Saturday, March 27, 2021

"Twas a Matter of Timing and the Timing Was Right"

Exactly one year ago--March 27, 2020--Bob Dylan dropped "Murder Most Foul," without any public announcement or preview or warning--his first work of original music in over 8 years, in preview of his first album of new music since 2012's Tempest. I'm not a Dylanologist like many fans out there; I recognize that he's arguably been one of America's most important poetic voices for 60 years now, but even the Nobel Prize people know that. I am comfortable saying that Rough and Rowdy Ways in one of my favorite Dylan albums, and "Murder" is one of the primary reasons why. 

It's not the sort of song that I have any particular interest in listening to at any given time, but sometimes, like almost any truly great poem or work of art, the strange, haunting, tragic, but perhaps even weirdly hopeful incantation of Americana that this song provides is--like "Desolation Row," another one of Dylan's masterpieces--something that I just really want to hear. I'll put it on, and for the next 17 minutes I'm carried away. The greatest poets, like all the greatest artists and performers, are never solely about their chosen medium; they are also about the connection which they, through their various Muses, are able to provide between their times, their moment, and the medium in which they work. Dylan, whatever other criticisms one can make of the man--and surely those criticisms are legion--has continually, over more than a half-century, been able to bizarrely, unsettlingly, regularly connect with and/or comment upon his times. For him to have released this compelling dirge just as American settled into the third week of so of the pandemic, realizing that the year to come would not be a year of quick containment and renewal, but rather a year of difficult, despairing adjustments and realizations...well, some would call it prophetic. Which is a label Dylan has received often before, and hearing it again, would probably just make him shake his head once again, smile his creepy smile, and pick up his guitar again. 

Anyway, thanks Bob, I guess. Can't imagine what America will be like when you're no longer with us, watching us all, and writing your songs. Worse, I suspect.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Biden and (Some) Better Times for (Some of) Wichita

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

When President Joe Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan (ARP) a little more than a week ago, I commented to some friends that this may arguably turn to be one of the best things that has happened to Wichita in a very long time. Let me explain that argument here—starting with a rephrase of my original comment: the ARP will likely turn out to be one of the best things that has happened for many Wichitans in a very long time.

Why the change? In part because there are a thousand ways to think about a city, depending on the perspective of the person doing the thinking, and for every metric I or someone else might propose, someone else can surely come up with a different, countering one. While I don’t think that makes it impossible or inappropriate to talk in generalities about the common good (actually, I think it is both possible and necessary to do so), it does mean that I have to respect the perspective of tens of thousands of Wichitans, or more, who, for any number of reasons, hate (or at least have been told to hate, or hold to a political orientation which presumes—wrongly, I think—that they are supposed to hate) this latest stimulus.

Note however, that there are fewer such people than you might believe. While there were nearly 30,000 more people who voted for Donald Trump than for President Biden throughout Sedgwick County last November, leading the former president to win the county with 52% of the vote, that doesn’t hold for the city of Wichita itself, as this precinct-based graphic makes clear:

 

The city of Wichita isn’t entirely blue—not yet, anyway, and maybe not ever. But from Oaklawn to Bel Aire, the zoo to Eastborough, the default Republican preference of Kansans was challenged in our city, with a majority of voters throughout Wichita’s precincts going for Biden. Which means, if nothing else, that the passage of the American Rescue Plan is, for those voters, a huge confirmation of their political choice--a win, in other words. And not just a political win, obviously; nearly 100,000 households across Wichita are going to receive the $1400 per person stimulus checks (it would have been nearly 120,000 households, or easily 75% of the total population of the city, if moderate Democratic and Republican senators, including Wichita’s own two, hadn’t balked).

The Republicans of our city could push back at this point: the CARES Act which Trump pushed for did that too! True, but not to the same extent, and not as effectively. The ARP is actually giving more money to more people than did the CARES Act, which spent nearly three times as much money on businesses than on individuals and households. And while that money, mostly administered through the Paycheck Protection Program, was a lifesaver for some businesses, it was poorly administered, with comparatively little going to the employers that needed it most, thus having much less of an impact as it might have had, not to mention generating a lot of frustration and abuse along the way, as Wichita knows from plenty of local examples.

This can be debated, of course, as anything that involves hundreds of millions of people and hundreds of billions of dollars can be. Those who see the ARP as the second coming of the New Deal--whether hopefully or fearfully--should be prepared for disappointment; fundamentally, it’s really just another emergency stimulus package, first and last. It’s even possible that the CARES payment, when one really gets into the weeds, did more for working people than the ARP will. Now, if it works out that the additional child tax credits and increased unemployment and pension assistance which the ARP provides are made permanent—and the language of President Biden himself surely indicates that such is his intention—then that would retroactively turn the ARP into a genuinely transformative accomplishment, as much as Social Security or Medicare were. So if Wichita’s Republicans want to insist Biden didn’t do anything Trump didn’t already do, insofar as actual cash investments in the lives of struggling parents, workers, and retirees are concerned, the fairest answer may be: maybe; let’s wait and see.

But fortunately, there is an additional element to the ARP which we won’t have to wait a long time for, which demonstrates the true value of the act to Wichita’s development, and which involves something that the CARES Act barely touched upon: namely, direct aid to cities. Not just states (though they’ll getting plenty of support for all the programs they’re obliged to carry out too), but the municipal governments of "metropolitan cities," to use the actual language of the law. Wichita’s budget is facing estimated shortfalls of nearly $30 million over 2020-2021 thanks to the pandemic, with more likely to come in the future; the fact that the ARP will likely deliver close to $73 million to the city (according to the latest estimates) will make a massive difference in the costs which that revenue loss will mean to the quality of life in our city. 

(As an important aside, note that by setting up a program which bypasses states and counties, Wichita, and cities like it, may be able to avoid what looks likely to become a sticky constitutional and political fight, as some state leaders--including our own Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt--have argued that they ought to be able to use the ARP funds which will be given to states to cover new tax cuts, leaving the issue of making up for budget cuts to state programs aside. And that doesn't even touch the proposal by some Kansas legislators to grab up to $100 million of federal relief funds, presumably out of that which would be directed to Kansas counties, and use it to compensate businesses for their losses as punishment for the counties having imposed shut-down mandates as the governor directed. Wherever these destructive arguments go, they should touch that money directed to Wichita itself.)

