the Dune of 2021 is a fantastic, visually stunning movie. It tells the first part of Paul Atreides journey well, none of the performances were worse the adequate and some were kind of revelatory, and there are some scenes which are just amazingly gorgeous. (The brief, long-range view we have of the ornithopters flying over the landscape of Arrakis in the scene where Duke Leto and his party go to investigate the spice harves had me just shaking my head in amazement.) The film moves at a stately pace, but it's never sluggish, or so I thought; there were only a couple of points during its 2 1/2-hour running time where I felt the momentum of the film kind of drain away (they really didn't need the sand storm at all, or at least not several minutes of it). Whereas pacing is what truly, above and beyond any complaints (many of which I think are unfair) about over-acting or cheap special effects, is what prevents the Dune of 1984 from being an actually good movie. Yes, Lynch faced all sorts of studio interference, but in the end he signed off on a three-hour script and film, which then later was hacked down to a little over two hours--but even with the best reconstruction of Lynch's 3-hour vision available, Lynch's pacing is still pretty bad. You just can't have an effectively told cinematic story when you spend 2/3rds of your running time telling less than 1/2 of the story you have planned; it can't help but feel jumpy and rushed and underdeveloped. You have to cut stuff, and while I pretty much love everything from the novel which Lynch chose to keep in, I can't deny that the results made for a movie much less than the sum of its parts.

You can say Villeneuve was blessed with having a more supportive studio or being less of an auteur-weirdo than Lynch or whatever you like, but in this absolutely fundamental aspect of filmmaking, of assembling and streamlining a final visual product, he did a better job. A perfect job? No, not at all. By cutting all the backstory to Dr. Yueh's betrayal, Villeneuve made that rather crucial plot point come off as abrupt and silly (not to mention taking away all the cool context that Piter De Vries provides, leaving him in Dune 2021 as just an important lackey, not a fascinating psychopath). By cutting all references to "the weirding way," Lady Jessica's sudden combat prowess at the movie's end becomes an inexplicable surprise (and this is particularly unfortunate, since Rebecca Ferguson played Jessica as much more emotional and conflicted than was the case in Dune 1984, and it would have been interesting to see that double-sided aspect of her life made more explicit). Finally and more importantly, as least to me, cutting all substantive references to or depictions of the Spacing Guild and the Navigators robbed the story of the spice's central, spooky role; we don't get to see its weird and awesome and terrifying power, and are left with just accepting spice as a cool, dangerous, useful, and really expensive and rare hallucinogenic drug. Now--were any of these cuts (or others) fatal to the movie? Not at all. But taking a novel like Dune, cutting it half, and making the first half into a well-paced two-and-a-half hour movie, requires choices, and all of those choices had costs.

But anyway, leave that aside--we're all geeks here, right? So what about those particular parts I mentioned above?

Dune 2021's costuming and set design is very different from Dune 1984's, but not entirely different. There are many elements of 1984's crowded, alternately gaudy or shabby, always very lived-in, proto-steampunk colors and bric-a-brac and ostentation that I actually kind of adore, and I was pleased that Villeneuve didn't dispense with the medals and hats and pipes and flags and other overtly imperial elements entirely. In fact, in some ways he leaned much further into that kind of 19th-century-colonizer-aesethetic than ever Lynch thought to; while the parallels are present in the 1984 movie, in 2021, it is made undeniable--from the veils of the Fremen women to the lattice-work on the walkways of the city of Arrakeen to the chanting of the Freman crowds--that Arrakis is essentially the Islamic (specifically Bedouin) Middle East. I'd always thought that the reading of Dune as a white-savior story was always a kind of silly interpretation, but I wonder if Villeneuve was explicitly asking for it.

If so, that leads to what to me is the most intriguing area of comparison: how the role of Paul Atreides, as he become Muad'Dib and the Kwisatz Haderach, is being contextualized. While obvious every creative work is open to endless (re-)interpretation, I think the most accurate take on how Dune 1984 approached Herbert's complex story of political, religious, and psychological machinations is to stipulate that, while the Bene Gesserit never believed it until it was too late, their breeding program actually ended up fulfilling, in the person of Paul, the role of Fremen's prophesied messiah. This is why the Reverend Mother Mohiam is so horrified and terrified by the ultimate revelation of Paul's power on Arrakis; the Kwisatz Haderach is supposed to be their end goal, not the Fremen's! 

Of course, in the book Herbert (rather condescendingly, I've come to feel when I've thought back about it occasionally over the years) stipulates that Fremen mythology is just that: myths and superstitions that were planted by the Bene Gesserit themselves, with the long-range plan of being able to be made use of by them, as part of future plots. Dune 2021 is obviously taking that aspect of the story seriously, though how seriously will remain to be seen in part two. In this movie we saw Paul, as the spice makes his visions of the future more and more prominent, angry at his mother, both resentful of the Bene Gesserit having seeded ideas of a messiah among the Fremen, because now he feels terrified that he's going to be locked into fulfilling them. Of course, that's very true to the books! But how does it work as a movie? There is a reason, I think, that Stephen R. Donaldson's fascinating (and occasionally repulsive) stories of Thomas Covenant have never been optioned for film treatment--I suspect smart producers and screen-writers blanch at the idea of building a cinematic epic of speculative fiction around a protagonist who actively disbelieves, treats abusively, or simply is otherwise distanced from their own position in the story. If Villeneuve continues to develop the story in this way in part two, with Paul exhibiting a frustrated double-consciousness towards his own persona, it'll make for an audacious (and difficult) cinematic adaptation, that's for certain.

Though actually, this is one way in which the choice of Timothée Chalamet to play Paul Atreides might work. Some people adore Chalamet's work, I realize, but I count myself as one of those have a hard time seeing him on the big screen as anything other than a small and callow teen-ager. He'll grow out of that common visual association, I'm sure (Leonardo DiCaprio eventually did), but for the moment, making us understand the Paul on the screen as a confused teen-ager thrust into something over his head, abruptly concocting plans (like his sudden idea of challenging the Padisha Emperor when talking with Liet-Keynes--whose expanded role in this version was fantastic) and feeling put upon, really works. In my head-canon, Kyle MacLachlan as the obviously-already-grown Paul, a young adult anxious to please his parents but otherwise obviously independent, is a fascinating character; the T.E. Lawrence parallels are obvious and undeniable. But perhaps in conceiving of the story the way he did, Lynch was obliged to work with someone who could present on the scene a surprised, but authentic, messiah? Which I think, at least, MacLachlan did superbly well? Villeneuve, in choosing, Chalamet, may have committed himself to bringing a different, more authentic, but also much more difficult to put on the screen, take of Dune's psychology. I wish him luck; he has shown himself as someone simply brilliant at creating futuristic mises en scène--I don't know how anyone could look at the spaceships of Dune 2021, just hanging there in the air, and not feel like Villeneuve has an unparalleled skill at putting "space" on the screen in all its immensity--but at handing internalize moral contradictions? That's a different kettle of fish entirely.

