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Friday, June 22, 2007

Friday PSTSS: "Dead Man's Rope"

For someone who doesn't describe himself as a Christian, Sting has written some of the most thoughtful and moving explorations of Christian themes to be found anywhere in pop music. This one--with its dead-on assessment of the guilt and self-delusion that sin and addiction can bring into a life, and its turn from "walki[ing] away in emptiness" to "walk[ing] away from emptiness, and most especially its subtle invocation of the predicament of humankind which Christians believe Christ took upon Himself ("hanging here in space," "hanging from a dead man's rope," "suspended" between Heaven and Hell, the angel "reaching down above my head," etc.)--is one of my favorites. It's from his 2003 Sacred Love album.

A million footsteps
This left foot drags behind my right
But I keep walking
From daybreak 'til the falling night
And as days turn into weeks and years
And years turn into lifetimes
I just keep walking, like I've been walking for a thousand years

Walk away in emptiness, walk away in sorrow
Walk away from yesterday, walk away tomorrow

If you're walking to escape
To escape from your affliction
You'd be walking in a great circle
A circle of addiction
Did you ever wonder
What you'd been carrying since the world was black?
You see yourself in a looking glass with a tombstone on your back

Walk away in emptiness, walk away in sorrow
Walk away from yesterday, walk away tomorrow
Walk away in anger, walk away in pain
Walk away from life itself, walk into the rain

All this wandering has led me to this place
Inside the well of my memory, sweet rain of forgiveness
I'm just hanging here in space

Now I'm suspended
Between my darkest fears and dearest hope
Yes I've been walking
Now I'm hanging from a dead man's rope
With Hell below me
And Heaven in the sky above
I've been walking, I've been walking away from Jesus' love

Walk away in emptiness, walk away in sorrow
Walk away from yesterday, walk away tomorrow
Walk away in anger, walk away in pain
Walk away from life itself, walk into the rain

All this wandering has led me to this place
Inside the well of my memory, sweet rain of forgiveness
I'm just hanging here in space

The shadows fall
Around my bed
When the hand of an angel
The hand of an angel is reaching down above my head

All this wandering has led me to this place
Inside the well of my memory, sweet rain of forgiveness
Now I'm walking in his grace

(I'm walking in his footsteps
Walking in his footsteps
Walking in his footsteps)

All the days of my life I will walk with you
All the days of my life I will talk with you
All the days of my life I will share with you
All the days of my life I will bear with you

Walk away from emptiness, walk away from sorrow
Walk away from yesterday, walk away tomorrow
Walk away from anger, walk away from pain
Walk away from anguish, walk into the rain

Home Schooling, Human Capital, Equity, and Christianity

Earlier this week, a friend of mine called my attention to this essay on home schooling in First Things magazine. (Rod Dreher also picked up on it as well.) Actually the essay isn't so much about home schooling as it is a response to a very specific Christian argument occasionally leveled against home schooling, or against those religious parents who choose it for their children. Christianity involves being a witness, this argument goes, it involves being out in the world and striving to bring God's light to it through your own example and good works. Shut yourself off from the world--by, among other things, turning away from the public schools and educating your children in a private bubble of your own creation--and what you've done is abandon a central Christian command. As the author, Sally Thomas, puts it, "Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and how can we possibly be those things if we stay at home all day?"

I've personally never encountered this sort of argument against home schoolers, nor have I ever made it. But my friend rightly thought that it intersected a good deal with an argument that I have made, an argument on behalf of the public schooling ideal which rests upon being actively involved in, and obligated to, the creating and distribution of common goods like education. As I wrote nearly three years ago, while talking about how most of my immediately family has turned to home schooling, "I like the idea of the state being a (partial) agent of education; insofar as the state is the reflection of the collective interest we all have in promoting and sharing certain civic goods with one another, especially the poor and marginalized, then it is an agency worth supporting." Now with two children in the public schools as opposed to just one, and with one of them going on to middle school next year with all the challenges in environment that may bring, I still have to say I like the state schooling ideal. Of course, much of the reason I can say that is because many of the caveats I mentioned in that original post have not yet fundamentally changed: Wichita, KS, is more than five times the size of Jonesboro, AR, but over here on the west side of town, with all the schools our daughters will be attending within easy walking or biking distance of our home and with mostly intact neighborhoods feeding them, "we [still] don't feel as though the public school system, the state educational regime, is such a monolith that one must either embrace it or reject it wholly....it's not impossible to meet with teachers, attend school meetings, volunteer and be part of the whole general project in education--not to say it's necessarily impossible anywhere, but it definitely isn't impossible here." (Maybe I wouldn't say this if we hadn't gotten to know, through church and work, several of the teachers at these institutions in fairly short order--but we have, and that guides our thinking accordingly.) And so I'm still basically making the same communitarian arguments in favor of the public schooling--at least in principle; I would never want to lay down any sort of absolute duties or fiats here when it comes to a family's primary responsibility to the needs of their own children--that I always have. As members of our local communities and as a citizens of a country at least nominally committed to the principle of equality (a principle we all benefit from), doing our part of keep public goods like free schooling available to all is important. And that means being engaged in the state project of making these schools work. So while I don't find myself particularly drawn in by the specific Christian squabble Ms. Thomas describes--that it is foolish and untrue to scripture to suppose that children should be expected to witness in hostile environments to what they believe is, I think, perfectly obviously and in little need of debate--I did feel a need after reading her essay to reiterate my belief in at least the ideal of reaching out from one's own private realm and being part of a larger enterprise, like education.