I wrote “quality of life” up above purposefully. Thanks to the covid budget priorities the city council established last August, in which the Wichita Police Department enjoyed (in the midst of much protest and counter-protest) a large increase, the cuts which were introduced were overwhelming in the area of public arts, city libraries, capital improvements, parks and trees and sidewalks and bike paths and like. While clearly ARP funds will need to be used to first and foremost to support and supplement various localized covid-relief and anti-poverty measures (though honestly, given the distribution of responsibility between the city and the county, those should mostly come out of the $100 million or so which the Sedgwick County Commission will receive), if the spirit of this aid is adhered to by our city council at all (perhaps as encouraged by concerned citizens like you and me?) then we’ll see this important source of relief used to help begin to rejuvenate, and perhaps even re-direct, a city whose cultural offerings and music scene and patterns of growth (or lack thereof) have been taking major hits not just throughout the past year, but for quite a few years previously.

What is the “spirit of this aid” I mention? Simply the fact that the Biden administration, as it shaped and pushed for this relief package, had a set of priorities very different, and far more urban, than those of the Trump administration. The latter was happy to contribute to already deepening divisions in American society by tweeting at great length about “Democrat-run cities” with their “anarchist jurisdictions,” which is the sort of thing which leads Republican politicians like Kansas First District Representative Jake LaTurner to dismiss the whole thing as a scam to “bail out liberal states.” Those who are actually involved in administering cities, whether in red states or blue ones, know that is absolutely not true, and have said so at length. But the real story is buried within many and various ideas, plans, and people which Biden has brought with him to Washington.

While Trump’s re-election built itself in part upon distracting claims about how Biden’s crazed socialist ideas were going to destroy the (white) American suburban ideal, Biden’s campaign instead recognized that America’s suburban homeowner form houses a lot of racial and ethnic minorities, whose social and economic challenges required a response quite different from Trump’s culture war attacks. Biden’s push for more racial equity and low-income options among America’s suburban development goes hand-in-hand with lessening exclusive zoning requirements, encouraging greater density in development, and looking to expand transportations choices beyond just the well-subsidized suburban access roads and freeway on-ramps which have defined metropolitan sprawl for far too long, which in turn makes his nomination of Pete Buttigieg--a favorite of the Strong Towns movement!--as Secretary of Transportation potentially so important.

To be sure, you can legitimately criticize all of these supports as something that will actually undermine, rather than democratically empower, localities; I take all these criticisms seriously (even, to my surprise, the ones about zoning reform), and so should anyone else with genuinely localist and small-d democratic concerns about urban spaces in general. And yet, to see all of this happening in Washington, and underwritten at least in part by the ARP, at the same time that Wichita’s leaders are finally seriously talking about these related matters via their Places for People initiative, makes me wonder if there isn’t some kind of unforeseen alignment taking place. An alignment that will allow the different Wichita that is out there to take the support being offered it, and use it to build and encourage, in the midst of what is sure to be a long and difficult economic recovery, the kind of culturally-enriching, family-rewarding, individually-satisfying, community places and practices that Wichita has too-often sacrificed in the name of its usual, easily-fallen-back-into growth-centric routines.

It won’t come easily, of course, and it may not come at all. And if it does come, it won’t be a change that pleases the large number of Wichitans who look upon any push for greater urban sustainability, density, and equality in this city as antithetical to the small-town conservatism which they want to continue to imagine is appropriate for an urban area of a half-million people. That’s fair, I suppose. But I also suspect that, as a great many Wichitans emerge from what was probably, for the majority of us, one of the worst years of our lives, at least a few of us can see the possibility of some better—and even, maybe, differently better—times ahead. And even if not—well, 2021 can’t get any worse than last year, can it?

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Grace Olmstead's Uprooted Idaho, and My Own

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Last summer my family and I drove right by Emmett, Idaho, the ancestral home of Grace Olmstead, author of the wonderful, if imperfect, Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind. Idaho's Gem County (Emmett is the county seat) is beautiful country, which it was good to reminded of. We were traveling from Spokane, Washington (where I was born and raised, and where my widowed mother--whom my children hadn't seen in years, and needed to visit--continues to live in a cabin atop what we call Fox Hill just over the Idaho border) to Gooding, Idaho (for a big family gathering which, out of pandemic-related concerns for our mother's health, we held someplace other than the old homestead). If we'd taken the interstate, we would have traveled faster, but missed the scenery, so instead we took state highways through the wheat fields of the Palouse, down into Hells Canyon, up again into the forested mountains around Payette Lake (we swam for a bit, but Sharlie, the legendary monster of Payette, made no appearance), and then down again towards Boise, before getting on the interstate and heading east across southern Idaho's Snake River Plain to our destination. If I'd known that reading Olmstead's book was in my future, I would have made sure we stopped for dinner in Emmett instead of later on.

I take the time to talk about the landscape around these places because it is the land of southwestern Idaho, and the people who built small farming towns like Emmett on that land, that Olmstead approaches in her book with great--though sometimes uneven--passion and grace. Uprooted is partly a memoir of her extended family (though mostly just her great-grandparents), partly a paean to a way of life that is both dying and which she never really understood while she grew up in the midst of it (and thus feels the loss of all the more deeply now), and partly a study of the causes of that dying, and how what has endured--the habits, the connections, the sense of place--has shaped her extended family nonetheless. She calls her book "an exercise in discernment" (pg. xiii, 206), and it was that element of the book which broke through my partial resistance to it. In presenting to the public her ongoing attempt to work through her own feelings about the decades-long decline of a town and the agrarian vocation which it served as a particular home for, all of which she has belated realized she loves, and moreover in doing so with such regional specificity, Olmstead forced a degree of reflection upon me--a person with his own family stories of Idaho and farms, stories which I, also, mostly now know only at a great distance, both physical and temporal.