Okay, this is way too long already. I thought it was a great movie; I hope lots and lots of people go see it. It isn't perfect, but it's much better than the movie which shaped my thinking about Dune 37 years ago, even if that failed movie--with its creepily Lynchian horrors and oddly appropriate moments of over-acting and utterly hypnotic Dune-inspired original lines: "the sleeper must awaken," "it is by will alone I set my mind in motion," etc.)--will always be close to my heart. All hail Dune 2021! Let's hope Villeneuve gets to make part two, and then these movies can inspire nerds for the next 40 years or so.

Friday, October 08, 2021

When Kansas Republicans Become Libertarians, Sort Of

[An article of mine in Current magazine, which is an updated approach to a column that originally ran in the Wichita Eagle and which I expanded upon here.]

President Biden’s September announcement that either COVID-19 vaccinations or regular COVID testing would be mandated of all federal workers, as well as all who work for businesses that employ 100 people or more, was, it goes without saying, divisive. That divisiveness, though, is not entirely widespread. According to the latest polls, Biden’s actions are supported or at least unopposed by two-thirds of the American people, and despite many predictions about protests and resignations, the data suggests that vaccination-reluctant Americans are coming around. So the opposition to Biden’s vaccination mandate in reality seems to be fairly localized.

Take the Republicans in my own state of Kansas, among whom opposition to Biden’s vaccination mandates really is widespread. Not only did the leadership of the Kansas GOP immediately unify around a condemnation of Biden, but one of our U.S. senators was the first to introduce legislation to strip Biden of the financial power to enact his order, a proposal that was defeated on a party-line vote. This fact might align with those who assume the opposition to Biden is entirely a matter of party polarization, and surely it mostly is. But looking at the claims made by Kansas Republicans brings up arguments over ideas as well—although exploring those ideas is a frustrating endeavor.

The language employed by Derek Schmidt, Kansas’s Republican attorney general, is perhaps the best guide to this strange debate. Schmidt, who is planning a 2022 challenge to Kansas’s Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, was quick to join with other Republican leaders in threatening to fight the Biden vaccination mandate all the way to the Supreme Court. While doing so he made his principles clear: “Receiving the COVID-19 vaccine is a personal choice” that should not be subject to a “government decree.” 

There are many ways in which Schmidt’s formulation is directly aimed at Governor Kelly, who has fought with the Republican majority in the Kansas legislature over mask mandates and school closures for the past eighteen months. Such language will likely be central to his gubernatorial campaign. But at the same time, it presents some Kansas-specific intellectual confusion.

This because in 2022, in addition to voting for a governor, Kansans will vote on the “Value Them Both” amendment, a proposed anti-abortion amendment to Kansas’s constitution. Schmidt is closely tied to the proposed amendment since it is a response to a Kansas State Supreme Court case wherein the Kansas attorney general defended a state law that outlawed a particular second-trimester abortion procedure. The state lost on a 6-1 ruling, with the court declaring that the language of Kansas’s constitution supports the right of a woman to choose to access abortion services, an interpretation Schmidt has regularly condemned. In a recent interview he repeated his condemnation, and strongly connected his support for the amendment to his campaign to return “pro-life” values to Kansas. So far, that’s consistent enough.

But when the interview turned to the public health fights of the past year and a half, Schmidt explicitly affirmed the formulation of “choice” employed in the very same Kansas Supreme Court decision he insists needs to be overturned. He repeatedly emphasized that the choice to get vaccinated is an “individual decision for individual citizens, not for the government,” and that “people ought to be entrusted with” the right to choose what is medically best for themselves. Schmidt concluded: “People do have a right . . . well actually the Kansas Supreme Court in a different context calls it a ‘right to bodily integrity.’ . . . I don’t mean to conflate the two debates [but] . . . it is quite a thing for the government to order a needle to be stuck in someone’s arm.”

The interviewer pushed back at this point, observing that a woman’s choice to make use of abortion services is an even more personal decision, involving an even more intimate question about one’s “bodily integrity,” with government restrictions that may force a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term presumably being “quite a thing” as well. Schmidt’s response: “There is, of course, a difference . . . At least in the view of those of us on the pro-life side, there are two persons’ interests who have to be accounted for in the abortion context. That is not so, or at least less so, in the vaccination context.”

Two points come to mind about all of this. First, if Schmidt sincerely believes that vaccinations should be treated as a matter of personal choice due to the “right to bodily integrity,” such as is reflected in the very case he is seeking to invalidate, then he really should read that case again. Because the deciding majority did, in fact, touch upon the problem of the government sometimes requiring that needles be stuck in arms. The court concluded, while citing other decisions, that their interpretation of the Kansas constitution’s language regarding choice posed no threat to well-established precedents for state-mandated vaccinations so long as individual health exemptions are provided—which, as it happens, the Biden plan does.

Second, Schmidt’s reference to “two persons’ interests” in the case of abortion is also perplexing. What are we to make of someone who presumably holds to a deep belief in preserving unborn life but then looks at the question of vaccinations, hears the clear evidence showing the threat that remaining unvaccinated poses to the lives and livelihoods of millions of others, sees the death that refusing vaccination is bringing into hospitals every day, and still insists that not being required to put a needle in your arm is the more defensible position?

There are ways in which Schmidt’s employ of this particular “pro-choice” formulation could be made more intellectually interesting, even if not coherent. Perhaps one could ask if he in fact denies the life-threatening character of COVID-19, or wonder if he’s going to go full libertarian and attack vaccinations against childhood diseases as well. At the same time, one might be forgiven for suspecting that treating Schmidt’s language as worthy of intellectual engagement simply plays into a cynical, situational game. Maybe in his circle it’s all just political messaging, all the way down. Americans like the idea of choice, and so when one political party advances policies that require restrictions as a matter of public health, wave the banner of choice and oppose them; it’ll resonate with the American people! As for the accusation of inconsistency, well, that can be dismissed as a persnickety concern that won’t get any play on social media anyway.

Those of us who maintain any kind of civic hope must constantly be on guard against such crude reductionisms. Ideas matter, and bad ideas, if exposed, should be noted for what they are. Being as clear and as consistent as possible in our language, and being open about whatever inconsistencies they involve, is essential to doing so; this is a point as old as Orwell. But talking with my students here in Kansas, I recognize I’m in an increasingly marginal position.