Except...what if being engaged in public schooling as it exists where you live is not the best way, or even a viable way, of creating public goods? What if there are multiple "larger enterprises" here, and choosing one of them--public schooling--compromises your ability to contribute to others? This is where I find Ms. Thomas's essay really challenging. I can't comment upon or stand on principle in the face of the particular horrors which her oldest child experienced in her years in public school; Melissa and I have always said that the costs associated with trying to do right to both our children and our ideals might easily become too high, and if we ever get the sense they are becoming as high as they were for Ms. Thomas's oldest daughter--third grade sex education classes with animated teddy bears demonstrating coitus would also certainly be a deal-breaker for us too--then family will clearly come first. (Most of my siblings have made just that choice for their own kids already, and while they haven't tabulated the costs with the same sort of communitarian sensibilities that I would have preferred, I don't begrudge them the right to make the choice the first place.) But until and unless that moment comes, I think the general argument for recognizing one's obligation to the larger society remains intact. On the other hand, Ms. Thomas goes on to argue that, as home schoolers, they are anything but selfish--on the contrary, they are doing more for the "larger society" now than they ever could have through the public schools:

For [some] Christians, it’s largely not about whether we’re stockpiling weapons and planning a theocratic takeover of the entire world. Instead it’s about whether, in making idols of our children, we've failed to love our neighbors. In response....I mainly wonder at what point the local public school became the sum total of “the world.” If our children aren't in public school, does it follow that they aren't anywhere at all? I wonder why the public school should be a more “natural” environment for loving our neighbors than anywhere else.

Some people worry about the state of the schools; I tend to worry about the state of the American neighborhood....We live in a city that routinely posts some of the highest violent-crime numbers in the nation. A neighborhood that empties out during the day offers a natural target for break-ins, vandalism, and other criminal activity. The pernicious pattern here, in neighborhood after neighborhood, is that the crime moves in, the people who can move out, and the ones who can’t get stuck with crack dealers next door....One of the distinct advantages afforded by homeschooling is that we are here a lot. It’s pretty obvious that we’re here, too: Our front door stands open most of the time, our lights are on, and the children and I are in and out of the house constantly. The fact that someone’s visibly home on our block means, we hope, that anyone cruising through, casing houses, will discover us and our neighbors to be uncongenial targets.

More important than our value as deterrents to crime, however, is the fact that we’re available to the neighbors when they need us, and they know it. My husband and I have typed resumes, resolved computer problems, and set mousetraps for various neighbors at odd hours. My older children play regularly with neighborhood children and—as is happening in my kitchen as I write—make cookies to take to neighborhood shut-ins....In short, in withholding our children from the public schools, we have not withheld them from the world. And we’re certainly not unusual. Statistical polls suggest that homeschooling families exhibit a higher than average level of community involvement, and my anecdotal experience bears this out. Families we know, for example, regularly serve meals to the women and children who find refuge in the shelter run by the Missionaries of Charity in one of the roughest neighborhoods in our city; the oldest daughter of one of those families has just returned from several months spent working in Mother Teresa’s orphanage and hospice in Calcutta. But even on a more modest level, day in and day out, home schoolers minister to their neighbors. They demonstrate, quietly and consistently, the value of family life, the value of openness to life, the value of investing one’s time directly in the lives of one’s children, to a culture that, in valuing none of these things, has lost its way.

I have to confess that I find that a fairly strong rebuke to the way I interpret my belief in community obligation. Free and universal schooling is no longer necessarily a public good being generated through the concentrated property tax bases and well-trained (and decently paid) efforts and enthusiastic volunteering of intact neighborhoods, teachers unions, and well-connected stay-at-home mothers which it once was. Now, businesses have moved away and wealth has moved to the exurbs; teachers unions are too often decrepit, desperate for bodies and consequently sometimes justly disrespected; and the family homemaker networked into neighborhood organizations is often absent. This creates a massive civic vacuum: I talk about the larger communitarian aspiration behind of public schooling, but what if there isn't a functioning community there to ground it in the first place? What "larger enterprise" should you tend to first: the schools, or the human and socio-economic infrastructure they serve and depend upon?