For Olmstead, the heart of the story she wants to tell about Emmett, and about her own Howard family in that place, is her great-grandfather, Walter Allen Howard--or as Olmstead always refers to him, "Grandpa Dad," the marvelously inventive and hard-working (and, as the story unfolds, contrary and independent to a fault) patriarch of her clan. Born in 1911, and still driving a tractor and tending to his prized (and apparently somewhat secretly maintained) irrigation ditches until he passed away in 2008, Olmstead grounds her many ruminations about farming life and community attachment in near-constant references to Grandpa Dad's example. He was a man who embodied a certain kind of rootedness, to the land ("Grandpa Dad dug many of the ditches that still feed water to crops in north Emmett--all of them with a spade and his two hands"--pg. 5), to the community of Emmett ("He would often come in dirty from a long work day on the farm and head straight for the shower to clean up so he could attend a local meeting"--pg. 179), to his church ("To Grandpa Dad, some things mattered more than the price tag--and supporting his neighbor and Christian brother [who ran the only grocery store he was willing patronize] was one of those things"--pg. 141), and most of all to his family. Her portrait of this impressive man is a deeply loving one, and no wonder: to a great-granddaughter, shucking corn beside him, listening to him tell stories of his long-dead wife and recite poetry and spin tales of a land utterly transformed ("He was the first storyteller and historian I knew...overflowing with knowledge and narrative"--pgs. 5-6), he must have seemed an entirely lovable human being.

But Olmstead also thoughtfully makes use of such authors as Robert Nisbet, Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmund Burke, Robert Wuthnow, and Wendell Berry to elaborate upon the beauty, social utility, and moral worthiness of that particular rural rootedness which she most centrally associates with the memory of that human being and of his farm in Emmett. In particular, she makes use of the distinction employed by Wallace Stegner (and frequented emphasized by Berry as well) between "boomers"--those who "come to extract value from a place and then leave"--and "stickers"--"those who settle down and invest." She trenchantly observes that "Since the mid-nineteenth century, there have been more boomers than stickers in Idaho history" (pg. 21), and provides the background to make her point clear. Grandpa Dad, in contrast, was a sticker, and that haunts her.

Haunts her, because she, and her whole extended family, didn't actually stick, at least not entirely. Though the Howards were all deeply shaped by the connections which Grandpa Dad's work and care for the land and the community had built all around him, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren nonetheless never committed to that community or that work. They became bankers and pharmacists and engineers and, in Olmstead's case, a journalist in Washington DC. And here is where my internal reflection begins, because I could say something similar in regards to myself, and my own extended family. Our family's own Idaho farm, and the milk cows and alfalfa fields and vegetable gardens and calf pens and homemade fences and barns I grew up around and worked early mornings and late nights in, all through the 1970s and 1980s, have faded into an enduring set of Idaho-centric reminiscences, not something I--a college professor in Kansas, with siblings working in real estate and communications and investment and education--can really claim any rootedness in, especially not over the past fifteen years or so, as we have settled in Wichita and as our children have grown up.

There are differences, to be sure: my own great-grandfather, and grandfather (that's a photo of him there, standing in the crop fields along the Kootenai river north of Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, sometime in the early 1950s), and my father too, all mostly approached agriculture as a business endeavor--something lovely in its own right, to be sure, and something they studied well and worked hard at and thought important enough (or at least money-making enough) to impress upon us children. They weren't dilettantes when it came to growing wheat, driving combines, bailing hay, leveling ground, raising calves, breaking horses, and all the rest. But to them it was also, in the end, something to expand and outsource (a four generations of Amoths, a Mennonite family, have really done most of the daily work on that Idaho land) and trade upon and sell off (the Amoths now own the farm) as the situation warranted. This is very different from Olmstead's Grandpa Dad, who wouldn't take government subsidies and, as the decades went by, continually "refused to get big and refused to get out" (p. 64). Not that his impressive example at all affected the economic, cultural, and governmental realities which depressed his own community (and which my own ancestors recognized and, when they could, both profited and escaped from). Emment's agrarian community has suffered the same catastrophic decline in numbers of farms, in wealth, in population, and in environmental health that you see in rural areas all across the country. But either way, whether our family histories reach back through an engagement with farming as something to get into and get out of while the getting was good, or an engagement that was grounded in a true sense of vocation and community...it was something that didn't last.

Olmstead is very good at making the case that it might not have been this way; the viability of sticking with the farm and with the rural communities which long centered the lives of large numbers of Americans--include her family and mine--might have been preserved. If the centralizing logic of finance capitalism had been prevented from cheering on agribusinesses like Monsanto as they effectively robbed farmers of control of their own seed; if the global marketplace had been pushed away from prioritizing commodity crops which served international trade and put the burden on farmers to expand and homogenize and go into debt in order to do so; if government supports and subsidies had been directed at maintaining local networks of producers instead of ever larger and ever more costly farms that could maximize on production for the expansionist purposes of the Cold War-era American state; if, if, if...well, then maybe things would be different. As it is, though, they aren't. Olmstead details the lives of many contemporary farmers in the Emmett area who are sticking it out despite the obstacles all around them--people like Susan and Peter Dill of Saint John's Organic Farm, the Williams family at Waterwheel Gardens, or Terry and Ashley Walton who (thanks to a Farm Service Agency loan) purchased Grandpa Dad's farm after he passed away and no one in the family had any interest in preserving it. But her deep engagement with these topics--with America's broken food system, its exploitative farm labor practices, its consumer-mad economy, and its poisonous addiction to treating the land almost always as either a brute calorie resource or a recreational site for visiting elites, and almost never as respectful localities where people can build lives for themselves--all makes her doubtful that even a great many farmers like her great-grandfather could ever make enough of a difference:

Grandpa Dad emerged from the difficulties of poverty in this landscape by not moving--by staying in one spot for his entire life. But wealth is no longer build through allegiance to a community or a town; it is increasingly achieved in isolation by individuals and grown through rootlessness, not through loyalty....Without systemic change--without a revaluing of the soil, or all the land that depends on it, of the farmers to cultivate and steward it--I fear sticking might not even be enough. Too much has changed. Too much has been lost (pgs. 126, 175).