COVID-19 hasn’t been alone in bringing stresses to American political discourse that have confused the ideological positions that have long defined our major parties; Trump, of course, has been a primary player as well. But whether we blame Trump or the pandemic or both for our disorientation, it is sad that in the midst of our present crisis principled disagreements over matters of great import—personal liberties and public health—have been hard to find. American democracy requires parties that can advance such arguments honestly. Playing games with them—as too many leaders of the Kansas Republican party are doing today—simply invites further cynicism about the place of ideas in politics, at a time when more cynicism is the last thing we need.

Sunday, September 05, 2021

Taking (Democratic) Control of One's Own Traffic

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

That Charles Marohn is a friend to localist movements across the United States and beyond is indisputable. It’s not just that he has said so, repeatedly; both the whole operating premise of Strong Towns, the organization he has built, and the strategy it has followed, has been localist: encouraging ordinary people to attend to their own localities by gathering together, sharing information and concerns about the places where they live, and addressing those problems in small, organic, achievable ways. As I wrote in praise of his first book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, while Marohn may not be a trained social critic or political philosopher, he has nonetheless, through his insistence upon the necessity of slowly and democratically adapting our urban places in the direction of greater fiscal and environmental sustainability, articulated as clear and as practical a localist theory as almost any other thinker writing today.

The title of Marohn’s new book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town (whose release date is today--buy it now!), might suggest a wonky doubling down upon the practical at the expense of the broadly theoretical, and that judgment isn’t wrong. By connecting this set of interconnected reflections to what Marohn now recognizes as the flawed design principles and professional assumptions he internalized during his decades of road-building work as a civil engineer, he has written a book more in the style of a technical manual than a philosophical treatise. But that doesn’t mean the philosophy isn’t there. In the midst short, data-heavy discussions of travel times, risk assessments, speed studies, Marohn’s ideas are very much still present, and in some ways they’re more political than ever.

The fundamental focus in this book is traffic, meaning the movement of people and goods along streets and roads, which is literally the lifeblood, the circulatory system, of any urbanized space. (In a book with more than its share of good lines, Marohn’s two-sentence take-down of the over-inflated complaints about traffic congestion we are all guilty of is perhaps my favorite: “People often say that they are ‘stuck in traffic,’ as if their vehicle is somehow not a literal part of the traffic in which they are stuck. They are not stuck in traffic; they are traffic”—pg. 84.) One doesn’t have to be a student of Gibbons v. Ogden and the Supreme Court’s commerce clause jurisprudence to recognize that this in an inherently political topic, with ramifications for economics, culture, government, and sometimes life and death. Marohn opens the book with the story of a haunting traffic accident, the lessons of which he returns to throughout the chapters that follow, and ends the book with another accident, one that involved himself. He does this not to politicize tragedies or near-tragedies, but rather the show the degree to which human mistakes are enabled by decisions regarding the construction and management of traffic, decisions whose political values should be available to us, but usually are not.  

This is Marohn’s goal in Confessions of a Recovering Engineer:  to reveal the undemocratic—because rarely discussed and almost never subject to actual civic input—values which underlie the traffic regime that American cities are overwhelmingly subject to. Chapter after chapter, Marohn, with the zeal of a penitent convert, digs into the practices and norms of civil engineers like himself, teaching his readers—usually with impressive clarity—about LOS (Level of Service) rankings, MUTCD (Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices) warrants, the economic and sociological distinction between “streets” and “roads,” the 85th Percentile Speed rule, and much more. By so doing, Marohn carefully details the disconnect between the people who actually live in urban areas, and those who are tasked with designing the circulatory systems which enable them to move about. That is, he succinctly shows how streets, roads, intersections, traffic signage, bus stops, and more are constructed so as to incentivize—or impel—drivers to act in ways disconnected from—or completely contrary to—what those same people, when truly presented with the full range of traffic options, generally prioritize.

So just what do people—what do we—generally prioritize? Mostly safety and cost, even when such stand in the way of maximizing traffic capacity and speed. Unsurprisingly, the language and methods of urban design in America today (and for most of the past 70 years) privilege the opposite. That does not mean America’s cities care nothing about safety or cost: on the contrary, city leaders hear citizen complaints and respond to them all the time…only usually in ways that complete fail to get at the opaque values at work in the bureaucratic contexts which so often shape our urban environments.

So, insofar as safety is concerned, it would be hard to find an American city dweller who isn’t familiar with wide streets clearly built for speed…which have subsequently been filled with traffic warnings, broken up with poorly coordinated signal lights, and closely attended by police conducting a near-abusive number of traffic stops (the symbiotic relationship here should be obvious). Or, insofar as cost is concerned, it would be equally hard to find an urban resident in America who can’t point to expansive and soaring highway interchanges or grand elevated thoroughfares gracing their city…while at the same time debt-payments and budget cuts and arbitrary ceilings on tax collection have left the basic maintenance of the city’s streets and roads further and further behind. These situations are both common and perverse, the result of city governments attempting to sincerely respond to genuine problems without daring to rethink the decision-making which got them there.

What would that rethinking consist of? Perhaps designing smaller streets for slower speeds and less carrying capacity in the first place. Perhaps organizing city finances so as to serve local sites of commercial intercourse and thus moderating and diversifying traffic flow from its start. And thereby perhaps lessening the overall debt taken on by America’s urban areas, freeing up money for already-existing maintenance obligations. In other words, perhaps the option of actually choosing not to privilege the top-down growth of a city’s traffic footprint, but instead choosing to privilege “more corner stores and neighborhood businesses…more local jobs and housing options…[more] sidewalks and biking infrastructure…more alternative ways to respond to congestion” (pg. 98). That these choices are politically difficult is obvious: the assumption that faster traffic is superior to slower traffic, that automobile access to distant locations is superior to bike or pedestrian access to local destinations, that minimizing automobile delay is superior to making room for transportation alternatives, and that speculative economic growth is superior to preserving community wealth, are all, in the civil engineering and urban design professions, a kind of “orthodoxy” (pg. 12). But that they remain, nonetheless, politically possible is Marohn’s fervent call. By supply his readers with the relevant data, Marohn's Confessions helps explain how.

This push against the presumed necessity of over-building, the supposed “inevitability” of the growth machine in American cities (as Marohn facetiously writes in the book’s introduction, which humorously expands upon his justly famous “Conversation with an Engineer” video, civil engineers are “really in the growth business”—pg. xviii), is what makes his localism populist in the spirit of Wendell Berry, who labeled this same cult of inevitability in The Art of Loading Brush “an economic and technological determinism.“ It’s also what makes his localism profoundly political. In the end, for all it’s technical, economic, psychological, and environmental details, Confessions is a plea for local democracy, as Marohn makes clear throughout the book, from beginning…

[Decisions about street safety, speed, capacity, and cost] are policy decision, and like all policy decisions, they should be decided by some duly elected or appointed collection of public officials. In a democratic system of representative government, representatives of the people should be provided the full range of options and be allowed to weigh them against each other. That rarely happens, and I have never heard of an instance where it has happened for a local street (pg. 6).