There hasn't been any blogger whose often antagonistic experiences with the public schools I've read more thoroughly and gotten more out of than Laura McKenna. Her most recent post about the challenges she's taken on for the sake of getting her two boys the best education she can especially highlights a fundamental truth: the public education ideal presumes, and succeeds or fails primarily in accordance with, the availability of people who are engaged because they have time to do so, have the resources to do, and have the belief that doing so can make a difference. "While I am still absolutely convinced," she writes, "that money makes a difference in schools, so does human capital. Active, annoying, assertive parents make a difference, and those parents are concentrated in high socio-economic towns and neighborhoods. For those of us who are concerned about equity in schools, this is a harder problem to overcome." Indeed it is. I have to ask myself, what is the point of implying that public schooling ought to be such a prominent ideal, something that ought to demand the allegiance and involvement of every citizen of the country, if said schooling is to be acknowledged outright as wholly unequal, with its inequality following precisely those boundaries where more immediate concerns about equity--a safe home, a decent job, adequate nutrition, intact families, etc.--are similarly being unsatisfied? Maybe those searching for alternatives, alternatives that pull their own potential "capital" away from the public schools (Ms. Thomas, given her skill in writing, could surely be an effective advocate at PTA meetings), have simply decided to unselfishly "distribute their capital" along different and more immediately pressing lines, and to do so in ways that (not coincidentally) avoids the costs which the public schools can press in particular upon religious parents like herself.

I've got a paper coming out this summer in Theory and Research in Education; you can read an earlier version of it here. There I make the argument that the only long-term hope for the full public education ideal in the U.S. is to make it more "popular"--that is, more populist, less governed by elite and distant norms and more reflective of immediate and local pressures, including religious ones. I don't know if that argument can really map onto what I've discussed in this post particularly well, but as a conclusion, let me at least throw out this: the push for home schooling, parochial schooling, private schooling and all the rest, when it takes place is socio-economically stable environments, will probably not fundamentally undercut the larger enterprise of providing the good of public schooling equally to all; as Laura notes, in those cases there will probably always be sufficient resourceful and reliable parents around to get the job done. But in more desperate environments, where the human capital of a parent like Ms. Thomas would be very much appreciated, a school that does not listen to and strive to reflect all the concerns of parents in the neighborhood, including the religious ones, is going to make it ever more likely that these parents--which could be one of the few remaining resources for holding together the larger enterprise in such an environment--are going to turn away, and quite legitimately and unselfishly decide that through directly tending to their family in their own homes they can serve their neighbors as well as their own children much better than they could through the schools.

Ms. Thomas's conclusions about public schools are harsh: "One child might ignore you; the school system certainly will. A child can hear or not hear; the school system is a deaf, dumb, blind juggernaut that doesn’t generate its own values but imports them from the developers of curriculum and the schools of education. You can talk to the teacher, you can talk to the principal, you can talk to the board of education, but there’s no one person, anywhere, who will say to you, 'I am responsible for this mess.'" Maybe that was true where she was; it isn't, or at least I think (I hope) not (yet?) true where we are. Serving and loving a public good larger than oneself is still, I would like to believe, a possibility in many if not most school systems. But those systems need to find a way to hold on to their human capital, to be part of efforts to localize and hold together the human and socio-economic infrastructure which makes contributing to such a system seem like a reasonable option to a parent (one that has a choice about how to spend their time anyway--obviously this is a moot issue if you're talking about a single parent struggling through two jobs to put food on the table....which is part of the point, really) in the first place. Lose that battle, and parents will flee--or as Rod put it, they will "secede in place." And from the any perspective that emphasizes attending to the needs of others, whether Christian or otherwise, they'd still probably be both smart and unselfish in doing so.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Friday PSTSS: "Watching the Wheels"

Something more upbeat this week: John Lennon's single finest post-Beatles composition, from 1980's awesome (and tragic, and thus now somewhat haunted) Double Fantasy album. I adore this song, increasingly so as I close in on the age Lennon was at when he recorded it (he was 40; I'll turn 39 this year). And I especially adore the line "People asking questions / Lost in confusion / Well I tell them there's no problem / Only solutions"; some people, it seems to me, are just plain suspicious of solutions--particularly the "square," family-oriented ones which Lennon discovered in the years he spent away from the music scene--and that is half their problem (or more).

People say I'm crazy
Doing what I'm doing
Well they give me all kinds of warnings
To save me from ruin
When I say that I'm o.k. they look at me kind of strange
Surely your not happy now, you no longer play the game

People say I'm lazy
Dreaming my life away
Well they give me all kinds of advice
Designed to enlighten me
When I tell them that I'm doing fine, watching shadows on the wall
Don't you miss the big time boy, you're no longer on the ball?