What kind of systemic change? In a word, an abandonment of the cranky individualism which is so central to the myth of the family farm in America. Olmstead documents how as early as 150 years ago perceptive writers and government leaders were already pointing out the economic and environmental necessity of farmers forming "cooperative communities" rather than "privately owned patchworks" (pg. 56); this vision of individual (rather than collective) and libertarian (rather than local) self-sufficiency has long endured, with arguably ruinous results--the real story behind of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books provides one example, and the separation of the extended Howard family from what Grandpa Dad had laboriously built provides another ("Grandpa Dad's fierce independence was likely part of the reason our family no longer belonged to Emmett, or to the farm....The farm was always his: something others helped with but were never integrated into"--pgs. 182-183). In place of such ferocious denials of the collective, Olmstead, repenting of her youthful attachment to "free-market capitalism and limited government," applauds federal programs designed to "get a younger, more diverse, and more sustainable population on the land," to use "public funds and efforts to undergird civil associations: not just investing in individuals, but also the groups and networks that support them," and to basically just use government policies to push back against the "reductive thinking that breaks down the farm's purpose to fit solely profit-focused ends," and to instead "strengthen local economic sovereignty" (pgs. 186-190). The change she'd want to see, in other words, is a populist one. Not the faux-populism of the Trump era, of course, but the kind of populism--that is, the kind of collective, inclusive, democratic action which economically empowers local places--which farmers like Wendell Berry have both striven to build and constantly emphasized for decades.

But would such systemic changes actually bring about a return to the land? That's a harder question, and one likely not much influenced by changes in politics. For her part, Olmstead sees her own political evolution ("I'm neither Republican nor libertarian these days....but...someone who cares deeply about...the issues of racial injustice, economic exploitation, and ecological abuse"--pgs. 202-203) as actually creating additional obstacles to her return to the red-state land she loves--though she suspects it will happen eventually, as her parents grow older and become more in need of her care. More important than any political disagreement or policy recommendation, though, is the difficulty of simply accepting the sacrifice that a return to the rural will involve for people who have organized their whole conception of the self, whether they realize it or not, in opposition to the kind of communal beauties which belonging to a small, land-based, productive community may (it's always a maybe; never a surety) involve. Our acceptance of community transience, consumer disposibility, and capitalist booming will not easily or quickly turn around--though trying to do so is a must. As Olmstead note's in her conclusion:

To choose rootedness, we must acknowledge the fact that, as Simone Weil points out, a desire for profit, unless tempered by other goods and goals, tends to destroy human roots. We have to seek out larger goals than financial fulfillment, than reaching the next rung on the social or economic ladder. We have to consider whether the perfect career or paycheck will offer us the fulfillment or happiness we lack--or whether the cost of transience is, in fact, too high a cost. It is true that providing for ourselves and our families and having solid employment are fundamental considerations. But we must also remember that they are not the only questions or goals worth considering (pg. 217).

I should note that Olmstead's book, in my judgment anyway, is not at its absolute best when it comes to those "fundamental considerations." While the impassioned case she makes for Emmett--or at least for the sort of local food and tight communities and productive land which can be found in a place like Emmett--is well-informed and wise, it doesn't hold together as tightly as it might have if she'd approached questions of cost, as they are born by those who actually live in the region, somewhat more consistently. She has a long profile of the Little family--part of "the state's agriculture royalty"--whose climb to the top of Idaho's state government and Republican party began in Emmett, but there is strangely little analysis or critique there (are we really supposed to believe that the Little's massive leased-out ranches and the Williams's "twenty-five dense acres of fruit and vegetables" both reflect the same "decision to invest in this community"?--pgs. 160-164). Another time she profiles a self-described "Emmett original," a young woman who only wanted to escape the town ("there aren't enough jobs in this valley, she told me, and she thinks the education system is rather poor"), and while her journey out of Idaho includes some intriguing bumps (she turned down the prospect of Oregon State University because "I just didn't . . . see no one in cowboy boots"--pgs. 116-119), she did up leaving to study journalism elsewhere--very much like Olmstead herself. What's her story, and what does it tell us readers, or Olmstead herself, about how we, or she, should total up the educational or economic costs of her, or our own, staying versus leaving? Again, by mostly skimping on the structural or ideological aspects of this act of investigation, the point is not clear.

But then, no book should be expected to clearly explain--or critique, for that matter--every consequence and cost of the story they aim to tell, and certainly not a book like Uprooted, whose overriding purpose, as Olmstead insisted, is just to discern something about her own story, and the story of a family and a town and a region and a vocation she loves and remembers and is still shaped by, however great the distance. And I wonder if any criticisms I have of the book aren't rooted (yes, I see what I did there) in how it pushed me to think through and discern better my own distant agrarian connections--ones that, I cannot deny, were never as strong as Olmstead's, nor ones that I have attended to with anything like her own dedication or insight or generosity. Grace Olmstead's book may not be the final masterpiece of all possible localist argument, but it is a set of very smart reflections on localism and rural life which are specific enough, and thoughtfully expressed enough, to bring up in my mind the Fox family's own private agrarian Idaho, and to reflect upon--and also mourn, if just a little--my distance from it's own beauty as well. As I wrote above, I wish I'd read this book before my family made our visit to my old home and our drive to southern Idaho last summer. But now that I've read it, I can at least remember it a little bit differently, and a little bit better too.

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Century II, Home Rule, and the Problem (and Appeal) of States Pushing Cities Around

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

On Sunday the Wichita Eagle ran two guest editorials--one by me on how state governments push cities around, and one by my friend John Todd on the effort by him and others to get the state to require cities to hold a public referendum before historic buildings like Century II could be torn down. Both essays are essentially about "home rule," though neither ever use that phrase. Let me try to expand on that idea here.

"Home rule" refers to the principle of municipal governments being allowed the ability to fully govern their own residents. Under our constitutional system, the national government and the state governments are assumed to have some degree of sovereignty; no such assumption necessarily holds counties and cities, however. While some have made the democratic argument that any self-identifying and politically recognized community should possess distinct governing authority--a claim with real historical, legal, and philosophical grounding--generally in the United States the opposite has been the case. Counties are understood as administrative arms of the state, and cities, as codified in a principle called "Dillon's Rule," as seen as entirely dependent creations, with "no inherent right of self-government which is beyond the legislative control of the state."