…to end:

None of these decisions [regarding all the supposed obstacles to making a busy street more pedestrian friendly] are merely technical; they are all somewhat discretionary and, thus, political….Cities are not powerless. Great local engineers who want to assert the values of the community, instead of opposing them, can become strong advocates….All...common methods of thwarting the public will are merely assertions of power. The engineer has knowledge and access to information that elected officials and the public do not. This makes the engineer a gatekeeper….There are ways to deal with this problem, most of which involve shifting power away from the engineer and the systems which empower their values….There are many great engineers out there ready to prioritize public safety over traffic speed and neighborhood prosperity over traffic volume. There are a lot of engineers ready to step out from behind the shield provided by industry standards and fulfill their ethical obligations to use their professional judgment in the service of the public. Any city council wanting to can find these people, empower them, and then support them so they can do great things (pgs. 209-210).

My reference to Wendell Berry above—whose work has inspired many writers at Strong Towns—is intentional. The political expression of localism is often derided as mere nostalgia at worst, or only appropriate for the increasingly small portion of the American population which lives in rural areas at best. Marohn is no agrarian. But here he shows us a practical localism, one centered upon the admittedly wonky technical and financial designing, building, and maintaining of America’s circulatory systems of traffic, but nonetheless as reflective of the same localist democratic ideals as anything produced within America’s agrarian or Tocquevillian traditions. No, Marohn is not a theorist, and not every argument or example or chapter in this book is intellectually consistent. But enough of them do for me to say: if only traffic engineers and urban designers read this book, the localist cause will have missed out on something great indeed.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Ideology, Abortion, and Schmidt's Confusion (or Not?) over "Choice"

On Sunday, The Wichita Eagle posted a column of mine online (it appeared in the physical paper on Tuesday) which attempted to describe--in less than 600 words--the nature of the ideological confusion which the Kansas Republican party has sown over the past 18 months. I don't think I did a particularly good job. Fortunately, Derek Schmidt, Kansas's attorney general and a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in 2022, sat down for an interview with Tim Carpenter of the Kansas Reflector this week, and in the full podcast he expressed that confusion far better than I ever could.

At the beginning of the interview, Schmidt talks about his anti-abortion bona fides, and the role he played in crafting the "Value Them Both" amendment, a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution which will be on the ballot next August and which the Kansas Republican party is all but entirely determined to see passed. As he commented, "that amendment is a response to what I think is an erroneous decision of the Kansas state Supreme Court which somehow managed to find in the state constitution the right to access abortion services that I just don't think is there." He repeated that point a couple of times. The case he was referring to, and the decision which the amendment would invalidate, is Hodes & Nauser v. Schmidt, a case from 2019 in which a state law that outlawed a particular second-trimester abortion procedure was challenged. Schmidt defended the law, with the state Supreme Court ultimately ruling in a 6-1 vote that, as the language of Kansas's Constitution supports (on those judges' interpretation) a guaranteed right for a woman to choose to access abortion services, state laws which limit that right, such as the one mentioned above, must pass a "strict scrutiny" test to be legitimate. For whatever its worth, I wrote at length about that case and its relevance for thinking about the long-standing issues of judicial review and popular sovereignty here.

One could attempt to qualify Schmidt's interview statement by suggesting that what he labels "erroneous" about the decision is solely the 5-person majority's language which took Kansas's constitutional jurisprudence to such a high level. (Justice Biles wrote a concurring decision which demurred partly from his colleagues' reasoning, stating that the Kansas Constitution's guarantee of  "equal and inalienable natural rights" was best interpreted as applying to abortion in light of the Supreme Court's currently--though perhaps not for much longer--reigning Planned Parenthood v. Casey precedent, which stipulates that restrictions upon the right to access abortion services can be justified only so long as they do not violate the somewhat more moderate "undue burden" test.) That would be an interesting development: that Schmidt only wants this state supreme court decision overturned because he thinks it valorizes a woman's right to choose abortion in a particularly uncompromising way. But no such development will emerge, and the attempts to give context to Schmidt's statement will fail, not at least if (and this is kind of the whole point) you actually take his statements about his beliefs at face value, as the interview itself later shows.

Why? Because once the interview got into the dominant issue in Topeka over the past 18 months--namely, Democratic Governor Laura Kelly's attempts to use her emergency powers to put in place what she and her medical advisors determined were necessary public health measures, and the way Kansas Republican leaders have consistently opposed and limited her efforts--Schmidt explicitly affirmed the uncompromising formulation of "choice" employed in that same decision which he insists needs to be overturned. As the interview turned to the spread of vaccination mandates across the U.S. as a public health measure, Schmidt repeatedly emphasized his opposition, clearly stating that there should be "no vaccination mandates," that the choice to get or not get vaccinated is "a personal decision," an "individual decision for individual citizens, not for the government," and that "people ought to be entrusted with" the right to choose what is medically best for themselves. He emphasizes this, he said, for a "couple of reasons." One is practical; he thinks more people will get vaccinated if you keep the choice entirely voluntary and a matter of public education and encouragement: "you catch more flies with sugar than you do with vinegar." But the other, which he implies he believes is even more important, is kind of fascinating:

People do have a right...well actually the Kansas Supreme Court in a different context calls it a "right to bodily integrity"....I don't mean to conflate the two debates [but] is quite a thing for the government to order a needle to be stuck in someone's arm.

Carpenter, to his credit, pushed back (though not, I think, as thoroughly as he might have) on this point, observing that a woman's choice to make use of abortion services is an even more personal decision, involving an even more intimate question about one's "bodily integrity," with government restrictions that may force a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term presumably being "quite a thing" as well. Schmidt responded:

There is, of course, a difference, which least in the view of those of us on the pro-life side, there are two persons' interests who have to be accounted for in the abortion context. That is not so, or at least less so, in the vaccination context.

Well. Let's unpack that a little bit.

First, if Schmidt sincerely sees his belief that vaccinations should be treated as a matter of personal choice reflected in Hodes & Nauser v. Schmidt, then he really ought to read it again. Because the 5-person majority on the Court did, in fact, touch upon the problem of the government sometimes requiring that needles be stuck in arms, presumably in violation of the right to bodily integrity, and they concluded (though I would agree with Biles that they did so much too casually) that their interpretation of the Kansas Constitution's language posed no complications for the well-established precedent of mandatory vaccinations. They did this by citing other decisions which labeled such public health practices as defensible when individual health exceptions are allowed (see pp. 40-41). Whether that's genuinely unproblematic assertion or not, it's connected to language which Schmidt himself uses, so he ought to at least acknowledge it.