I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round,
I just had to let it go

People asking questions
Lost in confusion
Well I tell them there's no problem
Only solutions
Well they shake their heads and they look at me as if I've lost my mind
I tell them there's no hurry, I'm just sitting here doing time

I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round,
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go
I just had to let it go

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Thoughts on Rorty

When Jacques Derrida and Paul Ricoeur passed away, I managed to put down, in fairly short order, some thoughts about how their ideas and arguments had influenced my own thinking, either negatively or positively. Last week, when the news broke that Richard Rorty had died of pancreatic cancer, I wanted to do the same, but visiting in-laws and other responsibilities made it impossible for me to get any writing done until today. And really, that's just as well, because it gave me time to take in a fascinating argument in the blogosphere, one which began with my friend Damon Linker's piece on Rorty in The New Republic, and which was then responded to in different ways by Matt Yglesias (here and here and here and here, with Damon's replies included), John Holbo, Ross Douthat, Will Wilkinson, and Pithlord. Oh, and Patrick Deneen's assessment and Jacob T. Levy's memories of Rorty are very good reading too.

I don't know if I have anything to add to the main argument itself; I can't claim that I know Rorty's work well enough to decidedly embrace either the "Rorty's insistent antifoundationalism makes him accidentally illiberal" position which Damon introduces (and which John concurs with in part, and which in a slight way kind of parallels Patrick's claim that Rorty affirmed an odd sort of democratic faith), or the "Rorty's 'faith' in antifoundationalism did not interfere with his commitment to an indifferently pluralistic democratic space" position which Matt defends. To work that out, you'd have to get pretty deep into Rorty's writings, and there's no guarantee that any definite answer could be found. As many commenters (including some of the above) have noted, Rorty went through several stages in his career, from pragmatist to postmodernist to populist (all of those labels following his own rather idiosyncratic definitions, to be sure), and his movement over time from one to the other was hardly seamless. So it's quite possible that at different points his devotion to "truth without correspondence to reality" and "ethics without principles" (to borrow titles from a couple of essays of his) might have seemed a side concern of his, relevant to only his fellow philosophers, whereas at other times it might have seemed an essential part of getting at his social hopes.

One aspect of Rorty's thought that might be helpful in sorting much of this out is looking at what Rorty believed about history and modernity. Obviously Rorty thought and wrote a great deal about matters pertaining to historicism, because grasping the various issues which emerged from Nietzsche's and others' challenges to Enlightenment notions of historical truth was a central part of articulating his response to different forms of foundationalism. But he did not often treat "modernity" as such as a subject for philosophical reflection; as Damon observed in his original TNR piece, philosophers like Nietzsche and Heidegger tended to see in the historicist challenge to traditional philosophy (whether we blame that challenge on the Enlightenment itself or on Plato or on someone in between is an incidental concern) as signaling the "collapse of the intellectual and cultural foundations of Western civilization," but Rorty--as influenced as he was by these thinkers--by contrast "insisted that the Western philosophical tradition [would terminate] not in the advent of a radically new world but rather in a world precisely like our own." Modernity, then, is terminal and general and unavoidable, and thus not particular important in itself.

But that's not quite the whole story, I think. There is, throughout every essay of Rorty's which advances his broad thesis against philosophy as a quest for independent reasons and foundations, and in favor of a sort of "philosophy" which sought only usefulness and sentiment and fellow-feeling, a consistent presumption about the "romantic" needs of human beings. In Rorty's wonderful autobiographical essay, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids" [Philosophy and Social Hope, pgs. 3-20], he discusses his own youthful "private, weird, snobbish, incommunicable interests" (in his case, looking for orchids), and it becomes clear if you read him closely that he does not at all believe that the power of such "optional, orchidaceous extras" over the human mind will ever fade away. Rather, what Rorty wants to see, and believes that we can see (though he never argues that we are destined to see), is the transference of such passions from the search for a "luminous, self-justifying, self-sufficient synoptic vision" to--and here he quotes Milan Kundera--''the wisdom of the novel," meaning "the sense of finitude...the tolerance...which result[s] from realizing how very many synoptic visions there have been, and how little argument can do to help you choose between them."

Some people, upon reading Rorty, have declared this position (not unreasonably) to be relativist, and it's true that Rorty often wrote in a relativistic vein, suggesting that the fact that the United States is a moderately successful liberal democratic state as opposed to a Nazi one is really just a matter of luck. But his invocation of the "wisdom of the novel," I think, leads us into the matter of the production of ideas, and their evolution. The wisdom of the novel, of course, depends upon the existence of, well, novels. So if we get novels, and we get people reading novels, then their passionate hopes for understanding and utopia can find another locus besides that which problematic and always potentially dangerous comprehensive visions (Christianity, Marxism, etc.) provide us with; their private passions can be made perfectly social and democratic. And this, I think, is what Rorty assumes without argument to be the real story of modernity: the gradual, always-tentative-and-only-if-we're-lucky, spread of novels and of the habits and hopes of a novel-reading public. Get that, Rorty appears to have believed, and there's little reason to doubt that anyone--except, perhaps, those occasional religious kooks, racists, and sociopaths out there--would resist following such a moderate, appealing path. As he once explained:

In past ages of the world, things were so bad that "a reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat" was hard to get except by looking to a power not ourselves. In those days, there was little choice but to sacrifice the intellect in order to grasp hold of the premises of practical syllogisms--premises concerning the after-death consequences of baptism, pilgrimage or participation in holy wars. To be imaginative and to be religious, in those dark times, came to almost the same thing--for this world was too wretched....But things are different now, because of human beings' gradual success in making their lives, and their world, less wretched. Nonreligious forms of romance have flourished--if only in those lucky parts of the world where wealth, leisure, literacy and democracy have worked together to prolong our lives and fill our libraries. Now the things of this world are, for some lucky people, so welcome that they do not have to look beyond nature to the supernatural, and beyond life to an afterlife, but only beyond the human past to the human future. ["Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility, and Romance," Philosophy and Social Hope, pg. 162]

You can see, if you squint, the good old-fashioned secularization thesis lurking behind Rorty's words here. Make the world less wretched, and peoples' passions and imaginations can find the time and resources and space to go outside the demanding channels offered by comprehensive, sacrificing visions. They will, instead, fill libraries with variously worked-out, less-than comprehensive visions. Lucky people--the people who live in those less wretched societies--will read those books, be struck by the variety included therein, realize that their addiction to a single synoptic extra-ordinary explanation doesn't hold water, and will get along with something more humane in response. This I think is at least part of the reason why Rorty could engage in what John called his "rhetoric of anticipatory retrospective," and do so in such a way that, as John astutely notes, it arguably comes off (perhaps intentionally, perhaps accidentally, perhaps sometimes both) as somewhat exclusive and therefore in some sense "illiberal," if not authoritarian. He simply couldn't take seriously the idea that--again, outside of those few, inevitable and non-convertable sticks-in-the-mud, "the religious fundamentalist, the smirking rapist, or the swaggering skinhead," as he described them in"Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality"--there could be novel-reading moderns (one of the "lucky people" like himself) that wouldn't instinctively recognize the correctness of this shift in human thinking. And moreover, this is what led him to constantly fall back on fairly straightforward, ameliorative, Hubert Humphrey-type democratic (and Democratic) politics: the only real hope we moderns have got is to keep incomes rising, persuade capitalists to share a little more and not be quite so nasty, and therefore look anxiously but hopefully towards each day in which a few more people start reading novels and figure out that this is a pretty complicated world, with no one having a true grasp of the reality of it, and so therefore that it'd be best to keep one's passions centered on something private, like orchids.

This may be putting too much emphasis on something which Rorty himself did not dwell upon at length, but it does seem a reasonable explanation for why such a profoundly intelligent man would insist upon presenting his arguments in ways which annoyed so many of even those who agreed with him. He looked at the modern world, the novelized-and-therefore-pluralistically-transformed state of modernity, and couldn't countenance the possibility that synoptic visions of a comprehensive sort of could in any serious sense survive. This is why I tend to think Rorty's single most challenging interlocutor was the philosopher Charles Taylor. Like Rorty, Taylor believes--to be simple about it; unlike Rorty, Taylor has reflected upon modernity as a subject a great deal--that novel-reading has changed just about everything: Enlightenment or Platonic (again, take your pick) moral realism is not an option. But he insists that we still can--indeed, that we cannot avoid--being ontological in our thinking about the world, and thus consequently what we need to do is get clear on (so we can make better use of) how we are both being called to and how we draw out the moral sources already there in our art; in other words, how it is that our own supposedly private meaning-constructive acts are actually "strong evaluations" that partake of a "transaction between the world and ourselves...which the world initiates"--meaning that there is something synoptic out there which shines through. (Yes, that's Heideggerian and Gadamerian hermeneutics-as-metaphysics, right there.) Rorty, in several wonderful exchanges with Taylor, took profound but respectful issue with this, arguing instead--and this fits entirely with the passage quoted above--that "one of the most important changes for the better in recent centuries is our increasing willingness to see our poets as edifying examples of how to mere human self-fashioners, rather than as people who open us up to something other than themselves, and perhaps something other than human" ["Taylor on truth," Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism, pg. 20].