While the legislative record claims that Kansas, after the adoption of the Home Rule Amendment to the state constitution in 1960, has "stood Dillon's Rule on its head," in practice this has clearly not been the case, especially not in recent years. We here in Wichita, the largest stand-alone city in the whole state, know this well. In 2014, the city of Wichita fought in vain a state law overturning local gun control ordinances, thus passing along to cities like our own increased insurance costs as they could no longer legally limit concealed carry in public buildings like courthouses and libraries. The very next year, the state of Kansas sued Wichita to stop from us from following through on a minor local marijuana decriminalization referendum, obliging the city to continue to accept the costs of enforcing invasive drug laws that, on the basis of the referendum, have limited popular support. The tendency of our state government to minimize or outright dismiss local governmental concerns isn't limited to Wichita, of course. For example, the state allows the residents of 101 Kansas counties to choose their own election officials--but when it comes to counties with a significant urban population, such as you see in Kansas City, Overland Park, Topeka, and of course Wichita, the state government insists on making those appointments themselves.

In the jargon of governance, this is often known as "preemption"--the act of a state government taking away options that might be democratically determined by the people who live in and wish to govern themselves locally. It's an issue that is having a bit of moment right now. Governing magazine ran a long piece about how common state preemption of local authority has become over the course of the pandemic, and Strong Towns used it as a basis of their weekly podcast. Of course, the story of the Texas state government going bananas at the prospect of the city of Austin reforming their own police department (which, of course, the city of Austin pays for), has gotten a lot of attention, but don't count Kansas out; as of last month, the Kansas state senate debated a bill that would profoundly limit cities’ ability to explore sustainable energy alternatives to natural gas. It may not go anywhere–but considering the Kansas state government's track record (note how the state is currently considering forcing local counties, to which they gave explicit responsibility of managing and enforcing health restrictions during the pandemic, to bear the total, and devastating, cost of those mandates), I wouldn't be surprised to hear it being sent to governor's desk anyway.

So what do all of these issues pertaining to the limits on the power of local people to govern themselves through municipal or county bodies have to do with the argument over Century II? Because, in that particular case, both sides are, in essence, claiming "home rule" for themselves--though only those opposed to the proposed public referendum requirement are saying so specifically. In fact, Amanda Stanley, a lawyer working for the Kansas League of Municipalities, when arguing against the proposal during a legislative committee hearing in Topeka, called the idea of the state of Kansas requiring that the local populace be allowed to vote one way or another on the fate of historic buildings "the antithesis of home rule." 

That claim does make sense--but only if you set aside the general principle of local, democratic governance, and you think in terms of the institutions which such governance gives rise to. In the case of Wichita, what it has given rise to is a council-manager form of government, with a city manager and a professional staff in control of the details of the city's budget and general policies, and a city council, led (though only formally) by a mayor, which gives approval to and, in certain circumstances, initiates, stops, or gives correction to those policy directions. For those who spoke on behalf of the city in Topeka (including two members of the city council, Republican Bryan Frye and Democrat Brandon Johnson), "home rule" means "rule by the government of the city of Wichita."

Which, of course, we have, for all the reasons listed above, precious little of, whatever the formal proclamations of the Kansas state constitution. It seems reasonable to city leaders, whose hands are already tied in so many ways, to not have the tied any further by yet another state mandate. But this would be a state mandate connected to local democratic action, would it not? Local voters deciding on whether or not a proposal which involves the destruction of a beloved (by some, anyway) old building should go forward--that's not the same as the earlier examples of preemption, is it?

It clearly isn't, and that's part of the problem here: knowing exactly where real democratic empowerment lies. In some ways, those who spoke for the city really tipped their hand in an anti-democratic direction; when they testified in Topeka that the voters of Wichita (or wherever) lack sufficient training or experience “to make rational choices regarding the maintenance of such buildings,” the condescension is so thick you could cut it with a knife. But are they wrong? Not necessarily; part of the whole reason we have a representative systems of government is because it has become accepted as more or less obvious that, when societies (whether we're talking about cities or countries) become large and complex enough, mass democratic politics--government by plebiscite, in other words--becomes a risky project, particularly when complicated and long-term problems demand resolution. Not that direct democratic resolutions will always be wrong; the anti-populist terror most Americans are schooled in regarding the "tyranny of the majority" is too often a tool to make certain that the poor never fundamentally trouble those in power. But nonetheless, the institutions of representative government serve a valuable civic purpose, balancing distinct needs and forcing compromises over contentious issues. Those who take on the difficult, often thankless task for trying to organize, serve, and lead our city through our institutions can't be blamed for seeing public referendums like this as an additional complication of their jobs.

Maybe the problem, then, is their jobs themselves. Because, as I noted above, the institutions of our city government actually do not, for the most part, have the kind of power and responsibility which would enable them to balance distinct needs and force compromises. On the contrary, too often issues are laid out to them by the city staff in ways which foreclose any truly fundamental political arguments over priorities, with the members of the city council, including our mayor, rarely being able to enlist the kind of democratic support for any particular matter facing the city so as to challenge the broad determinations which the city manager's office has already made. What this means, in practice, is that historically in the city of Wichita, the only voices which have regularly tended to emerge so as to influence the direction of city policy are those already friendly to construction, development, the expansion of the city's built environment--the "growth machine," in other words. And after watching our city council either embrace or at least acquiesce to such growth-friendly (though hardly necessarily sustainable) calculations when it came to our baseball stadium, and fearing the same pattern being followed when it comes to the whole Wichita Riverfront, it makes sense for concern citizens of Wichita to want to make an end-run around these institutions, and appeal directly to the state in the name of their (potentially) populist and localist project.

Still, it's a risky proposition. In the aforementioned Strong Towns podcast, Charles Marohn, the founder of Strong Towns, looks at a situation in California today, where you see something comparatively rare--while usually it is Republican-dominated state legislatures preempting cities which tend more Democratic, in California is it a Democratic-dominated state government preempting the options available to cities. In California, a state-wide--but certainly not universal throughout California's cities--consensus about the problems with single-family zoning has emerged. This is an issue dear to ST's heart: privileging single-family zoning artificially imposes a suburban model upon development which is bad for the environment, bad for social and physical health, bad for housing costs, and most of all, very bad for the fiscal liabilities which cities must carry. Every city ought to severely limit single-family zoning! (To its very small but still real credit, the city of Wichita's Places for People plan may at least begin to introduce an escape from these commonly locked-in zoning requirements.)