Second, there's Schmidt's reference to "two persons' interests" in the case of abortion, a rather bloodless way to talk about the central conviction which has long defined opposition to the availability of abortion services in the United States: that a woman who chooses abortion terminates an unborn life, one which had no choice in the matter. That's a conviction which has been challenged and construed in different ways over the decades in light of arguments over the definition of fetal life, changes in our understanding of (and expanding technological access to) human embryonic development in the womb, and much more--but it remains the core principle that, as Schmidt put it, "those of us on the pro-life side" make use of. What, then, are we to make of someone who holds to that deep belief in preserving life, who then looks at the question of vaccinations, hears the clear evidence showing the threat which remaining unvaccinated poses to the lives and livelihoods of millions of others, sees the death which refusing vaccination is bringing into the hospitals and emergency rooms of America every day, but nonetheless still insists that "the right to bodily integrity" makes not being required to put a needle in your arm the more defensible position, in part because, supposedly anyway, the "vaccination context" is "less" a matter of other persons' "interests" than abortion is?

Well, as I see it, we can make a few different things. One is the observation I made in my original column, an observation rooted in many well-attested political truisms. To expand on it slightly: lots of people believe lots of things, and they believe those things for lots of different reasons. A lot of the exact same beliefs held by some people are held in an equally passionate but entirely different way by other people, and some individuals affirm both those different beliefs at the same time. In short, people are complicated. The existence of such complications make it possible for some people--let's call them "political elites"--to arrange and communicate packages of beliefs--let's call those "ideologies"--to attract the votes and the financial support of people to their vehicles--let's call those "political parties"--for enacting those packages of beliefs. Since these are packages of beliefs, not necessarily bedrock principles, they can always be re-packaged and re-communicated to the American people as political actors feel appropriate, something which has been done by different parties at different times throughout American history. 

In my column, I used the example of "choice," something which most Americans, socialized as most of us are so as to value individual liberty and personal decision-making, respond to positively. Over the course of the pandemic, "choice" has been a valuable tool (or, if you prefer, "ideological package") that Kansas Republicans have used to justify challenging Governor Kelly's efforts to mandate public health measures. We all know this; everyone knows someone who has refused to wear a mask or refused to get vaccinated or complained about restrictions at their workplace or their school or their church because they have--or should have--the liberty to choose to say no: "my body, my choice." It has been very effective politics for them, in that it really has articulated and given partisan direction to a general libertarian, choice-centric sentiment here in Kansas. Which led me to to point out, very simply, that it's a weird and possibly electorally confusing thing for Kansas Republicans to have made use of explicitly "pro-choice" language throughout 2020 and 2021, given that in 2022 they're going to be united around passing a constitutional amendment via referendum which is anything but "pro-choice."

My column prompted two different types of responses, which constitute two other ways of interpreting the confusion here, if that's what it is. The first (which started hitting my inbox as soon as the Eagle posted my column on Sunday) is that I'm wrong, that the positions taken by the Kansas Republican party on vaccinations and abortion actually fit together perfectly, and that if anyone has been engaged in ideological repackaging for political gain, it's been those duplicitous, pro-abortion Democrats, who have abused the notion of personal freedom for evil ends. I really didn't take that stuff seriously, in part because it just confirms what I also wrote in my original column: that beliefs can always be re-interpreted so as to demonstrate consistency, and the resulting ideological packages really can, at least sometimes, logically hold together. That doesn't make such packages persuasive; as I pointed out above, Schmidt's claim that invoking the right of bodily integrity to resist vaccination mandates and invoking the right of bodily integrity to resist abortion restrictions are "of course" fundamentally different is confusing, on multiple moral and legal levels. But still: this is what we free-thinking human beings do. If one group of human beings decide that they believe in libertarianism when it comes to public health but don't believe in libertarianism when it comes to reproductive rights, their justifications may be stupid, but that doesn't mean they're always incoherent. When it comes to defending our prior beliefs, we can be very clever creatures, and the Kansas Republican party (and Schmidt himself) no doubt have many clever people on their payrolls developing their talking points.

The other type of response however, and the other way of considering Schmidt's statements, is one I do take seriously. It's the suggestion--which I received from some local activists and scholars I respect--is that "coherence" and "persuasiveness" and such are all, like the packages of beliefs themselves, entirely ideological, and thus irrelevant--in fact immoral--in the face of the actual material conditions which the Kansas Republican party's employ of whatever language they choose is attempting to mask. The "Value Them Both" amendment will remove state constitutional limitations which protect a right which many women--particularly those that are poor and without social support--greatly need, and with its removal state laws passed by anti-abortion legislators will cause those women great harms. So what does it matter what Schmidt or anyone else actually believes or not? Treating their language as worthy of engagement, by way of pointing out the packaging involved and the confusions it arguably results in, simply plays their game. My interlocutors didn't paraphrase Marx's famous line from Theses on Feuerbach, but they might as well have: our point should not be to interpret the reasoning by which policies are justified, but to change the policies themselves.

That kind of materialism is, admittedly, bracing. It gives one the frisson of cutting through something, of getting to the heart of the matter, of "getting real," of kicking a stone in some grand Johnsonian refutation. And it's powerful stuff; while Marxist and other forms of critical philosophy are not my areas of special expertise, I think I understand enough of those arguments to be able to appreciate the ways in which talk of "packaging ideas" and "ideological interpretation" can implicitly legitimate beliefs which treat real material consequences as mere matters of ideological debate. The threat of that reductive danger makes maintaining radical challenges to the dominant discourses of liberal democratic and capitalist modernity immensely important, or at least that ethically must be the case for anyone who holds out for a better, less alienated, more democratic, more socially just and equal world. And yet...look at the words I used to make my point in that prior sentence: "understanding," "appreciation, "legitimization," etc. These are all describing intellectual actions which are themselves properties of the discourse about ideas. Absent, I suppose, either 1) the revelation that we really are wholly determined beings, operating in mental environments characterized entirely by false consciousness, like the unliberated captives in The Matrix, or 2) the determination (perhaps following from 1), or perhaps following from a doctrinaire reading of V.I. Lenin) to employ no other methods besides those of revolutionary violence, the brute--even, dare I say, material--fact of pluralism in our late modern condition necessitates the recognition of different existing construals of the same ideas, and the talking about of those differences. And that invariably lead to attempts to construct accounts of those differences, risky as that account-making may be to some. My talk of ideological packaging is one such construction. Does engaging in it--even if while so doing I note the stupidity or unpersuasiveness of some arrangements--functionally risk granting legitimacy to arrangements of ideas which can used to move policies in materially harmful ways? Almost certainly. But despite all my anarcho-socialist, populist democrat, and left conservative sympathies, I'm also still enough of a bourgeois liberal enough to ask: what is the alternative? Because I don't see one, at least not one that is actually available to a critical mass of thinkers and voters and citizens in Kansas, anyway.