In Taylor, Rorty encountered a thoroughly modern (in a fully philosophical sense), yet thoroughly serious religious believer. To his credit, I think that drew out from Rorty some of his best work...which would suggest that his often annoying, potentially counterproductive, even arguably occasionally illiberal, presumptions about how the social and political blessings of modern world are made and/or are going to be made further available were, perhaps, partly a function of him being so rarely challenged on on these grounds. Perhaps a Rorty that had been less bothered by those who wanted to argue with him about the nature of language and things and truth, and had instead been more frequently confronted by philosophers who didn't read novels the same way he did, would have been a Rorty whose social hopes would have ended being articulated with much more hope than the intuitively brilliant but sometimes blasé actual Rorty could muster.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Friday PSTSS: "Millworker"

This Friday, another song about working and alienation, though this one is much more in the tradition of old-style country and folk ballads than the selection of Rundgren's last week. It comes off of my favorite James Taylor album, 1979's Flag, though the song itself was originally written by Taylor for the musical Working. I bought this album sometime around 1991 or 1992, when--between the Gulf War, my friendship with a man who became a Marxist mentor of sorts, and some personal crises of my own--my political and philosophical sympathies were in serious flux. I can remember the line "And never meet the man / Whose name is on the label" struck me with great force...and it still does, today.

Now my grandfather was a sailor
He blew in off the water
My father was a farmer
And I, his only daughter
Took up with a no good millworking man
From Massachusetts
Who dies from too much whiskey
And leaves me these three faces to feed

Millwork ain't easy
Millwork ain't hard
Millwork it ain't nothing
But an awful boring job
I'm waiting on a daydream
To take me through the morning
And put me in my coffee break
Where I can have a sandwich
And remember

Then it's me and my machine
For the rest of the morning
And the rest of the afternoon
And the rest of my life

Now my mind begins to wander
To the days back on the farm
I can see my father smiling at me
Swinging on his arm
I can hear my granddad's stories
Of the storms out on Lake Eerie
Where vessels and cargoes and fortunes
And sailors' lives were lost

Yeah but it's my life has been wasted
And I have been the fool
To let this manufacturer
Use my body for a tool
I'll ride home in the evening
Staring at my hands
Swearing by my sorrow that a young girl
Ought to stand a better chance

So may I work the mills
Just as long as I am able
And never meet the man
Whose name is on the label

Still it's me and my machine
For the rest of the morning
And the rest of the afternoon
For the rest of my life

Monday, June 04, 2007

Collective Efficacy, Neighborhood Authority

There was an excellent article by Eyal Press which appeared in The American Prospect few weeks back; titled "Can Block Clubs Block Despair?", it didn't get nearly the amount of attention in the blogosphere--from what I can tell anyway--that it deserved. Maybe that's because most peoples eyes glaze over when confronted with discussions of poverty that don't involve accusations that can be turned into handy soundbites, or maybe--focusing here on those who really do take the practical issues of poverty and equality seriously--those who scanned the article didn't see anything in it different from dozens of other pieces which focus on the role of "social capital," "civil society," and other Putnamesque concepts in rebuilding and maintaining intact neighborhoods. If the latter was the case, then that's unfortunate, because what Press's article examined was some urban research on the way in which something very simple--local community organizing--can contribute to the sense of "collective efficacy" in a neighborhood, and how such a sense of efficacy is one of the first as well as one of the most important steps in getting social capital built up again. Press talks about some survey research which took place in Chicago in the mid-1990s, which became the basis of an influence article in the journal Science:

One of the elements the surveyors were measuring was the level of "social cohesion and trust" in a community. To gauge this, surveyors asked residents to rank, on a five-point scale, how strongly they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements: "People around here are willing to help their neighbors"; "This is a close-knit neighborhood"; "People in this neighborhood can be trusted." A second set of questions sought to measure "informal social control" -- the capacity of adults in a community to work together to achieve a sense of public order. Here, individuals were asked how likely they thought their neighbors were to intervene in various situations: when a fight broke out; when someone was spray-painting graffiti; when the local fire station was threatened with budget cuts. Researchers supplemented the interviews by crisscrossing the city in vans fitted with video cameras to conduct systematic social observation of street life in various neighborhoods.

The results of the survey were striking. Throughout Chicago, the levels of violence and social disorder were markedly lower in communities where the sense of social cohesion and shared expectations about the willingness to intervene were higher -- qualities that, taken together, constituted something the designers of the experiment called "collective efficacy."

It was the second set of questions that particularly interest me, and which are most revealing in terms of efficacy. It is one thing for a resident of a neighborhood to say--perhaps without much or only anecdotal evidence, perhaps without having contributed anything directly themselves--that they feel they live in a friendly and helpful place; it is another thing entirely to ask people to speak of instances of actual--and therefore, in some important sense, anticipated and expected--intervention and participation: reporting a crime, filling a pothole, showing up at a PTA or city council meeting. That sort of thing goes much more directly to the idea of collective agency, the belief that a neighborhood possesses, as a group, a certain awareness of and faith in their ability to respond to disparate problems. Press goes on to report:

Over tea one day, Felton Earls, a professor of social medicine at Harvard who co-authored the original Science article, told me that collective efficacy... [is] a theory that emphasizes the capacity of residents to overcome obstacles on the basis of shared expectations--specifically, that they can work together for the common good. A small African American man with dark, pensive eyes and a neatly trimmed gray beard, Earls grew up in New Orleans, in a black community that was far from affluent. "But we didn't think of it as poor," he told me. There were "no gangs, no drugs," he said, "There were many indications of high collective efficacy, and by that I mean supervision of kids. There was music. There was church."