But if every city in California ought to limit single-family zoning...should the state of California therefore mandate that the cities of California limit single-family zoning? Or since the costs of development, the liabilities of paying for streets and sewers, and, yes, the lure of construction jobs and population growth are all matters particular to cities, should decisions about zoning remain with them? Chuck Marohn admits--beginning at around 11:30 in the podcast--that as much as he's convinced that this is policy is the right one to follow, he's doubtful of the wisdom of states actually preempting local zoning decisions. In his view, the ideal of subsidiarity--of determining the most appropriate level for making decisions, and giving to that level the power and authority to make the decisions accordingly--while lacking in efficiency, is far better for real democratic legitimacy. Hence, rather than appealing to the state, even in the name of something which would enable and empower local democratic concerns, organize politically on the city level, and make the needed changes there. For all the reasons he mentions, I have to say I agree.

And so we come back to the city of Wichita, a city that--almost uniquely among all American cities of its size and situation--maintains a manager-council form of government, with a nominally (but of course not actually) non-partisan and part-time (exhaustively so, as any councilmember will admit) city council that is both too small and too under-staffed to effectively and democratically articulate and represent and fight and compromise over the divided desires of its citizens. Should the efforts of Save Century II, rather than appealing to the already much-abused preemptive proclivities of our state government, be focused on organizing around, campaigning for or against, and otherwise working with and seeking influence over the institutions of Wichita's city government? Yes, they should; that's the best local democracy that we have available. But given the deep structural problems and limitations of our city government as currently constituted (where what ought to be a straightforward discussion of ethics can get derailed by the supposedly horrendous possibility that the mayor has brought "big city politics" into the council!), do I blame them for seeing our city government as a possibly unreliable institution, perhaps incapable of holding to whatever a majority of voters may charge them to do, and instead seeking a state-level run-around? I have to admit: I don't blame them one bit.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Jazz and Me, 20 Years On

One day during the Christmas holidays, I went downstairs to where our old television with its still-working DVD/VCR set-up stands, and I pulled out an old treasure: the complete documentary Jazz, which I had recorded on VHS tape when it was first broadcast, 20 years ago. Maybe some part of me realized that the show was hitting its anniversary, or maybe I just wanted some of that old-time jazz as the cold and dark January days settled in. It's a long documentary: 19 hours worth. I finally finished it, and it was a fun journey through times and music that I remember well.

I didn't grow up listening to jazz. The closest thing to that music in our house when I was a child was probably the omnipresent Hollywood musical soundtracks, some of which were downright jazzy in the old big band sense, and whose music has been an enduring part of our family life as our daughters have grown up. It was until years after I'd grown and developed my own musical tastes that I found out my Dad had been a big fan of Ahmad Jamal when he'd been in high school, but he hadn't kept any of his albums, any more than he'd kept any of Elvis's. Melissa's family was a little different; her mother and father (especially him) loved--along with lots of cheezy 1960s folk-pop like The Monkees--big, brassy, orchestral numbers, and they had kept their records, and so her young life was filled with all sorts of classical music (the louder the better) in addition to soundtracks, and you had some Gershwin and Brubeck and other jazz elements thrown into the mix there. But still, neither of us could really be considered jazz fans.

But a couple of things happened as we both made our way to Brigham Young University and eventually meeting and then marrying in 1993. Melissa played the French horn in marching band and orchestra in high school, and among her friends were some trumpet players who did jazz as well as classical. They introduced her to the music of Wynton Marsalis--who, in the mid-to-late 1980s, was probably better known (before he made the cover of Time Magazine in 1990, anyway) for his recordings of the trumpet concertos of Handel, Purcell, Haydn, and other artists than for his jazz. She, in turn, introduced his prodigious output to me. As for me, well, as I've documented at great length, I've always been a creature of radio--mostly pop and rock radio, but I've always been willing to spin the dial (back in the day when radio had dials) to see what I could discover. After moving to Utah to attend BYU, I discovered the Salt Lake City radio scene, which was worlds more diverse and sophisticated than what I grew up listening to in Spokane, Washington. Specifically--I think I can even remember the place; it was the house of a Utah relative of one of the fellows in my freshman dorm, whom we were visiting some Friday evening for some reason, in either late 1987 or early 1988, and the radio was playing in the background--I discovered KUER, the University of Utah's public radio station, and Steve "Daddy-O" Williams's "Nighttime Jazz." Something about the program--Williams's delivery, perhaps, or the way he made every tune he spun seem like both an original discovery and something whose history I felt embarrassed not to already know--absolutely hooked me. Discovering the distinctive lyrical possibilities for different instruments, as they soloed both fast and slow, upended--for the better--what little I thought I knew about music at that time, and while it didn't make me throw out my Paul Simon or Police cassette tapes, it did made me want to learn more. For the rest of my time in Utah, I'd tune in whenever I was in the mood--and in time, I found a lot to supplement that wonderful resource. (Turns out Williams retired from KUER about six years ago, after having run the program for more than 30 years, and the station has gotten out of jazz programming entirely. From a distance of decades, I tell Utah residents today: you have no idea what you've lost.)

Melissa's and my courtship and early marriage was filled with live music, which is something poor college students can do when they live in a university town. And for all the limitations of Provo, the home of BYU--and believe me, there are, or at least were, a lot--getting out to musicals and concerts and guest performances and student groups was easily accomplished. Right off the bat during her freshman year, Melissa volunteered to be an usher for shows in the fine arts building, and consequently got into to see just about everything. I was lucky enough to fall in with a wonderful gang of guys, some of whom ended forming Vocal Point, BYU's premier male a cappella ensemble--and through them, attending early rehearsals and shows, and just hanging out at their apartments, I (and later Melissa and I together) were never at a loss for creative, jazzy vocalizations and tunes. It's thanks to those talented dudes that Glen Miller's "Tuxedo Junction," Ella Fitzgerald's "It's Only a Paper Moon," or Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" became a part of my consciousness. Still, for all that, jazz wasn't at the forefront of what we listened to or sought out.