Cards on the table: maybe I've gone on at such length because the language of people like Schmidt isn't entirely foreign to me, as it is to many others on the left. Not his or the Kansas Republican party's current (though probably soon to change) employ of the language of "choice," though; while I've grown far less sympathetic to arguments against abortion rights over the years, my old disagreement with centering "choice" in our articulation of the rights which liberal modernity tells us we possess remains firm. The pandemic, and the deadly abuses with the valorization of choice has made obvious, should have made that clear, if nothing else ever has or ever can. But that aside, I'll admit it: Schmidt's pro-life claims don't appear to me as obviously crazy. Wrong? Very much so. His appeal to a right to "bodily integrity" was a way to explain (assuming one even needs an explanation beyond a Republican elite packaging some beliefs so as to beat up on a Democratic governor) why people should be able to choose whether to not to wear a mask or be vaccinated is deeply stupid, and his commitment to that explanation, in the midst of surging Delta-variant numbers, while nonetheless refusing to extend it to women seeking to protect their access to abortion services, is deeply confusing. But not, I think, complete evil incoherence. Stupid and confusing are persuasive enough charges to be brought forward in an intellectual debate, aren't they? Maybe not for everyone, I guess. But for me, they'll do.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Fathers, Friendship, and Holding onto Your Platoon (or Not)

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

This old Cal Grondahl cartoon, from many years ago, has been on my mind for while:

It first came back to my mind as I was preparing for a sacrament meeting sermon on Father's Day, back in June, the first time I'd been at a church pulpit since before the pandemic. As I've explained before, the ward that my family and I had attended for years officially disappeared over a year ago--and its elimination by the stake, with consequent changes in boundaries which ended up dividing us from just about everyone we were close to in our former ward, has combined with the lock-downs and the many upheavals of 2020 (both personal and political), to make it hard for us to get back into the church-attending habit. The cartoon thus really struck me, because it was, predictably, the husband holding back his hysterical wife, patiently emphasizing the facts of the situation: "there's nothing you can do." 

That's the stereotype, right? When there is a difficult reality to face, when there are hard choices to make, when sacrifices must be accepted and leadership is required, who is supposed to provide it, in the church's official imagination? The husband, of course--the father, the patriarch. It's a stereotype that finds support in "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," after all: “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.” 

Sure, the Proclamation allows that "individual adaptation" may sometimes be necessary, and it's not hard to find statements from general authorities of the church implying how there may be all sorts of undefined exceptions to general principles like these out there as well, and that's even assuming you take the Proclamation seriously as a matter of doctrine (which I don't). But still, it's hard to be a member of such a culturally uniform body of believers as American Mormonism and not feel, as I do, at least slightly condemned for being, as I am, a weak father, someone reluctant to insist, in some commanding way, that my family has to attend a congregation that they mostly do not know, and a church that some of them--and, to a degree, I as well--have come to see over the past year and a half as, institutionally at least, partly irrelevant, morally as well as politically, to their lives. 

Maybe that weakness isn't such a bad thing; maybe American Mormon fathers can flip the cultural script, sometimes, and not necessarily play the stoic, authoritative, "there's nothing you can do"-types. (And considering the fact that our church's demographics skew heavily female as soon as you age out of childhood, that's probably an unavoidable flip, even if the cultural presumptions haven't caught up, and perhaps, given our all-male leadership, perhaps never will.) Still, as our family's participation in Mormonism, after decades of constancy, becomes doubtful and worried and inconsistent in the midst of the changes and covid-19 variants still out there, I can't help but feel somewhat at fault.

Lately though, as my family has continued to struggle along, I've stopped thinking about the husband in the cartoon, and started thinking about the wife, and her plea to hold on to her friends.

When Joseph Smith spoke of friendship as "one of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism" he was speaking cosmologically; he may have given examples that were both personal and social, but his aim in introducing the idea, at least as I interpret the passage, is to emphasize how the friendship among members of the Mormon community will revolutionize the world, bringing us closer to the Millennial peace promised by the scriptures. Holding onto the Hendersons, as the cartoon satirizes, probably has no such theological weight. what? Isn't it possible that insisting upon church activity in a particular place at a particular time, and thus upon supporting the leadership and the structures and the expectations culturally coded into the institutions of American Mormonism, all by way of a theological claim (the father in the cartoon might as well have said "Sharon, those with inspired priesthood authority have spoken; you can't challenge that"), is itself a stereotypically..."male" thing to do? Appealing to the cosmological principle of friendship, rather than real-world associations with one's actual neighbors and friends?

Of course, you will all say: dividing a ward hardly means you still can't spend time with the Hendersons! And that's correct. But we also all know that as fallen, embodied creatures, as creatures subject to human time and space, and subject to so many faults and limitations, we depend upon social structures to enable to us find and build upon the associations which bring virtue and purpose and joy into our lives. A Mormon congregation is, to twist slightly the famous Edmund Burke quote, "the subdivision...the little platoon we belong to in society." (Burke was talking at least as much about people embracing their place in the class hierarchy as he was about them loving their locality, but the general conservative principle holds.) 

We come into a subdivision, and we build, over time, memories, patterns of relationships, referents to people and events and experiences upon which we tell stories to ourselves about service, sacrifice, and simple pleasures. Can we do that anywhere, with any group of people, at any point of time? In theory, yes. But in practice, that kind of insistence (just start over again somewhere else!) valorizes exactly the kind of supposedly seamless, transactional modernity which, on a certain philosophical level at least, Mormonism ought to resist. In actual embodied life, becoming attached to a congregation takes time and costs effort--and as so many of us have experienced, the ward platoon we find ourselves may resist our best efforts at association (or, perversely, may bring out the associational worst in us). Thus to lose a subdivision that, over the years, came to mean seeing and catching up with and being comforted by the presence of genuine friends at Sunday meetings may well justify Sharon's desperate response.