Collective-efficacy researchers like Earls don't claim that structural factors like racism and poverty are unimportant. What they do contend is that even people facing severe disadvantages have the capacity to organize themselves in ways that can make a tangible difference, both at the neighborhood level and on individual blocks.

Earls's comments struck me, because they sounded so much like the comments made by Dr. Galyn Vesey, who spoke at the same community organizing workshop where I presented my lecture on republicanism and radicalism in Kansas. He talked about his own experiences as a participant in civil rights protests and sit-ins in Wichita (yes, here in Wichita, KS; not all the civil rights agitation was in the South), yet he kept using the way he was brought to the point of participating in those difficult and dangerous enterprises to comment on what in his view the youth of today--particularly far too many African-American youth--lack. Dr. Vesey reminisced about the strong sense of trust they as teen-agers had developed for one another through their growing-up years in the all-black neighborhoods in northeastern Wichita and at East High School; he talked about how they had met under the direction of local NAACP leaders at various churches to practice and receive training, and how seriously they and their parents took the enterprise; and he said that he was grateful for the large amount of respect they all felt for parents, teachers, pastors and others who had prepared them, since in his view if that respect had not been there--if they'd instead been of a mind to rebel in an undisciplined way, to let their anger and pride lead them rather than a sense of unity and collective commitment--then their sit-ins would have failed or ended in violence or both. In short, he talked about what went into creating a powerful sense of efficacy--of the ability to make a difference, to improve one's lot in life, to work positively together--amongst his cohort of young black men and women fifty years ago, and a crucial part of that creation was just what Earls said: parental supervision, acceptance of responsibility, forums where people could see and learn from one another, and thus trust that they could work together. Because Vesey grew up on a set of city blocks of where family and school and religious authority was real, kids didn't (or couldn't, at least not easily!) escape learning how to be part of a collective, and that learning made it possible for them to challenge, when the right moment came, a white social structure which completely dwarfed them in terms of real power.

As Press admits, talking about the need for people to learn--whether through block clubs and community-improvement organizations (which are his primary examples) or through other forums for social bonding--how to have trust and, by the same token, learn to act in trustworthy ways (taking responsibility for one's family, teaching one's children, committing to improving one's home, all of which suggests the need for job and marriage stability and discipline) can easily begin to sound like a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps mentality, if not outright welfare-bashing. But rather than just back away from the argument in order to protect certain liberal sacred cows, Press suggests these kind of "conservative" or local culture responses can and should go hand-in-hand with progressive solutions:

Focusing on the social dynamics within neighborhoods [does risk] obscuring the larger structural inequities poor communities face. On the other hand, as even many progressive scholars who study urban poverty will admit, while structural inequality surely matters, it doesn't explain everything. Insisting otherwise can have the perverse effect of robbing poor people of agency--and of obscuring important differences among neighborhoods that racial and economic factors can't explain. Collective efficacy offers scholars and policy-makers a way to talk about such differences without playing into the reductive "culture of poverty" cliché or necessarily discounting the significance of other variables. In fact, the 1997 article in Science acknowledged that neighborhood activities can accomplish only so much. "Collective efficacy does not exist in a vacuum," it stated, but "is embedded in structural contexts and a wider political economy."

This, again, reminds me of Dr. Vesey's presentation; he was able to move seamlessly from a condemnation of what he sees as the lack of respect (both self-respect and otherwise) amongst young people today to a discussion of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?, with its condemnation of a liberal movement that abandoned real, practical concerns about the availability of jobs and good wages and solid educations in favor of boutique cosmopolitan issues that only interest a highly educated elite, and thus allowed America's blue-collar and rural socio-economic worlds whither away and their remaining residents become ready targets for Republican hucksters. Plainly, it was obvious to him--and, I think, if one read Press's article correctly, it should be obvious to all of us--that one can and should see that a demand that local, state, and national governments be empowered and pressured so as to attend to preserving urban environments of productive employment as much as possible in the face of globalization, demographic change, suburbanization and so forth, is in no way counter to the equally insistent demand that cultural pathologies which undermine the effectiveness of parents, teachers, pastors and other members of a neighborhood be fought. And that means taking a stand for, and organizing on behalf of, the authority of a neighborhood to set standards and thus begin to draw fearful and untrusting residents out together into a collective project.