It might have been the man himself, Wynton Marsalis, who added some necessary fuel to my jazz fire (as obviously he also has for probably hundreds of thousands of others over the decades, to the delight and the chagrin of the man's many fans and equally many haters). Marsalis played with one of his large ensembles at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City in 1994--on his 33rd birthday, as it happened (at one point during the show, dedicated to the work of Thelonious Monk--and it was fantastic--a number Marsalis was conducting was interrupted by a member of the band, who had sneaked away in full sight of audience while Wynton was briefly soloing a minute before, suddenly reappearing with a cake with lit candles, and who marched across the stage while the whole ensemble shifted on a dime to "Happy Birthday"). It was a great evening, and it lead to multiple others, especially after Melissa and I moved to Washington DC, where were blessed--for the first couple of years we were there, anyway--with the much-missed WDCU, the public radio station at the University of the District of Columbia and simply the finest jazz radio I've ever listened to, and probably ever will. DC didn't have the a cappella scene we knew back in Provo, UT, but it more than made up for that so much more. Through our church we got to know an FBI agent who was also a skilled jazz pianist, who could do killer Bud Powell numbers when his mind was set to it, and a ferociously talented (and wonderfully, ferociously opinionated) cabaret singer who could put on some killer shows. During our time in DC we got to see artists like Ray Charles, Branford Marsalis--and Branford's brother Wynton again, which was probably the jazz highlight of my life. It was in 1997 at the old Warner Theater, with his Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra, soon after he'd begun his tour for his just released jazz oratorio, Blood on the Fields; the original vocalist on the oratorio, Cassandra Wilson, wasn't with the band, which was a loss, but Jon Hendricks was, and that was an exposure to some tremendous jazz history there. While not the most enjoyable concert I've ever attended--Blood is a pretty heavy work--it was easily one of the most memorable, not the least for being able to wait along with all the other fans and spent a minute or two with Marsalis himself, who--for all his terrible reputation--was a total gentleman, despite his shirt being soaked with sweat from the show (he asked which one of us were musicians, and when Melissa said she was, he focused entirely on her, asking her why she hadn't kept up the French horn).

Looking back over all this, the fact that I simply at up Jazz when it premiered seems kind of inevitable. Ken Burns comes in for a lot of criticism from different segments of the progressive left, and as much as the NPR-listening, PBS-watching, bourgeois liberal part of me wants to fight against it, the socialist in me knows it's true. Rewatching Jazz makes pretty clear that the man really is a Pax Americana Democrat, with not a sliver of postmodernism complicating the way he constructs historical narratives. As with the documentary series that made his name, The Civil War (which I also have fond memories of, despite all the historical reservations that I think any educated person today ought to have about that beautiful but deeply flawed accomplishment), Burns approaches jazz music as a Great Man of History story. At one point while working through the episodes over the past month, I decided to keep track of how many times the narrator would introduce the focus of the next segment by saying something along the lines of "this man will change jazz forever" or "after this man, jazz was never the same," but I literally lost count.

For actually working jazz musicians, or for people who really get out to the clubs and the shows regularly enough to watch the improvisation of these talented musicians in real time, the near-exclusive focus of Jazz on the various titans of the music--the Duke Ellingtons, the Charles Minguses, the Dizzy Gillespies, the Count Basies, the Herbie Hancocks, and more--is probably more than a little depressing. And annoying too, given how the Burns's narrative celebration basically ends in 1960, skips the next decade and a half, and then only admits the jazz story is still ongoing once Dexter Gordon returns to the United States and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers is rejuvenated by the addition of the Marsalis brothers (Wynton and Brandon) in the late 1970s. If you love fusion jazz and Miles Davis's Bitches Brew (and I eventually came to, every bit as much as I love his Sketches of Spain or Birth of the Cool), this show isn't for you.

But I say: watch it anyway; you'll be glad you did. Or at least, I'm glad I did. Life goes on, and the sort of stuff which inspires and entertains you at one point of your life won't be the same at another. These days, it's our daughters who fill our home with songs from musicals and film soundtracks (when they aren't informing us about their new-found passions for, in the case of our oldest, Van Morrison, and in the case of our second-to-youngest, the k-pop sensation BTS). Melissa is much more likely to listen to zumba and dance music, and I probably listen to more Paul McCartney than anything else. But this series got me to go to my CD cabinet and pull out just a sampling of all that I've collected over the years. Ken Burns may be a failure as a critical historian, but as a documentarian of musical stories and historical excellence, I can't fault him one bit. So much wonder and tragedy and joy and sadness are packed into those 19 hours, all of it done in conjunction with tremendous music, whose chord changes and progressions and melodies can make you swing, weep, laugh, or just sit back comfortably and be carried away into the musician's own private world, which might discover to your surprise that it connects with memories within your own as well.

If you can listen to jazz musicians at work live--or if you can look forward to doing so, when the pandemic finally ends--you really should do so; I'm fortunate to teach at a small school that nonetheless has built tremendous instrumental and vocal jazz programs over the years, and they've been wonderful to support over the years. But even if that sort of resource isn't available to you, keep an ear out, tuned to whatever channel you can find on Spotify of Pandora or even humble radio. Jazz surprised me, years ago, delighting me with a range of mood and tone that I'd never known before. No, it hasn't defined my life--but it has added to it immeasurably. So poke around yourself (and, again, Jazz is a pretty good place to start, for all its limitations), and be surprised. You never know what you might find.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Excavating Socialist Thought in Mormonism: Re-reading Hugh Nibley


 

[This is a slightly expanded version of a review essay cross-posted to the Religious Socialism blog here; it is the companion of another essay which reviews contemporary interest among liberation-minded Mormons here.]

Making a connection between American Mormonism as it presently exists and socialism is a serious stretch. Voting data have consistently shown that a large majority of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the official name of the Mormon church) in America strongly identify with conservative causes and the Republican party. Mormon leaders–both political and ecclesiastical–have condemned all forms of socialism for many decades. The church is organized around an all-male priesthood--with homosexual behavior and gender fluidity officially denounced--and for most of the 20th-century that priesthood was explicitly forbidden to Black Mormons as well. While the globalization of the church, demographic shifts, and top-down policy changes have led to a moderation in the anti-radicalism which characterized the in the church second half of the 20th century, no one can look at, for example, former Republican presidential candidate Senator Mitt Romney, and conclude that his community will embrace socialism any time soon.