Some will argue, not unreasonably, that the Mormon church is officially moving away from this kind of reliance upon congregational "platoons" anyway--that (perhaps inspired to prepare for the ward-and-activity-shuttering pandemic we have all experienced, and continue to experience) Mormonism is to become a "home-centered, church-supported" entity, and not just in the operations of Sunday School. To which I respond: well, maybe. If such decentralized hyper-localism--indeed, familialism--is to be the future of the faith, with our families (however we define them? or would only a clearly defined set of family associations count, perhaps those with the right sort of "Sharon, there's nothing you can do" patriarchs at their head?) serving as our "platoons," then some things needs to be seriously rethought, callings and boundaries and membership lists being just the start. In the meantime, though, we baptized members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we covenanted members of this particular interpretation of the body of Christ, are called to attend and support and receive the ordinances of salvation in our several subdivided places. And the difficulty of returning to such, for families like my own at least, remains.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Why Councilmember Brandon Johnson Matters

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

My title is pretentious, of course; Brandon Johnson—the councilmember representing Wichita’s heavily African-American and traditionally Democratic District 1, a longtime community activist and an alum of Friends University where I teach, as well as someone I have a friendly (if not close) relationship with—matters to a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons, most of them far beyond the specifics of current Wichita City Council debates. But as a someone who has spent decades observing and thinking and writing and teaching about politics, Brandon Johnson’s comments, towards the end of another marathon session dealing with the proposed non-discrimination ordinance before the council, were, whether he realized it or not, a deeply profound perception about the nature of political life, and it speaks well of his intelligence and perception that he said them. Watching the whole thing is a revealing as well as often depressing slog, but if you zip to the 4 hour and 6 minute mark, you’re hear this (edited slightly for clarity):

A 'community divided' [over]...a non-discrimination ordinance? I don't know if I would go that far. There are upset people. There are people who have questions right now. I forget how many e-mails I've gotten; from organized groups I may have had six or seven hundred e-mails. We may have seen the people outside. But [whether the delay is] 90 days or 90 years, there are going to be people who are concerned about this because it is offering protection to groups who are discriminated [against]....Whenever those opportunities come up, there is disagreement; there is division. Folks [will be] upset....Everybody's not going to agree with protecting folks. It's not going happen. There are folks who want to be able to do what they've been doing, think how they've been thinking. We've seen that the/ 'locker room' talk. We've seen this in some of the stuff we heard today, the 'I love you, but'. That doesn't change in 90 days. It's not. They are going be folks who are upset, still in 90 days.

The context, and the primary point, of his comments are actually quite straightforward, I think, even if that straight path is only clear in hindsight. So bear with me as I quickly run through the past four weeks….

A month ago, a proposed ordinance that would specifically require that national and state anti-discrimination laws regarding housing, employment, and public accommodations be enforced locally appeared upon the city council’s docket. The actual details and timeline of its preparation remain unclear--though it should be emphasized that Wichita currently has no locally specific civil rights ordinance at all, and it is to Mayor Brandon Whipple’s great credit that he saw the need for one. Unfortunately, in the originally presented ordinance, many of the terms describing those classes of individuals that would be protected were vague or undefined, and despite its stated intention, it actually included no specific enforcement mechanism, nor did it identify penalties should such a mechanism be put into effect. One thing that was clear from the outset, though, was that for both proponents and opponents of the ordinance, the point was the protection it provided to LGBTQ individuals, the state-level protections of which most people sympathetic to their concerns consider lacking, hence the move by several cities to make specific their inclusion. (The proponents of this effort regularly insist that this is a broadly motivated concern—Johnson explicitly says so in his remarks mentioned above—and yet no one really believes this, and no one really should: the arguments over the past month have overwhelming involved matters of gender identity and sexual orientation and the religious—specifically, the overwhelmingly conservative Christian—objections to such.)

The problems with the original ordinance resulted in a flurry of activity over the weekend, as Mayor Brandon Whipple scrambled (while away from Wichita attending a wedding) to placate furious LGBTQ activists and organizations, some of whom saw the proposed ordinance as a hastily slapped together affront to those who take LGBTQ concerns truly seriously. He was successful in this effort: by Tuesday morning, when the ordinance came before the city council for its first official reading, it had been significantly re-written, and it was representatives of Equality Kansas, and not the city’s staff, who providing explanations of the ordinance’s fine details. The frustration over this hurried process was immense (and I think, at that point in time at least, entirely justifiable). Councilmember Jared Cerullo’s objections to having been substantively excluded from the whole drafting process, despite being the only LGBTQ individual on the city council and thus an obvious partner to these discussions, was, I though, particularly poignant. It is very likely, despite Whipple’s impassioned pleading (in contrast to Johnson’s quietly supportive approach), that the whole thing would have been voted down if Councilmember Becky Tuttle hadn’t gotten the city’s legal department to assure the council that the whole ordinance could be effectively re-written again before its second reading. With that, it passed 4-3, with Tuttle and Councilmember Cindy Claycomb joining Whipple and Johnson in voting it through.

By the time the ordinance came before the city council again, however, it was clear that enough changes had to have been made to its language, its details, its definitions, and its enforcement process, that it was substantially a brand new ordinance, requiring a reset to the whole process. The new first reading was an endless, 5+ hour parade of opposition—again, overwhelmingly reflecting conservative Christian concerns—and, in a much smaller key, support. In the three weeks since the prior discussion of the proposed ordinance, there obviously had been a lot of organizing, yet little formal discussion in the venues established for such—specifically, the DABs, the advisory boards established for each city council district. Part of the reason for this was the July 4th holiday, which made it hard for people to get together and actually have an organized conversation. And in this vacuum a lot of misinformation predictably spread, in particular from the Sedgwick County Republican Party, though the local Democratic party’s response to the GOP’s attack got things about the proposed ordinance wrong too. (It’s worth noting that some local conservative activists went beyond talking points to calling upon their followers to contact—or maybe outright harass—certain councilmembers at their homes, and tell them that their election prospects depend upon their changing their votes.)

All of this, from what I can tell, simply served to underline an emerging consensus, one which I heard repeatedly when I attended Councilmember Bryan Frye’s re-scheduled DAB meeting after the first reading of the new, substituted version of the ordinance: this whole discussion has been unnecessarily heated and hasty, and has sown division and disagreement throughout the city, because of both confusion over, and the disrespect shown for, the city’s normal legislative process. For myself, while I have no disagreement whatsoever that the process in bringing this ordinance forward has been a complete mess (and while there is a lot of fault for that, it has to begin with those who wrote it and introduced it in the first place, particularly Mayor Whipple), the result at this point in the process is nonetheless, actually, a pretty excellent non-discrimination ordinance, one that would serve an important purpose. On the basis of some exchanges I both listened to and had with Councilmembers Cerullo and Claycomb at different events during this in-between time (both of them had ended up supporting the ordinance at the previous marathon city council meeting, and both of them are up for re-election this year), I thought sympathy for the resulting policy would win out over anger regarding the process. I was wrong—which is what brings me back, at last, to Councilmember Johnson’s wise comment.