Press talks about driving through neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago with Robert Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard who helped design the original Chicago experiment:

Sampson and I made our way to Englewood, an impoverished neighborhood where little has improved of late. Along the main drag, Ashland Avenue, the only businesses seemed to be funeral homes and the occasional storefront church. We pulled up to a stoplight, and a man in tattered jeans, a torn T-shirt, and oversized sneakers appeared, lurking ominously on the edge of the road. He stared vacantly into the distance, then hopped the curb and started zigzagging erratically through traffic. Mercifully, when the light changed, the man bolted away from the onrushing cars, sprinting at full speed back over the curb until he tripped and sprawled out on the sidewalk.

Sampson let out a sigh. "This community rates very high on our cynicism and desperation measures," he said. "The idea that people don't care about each other, that you've got to watch out for yourself, is very widespread"...

We were about to head off to another area when Sampson suddenly made an abrupt right turn, then another, then a third. "Hold on," he said. "Did you see that?" I hadn't, but what Sampson had spotted, at the entrance to one of the streets, was a sign for a block club: "No Loitering, Gambling, Drugs, Gangs." A few blocks over, young men had been hanging out on the crumbling stoop of a boarded-up building. Not on this block, though, which alone among the streets in Englewood we'd seen did not have a single abandoned unit on it. "It's like this little island," said Sampson, "and I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts there's less crime on this block than the ones surrounding it."
There will never be, of course, a single-bullet solution to urban poverty and inequality; Press certainly doesn't intend for us to believe that block clubs and community organizations is such. But his article does, I think, suggest important ways to reconsider the old social capital question: specifically, that by looking at the differences between communities in terms of what they offer by way of opportunities for expressing collective efficacy, for meeting together and making decisions and plans together and then holding each other responsible--as parents, homeowners, fellow parishioners or PTA members or just plain neighbors--to seeing those decisions and plans made good, we can get a better sense of what kind of investments and social policies are likely to make a difference in the safety and wealth of communities, and where such resources can be best spent. Though he doesn't touch on it, what Press's article really does is show how the research of Sampson and Earls and others in profoundly localizes all the talk in social science circles about civic virtue and trust. Such concepts are not just relevant solely in generational terms, talking about how the amount of solidarity and equality and wealth which this nation managed to achieve was due to the sacrifices and discipline of our parents and grandparents, but they also describe in a very specific way what happens, or can happen, when a neighborhood is given or makes for itself a venue and a cause and a strategy for being together and working together and believeing together towards the accomplishment of public goods. Which, in a way, makes Putnam's cultural theorizing surprising relevant to the question of poverty after all.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Friday PSTSS: "Honest Work"

I hereby inaugurate a new regular Friday feature: Pop Songs That Say Something. Why? Well, for two reasons. First, as I've confessed before, I'm actually a pretty dull, MOR-type when it comes to popular music--but at the same time, I'm quite willing to defend the pop song as potential vehicle for great craft; that within that "profoundly synthetic, repeatable, contained" four-minute song, you can find art. And with art comes meaning, and in this case specifically lyrical meaning: as pretentious or overwrought as some pop lyrics are, you can sometimes find, conjoined with the melody that carries, a message of surprising insight and poetry. Or at least so I tell myself, since I've tended to privately remember and quote to myself various pop song lyrics endlessly over the years. And since I have them in my head, why not put them up on the blog? What's what I do with everything else.

(Of course, the second reason is that every other blog has some sort of weekly feature; why shouldn't mine?)

"Honest Work" comes off of Todd Rundgren's 1985 album A Cappella; I've never been a major Rundgren fan, but I was turned onto him and this recording in particular by a college friend named Bob Ahlander, who founded a fairly successful a cappella group of his own at BYU back when we were both there in the early 90s. They never recorded "Honest Work," but they did sing it at some of their very earliest performances, and I treasure an old demo tape I have of their group, which includes this song. If you've never heard it, track it down and give it a listen; it is the most understated song on the album, and it captures the rough, inward, self-defeated despair that our meritocratic world has generated in the hearts of workers as well as any song I know. (I always think of the feverish capitalist dreams of certain techno-libertarians when he gets to the line "They see a world where everyone / Is rich and smart and young.") Enjoy.

I'm not afraid to bend my back
I'm not afraid of dirt
But how I fear the things I do
For lack of honest work

My family is lost to me
They could not bear the hurt
To see the state their boy is in
For lack of honest work

I hold no blame for anyone
'Twas I who did arrange
To pay my union dues so I'd
Not have to learn or change

And when I was replaced, 'twas I
Who started down the hill
And drank away my savings 'til
I couldn't stop myself

The prophets of a brave new world
Captains of industry
Have visions grand and great designs
But none have room for me

They see a world where everyone
Is rich and smart and young
But if I live to see such things
Too late for me they come

I know I'm not the only one
To fall beneath the wheel
Such company can not assuage
The loneliness I feel

So many are resigned to be
Society's debris
But I will be remembered for
The life life took from me

For I'm not afraid to bend my back
I'm not afraid of dirt
But how I fear the things I do
For lack of honest work