Still, times can change. The Mormon Church, like many other early 19th-century religious movements, rejected the capitalist forms which were then emerging alongside America’s expanding industrial footprint, and embraced Christian communalism instead. In both some of its earliest congregations in Ohio and Missouri, and then later even more robustly in Utah, following the church’s violent expulsion from its base in Illinois in 1846, many Mormons practiced, from the 1860s through the 1890s, what was called the “law of consecration,” “the united order,” or “the Order of Zion.” What this meant, in practice, were varying experiments, from one community to the next, with the collective ownership of property, unified decision making in economic matters, and the establishment of systems of stewardship and welfare; the goal was, in the words of an early revelation to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, that all in Zion would be “of one heart and one mind,” and there would be “no poor among them.”

None of these experiments long endured the Americanization of Mormon society which followed after Utah’s admission to the United States. By the 1910s and 1920s, though socialist organizers saw much local success, among Utah’s miners and laborers, almost no connection was made between their party-building efforts and the communal orders which many Mormons had committed to only a few decades earlier.

Hugh Nibley, a long-time and famously contrarian professor of religion at the Mormon church’s flagship university, Brigham Young University, passed away in 2005. He never identified as a socialist, nor reconciled his church’s communalist history with its leadership’s subsequent denunciations of radical politics. But what he did do was interpret the scriptural and doctrinal teachings which motivated those early experiments, and used them to condemn the exploitative and environmentally destructive capitalist practices of most of the 20th-century Mormon church’s American membership. His relentless criticism made Nibley popular with Utah’s small Mormon Democrat population--but aligning Nibley’s project with a possible Mormon contribution to Christian socialism is an unfinished project.

Last year, a group of young(er) Mormon scholars took up Nibley’s attacks on America’s capitalist ethos (many of which were collected in 1989 book titled Approaching Zion) in a small volume titled Reapproaching Zion. [Full disclosure: I am one of the contributors.] These writers are not necessarily sympathetic to socialism (some, in fact, are clearly opposed to it), but through their engagements, an outline of what a Mormon Christian socialism might involve can nonetheless be discerned.

While the authors examine Nibley’s ideas from distinct legal, economic, and philosophical perspectives, themes of pluralism, community, and limits are perhaps most important. By basing his condemnations of profiteering, careerism, and inequality on the various ways that early Mormon settlements constructed their distinct Zions--sometimes involving something as simple as storehouses of food which any member of the community had free access to, but sometimes involving collectivized working and living arrangements--Nibley’s writings underscore the perils involved in assuming any singular response to all economic evils. Building alternatives that truly empower people in their communities, but do not make those communities into exclusive localist tyrannies, is a tension-filled exercise.

Some of the authors speculate on the kind of arrangements that might enable diverse, yet still egalitarian, economic practices to extend beyond a single family, church congregation, or business, and how much localism, self-sufficiency, or even isolation might be necessary in order to preserve those arrangements. Others, grasping the hard nettle entailed by those possibilities, argue that Nibley showed how any committed Zion community--and, by extension, perhaps any committed socialist society--would have to accept a level of wealth that is lower that which profit-driven financial speculation and individual competition often generates. This idea is hardly new to anyone familiar with the intentional communities which Christian radicals have built over the centuries: a commitment to non-exploitative labor often means a commitment to work that is embedded in an equally shared common life, and such work is mostly incompatible with being outsourced, expanded, or specialized. Within Mormon circles, which has no tradition of monasticism or vows of poverty, the idea that economic limits are connected to the religious command to build a Zion community where there is no poor is a rare argument indeed.

Nibley himself notoriously lived out this rare ideal (Mormons tell the story of church president Gordon B. Hinckley speaking at Nibley’s funeral, and him observing that there wasn’t a single car in the church’s parking lot that day that wasn’t fancier than the 1976 Datsun Nibley drove for the last 30 years of his life). This gives rise to the accusation that Nibley idolized poverty, which some see as contrary to elements of both Mormon history and theology. Such claims introduce a connection to a longstanding socialist debate. For some, the promise of socialism is a more democratized distribution of the goods of wealth. But for others--and here the Christian socialist tradition speaks loudly--the socialist ideal is appealing exactly because it puts limits upon what the economist Joseph Schumpeter (borrowing from Marx) called the “creative destruction” of capitalist wealth-creation itself. In this sense, Zion--or any kind of Christian socialist community--is worth building in that it prioritizes social goods over distributable ones, meaning there will be more of the former and less of the latter. In attacking Nibley’s description of the Zion communities which Mormons ought to build as primarily small, agrarian, and static, and thus comparatively poor, some of his critics are misunderstanding exactly their point.

Finally there is the question of universalism. Socialist movements have long had their globalist as well as localist instantiations, from Marx’s “working people of all countries” to the Paris Commune. Nibley’s critique of commercialism involved a critique of the dependencies which extensive commercial transactions create, and how those connections can draw people away from the covenants that keep the faithful committed to the Zion ideal. But obviously, as a Christian faith shaped by the evangelical impulse, the drive to make expansive connections is essential to Mormonism, as their own missionary culture makes clear. The negotiation of those rival impulses suggest the need to reflect upon the proper political space for socialist development, whether national or local, and the variety of communal and egalitarian forms that may best reflect the level of economic democratization possible in on different spatial levels. Despite many arguments which lean heavily in the direction of the small, self-sufficient, egalitarian village, the ideal of Zion as Nibley sketched it out nonetheless integrated urban and rural environments. The socialist cause has a similar need to attend to the same diverse demands.

Religious socialism is by its nature an aggregation of insights, drawn from every tradition which recognizes that the integrity of individuals depend upon constructing communities which grant them equal economic and democratic power. Mormonism’s history has many such insights, though learning from them involves digging past close to 150 years of official disregard.

Hugh Nibley’s own intellectual excavations were in the name of a Zion ideal, which many might see--because of its religious foundation, sense of limits, and pluralist structure--as opposed to their preferred socialist one. I find this unfortunate. As Charles Marsh wrote regarding Christian influence on the civil rights movement, the drive to build “beloved communities” takes place “in, through, and outside the church.” To whatever extent scholarly reflections upon one Mormon troublemaker’s attempt to describe and urge upon his fellow Mormons a mostly lost communalist ideal can become part of such a collective building project, it is worth exploring--even if the church tradition out of which these reflections emerge may seem a most unlikely source.