Everyone following the news knows what happened yesterday: another long parade of opponents, though this time with an almost equal contingent of better organized, better informed supporters of the proposed ordinance, followed by an even more contentious display of accusations, insults, apologies, and bargaining involving the five councilmembers who had supported different versions of ordinance at different times (most of which revolved around the mayor, who started out loudly demanding passage but quickly found himself on the defensive—as Whipple himself once quoted his wife as saying during a class I’d invited him to speak at, with his election at least city council meetings aren’t boring any longer). Councilmember Tuttle proposed tabling the ordinance for 90 days, until early October at the soonest, to allow for more DAB participation, a city council workshop day, and the involvement the city’s new Diversity, Inclusion & Civil Rights Advisory Board, which relatively quickly garnered majority support on the council and passed 5-2. (The arguments over the Civil Rights Advisory Board have been interesting—originally it was Mayor Whipple who claimed, when challenged over their lack of involvement in the shaping of the ordinance, that the board was just starting out and couldn’t productively play a role yet, but when Whipple, accepting that he’d lost the votes of Tuttle, Cerullo, and Claycomb, suggested quickly involving the board and bringing the ordinance back for another second reading in 30 days, it was Tuttle who said they board was just starting out and wasn’t organized enough to do so.) It is at this point that Johnson’s comment, which was framed as kindly rebuke to Tuttle’s successful motion, becomes relevant.

In the larger scheme of things, Tuttle’s proposal is perfectly reasonable. As Max Weber famously put it more than a century ago, politics is the “slow boring of hard boards.” It’s a difficult and time-consuming process—so why not take some more time to work through these hard questions? Johnson’s response, which explicitly referenced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” with its condemnation of “white moderates” who told King to slow down and wait (Johnson could have just as easily referenced King’s blistering 1964 follow-up to that famous letter, Why We Can’t Wait), puts things in a different context. A focus on the legislative process, and the time and compromises involved, can be civically empowering, and is often central to any serious effort to think clearly about what “government by the people” actually means. But just as often, unfortunately, a focus on process can become an almost rote incantation, something imagined—usually not explicitly stated, though it sometimes is—as an entirely apolitical, non-partisan, and non-“divisive” way to address the reality of disagreement in our pluralistic society. As I observed in a recent column in The Wichita Eagle, this ideal is an old one, but it is also one that has never consistently worked, and today increasingly does not represent reality. The growing recognition by some that the contentious “management” of deep disagreements, through allowing everyone to organize and have their say (sometimes endlessly) and then somehow discovering a compromise in the midst of the fighting, rarely results in a policy that satisfies anybody or even works is, to say the least, kind of frightening.

Johnson’s comments, without ever going into this kind of theoretical detail, foregrounds this reality. When you are talking about really deep disagreements—and you can’t get much deeper than those between people who, on the one hand, draw upon long personal histories with discrimination of and contempt for their sexual identities and orientations, and people who, on the other hand, draw upon devout religious beliefs and (more relevantly) presumptions about the legitimate social expression of those beliefs—why would you think anyone will change their mind? However poor the process of shaping the proposed ordinance was up until yesterday (and it definitely has been poor, though there are examples from recent Wichita history of controversial decisions being made with even fewer and less transparent conversations than this ordinance has gotten over the past month), there is no reason to believe that the process going forward from this point on promises any kind of revolutionary break-through. As Johnson subsequently said, the only options going forward now are maintaining the protections provided by the ordinance, or weakening them by allowing more exceptions to be introduced. (Johnson didn’t mention the third, entirely obvious option: that more discussion might actually result in the ordinance being defeated entirely, despite a clear majority of members of the city council being on the record saying that local enforcement of state and national non-discrimination laws is necessary.)

Tuttle defended herself politely here, insisting that she wanted this ordinance passed, but believed that the delay—with more DAB discussions, with a council workshop, with formal Civil Rights Advisory Board involvement—will actually make it stronger, with broader public support, or at least great public acceptance. Johnson clearly disagreed with her, and I feel he was right to do so. I can’t emphasize this enough: taking the painstaking, slow, civic-minded approach to crafting rules and making decisions is absolutely essential when your goal is to increase public involvement with a problem, because the problem is general and the possible responses to it are multiple and unclear. This is exactly why I and many others have insisted, for example, that the city council must go slow in making decisions about the future of Century II; despite the efforts of some to present it as an all-or-nothing choice, it obviously is and shouldn’t be.

But as you get close to the point—by whatever the means you get there—where all those multiple options narrow down to one solution or one proposal or one course of action, one which you can only support, oppose, or amend, the civic essentialness of continuing engagement rapidly diminishes. There comes a point where rehashing the process becomes mostly a way to make attacks against (or defend yourself from against) the existing solution. Again, we all know this—we’ve all been part of meetings which never end and never accomplish anything, because someone is always upset with whatever might be done. As Councilmember Johnson said, the one thing you can count on in a free and pluralistic society like our own is that “there is disagreement, there is division.” You can argue, of course, that when it comes to this non-discrimination ordinance, Wichita—or at least our city council—is not at that narrow decision-making point yet. But that is a judgment call, not a determination that can be made in a dispassionate, objective, principled way. And if I may conclude by beating a favorite dead horse of mine, this is exactly why parties, and partisanship, is both 1) useful, and 2) unavoidable.

Why useful? Because parties frame for voters the sorts of priorities that will guide the judgment calls which different politicians will make after everything that goes into the legislative process is done, and thus allows voters to have some input over how and when and for what reason their elected representatives will say “okay, no more talk; it’s time to vote.” And why unavoidable? Because, as much as many city councilmembers (including Johnson himself!) may profess a deep commitment to just neutrally following what staff provides them with and making whatever decision their constituents seem to prefer, much of the time, in actual fact, voting in response to party priorities is exactly what they are doing anyway. I’m sorry if some take offense at that, but I can only plead that it’s very difficult to look at the votes that have been cast and the justifications that have been offered over this past month and yet still believe that the necessity of these people to negotiate the reality of both Republican and Democratic voters in their districts isn’t a central part of their decisions as well.

As another old saying puts it, politics is like making sausage—you shouldn’t look at it too closely. For better or worse, the people of Wichita have been granted, over the past month, a close tour of one particular sausage factory. The process was flawed, as legislative processes so regularly are, and if you want to hold Mayor Whipple responsible for that, you certainly could (I do, at least in part). But the resulting sausage is also, if you’re in political agreement with people like Councilmember Johnson, pretty good. Of course, if you’re not in political agreement with people like Councilmember Johnson, you probably don’t think it’s good at all. That’s called disagreement; that’s the nature of politics. When a city like Wichita comes to the point of division, you could wait in the hopes the divisions go away, or that your staff will come up with some new approach to mollify things, or that some other process could be tried to moderate extremists on both sides. I might work; hey, I might be wrong! But I don’t think I am, and I don’t think Councilmember Johnson is either. Hence today, after a very long month for every member of the city council (and three more months, at least, before they do it all again) I salute him and thank him for his clear-eyed perspective. As the man said, eyes on the prize, sir; eyes on the prize.